By Genc Mlloja
Fourteen years after the Kosovo War, tensions are still simmering in the Balkans and economic development is lagging behind expectations. Now hopes are high that the Euro-Atlantic integration of the region will change this and lead the Balkans towards prosperity and friendly cooperation on the basis of sovereignty and equality. But for this to happen, political leaders need to abandon any hegemonic ambitions.
“There is much unfinished business throughout the region”, E.U. High Representative for Foreign Relations Catherine Ashton wrote in June 2011. “But the hope of joining the E.U., and sharing in its ideals and prosperity, has provided a powerful incentive to settle old differences.” Two years later, Ashton’s conclusion largely rings true.
Ashton is not sparing any efforts to promote dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia. Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo’s independence, unilaterally declared in 2008 – an issue that recently flared up over local elections to be held on November 3. Kosovo’s Serbian minority, backed by Belgrade, opposes any ballots marked with symbols of the “Republic of Kosovo”. +
Serbia’s Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and his Kosovo counterpart Hashim Thaci had failed to reach an accord on August 27 in the 15th round of bilateral talks. But thanks to Ashton’s determination and good will another round will be held on September 8 and both parties have accepted that some progress has been made. Day-to-day issues such as cooperation in energy and telecommunications are on the table and Thaci and Dacic are hopeful to settle their differences.
In the meantime, Croatia’s accession to the European Union on July 1, 2013 has given a boost to regional cooperation in the Balkans, facilitating
the drive of other countries like Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia to join the block. It will be important to maintain the momentum following Croatia’s E.U. membership – as Brussels is trying to do by encouraging the aspiring countries to fulfill E.U. membership requirements.
Following this positive trend, many regional initiatives show an
increasing interest in cooperation. The establishment of the Regional Cooperation Council (R.C.C.), an international framework to promote cooperation in South-East Europe, in 2008 was a major step forward. These achievements are significant, and a level of cooperation considered normal now would simply have been impossible 17 years ago.
But regional cooperation in the Balkans is still in danger of heading in the wrong direction. It should benefit all countries in the region, irrespective of their size. The base of cooperation should be mutuality and equality.
Unfortunately, there have been efforts to undermine this principle and replace it with domination by a single country, notably by Serbia. Its President Tomas Nikolic declared on a visit to China on August 27: "Serbia is the leader in the Balkans. Without the Balkan Peninsula, the E.U. is not complete, and Southeastern Europe will certainly not be stable without Serbia's E.U. membership."
These attempts to establish one country’s hegemony, and thus violate the sovereignty of others, would be harmful and echo the bitter history of the Balkans in previous decades, when Serbia tried to violently assert its power and the region was often called ‘the powder keg’.
Despite such nationalistic statements, there is an emerging generation of pragmatist leaders with little interest in patriotic populism, such as Albania’s new Prime Minister Edi Rama and his Croatian counterpart Ivo Josipovic. This April, Rama publicly declared: “We cannot preach the peace of the new times for the region, and nourish the old ghost of Balkan nationalism."
There is every reason to hope that such pragmatism will prevail and cooperation in the Balkans will be a success. But it will only reach its full potential and benefit all regional countries if it is based on inclusiveness, representation and equality of nations. The Balkans can only have a successful future if they leave behind the thinking of the past.
In conclusion, I would like to quote a very poignant statement that Ambassador Ettore Sequi, Head of the E.U. delegation to Albania, recently sent me on the subject of nationalism in the Balkans, in full length:
"European integration provides the opportunity of bringing all the Western Balkans peoples under the same roof, within their respective countries. The process has worked out to bring together the interest and the future of the old member states and I believe it would prove to be a successful formula also for a better prospective of the Western Balkans.
In the context of the EU perspective, good neighbourly relations are an essential part of a country's obligations and a key element for stability in the region. Nationalism is not healthy for the region. And here we need to make a clear distinction between nationalism and patriotism, we need to distinguish nationalism from our common interest and the rights of the minorities. Minority rights need in all cases to be taken into consideration.
In a broader political picture, the European Union needs the support of the countries in the region in our continuing efforts to stabilize the region and help it move forward. In this view, I would dare to transpose the peculiar statement of the well known Albanian writer when he says "Europe is the natural state of Albania , the only one…" into " Europe , is the natural state of the Western Balkans, the only one…"."
Genc Mlloja is the Editor-in-Chief of Albanian Daily News, Albania's major English-language newspaper, and a former councillor to Albania's Mission to the United Nations in New York.
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