NATO Parliamentarians Debate New Balkan Strategies

13:55 GMT, October 27, 2010 Despite the remarkable progress achieved in the Western Balkans, a number of unresolved issues and persistent challenges remain on the path to a full normalisation of the region. The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia continues to contend with the legacy of the 2001 interethnic clashes and the dispute with Greece over the name of the country.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, persistent political blockages have hampered the adoption of key reforms, including constitutional reform, and slowed down the transition away from the mechanism of international supervision established by the Dayton Accords.
Meanwhile, Pristina and Belgrade’s competing claims of sovereignty over Kosovo perpetuate an ambiguous situation with particular complications in the North. Faced with these challenges, international strategies in the region have sometimes seemed unable to provide the necessary traction to help resolve remaining issues. Adjusting these strategies and building on a positive trend in the area of regional cooperation can help create new momentum in the region.
These were the main conclusions of the 75th Rose-Roth Seminar which the NATO Parliamentary Assembly held in Skopje, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, on 19-21 October under the theme "South Eastern Europe: Creating New Momentum". The seminar, co-sponsored by the Assembly of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and the Swiss Ministry of Defence, brought together some 139 participants including 37 members of parliament from NATO and partner countries, government representatives, officials from international organizations, experts and academics.
Ambassador James Pardew, former US negotiator of the Ohrid Framework Agreement for the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and former NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Operations, summarized the key challenge facing the region following the bloody conflicts of the 1990s: "a great political experiment in national identity is taking place which could change South Eastern Europe fundamentally", he explained.
"That experiment is the implementation of the concept that the rights of citizenship are defined by where the individual lives and not by his or her ethnicity [….] the success or failure of this experiment may well determine whether the region can break from its divisive past". This challenge was a key underlying theme for the three case studies discussed in the two and half days of the seminar.
Speakers and participants recognised the major progress achieved by the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in building multiethnic institutions through the implementation of the 2001 Ohrid Framework Agreement.
However, as emphasized by Simone Filippini, Ambassador of the Netherlands in Skopje, while the letter of Ohrid has been implemented, "the spirit of Ohrid" is still missing, a spirit that "involves widespread and sincere acceptance among all ethnicities and their leaders of reconciliation between ethnicities, as well as an understanding that Ohrid was meant not to divide but to reunite".
Speakers stressed how the prospect of EU integration has played a fundamental role in changing perceptions of Ohrid as favouring the Albanian population exclusively, and in combating ethnic nationalist tendencies.
However, "the attractiveness of the EU model is lost today", Stevo Pendarovski, Assistant Professor at University American College Skopje, argued. The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’s path to the EU and to NATO continues to be hampered by its dispute with Greece over the name issue, a dispute that also resonates internally and has created new divides both within the ethnic Macedonian political class, and between Macedonian and Albanian leaders in the country.
As one speaker put it, "negotiations about the name are not really about the name"; other key issues include the scope of the use of the name and, most importantly, underlying identity issues. Given the sensitivity of the latter, speakers and participants were generally sceptical that a resolution of this dispute was forthcoming.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the general elections held on 3 October, although they brought new actors to power, did not fundamentally change underlying dynamics. Political blockages along ethnic lines have delayed the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration and created obstacles even in those areas of clear success, such as defence reform. Thus, the failure to resolve the issue of immovable defence property has prevented the activation of Bosnia and Herzegovina ’s Membership Action Plan with NATO.
Speakers deplored the lack of an EU policy on Bosnia and Herzegovina, and challenged the widespread belief that constitutional reform will solve political blockages and that a package deal would be the best solution. Instead, they called for a gradual progressive approach, focusing on those areas where consensus and progress is achievable.
In Kosovo, the security situation was assessed as calm in most areas, granting a progressive reduction of the KFOR presence, with a further decrease expected shortly from 10,000 to 5,500 troops. However, all speakers stressed that the situation in the North, where Pristina’s authority is extremely limited, remained the key problem. The prospect of new talks between Belgrade and Pristina was seen as the only way out of the current conundrum, but what these talks could be expected to achieve was unclear.
The political crisis in Kosovo and the prospect of elections added another layer of complication. Speakers all noted that failure of the dialogue risked fostering nationalistic projects of redrawing borders, be it through a partition of the North of Kosovo, a land swap between Northern Kosovo and the Albanian-majority parts of South Serbia, or even the creation of a Greater Albania. However, speakers and participants generally dismissed such calls to reopen the question of current borders as extremely dangerous strategies.
Turning to the question of international strategies in the region, speakers generally agreed that there was no need for radically new approaches. Putting into question current strategies would send a wrong signal to countries of the region, which need to see integration as a credible prospect. There was broad consensus that in NATO’s specific area of responsibility – defence reform –, impressive progress had been achieved.
The accession of Albania and Croatia and the contribution of armed forces of the region to NATO operations demonstrated that the Western Balkans countries had become contributors of security. NATO therefore did not need a new strategy for the region. The adoption of NATO’s new Strategic Concept in Lisbon was expected to create a new momentum for the Alliance, which would also reinvigorate nations’ efforts to qualify for membership.
Participants agreed that the EU provided deeper and broader incentives for reform than NATO in the Western Balkans. However, the EU’s adoption of enlargement as a stand-alone foreign policy in the Western Balkans was seen as having reached its limits. The combined impact of enlargement fatigue, the global financial and economic crisis and the debate over the Union ’s absorption capacity had led to a "carrot crisis in the EU", as put by Dusan Reljic, Senior Researcher at the German Institute for International Affairs. The EU’s approach was also hampered by a disconnect between goals and instruments.
Speakers and participants thus stressed the importance for EU and NATO member states to speak with one voice in their relations with countries of the region. Greater synergies should also be sought between the EU and NATO at the strategic level as well as in specific practical areas.
Seminar participants also called on the EU to augment its overarching enlargement strategy with policies that would be tailor-made to the specific challenges faced by each country. The promise of membership without a clear roadmap and specific benchmarks was not enough. Promoting local ownership of reforms, particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, was also considered essential.
A greater focus on economic development rather than mere assistance aimed at preserving stability was mentioned as another important priority. This could also include opening the EU’s doors more widely to labour migrants from the region, one speaker suggested.
Finally, speakers agreed that regional cooperation provided a key source of new momentum in the Western Balkans. A new wave of normalisation and reconciliation, the mushrooming of practical initiatives and a growing regional ownership of cooperation mechanisms, had brought about positive dynamics which could help complete the transformation of the region.
Looking back at the past 20 years, Jovan Teokarevic, Professor at Belgrade University, concluded that after a decade of conflict and another decade of normalisation, it was now time to move to "a decade of consolidation of positive changes, which should end with the accession of the entire region to Euro-Atlantic institutions". This would complete the region’s path "from war to stabilisation to the European mainstream".