Letter on Europe’s Soft Underbelly

In fact, it was not a letter, although it had the same purpose. But with one difference. It was not intended for an individual addressee and it brought a completely new message about the fate of the part of the world that the old Churchill named the soft underbelly of Europe. Madeleine Albright, then at the very peak of her political power and even more decision-making possibilities during the first days of February 2000, published almost delighting text on the new relations in the Balkans, in the weekly Wall Street Journal. She presented the election victory of the then Croatian opposition and establishment of a new Dr Ivica Račan’s government not only as a model that should be implemented by Milošević’s opponents in Serbia, but also as a warning to all political groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina that the time of ultra-nationalistic politics was gone and that the new democracy began. US Secretary of State added even bolder economic forecast to the political one – that changes in power in the countries of the region would be followed by the optimistic economic growth supported by the relatively large resources, directed to the region, through different financial lines, by both European Union and the United States.

I was a guest of the Minister of Justice, also prominent and influential lady, Janet Reno, in Washington, only a few weeks before this announcement. Her judgement on the region, which was in the central part of the foreign political security interests back then, for the situation in Bosnia, relations in Milošević’s Serbia, Kosovo and Croatia matter after the departure of President Dr. Franjo Tuđman, was less optimistic. It was more “Krležian” realistic. However, she had the same thoughts on the necessary financial support, putting the economy into operation and the necessary raising of standards of living, as those her colleague from the government had announced.

It was some kind of success recipe for the countries of the region. The new governments, which would be able to implement reforms and financial support vecessary for economic development. If Miroslav Krleža wrote in the thirties of the last century that the inhabitants of every Balkan village or valley would have to hear the whistle of the locomotive, after 2000 it was major infrastructure projects, not only the railways, which would provide new growth. At the same time, plans and programs for the modernization of railway lines, roads, navigable waterways and energy connections began to appear, understood and never so called, as a kind of Balkan’s new deal.

One year after the publication of Albright’s letter, I was listening to Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić. He participated at the Economic Forum in Salzburg. His host was Klaus Schwab, who was the founder of the prestigious World Economic Forum in Davos. In the new city congress centre, a hall named Europe, Đinđić had a message too. We are still poor, but think about it, we are potentially new large market, he addressed a big audience of listeners who had influence or money, but mostly both. Europe must develop a long-term strategic plan for the region. We need a development, because only political changes will not be enough. And he added, right after that, that he invited countries in the region to be more active in these plans. His proposals for the rapid establishment of regional workgroups for the development of infrastructure projects, fight against organized crime, establishment of joint standards for minority policies and the establishment of a free trade area, were at that time almost heretical. Not only because almost painful recent end of the war, but more for political interpretations that any cooperation between the countries of the region could mean the start of a new regeneration of Yugoslavia. Just as an example – immediately after the New Year’s holidays had passed, in January 1996, Dr. Tuđman addressed Croatian members of parliament. He presented a report on the state of the Croatian state at the formal session. His thesis was that the proposals of better economic, customs and transport connection of the countries of the region with the European Union are primarily new attempt of dangerous proving that the disintegration of the former state was unnecessary, because this space could remain integrated with appropriate democratic reforms and market economy.

Đinđić added the following to proposals on regional cooperation in Salzburg. It is worth quoting. “The sooner we complete the necessary homework in the countries of the region, the sooner we will be able to propose our membership to European Union. In fact, if we fail to open real European perspective fast enough, the old ideas of narrow minded nationalists will have their renaissance.”

The forecast is scary, commented Schwab. However, it is true, I added.

Đinđić repeated it a few years later, at a lecture he gave at the London School of Economics. He was even more decisive. It is a wrong thesis, he started, that Europe must help Serbia or the countries of the region because Serbia or countries in the region have problems. Europe has a problem in the region. Primarily because it has problem to realize that it is cheaper, instead of having paid soldiers distributed in those countries, to invest at least part of that money in the reconstruction of the economy and economic development of the region. This would strengthen the democratic and political governments in the region, which are the only guarantee of the realization of exit strategy and membership in the European Union. Europe has its priorities, he explained, which change in accordance with crises. However, the strategy in the Balkans should be more clearly defined. This means, he added, that you should not wait for the crisis in Bosnia, Kosovo or Macedonia to become a serious problem. Let’s try to prevent the causes.

Plans of Balkan new deal got their contours, primarily after 2005. They were related mostly to the completing of Europe’s borders on its south. Road corridor 10, the Adriatic-Ionian highway, the highway between Tirana, Priština and Skopje, the modernization of the railway line between Munich and Athens, establishment of Danube navigability between Rotterdam and the Black Sea, navigation connection between the Sava and the Danube, as well as the establishment of a river port in Vukovar were only some of them. This was followed by plans for energy connections, air traffic and simplifying of the flow of goods and travelling of citizens.

And not without success. Yet, too slowly. And possible membership of these countries in the European Union was gradually getting away. New problems were announced.

I think this is why Angela Merkel formed a so-called Berlin forum. As a place of seeking of not so much political, but investment agreement. It seemed that the idea of Balkan new deal was never closer as after this year’s meeting of heads of governments of the region in Vienna.

Then came the refugee crisis, closure of borders and completely different, we would say the old political discourse on diversity of those in other countries. Then on the procurement of arms and the right to be at least as equally armed as neighbours. Even though the most countries in the region are biologically, economically and socially malnourished and exhausted by wars, as said a few days in Sarajevo by the Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić.

It was necessary to make a cut. The first and basic onewas made by the German chancellor with a warning of what a closing of German borders before the great wave of refugees would mean for relations in the Balkans. Second cut was announced yesterday by the President of European Commission, Juncker. On date of presentation of reports on the negotiation progress of candidate countries and consequently on the start of negotiations with Serbia. The third one was again left to Merkel and French President Hollande. He should convene a continuation of the Berlin Forum, this time in Paris, and a new conversation about European infrastructure projects in the region.

The stability formula in the Balkans remains the same. It is precisely the kind of which Albright wrote, and of which late Đinđić spoke in hall Europe.