In the aftermath of the last war, we have experienced only two periods of optimism in the Western Balkans. The first began almost simultaneously with the fall of the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, during the first months of 2000. The countries of former Yugoslavia primarily had only one goal. Re-entering Europe. This task seemed attainable in terms of time and results seemed almost tangible. Even the established criteria for full membership in the European Union, although politically difficult to explain to domestic audience, were accepted.
Due to the sensitivity of European requirements, full cooperation with the International Criminal Court for war crimes committed in the territory of former Yugoslavia and relatively fast establishment of efficient state institutions, they were most successful in those countries in the region which had a prominent political leader. A leader who could take risks and make decisions. The first among them was PhD Zoran Djindjic, a charismatic Prime Minister in the Government of Serbia, who knew how to discuss and negotiate. His political opponents had him assassinated in March, 2003. The second was PhD Ivo Sanader, the Prime Minister in the Government of Croatia, who dared to end with the politics of PhD Franjo Tudjman and accept the necessary co-operation with the former Chief Prosecutor of The Hague Court, Carla Del Ponte, and hand over the suspects and open archives. Even today, he is prosecuted by Croatian courts for a series of subsequent acts of corruption, whereas the Constitutional Court of Croatia keeps annulling certain verdicts. The third was a longtime Prime Minister and President of Montenegro, Milo Djukanovic. A few months ago his elimination was prepared, completely in accordance with the principle “no man, no problem”. The Western Balkans represented a priority in the European as well as in the USA policy. As such, it was the subject of interest for a number of takeovers in terms of economy and investments. Carla Del Ponte, both ill-tempered and strict at the same time, whose each visit to the countries in the region represented, literally, stress and fear for her hosts, began writing positive reviews to the United Nations. At the same time, despite vivid memories of war, new diplomatic, political as well as economic relations between the neighboring countries in the region started being reestablished. Various international mechanisms with the intent to strengthen this cooperation, and above all, encourage their holders, were established. It seemed that this could really work, that obtaining a full membership in the European Union almost simultaneously was possible for both key countries of the region, Serbia and Croatia. It seemed that faster economic stability and security of the Western Balkans could be expected accordingly. However, a period of EU enlargement, fatigue and, at the same time, gradual deviation from the objectives, occurred. Primarily due to the politics of PhD Sanader and the great compromise Slovenia was ready to make, only Croatia managed to become the Member State of the European Union. This first period of optimism, thus, ended.
The second period was even shorter. It started with the visit of German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, at the meeting of the initiative Brdo – Brioni held in Dubrovnik. Merkel was the only one among crucial European politicians who could estimate that the countries of the Western Balkans were going backwards, into instability. She presented a new program in Dubrovnik, which was actually a program of economic revival of the region. She also presented the conditions of this major European investment. The first was the ability of individual countries to prepare plans and determine the manners of investing into large-scale infrastructure projects. The second condition required good inter-state cooperation and settling bilateral disputes.
The third condition referred to understanding the connection between large state investments and faster improvement of standard of living of citizens in the countries in the region. Altogether, this seemed to be a sort of mitigation of time distance from the membership in the EU. The announced investment cycle which literally brought statesmen of the region together in the joint search for proposals and plans quickly ended. Germany was shaken by the European refugee crisis, thus bringing the second period of optimism to an end.
Therefore, the messages on the occasion of the recent visit of the Secretary General of NATO alliance, Jens Stoltenberg, to Sarajevo and Pristina, held on February 2nd and 3rd, were interesting, but most of all well-meant and courteous. Namely, his opinion that the stability in the region is important for the stability of the whole of Europe, is certainly true, but it was addressed primarily to the authorities in Washington and Moscow. When it comes to the former, two days after this visit Stoltenberg spoke with the new American President, Donald Trump, emphasizing that the two World Wars, the Cold War and the recent war in Yugoslavia proved that the stability of Europe affects the security of the USA. In terms of Moscow, Stoltenberg said that NATO alliance wanted the countries in the region to maintain dialogue and normal relations with Russia, but that any subversive activity of Russia, attempts to interfere with the internal political processes or even democratic elections in these countries, would create an atmosphere of anxiety. Stoltenberg responded to two assessments. The first one can be noted from the end of September, 2014, when Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov, at the 69th session of the UN General Assembly, pointed out that the membership of Montenegro, Macedonia and especially Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the NATO alliance, was interpreted as a wrong politics and provocation by the North Atlantic military alliance. Russia wants to have a decision-making position when those countries of the Western Balkan make any kind of decision.
