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Analysis: Which Direction For The Balkans?

The possibility of eventual EU membership has had a tonic effect on promoting reforms in the formerly communist countries in the Balkans. For now, at any rate, it remains the best option for them.

After the fall of communism in Europe, most of the ex-communist states sooner or later decided that their futures lay with Euro-Atlantic integration, or membership in the EU and NATO. Membership in the Atlantic alliance was seen as the best guarantee of security, particularly by those countries that had known precious little of it throughout their histories.

EU membership was a more complex option, which had at least three incentives going for it. First, it psychologically ended the post-1945 division of Europe, allowing the formerly poor communist cousins to join the rich-man's club. Second, it had the practical political and economic advantage of enabling the Eastern Europeans to sit down at the table where decisions affecting their futures would be made. Third, EU membership promised a cornucopia of subsidies, aid projects, and other tangible benefits that would soon be enjoyed by much of the population, who were now also voters.

Had one asked in the mid-1980s which communist country would be the most likely candidate for membership of what was then known as the European Community, the answer certainly would have been Yugoslavia. Today, after former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic destroyed his own country's economy and institutions, forced the other republics to submit to his will or leave the federation, and launched wars against Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosova, the picture looks quite different.

Slovenia has joined both NATO and the EU. Croatia is in their respective waiting rooms. And Macedonia -- together with Albania -- at least has a road map for NATO membership. But Albania and all former Yugoslav republics (except Slovenia) now lag behind Romania and Bulgaria in Euro-Atlantic integration, something that would have been unthinkable two decades ago (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 14 June and 22 November 2002, 27 June 2003, and 16 and 30 January and 28 May 2004).

Albania and the former Yugoslav republics (except Slovenia) have now been dubbed "the western Balkans," a phrase -- like "Euro-Atlantic integration" itself -- that does not exactly roll off the tongue. Indeed, at least one European foreign ministry uses the term "eastern Adriatic" because it supposedly has more positive connotations.

But whatever term is used, it will sound uncomfortable because the situation in which those countries find themselves is uncomfortable. Although Croatia has clearly turned a corner, the others have not. Corruption, crime, shaky political cultures and structures, economies that have barely emerged from communism, and a host of associated problems characterize most if not all of them.

Some observers feel that Serbia -- with up to 10 million people and a central geographic location -- could become a failed state, with all that implies for the security and economies of the entire region and beyond. Montenegro's government seeks independent statehood to rid itself of the Serbian albatross, but the EU has strong-armed Podgorica into a forced marriage with Belgrade that neither of the two states really seems to want.

Until Kosova's status is settled -- and that can realistically mean only independence based on the principles of self-determination and majority rule -- it remains a time bomb waiting to explode, as the March violence indicated. As for Bosnia, some observers question whether it is or will ever be a state in the generally accepted sense of the word.

Albania and Macedonia both seem to enjoy domestic peace after some postcommunist turbulence, but they have a long way to go before they can be considered serious candidates for EU membership. Some observers wonder if they, Bosnia, and Kosova should not be watched particularly carefully because, like Serbia, they could end up as failed states.

These and other scenarios, bleak and rosy alike, were discussed on 17 and 18 June at a Berlin conference sponsored by the German Foreign Ministry, the Bertelsmann Foundation, and the Munich-based Center for Applied Policy Research, titled "Rethinking the Balkans." The off-the-record discussions included a number of regional, German, and other EU political and media figures, as well as policy analysts. As seems to be the case at such Balkan conferences in Germany these days, there were few Americans present, and the trans-Atlantic dimension was not discussed, for whatever reason.

This may be at least in part because the conference was focused on EU enlargement as a European project. The general conclusion was that enlargement is the only way forward, both for the countries of the western Balkans and for the EU itself. But many specific points and recommendations emerged as well, and a discussion of these will be addressed by RFE/RL.