May 23, 2018

Western Balkans: EU Promises Membership to Alleviate Tension

At the end of March, people came onto the streets in Macedonia to protest against Greek foreign minister Nikos Kotzias, who was visiting the country, and changing the country’s name.
At the end of March, people came onto the streets in Macedonia to protest against Greek foreign minister Nikos Kotzias, who was visiting the country, and changing the country’s name.

Russia and China have already gained a foothold in the Balkans without setting terms for cooperation. Is the EU too late?

The EU has recovered from the years of enlargement fatigue and is promising membership to six countries in the Western Balkans—the “WB6” countries. The Strategy for the Western Balkans published by the European Commission on 6 February is very ambitious. According to this, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Kosovo . “have the chance to move forward on their respective European paths. The Commission assesses all the countries in a fair and objective manner on the basis of their own merits and at the speed at which they achieve progress,” as the Commission puts it, and Serbia and Montenegro could possibly join the EU as early as 2025.1

The EU is not, however, rolling out the red carpet to those who want to accede, but is setting—at least on paper—strict requirements: development into a democratic state, resolution of all disagreements, fixing the economy, a functioning rule of law, and stopping organised crime and corruption. The challenge is immense, because this time the EU must avoid the mistakes it made on accepting Romania and Bulgaria in 2007. They were not ready then, and they are not ready now. Both countries are still under EU monitoring due to corruption and neither has been accepted into the free movement Schengen Area.

Since Romania and Bulgaria, only Croatia has been accepted into the EU, in 2013. The door has been closed since then. At the beginning of his term in 2014, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker stressed that the Union would not be enlarged in the following five years.

Juncker’s statement was harsh and has since been considered a mistake. Critics think that the Commission’s decision halted several important social reforms in the Western Balkans and gave rise to nationalism.

In the aftermath of the Yugoslav wars, the Western Balkans is a fragile region, filled with ethnic tensions. Old demons are quick to resurface. The most recent reminder of the Balkan powder keg came in January when prominent Serb politician Oliver Ivanović, who was seen as a moderate, was shot in northern Kosovo. The murder basically froze the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo and is still a strain on the relationship between the countries.

Juncker’s message was also received at the grass-roots level. The faith of ordinary people in the EU has weakened and the Commission’s new strategy, together with promises of membership, no longer brought shouts of joy. According to the Balkan Barometer published by the Regional Cooperation Council in 2017, only 42% of respondents see the EU as a good thing.2 Support for the EU was lowest in Serbia (26%) and highest in Kosovo (90%), although the latter has the smallest chance of joining the Union.

The Western Balkans is still an important region for the EU—as proved by simply looking at the map. The WB6 are surrounded by five NATO and EU member states. The importance of the Balkans was partly also shown by the migration crisis, to which there is still no end in sight. Many of the asylum seekers who have come to Europe used the so-called Western Balkan route, which has not been completely closed even now.

The Western Balkans is especially important for Bulgaria, for geographical reasons alone. Bulgaria, which holds the presidency of the Council of the EU in the first half of 2018, has made the EU perspective regarding the WB6 countries one of the top priorities of its presidency. Bulgaria is next to the route for asylum seekers who come to Europe from the Middle East. As Hungary and Serbia have made it more difficult to enter their countries, pressure on Bulgaria as an alternative route has increased. Meanwhile, anti-refugee voices in Bulgaria have become louder.

Bulgaria has other reasons to accelerate the rapprochement between the Western Balkans and the EU, too. Sofia knows that, if the EU is unable to provide a plausible prospect of membership for the region, the gap will be filled by third countries. There are certainly enough potential candidates: Russia, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, for example.

China at least has wanted to invest in roads, energy infrastructure and heavy industry and has built several coal-fired power plants in Serbia and in Republika Srpska in Bosnia. Serbia has a special position in China’s strategy for the Balkans, which includes, for example, low-interest loans for road and energy projects. Between 2010 and 2015, China–WB6 trade increased by 20%.

Money and, concurrently, political power has also flown into the region from Russia, Turkey and Arab countries, which have generously supported Islamic communities with building mosques. It is generally thought that Russia aims to keep the region as far away from the EU and NATO as possible through its activity. Montenegro became a NATO member in the summer of 2017 despite Russia’s furious opposition, and this is why Serbia and the Serbian Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Republika Srpska) form an especially important buffer zone for Moscow.

The President of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, said in an interview with the online portal Balkan Insight that the influence of China and Russia in the Western Balkans is “much, much stronger” than the EU’s, which is a sign of how China and Russia have contributed nine billion euros to the region thus far, promising a further one billion this year.

Dodik says it is easy to cooperate with Russia and China because they do not set any conditions. Democracy, freedom of the media or independent judicial authority is of no interest to them. He says:

They are offering economic solutions without political interference. They [Russia] haven’t asked anything from me, to do anything impossible. But when I go to Brussels, pressure was put on me and on many other politicians from here as well. So what’s natural? Is it natural that you go somewhere where you are welcome, or to go somewhere where the pressure is put on you.

Will the WB6 countries be able to meet the strict EU membership criteria? The honest answer is: no, they will not—not even Serbia and Montenegro in 2025, although both are in accession talks (Montenegro since 2012 and Serbia since 2014). Macedonia and Albania are official candidates, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo still potential candidates.

The main problems are the same in all the countries: organised crime dominates everywhere, and corruption is deeply embedded in social structures.

A huge obstacle on the route to the EU is also posed by disagreements between the countries, which have intensified in recent years. Resolving disagreements is one of the most important issues, but perhaps also the most difficult to achieve. Among the countries that emerged from the former Yugoslavia, Slovenia and Croatia brought with them a bitter territorial dispute over land and maritime areas in the Gulf of Piran, and Brussels does not want something like this to happen again.