Former Prime Minister of Montenegro, Milo Djukanovic, has been even more specific when it comes to his recent statements. He assessed the attempt on his life during the night after last year’s parliamentary elections as the last attempt to prevent Montenegro’s membership in the NATO alliance. At the same time, Djukanovic said, this was also a message to all countries in the region which are at different stages of the process of integration into European structures, that none of them can make such a decision only on the basis of their own national interests. Therefore, this was also a message to the EU and NATO that they cannot spread over the Balkans without the consent of a third party, Russia.
Western Balkans is once again becoming a dangerous focus of tension. There is one primary cause. There is neither a political nor a development objective. Therefore, Stoltenberg’s assessment was, above all, courteous and well-meant. The states in the region remain, once again, on their own. European enlargement fatigue is greater than it used to be. American politics towards the region may be outlined only after the Munich Security Conference which will be attended by the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Rex Tillerson, who is probably familiar with the matters in the region, at least from a conversation with his friend and collaborator, Zeljko Runje, former Vice President of the Russian branch of ExxonMobil, who was born in the town of Sinj, near the border with the neighboring state of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Last autumn, the President of Croatia, Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic, once again promoted the thesis of the federalization of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The political intent was designated as the right to equality of all three constituent peoples in B&H, Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. However, in the opinion of the majority, both in the official Zagreb and among the crucial political representatives of the Croats in the neighboring country, this intent was interpreted primarily as a new proposal of ethnic federalization. Josip Jerkovic gave a quite clear description of the process of realization of the President’s initiative at a recent meeting session of the Croatian National Parliament in Mostar. I hope, he said, that in the internal rearrangement of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the largest part of Bosnian Posavina and certain parts of the Republic of Srpska would be able to join the Croatian federal unit. Using a simple vocabulary, Jerkovic managed to say almost the same as what a former British diplomat in Bosnia, Timothy Less, said for influential monthly magazine, Foreign Affairs. As he says, it would be a mistake to ignore the will of voters who are unhappy with the multiethnic status quo and therefore require changes. He also adds that recognition of former Yugoslav republics with existing borders was a mistake and that new, Trump’s politics, should now allow for the fragmentation of the existing states and, consequently, close political and economic ties of those parts with major neighbours, just to enable such territorial units to separate from the existing states in the last stage. But before that, as Less says, they would distribute peacekeeping military units along the borders of Albania, Croatia and Serbia.
Less also says that it is possible to change state borders on the Balkans without wars and that respecting international alliances, treaties or signed interstate agreements should no longer be taken as is. Both of these ideas are dangerous.
It is within this course of forgetting about the signed and the agreed, the decision of the Government of Croatia not to comply with the final award of the UN Court of Arbitration (UNCITRAL) in Geneva, in the proceeding which the Government in Zagreb instigated against the Hungarian oil company MOL, should not be overlooked. The Government in Zagreb lost this process late December last year. This time, too, similar as in the case of Zagreb’s denial of arbitration with Slovenia, the arbitrator is to be blamed, allegedly. Not Hungarian, but Croatian arbitrator. Namely, immediately after the announcement of the final award, Zagreb found out that the arbitrator, who had been only proposed to the court, PhD Jaksa Barbaric, had a conflict of interest, since in another lawsuit against MOL he represented the Croatian oil company Ina, and that was the main reason why the final award of the Court in Geneva was considered problematic.
Europe is facing crucial parliamentary elections in Germany and France this year. Administration of both countries which are of such importance for the countries of the Western Balkans, are not in a position to receive problematic diplomatic news, this primarily referring to announcements about disputes and conflicts in the region, or news on failure to comply with the Brussels negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina and political inability to form the Government of Macedonia. The meeting in Dubrovnik is more or less forgotten. In the end of the last meeting of European statesmen, held on Malta, Angela Merkel said that not all countries would participate on all integration levels and that should be taken literally as well as the idea of Europe with several gears or even Europe which complies with all agreements and brings solutions and not new problems to the Brussels table, or the idea on the manner and place of laying out invisible borders among Europes of different speed. Within this, the Republic of Slovenia may have a single goal. Slovenia must remain a part of the most interconnected core of European continental states.