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Balkans: Region Awaits Clear Signal From EU, NATO

  • Patrick Moore --> EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana (right) welcomes Montenegro Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic to Brussels on May 29 (epa) PRAGUE, May 29, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The victory of pro-independence forces in Montenegro's May 21 referendum suggests that one long-standing contentious issue will soon disappear from the Balkan political agenda. Other problems continue to bedevil the region, however, some with far-reaching implications.

Montenegrins voted narrowly but indisputably for independence from Serbia and the end of the joint state known as Serbia and Montenegro. This marks one of the final stages of the dissolution of former Yugoslavia and one of the more peaceful chapters in that story. It is true that many people in both republics remain unhappy with the outcome of the referendum. Perhaps, however, they might at some future date come to agree with those Czechs and Slovaks who were unhappy with the division of their country on January 1, 1993, but who eventually came to accept that both peoples were better off without the constant disputes that overshadowed much of former Czechoslovak public life.

Indeed, Serbs and Montenegrins appear heading for a "velvet divorce." Vuk Draskovic, who is foreign minister of the joint state, said during a May 24 visit to Helsinki that many of the most important issues could be settled by mid-July. He also noted that Serbs and Montenegrins share deep historical and cultural links, which will not be affected by a division that promises to be free of the deep-rooted animosity that characterized some previous episodes in the dissolution of former Yugoslavia.

Looking At Kosovo

The presumed final chapter in that story, namely the independence of Kosovo, has yet to be concluded. In the view of Kosovar Albanian leaders, Serbia forfeited all claim to the overwhelmingly ethnically Albanian province by its repressive policies in 1998-99. The Albanians also demand independence on the basis of self-determination and majority rule, which has underpinned the international decolonization process since the end of World War II. In Kosovar Albanian eyes, two processes are intertwined -- namely, the dissolution of Yugoslavia and decolonization.

The Kosovar Albanians reluctantly yielded to pressure from the international community to include Serbian representatives in talks aimed at resolving Kosovo's final status, which began in 2005. The Albanians stress nonetheless that Belgrade can have no veto over the direction of the negotiating process -- a point that most of the international community acknowledges -- and that Serbia's role centers primarily on resolving practical issues.

It has long been widely understood in the Balkans and beyond that Euro-Atlantic integration is ultimately necessary to stabilize the region politically and provide the investment and development necessary to promote economic growth and social stability.

The Serbian side has nonetheless frequently engaged in foot-dragging and obstructionism, and has questioned the impartiality of UN negotiator Martti Ahtisaari. This approach should come as no surprise, not only because Serbian political culture remains heavily engaged in blame and denial about the conflicts of the 1990s, but also because no Serbian politician wants to appear "weak" on Kosovo in the run-up to elections that are widely expected in 2006 or 2007. In short, the Kosovo talks are likely to go nowhere prior to the Serbian vote unless the international community makes good on its hints that it will not allow the negotiating process to drag on indefinitely.

Hopes Pinned On Euro-Atlantic Integration

Independence for Montenegro and Kosovo is hardly likely to resolve all the problems of the region, even if one does not take particularly seriously complaints from Belgrade about either or both of those developments. The most important issue confronting the western Balkans is the process of Euro-Atlantic integration -- particularly, membership of the EU and NATO. It has long been widely understood in the Balkans and beyond that Euro-Atlantic integration is ultimately necessary to stabilize the region politically and provide the investment and development necessary to promote economic growth and social stability.

But NATO seems in no particular hurry to admit the next group of candidates, which includes Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia. Perhaps more importantly, the process of EU enlargement has been called into question by the rejection of the proposed EU constitution by French and Dutch voters in the spring of 2005.

Waiting To Hear From Europe

This has not gone unnoticed in the region. Pro-reform forces have found the changed mood in many of the long-time EU member states disturbing and discouraging. By contrast, antireform forces -- often linked to the complex structures involving business, nationalist politicians, the security forces, and organized crime that emerged in the 1990s -- have taken heart. At the end of April, the Bosnian parliament rejected a package of constitutional changes backed by the United States and the EU that are necessary if Bosnia-Herzegovina is to draw closer to Brussels. In addition, Serbian leaders allowed two EU-imposed deadlines for the arrest of former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic to pass.

Pro-independence supporters wave flags in the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, on May 18 (epa)

As a result, the EU announced on May 3 that it is suspending talks on a Stabilization and Association Agreement with Serbia and Montenegro. Many observers see this development, ironically, as the final nail in the coffin of the EU-sponsored joint state, since some Montenegrin voters seem to have concluded that Serbia is holding their country back from EU membership and cast their ballots for independence.

In the end, what will ultimately determine the pace of Euro-Atlantic integration in most of former Yugoslavia and Albania is a combination of the willingness of those countries to undertake reforms themselves, and the desire of the EU and NATO not to have a "black hole" develop on the eastern side of the Adriatic that could attract the attention of terrorists and become an even greater hotbed of organized crime and human trafficking. What the time frame for this integrative process will prove to be is anyone's guess. What is certain is the reform process in the western Balkans will become stalled or even be reversed unless the EU and NATO maintain clear commitments to enlargement.

EU Expands Eastward

To view RFE/RL's archive of coverage related to EU expansion, click here .