June 15, 2018

Challenges in the Western Balkans

The West should engage more with the region, especially with Serbia

Many reports and comments have recently been produced about new and old challenges that the Western Balkan countries face in light of the new geopolitical and regional circumstances. Some focus on a pretty exaggerated “stabilocracy” as the key EU policy in the region demanding more pressure in implementing the rule of law and transparency but not stating how exactly to reach that goal and obviously undermining Russian influence. Others address the weak regional governance, poor economic convergence capacities, high levels of youth unemployment, rampant corruption and the unhealthy situation regarding the freedom of the media; still others address the lack of a clearly expressed EU membership perspective busted by the recently held EU-Western Balkans Summit in Sofia, Bulgaria that focused on connectivity rather than enlargement and which was tainted by the Spanish government’s short-sighted and potentially dangerous focus on Catalonia, an issue ruining the existing EU WB6 policy that has worked somehow to play nicely into Vladimir Putin’s hand, which is extended to Serbian strongman President Aleksandar Vucic and his game with the West with regard to the new status of Kosovo. Some reports focus on the overly exaggerated threat coming from violent islamist spots in the region, some rightfully on the declining joint trans-Atlantic strategy and approach, some on the increased influence of Russia, China, Turkey, and the Gulf states (treating these wrongly as almost equal) and other countries in the region. Many of these reports unfortunately fail to recognize the unique circumstances in the region, offering ready-made but not applicable solutions focusing, for example, on the hunt for fake news in the fringe media and portals, or on the dissemination of incorrect statistical data on Serbian GDP by officials, without attribution to Russia, while the Russian elephant marches on in the room via mainstream news and cabinet ministers in the Serbian case.

But several have rarely, if at all, mentioned the underlying issues, such as incomplete transitional justice processes, incomplete security sector reforms, constitutionally or otherwise embedded solutions that propel an illiberal politicization of ethnicities, and internationally led or sponsored processes that serve short-term goals while undermining the separation of powers and the strengthening of independent institutions and the decision-making processes within them. All this could in the end, if not properly addressed, bring the slow but ongoing process of the democratization of the region and its deeper integration into Euro-Atlantic structures to a halt, even though good steps have recently been made, such as Montenegro gaining NATO membership and the new Macedonian government and its willingness to make progress with respect to the name dispute with Greece. Furthermore, all these issues create fertile ground for non-democratic and hostile hybrid and conventional obstructive actions conducted by state or non-state actors. Russia and its client states in the region, and Serbia are unfortunately increasingly becoming one; client politicians and embedded and home grown little green man, mostly in unreformed security structures, are key actors currently exploiting these issues. For most of the abovementioned problems, there is actually a solution.

For starters the EU, NATO and their member states must demonstrate greater confidence in and appreciation for the common values of the liberal order and its practices in general and apply them in jointly resolving outstanding Western Balkan issues. Since all the governments in the region, elected through a series of not too irregular, if not entirely fair election processes, and most of their legitimate oppositions have pledged commitment to the integration of their countries into Euro-Atlantic structures, with most of them expressing the will to become fully fledged EU and NATO members, NATO and its member states can and should, with full legitimacy, which Russia does not have, address all the above mentioned underlying challenges, and provide incentives and capacities for the reforms that would overcome them.

In addition, numerous potential setbacks in future EU-NATO relations could also impede the more coordinated and much needed NATO and EU political involvement in the region, especially bearing in mind the arguments and trends leading to a “multi-speed” EU that adds up to concerns about the region’s EU perspective, owing to internal issues in the Member States and the complicated decision-making process in the EU that the outcome of the recent EU-Western Balkans Summit in Sofia painfully proved, and also bearing in mind concerns about the “outsourcing” of the EU-integration processes for some countries in the region to certain EU member states (the Berlin and ‘Berlin Plus’ processes and assistance mechanisms, with the forthcoming London Session of the process compromised by the UK decision to leave the EU). This would also create an opportunity for the exercise of influence by non-democratic or even hostile foreign state and non-state actors in the region, and Russia’s malign influence first and foremost.

