NEWS

Western Balkans: A window of opportunity?

KATERINA SOKOU

A woman walks past a street vendor selling shoelaces in front of a building with FYROM and Greek flags in Skopje.

TAGS: Diplomacy, Focus

WASHINGTON DC – The Western Balkans are back on the agenda in Washington, while negotiations between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) on resolving the lingering name issue have just got under way in Brussels. At an Atlantic Council conference last month that focused on the region, the name dispute between the two countries was mentioned as one of the major impediments to the region’s stability. Resolving it would remove the biggest obstacle to FYROM joining NATO.

Integration into the Euro-Atlantic institutions is considered key for helping to secure peace and stability in the fractious region, and the conference noted the need to redouble efforts amid continuing instability. Montenegro was the last country to join NATO last summer, but not before a coup attempt was exposed. And while Bosnia-Herzegovina is also a formal aspirant, it is also in political turmoil. As for FYROM, the country’s Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov admitted that the country lost its way while waiting for membership and was consumed by a political crisis.

Speaking at the conference, Dimitrov said that this experience strengthened the country’s resolve and there is now “a window of opportunity” for an agreement with Greece. Representatives from the two countries met earlier this week for talks mediated by UN envoy Matthew Nimetz, and Dimitrov said that “we will not be afraid to negotiate.” He declined to indicate any red lines held by his government, noting that this would be “unwise” ahead of the negotiations. At the same time, however, he stressed that the name issue should not be an obstacle to his country’s integration into international organizations and asked the US for some “friendly encouragement” to reach an agreement with Greece.
For its part, Washington “remains fully committed to the region’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations and European integration efforts,” according to a press statement by US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster after his meeting with the foreign ministers of the Western Balkans on November 30. McMaster said that the Western Balkans continue to be of high priority for the US. “It is our position that there are serious challenges in the region which need to be urgently addressed in partnership with the Europeans,” said Hoyt Yee, deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs. Speaking at the same conference, he called for a more interactive relationship with the countries of the region, so that reforms can move faster, securing stability.

Accession to the EU is even more complicated and is a laborious process as countries need to pursue reforms on multiple fronts, address endemic problems such as corruption and commit to democratic institutions and judicial reform. Still, there are some positive signs from Brussels: European Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn indicated that “there is more willingness among [EU] member-states to address enlargement” than a year ago. For one thing, Europe is increasingly realizing the region’s importance in controlling immigration and countering security threats, from the alleged interference of Russia to radical Islam. Commissioner Hahn is not alone: High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini also indicated that “the EU as a whole has reinforced significantly its engagement in the Western Balkans.” With European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker providing an EU integration perspective for all six Western Balkans partners, she said that “2018 will be a unique window of opportunity to advance concretely on the EU integration path and make this process irreversible.”

Warning about the danger of a coming storm, the Atlantic Council conference focused on the importance of the US and the EU working together to avoid backsliding on reforms and encourage stability in the Balkans. This is considered even more important given the expanding influence of Russia, Turkey and the Middle East in the Balkans, with the special adviser for Europe and Russia at the Office of the Vice President at the White House, Molly Montgomery, noting that Russia’s divisive efforts have found “fertile ground” in the region’s weak institutions.

As the organizer of the conference, Executive Vice President of the Atlantic Council Damon Wilson, put it to Kathimerini, “there’s been an uptick of interest in Washington about the Balkans,” particularly in Congress. “We are trying to mobilize more attention on the region,” he said, as “we see worsening trends locally and we need to put them back on the agenda.” He is worried that a lack of official American engagement would be filled by external actors, particularly Russia. In a report he co-authored, the Atlantic Council calls for the establishment of a permanent US military presence in Southeastern Europe “to demonstrate its commitment to security in the region,” and urges the United States to pursue a historic rapprochement with Serbia and “regain the US reputation as an honest broker,” by joining the EU in pushing the Belgrade-Pristina talks and trying to bring Athens and Skopje together as allies.

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