The President’s Problem

Nobody had been really convinced that she would come. All petty whispers about Angela Merkel’s arrival to the meeting could remain as such. There weren’t quite many reasons, either political or security-related, why would the most influential woman in Europe join the gathering of presidents of South-Eastern European States in Dubrovnik on that lovely July day, in 2014. Nevertheless, she arrived. Smiling, full of optimism, wearing a classic-style sand-coloured outfit, she arrived at Knezji Dvorec (the Prince’s Mansion), beautiful Gothic and Renaissance edifice, shaking hands and exchanging greetings with the locals and tourists. And Mrs Merkel knew exactly why she came to the meeting of the presidents of the Balkan states. Her messages were, almost literally, motivational catch phrases. The Chancellor spoke about the renovation of the region, incentive indicators of new communication with and understanding the countries which practically yesterday had been communicating only by means of guns and threats, about expecting new political dynamics in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as the meaning of political negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina, Serbia and Kosovo, as well as the prospects of a quick resolution of the dispute between Macedonia and Greece, about new peace and stability. It seemed as if she would, having expressed all good estimates and wishes, finish her performance, at this very point, by adding a routine statement usually made by typical European politicians about the support given to the Balkan states in their European negotiations and wishes for becoming member states of the European Union. However, that wasn’t the case. That was the exact point when she started. She said that sole promises of European future were not sufficient for people, men and women nationals. That they were necessary to be proved that day that it was possible to have a better life, that it was also possible to earn more. The Chancellor spoke about the individual and their right to live a good life, even if they were born and lived in the Balkans. And she added the key point: that there were European mechanisms, financial and structural, which could help on the road to that better future. She invited the presidents of the participating states to prepare plans and designs for necessary infrastructure facilities, road and railroad renovation, for making inland waterways usable, interconnection of energy systems that the European Union would significantly support in order to be implemented. That was the proposal of a new regional development movement, of the European New Deal for the Balkans.

After a long month, near the end of August 2014, Mrs Merkel called a new meeting of the Balkan state leaders. That time in Berlin. The conference table was covered in plans. Heads of regional state governments participated in looking for the best projects and the most connecting projects. The Serbian head of government, Mr Aleksandar Vucic, presented the project for the reconstruction of Belgrade – Sarajevo railroad, plans for the new motorway connection between Nis and Pristina, as well as the description of comprehensive modernization of the road and railroad corridor between Serbia-Montenegro and Albania.

No sooner than two years, in mid-January 2017, political conditions in the region are a great deal different. Little is said about common development projects. The idea of the European New Deal has been misplaced. The German Chancellor and the French President, Mrs Merkel and Mr Holland, have been preoccupied by this year’s national elections and the consequences of the great migrant wave.

A few days earlier, they intended to establish, namely not to modernize, nor to reconstruct, nor to construct it anew, but just to re-establish a train set to operate from Belgrade to Pristina. Before the administrative boundary of Kosovo, the train had to stop and return to Belgrade. If we leave aside that the wagons were covered in slogans stating that Kosovo was part of Serbia, for which it had been certainly known what effect they would produce, as well as the fact that the authorities in Kosovo required Kosovo special police unit to prevent the arrival of the train, then we are left with few basic facts.
Firstly, in today’s Europe, it is more or less difficult to comprehend that eighteen years were needed for making a single attempt at a new beginning of a passenger railroad transport between two cities, and even that one was unsuccessful. Secondly, the fact that the train would need ten hours to travel across that, not so long distance. And thirdly, the fact that the planned train set route was considered the greatest safety risk with which the Kosovo president Hashim Thaci personally dealt and issued relevant operational decrees.

The train was not only dealt by the Kosovo President. On 14th January 2017, the National Security Council meeting was called in Belgrade. With one single subject of discussion, the unsuccessful journey of the train. The President of Serbia, Tomislav Nikolic, being utterly concerned, stated after the meeting: »Due to the incident – at that time never-confirmed news spread, that the railroad in the Kosovo territory had been mined – there could have been dozens of victims.« Then, he continued: »that Kosovo police observed the Serbs over their guns and that the next similar operation would end very badly. Namely, that if they kill Serbs, then we will,« the President said, »all go there, not only our military troops.« This announcement of a potential new war was followed by two other statements that he himself would join the army defending Serbs, as well as that the Brussels political dialogue with Pristina, which he found very significant, was over until the train issue resolved.
Mr Nikolic’s statement was unnecessary – both formally and materially. It was only needed in order to be interpreted as a pre-election announcement. Namely, the President’s term expires in a few months, and he still doesn’t know whether he will have the support of his party for becoming a candidate again. It is not known what will be the decision of the only one who can make it, Mr Aleksandar Vucic.

Mr Nikolic probably saw the unsuccessful train journey as an opportunity to express his determination. Thus, the President’s statement can only refer to that. Namely, the National Security Council does not make decisions on relegating the army, because it is the state president and the supreme commander only when the warfare has been proclaimed. Even after 2013 Brussels Agreements signed, sending the Serbian army to Kosovo would be interpreted as a sign of aggression, not only in Brussels, but also in Washington.

Mr Aleksandar Vucic, who has already been in Davos on Wednesday, 18th January, to attend a strategically prestigious and important meeting of European and world politicians, as well as the European and global capital, knows that as the Serbian Prime Minister, he has the power only as long as Serbia is a state considered a stability and safety factor in the region.

However, there is the question of what the difference is and what has changed so much in political sense regarding relations among the regional countries from summer 2014 to the beginning of 2017? In looking for common development projects and new messages about arms?
The answer is simple.

The reason lies in the misplaced and forgotten plan of Angela Merkel.