Societies in the region are less resilient than the EU and NATO member states to newly emerging global threats and hostile hybrid operations, whose scope has been increasing in the region, and that regional cooperation is still insufficient in many relevant areas, primarily in defence and security, to a healthy extent due to Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina opposing Kosovo’s participation in some important regional and global structures like Interpol, and limiting the bilateral exchange of intelligence and potential for joint actions. This is why NATO must become more relevant than ever when it comes to ensuring strategic stability in Europe and the Western Balkans, which should be fully integrated into Euro-Atlantic structures. Bearing in mind the new strategic environment, full integration into these structures should be a basic instinct response of all truly liberal and democratic forces in the region. Hopefully, the forthcoming NATO summit will address and ease some of these challenges as well as provide for more clear strategy for the Alliance in the Western Balkans.

Currently, the key priority in that regard should be to set the record straight, as much as consensus among Member States permits, with regard to the geopolitical circumstances and causes that led to the NATO air campaign against the Former Republic of Yugoslavia and its human toll and other consequences, in order to prevail over the further drop in public support for NATO caused by externally and internally perpetuated fake narratives significantly enhanced in the last few years, and perpetuated by Serbian officials and politicians, along with Russians, in power, but also by those in the opposition, the academic community and mainstream Serbian and Russian media. In the last two years, Serbia has been actually exposed to a real epidemic of fake news and narratives about the alleged catastrophic consequences of the NATO air campaign against the Former Republic of Yugoslavia back in 1999 that allegedly caused an epidemic of cancer and “ecological” genocide. The perpetuators of this campaign, unfortunately medical doctors, went so far in it that they threatened a confused Serbian public that MMR vaccines, which are currently in use in Serbia, can be tainted by Western actors if Serbia fails to recognize Kosovo. The outcome has been a real epidemic of measles with fatal casualties. Unfortunately, the local DC, alleged democratic opposition and pro EU NGOs have bene dangerously silent. The public sphere may be contaminated for good, not only with respect to Serbia-NATO but also Serbia-EU relations, which is among key goals for Russia in the region.

This is among the key reasons why the political West, NATO and member states in particular, must consider the adjustment of the borders between Serbia and Kosovo on the river Ibar, with four small municipalities in north Kosovo and probably some areas around the city of Gracanica becoming part of Serbia in the process of supporting and pushing for the immanent formal normalization of relations between the two. This unresolved issue, with EU sponsored talks in Brussels being in a cul de sac, is becoming a fully-fledged security challenge and key access point for Russia in the region, with the potential for Serbia to trigger “emergency assistance” similar to Russia’s justification for its presence in Syria.

Some facts that should be taken into consideration: four NATO members and five EU Member States have still not recognized Kosovo. This is an obvious setback for EU policies in the Western Baltics. Serbian diplomatic efforts may be disliked by the Western UN Security Council members and others, but they are, a) legitimate, and b) a payoff. The issue of the status of Egypt’s recognition of Kosovo is huge, although no one has the courage to publicly address this or consider the repercussions in the case of a change. Most of the Western officials are putting the future status of Kosovo in the context of the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia and refusing to address the circumstances that led to the NATO air campaign, undermining its sui generis nature defined by the UN Security Council Resolution 1244.