Macedonia has been in a dispute with Greece over the right to use “Macedonia” as the name of the country and this has hindered Macedonia’s rapprochement with the EU and delayed it joining NATO. A solution to the name dispute has been sought frantically in recent months and success is considered a decisive factor for the entire enlargement process. Greece and the new government in Macedonia have both demonstrated the will to get this dispute off the table as quickly as possible.

Serbia and Croatia are disputing a 135-km border strip near the River Danube. Bosnia and Croatia also have differences over the border. Croatia and Montenegro are arguing over the Prevlaka peninsula and the surrounding maritime area in the Bay of Kotor.

In the second half of 2017, a row broke out between Montenegro and Kosovo over the ratification of a border treaty they had signed. The ratification was a precondition for agreement over Kosovo’s visa exemption for the EU, but even this carrot has failed to change the minds of Kosovan politicians. Kosovo is the only Western Balkan country whose citizens need a visa to travel to EU countries.

“The leaders of Kosovo are holding their people hostage by not approving the border treaty,” burst out Nataliya Apostolova, Head of the EU Office in Kosovo, at the beginning of 2018, writes Balkan Insight.

February marked the tenth anniversary of Kosovo’s declaration of independence. Only 112 of the 193 United Nations member states have recognised Kosovo; in addition to Serbia, Russia and China have also not recognised it. Kosovo also divides opinion in the EU. Spain, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Cyprus do not recognise it as an independent state.

Kosovo is an especially sensitive topic for Spain, which is trying to crush Catalonia’s dreams of independence. The opposition by Romania and Slovakia is based on those countries’ Hungarian minorities, Cyprus has “Northern Cyprus”, which is backed by Turkey, and Greece has warm relations with Serbia.

The political atmosphere for recognition of Kosovo has not improved in Serbia either, although the EU has made it clear that, without normalising the relationship with Kosovo, there is no point in Serbia dreaming of membership. With reference to its constitution, Serbia deems Kosovo one of its provinces and refers to it by its historical name, “Kosovo i Metohija”. Metohija refers to the region’s medieval orthodox churches and monasteries.

The Kosovo issue is also related to the secession aspirations of the Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina. President Dodik of Republika Srpska has threatened an independence referendum. According to polls, most Bosnian Serbians support secession from Bosnia and some of them are prepared to form a loose federative state with Serbia.

In 2017 Dodik’s political party, the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), demanded that a referendum be held if Republika Srpska is not granted the right to self-determination within the federation.

It is thought that Dodik will use elections in October 2018 to test his independence project and will be applying to be a member of the presidency of the federation. (He cannot continue as president of Republika Srpska beyond his current second term.) Dodik has threatened that, if successful, his swearing-in will take place in the capital of Republika Srpska, Banja Luka, and he will have his office in Istočno Sarajevo, the Republika Srpska section of Bosnia’s capital.

“If Serbians accept these ideas and elect me for the presidency, it is a clear sign of the people’s wish for independence and I must start working towards that,” declared Dodik at the end of January, according to the Balkan News Agency.

The Croatians in the federation have also been unhappy about the cohabitation with the Bosnians. The former have strengthened their society with help from “Mother Croatia”. Croatian-owned buildings in the federation fly the Croatian national flag instead of the Bosnian. A Bosnian member of the Bosnia and Herzegovina presidency, Bakir Izetbegović, has warned the Croatians about building their own separate society.

“The idea is unthinkable without a war,” said Izetbegović in January.

Bakir Izetbegović is the son of Alija Izetbegović, who died in 2003. Alija Izetbegović was Bosnia’s president during the war and a member of the presidency of the federation when the war ended. He fought for a united Bosnia and many believe there is no Bosnia after Alija Izetbegović.

One cause for dissatisfaction in Bosnia is its complicated, difficult and bureaucratic governance. The Dayton Agreement divided the federation in two: the federation of Bosnians, i.e. the Muslims and the Croatians, and the republic of the Serbians. Both have their own government bodies. The federation also has a parliament and a presidency. Official positions have been divided up between the ethnic groups.

With its strategy for the Western Balkans, the European Commission is attempting to restore the faith of these countries in the EU. In May Bulgaria is due to host a Western Balkans summit in Sofia. This is the first summit involving the Balkan countries since 2003.

The EU is also stirring hopes of membership with so-called flagship initiatives, such as energy cooperation, and by promoting cheaper mobile and other communications connections. The aim of such initiatives is to bring the Balkans closer to the EU in preparation for joining.

But are these measures enough? Or is the EU already too late? Albania, for instance, was extremely disappointed when it was not given a possible accession date to which it could aspire. Kosovo was disappointed in being placed last in the group, without a clear reference to the accession process.

The waiting time is long. Albania and Kosovo have strengthened their cooperation in recent years to the extent that the idea of Greater Albania has come to life. Kosovan politicians have proposed that, in order to resolve visa issues, Albanian passports would be issued to Kosovans. Albania’s prime minister, Edi Rama, congratulated Kosovo on its tenth anniversary, admitting that the countries could elect a joint president and transfer to a common security policy—albeit that Rama later admitted that he had “only been toying” with the idea.

“If the EU won’t come to us, we will go on a bus,” joke the Balkans.

Going on a bus means leaving for abroad in the hope of a better future. The Western Balkan countries are the poorest in Europe. Unemployment is high and the educated young, at least, are leaving. For example, one Kosovan in three lives elsewhere and a quarter of Kosovan households are dependent on remittances from relatives working abroad.


1 European Commission, “A Credible Enlargement Perspective for and Enhanced EU Engagement with the Western Balkans”.

2 Regional Cooperation Council, “Balkan Opinion Barometer”, 9 October 2017.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.