Reforms seen as key to Balkan integration with West

After years of Western investment and engagement, the Western Balkans have achieved considerable success.  But some challenges still remain unresolved.  In a recent discussion at Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies in Washington, panelists expressed support for the region’s Euro-Atlantic integration and urged the Western Balkan countries to continue reforms, and leave interethnic tensions behind.

The official U.S. view is that the Western Balkan countries have reason to celebrate — over Croatia’s membership in the European Union, the agreements between Kosovo and Serbia, and a smooth transition of power in Albania.

Jonathan Moore is director of South and Central European Affairs at the U.S. State Department.“The main point and focus for the United States is seeing the Euro-Atlantic integration of this entire region,” he stated. “As many administrations — Democratic and Republican — have said, a Europe whole, free and at peace, that very much is the focus.”

But Moore also said the countries of the region should try to diminish ethnic and national tensions, combat corruption and strive for economic reforms, increased security and the rule of law.  “We are engaged, we are committed, we are interested in a future for all of these countries in the EU, and, if they choose NATO, as well. There is where the United States has stood for years and that’s where we continue to stand,” he said.

Outside engagement is crucial, said Edward Joseph, a senior fellow at the school’s Center for Transatlantic Relations.  “In very few cases in the region have solutions to really tough problems come organically, through civil society or the political process.  In general, it has required outside intervention, an outside catalyst, meaning the U.S. and its European allies,” he noted.

Joseph said outside engagement has almost always come only when provoked by crisis — citing as an example the success in the talks which paved the way for normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia — a result of intense diplomacy by the United States and the EU.

Both Moore and Joseph agree that Macedonia and Bosnia are two exceptions in terms of achievements.  Macedonia is in limbo for NATO membership due to a name dispute with Greece, an alliance member. And Bosnia continues to be mired in ethnic friction.

Joseph said the EU magnet has not worked for Bosnia because the Dayton Peace Accords, which ended the Bosnian war, do not work. “In my opinion it is a pathology, a structural problem, and we know the genesis of that problem is in the Dayton war-ending constitution.  Richard Holbrook’s book [mission] was to end a war, it was not to build a state,” he said.

The State Department’s Moore agrees that Bosnia is very complicated because of the Dayton agreements which ended the war but left  Bosnia ethnically divided. “The real question is:  can you dissassemble the Dayton structures and our firm answer is ‘no, you cannot’,” he said.

Many of the Balkan countries are holding elections in 2014.  But it’s not yet clear how much closer they will come to achieving their goals of advancing domestic democracy and moving toward integration with the EU.

(Photo: Serbian ministry of foreign affairs, Belgrade)