One can and should, of course, object to the “open door” policy of the current Serbian government and Serbian President in regard to Russian influence in Serbia and the region, partly due to Russian support for its policies on Kosovo, while paying lip service to EU officials about its commitment to integration, milking funds and MMF support for their benefits and goals. But this is a reality that must be dealt with, as there are no proper containment measures. The Serbian public is not ready to give a wild card to President Vucic on the Kosovo issue, a recent credible poll shows. Despite huge political popularity and a controlled media, Serbian public support for EU integration is low again as a result of an open anti EU or EU sceptic attitude expressed by cabinet ministers and the President, and amplified by the totally controlled mainstream media in Serbia, probably as part of the strategy for dealing with the Kosovo issue. Recent new drafts of Serbia’s new security and defence strategies that are most likely going to be adopted soon without any amendments in the Parliament, confirms that Serbia is again becoming single issue state with ‘preservation of Serbian territorial integrity and sovereignty” overarching all other alleged strategic goals including EU integration. The minister of foreign affairs, Ivica Dacic, recently announced a reduction of the small Serbian diplomatic presence in the Baltic states, arguing that Serbia needs more resources in countries that have not recognized Kosovo. He is fully aware that the three Baltic states are also EU member states and must also decide about Serbia’s EU future, but he is ready to gamble further without jeopardising public support for the Government. Reality bites.

Serbia has stated that it will not adjust its foreign policies with the EU with respect to Russia as it supports its efforts related to Kosovo. Period. This is probably the reason that there is no consensus among EU Member States even on the report on the screening process related to Chapter 31 of the EU CSFP. Progress in the most relevant chapters (23 and 24) in the negotiation with the EU, related to the rule of law and judiciary reform, among other things, have been halted. One cannot neglect the concern that Vucic may have about him being prosecuted by an eventual new government on his eventual decisions on Kosovo that would be in favour of the political West, and this may be the reason for the impasse in these reforms. Some provisions in the Brussels agreement with respect to judiciary in Kosovo, make no mistake, are against the current Serbian constitution. Unfortunately, it is precisely representatives of the self-proclaimed democratic and allegedly pro-EU opposition to Vucic that toy with such suggestions, not only the anti-EU nationalist right that Vucic has grown to demonstrate how hard it is to make a decision. Not good, but again, reality bites.

The state of affairs in the Serbian security system, and much needed reforms, unfortunately, have never been prioritized by the West. Pursuing its own goals and timelines, sometimes in an overly opportunistic and short-sighted manner, it overlooked or even supported party over democratic control of it. But with new Russian advancement in the region, its support for the impunity for war crimes and open discretization efforts toward the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the expectations of a continuation of trials of war crimes and other crimes against humanity before the regional courts and calling it an obvious Western plot against Serbia, one has to ask if Vucic and his party actually control the security system sufficiently that they can resolve the Kosovo issue as the West currently expects with the normalization of relations within the current boarders and without objecting to Kosovan membership in varies intergovernmental organizations. The current chief of staff of the Serbian Armed forces is Ljubisa Dikovic, who is deeply compromised with war crimes committed by units under his command during the Kosovo war. Yet the West is more concerned about the corruption scandals surrounding the Serbian minister of defence, Aleksandar Vulin, or the duration of Dikovic’s tenure as Chief of Staff. A thorough investigation of the track record of his units in Kosovo and the continuation of the trials in front of domestic courts ‒ currently halted as a direct result of state policy ‒ should be among the key conditions for Vucic if the West decide to consider the adjustment of the Serbian borders with Kosovo.

One has to bear in mind that Serbia has actually formally admitted its mistakes in dealing with Kosovo back in ‘98 and ‘99 and met its part of the punishment ‒ it extradited all those indicted by the ICTY for crimes in Kosovo, and that was not an easy task. Most of them where active top politicians or police and army generals. In cooperation with NATO, the irredentist upheaval back in 2000‒2001 was handled properly without any excessive use of force or civilian casualties. This is why the south Serbian municipalities cannot and should not be part of the deal with Kosovo. If Serbia is punished, rightfully in the mind of this author, for crimes against its citizens of Albanian ethic origin, the scope and nature of the punishment can go along ethnic lines, without setting a precedent for anyone else ‒ not for Milorad Doik of Republika Srpska, not for Putin with respect to Crimea, not for the Catalonian separatists, … and Western fears that the partition of Kosovo could cause a domino effect further outside of the region, in the Middle East, are now obsolete, as Russia and Assad still have the upper hand in Syria.

