Opinion and Editorial

Balkans may spoil the party

Soren Jessen Petersen And Daniel Serwer
Filed on November 13, 2010

As NATO, the United States, the European Union and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe prepare for summit meetings this fall, the Balkans may yet spoil the party.

There are three issues that haunt the region: Bosnia and Herzegovina is a country that remains mired in continuing – though currently nonviolent – ethnic tension; relations between Serbia and Kosovo remain unsettled; and Macedonia is unable to join NATO or the European Union until Greece’s objection to its name (which Athens claims for Greece) is resolved.

Bosnia’s problems are rooted in the Constitution imposed on the warring factions 15 years ago at the Dayton peace talks. It creates a nonfunctional state unable to meet the many requirements of either NATO or EU membership. Constitutional amendments are required to eliminate discrimination on ethnic grounds and provide the Sarajevo government with the authority and responsibility it needs to negotiate for NATO and EU membership.

Efforts to impose such amendments have failed. What Brussels and Washington need to do now is set out clear criteria that Sarajevo will have to meet before and during the EU accession process. Recent elections in Bosnia open up new possibilities for reform, and Serbia’s own progress toward the EU should depend on its willingness to insist that the Bosnian Serbs cooperate with the country’s Muslims and Croats to amend the Constitution to make EU membership possible.

On Kosovo, the UN General Assembly in October recommended that talks begin on practical issues between Belgrade and Pristina, with the EU facilitating and the US supporting. This is a good idea whose time has come, but Belgrade will try to use the talks to suggest “corrections” to Kosovo’s borders that would allow Serbia to absorb the Serb communities in northern Kosovo.

This movement of a border to accommodate ethnic differences is dangerous and would open up questions throughout the Balkans: certainly in Macedonia and Bosnia, but likely also in the Albanian-populated areas of southern Serbia and Montenegro as well. Serbia and Kosovo need to stick to the task at hand, establishing good relations.

The government in Skopje faces an uphill battle against Athens, which wants ‘Macedonia’ to be qualified in a way that will distinguish it from what Greeks claim to be exclusively their own domain. Without resolution of this issue, Macedonia faces a long purgatory, without the NATO membership for which it has prepared and without any serious prospect of EU membership, a prospect that has kept the country’s ethnic groups from descending into internecine warfare.

Brussels and Washington need to untie this knot. It hardly seems appropriate for Athens to be thumbing its nose at Brussels at a time when it desperately needs EU economic backing. For NATO membership, Washington and Brussels should insist that Greece live up to its 1995 agreement to accept Skopje under the euphemistic and anachronistic name “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Fyrom).” Provided Skopje is prepared to signal its willingness to add an acceptable geographic qualifier to its name, it is time also for the EU to give Macedonia a date for the start of accession talks, a move that would further stabilise the country and also create a strong incentive for Skopje and Athens to come to terms.

The peace-building mission in the Balkans is not yet accomplished, even after 15 years of often close US/EU cooperation.

Only when all the region’s countries are irreversibly on a course toward the EU will we be able to celebrate. Likely no more than five more years are required. Until then, we need to keep the Balkans on track, ensuring that Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia remain on the train.

Soren Jessen-Petersen, a Dane, and Daniel Serwer, an American, are lecturers at Georgetown University. They have worked on the Balkans for 15 years

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