At the same time, Kosovo has done little to investigate and prosecute for crimes against Serbs. There are still 400‒600 missing persons, most probably scattered in unmarked graves. The West has set the court but it also contributed to the delay by appointing a new prosecutor who demands another year to become familiar with the cases. It is also failing to meet its part of the commitments to the EU sponsored Brussels agreement.

How could this scenario be put into practice if there is support for it in Serbia and Kosovo internally ‒ and rumour has it that the idea is not strange and could be “suggested” to the public more easily than the other options ‒ and among NATO and EU Member States? One of the options would be that Serbia amend its Constitution along these lines, and then the West could organize a peace conference that would put an end to other open border disputes in the region, assuring no revenge moves against those who would formally sign the agreements, and even congratulate them for taking such tough decisions that contribute to regional stability and Western goals. The West should not see this scenario as a loss, a derailment of its principles, rather as confirmation of them if it still thinks the NATO air campaign in 1999 was the right thing to do. This would ease EU policies in the region, improve security cooperation, level the playing field, and close one access point for Russia in the region.

What should be done?

– Analyse thoroughly all the moral, political and security implications of the alarming state of affairs regarding the transitional justice processes in the region, as presented recently by Serge Brammertz, the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and by regional groups/organizations monitoring the trials before the domestic courts, typified by: the denial of crimes, the revisionism of history and glorification of war crimes, the wrong directions being taken with respect to regional judicial cooperation in war crimes, and the stalemate in war crimes trials before the domestic courts in the region.

– Prioritize and facilitate support for the comprehensive implementation of transitional justice mechanisms, considering them both as a security norm and a tool for security sector reforms in the post-conflict region, which is still heavily burdened with unresolved war crimes.

– Finally, prioritize security sector reforms and the building of a robust structure of democratic oversight in all countries of the region, having in mind the legacy of war crimes and all the security threats emanating from these circumstances, beginning with the fertile ground for the recruitment of “home grown little green men” by hostile external but also internal state or non-state actors.

In dealing with Serbia:

Acknowledging Serbia’s current legitimate position of military neutrality, acknowledging that 79 UN members have not recognized Kosovo as an independent state, among them five EU and four NATO member states; understanding the need to prioritize cooperation in addressing the increased refugee and migration flows and subsequent terrorist threats in recent years, at the expense of previously agreed areas of cooperation as well as warmly welcoming recent commitments by both sides for a continuation of the implementation of the current Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) between Serbia and NATO and the adoption of a new plan in due course, the Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies recommends NATO, or the EU, or their member states depending on their respective capacities, with regard to dealing with Serbia, to:

– Advocate and assist in achieving internal consensus among EU Member States in favour of opening, sooner rather than later, Chapter 31 ‒ on Foreign, Security and Defence Policies ‒ in the Serbia-EU negotiation process;

– Insist on Serbia’s fulfilment of all of its obligations with regard to criminal prosecutions of perpetrators of war crimes and the implementation of its National Strategy and Action Plan for War Crimes Prosecution, and insist on Serbia’s clear break with the legacy of those who participated in atrocities during the armed conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, since the lack of progress in these fields has also become a security issue;

– Assume the roles of key stakeholders who would support and coordinate the still missing comprehensive security sector reform, bearing in mind that prolonged non-involvement can become, if it hasn’t already, a security threat, given the implications of the new geopolitical context in the region;

– Provide incentives for public and expert debates about the forthcoming changes to the Serbian Constitution and consider supporting the creation of an electoral system in Serbia that would reduce the effects of the de facto parallel political system of national councils of national minorities. This is a source of corruption and ethno-entrepreneurship and other non-democratic and illiberal practices that severely impede the potential for the emergence of liberal globalist Euro-Atlantic forces in Serbia;

– Provide incentives for a debate about provisions in the new Constitution that would not only enable the continuation of the EU integration process but also leave room for the articulation of the aspirations of those who argue that Serbia should be more integrated into Euro-Atlantic structures;

– Assume the roles of facilitators in the forthcoming process of the adoption of the new National Security Strategy, which should not be reduced simply to the expectations related to the Serbian-EU integration process, hopefully soon to be presented in the report on the screening process related to Chapter 31. This process should enable comprehensive reflection of the new strategic environment, resulting in a better understanding of the threats and challenges and the need for strategic partnerships and membership in alliances;

– Enable more public events in Serbia that would address and analyse the trend towards greater structural cooperation between NATO and the EU, with special focus on the 42 already agreed concrete proposals for implementation;

– Go behind the false perception of the unequal balance between the activities that Serbia conducts with NATO and its member states, on the one hand, and Russia and Belarus on the other, and address the type and purpose of these activities and exercises;

– Be more open in explaining current relations between Russia and NATO and its member states and how increasing Serbian cooperation and military exercises, that include countering terrorism with Russia on the borders with NATO member states, and military involvement in suppressing civilian unrests, should be perceived in terms of Serbian democratization and its position as a “factor of stability” in the region, and of its rating as a reliable partner in countering terrorism and other threats and challenges;

– Set the record straight, as much as consensus among member states permits, with regard to the geopolitical circumstances and causes that led to the NATO air campaign against the Former Republic of Yugoslavia and its human toll and other consequences, in order to prevail over the further drop in public support for NATO caused by externally and internally perpetuated fake narratives significantly enhanced in the last few years, and perpetuated by Serbian officials and politicians in power, but also by those in the opposition, the academic community and the mainstream Serbian and Russian media;

– Acknowledge and confront the Serbian leadership about their “open door” policy towards increasing non-democratic Russian soft power influence in Serbia;

– Use as much as possible the positive experiences of Montenegro with regard to the public perception of NATO, bearing in mind the unique shared elements in the historical experience of Serbia and Montenegro with NATO, the war crimes burden, the public’s perceptions, the state’s decisions on issues related to the new status of Kosovo, and the new geopolitical context in which Montenegro’s NATO membership and accession to the EU and Serbia’s EU integration process and the implementation of IPAP are unfolding;

– Engage more relevant stakeholders in Serbia to talk in open formats about Serbia-NATO co-operation in countering terrorism, Serbia’s participation in UN- and EU-led missions and their cooperation with NATO, the management of migration and refugee flows, the implementation of trust fund programmes and other Serbia-NATO related issues;

– Present, with more detail and more frequently, assessments of the current in Serbia-NATO relations, especially with regard to the public diplomacy commitments that the Serbian government has assumed by adopting IPAP;

– Support open format debates where relevant Serbian stakeholders will talk about the benefits for Serbia from the implementation of the current IPAP, which, among other things, stipulates support for the Serbian-EU integration process, regional cooperation, cooperation with international organizations, improvements in the area of human rights, the rule of law, emerging security challenges, economic reform and enhanced democratic control of the armed forces and all other issues related to defence and military issues;

– Present in more detail the position on the implementation of other segments of IPAP, and provide arguments or positions as to why they have not been implemented more efficiently, going beyond the ‘box ticking’ approach assumed by Serbian officials in charge of the implementation of the current IPAP;

– Consider the allocation of more funds and political commitments in order to strengthen the capacities of the Office of the Council for National Security and Protection of Classified Information and other bodies in charge of Classified Information in Ministries;

– Consider the allocation of more funds and political commitment in order to strengthen the capacities of those structures in charge of crisis management emergency planning;

– Support the adoption of a new law on crisis management and reducing the risk from natural and other disasters, taking into consideration that the draft of this Law was created in 2015;

– Consider the allocation of more funds and political commitment in order to strengthen the capacities of structures in charge of cyber security, the implementation of the current legislation in this area and the possible amendment or adoption of new legislation;

– Consider the requests, as expressed by high-level Serbian officials, for more financial assistance in dealing with the consequences of the NATO bombing, short of any official reparations.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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