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The Fall Political Season Begins In The Western Balkans

How quickly will Croatia be able to move toward further Euro-Atlantic integration? News from the countries of the western Balkans has largely moved out of the headlines this summer, but several political developments and processes are under way there with a potentially long term effect on the peace and stability of that part of Europe.

There was a joke in Serbia in recent years that Serbia alone in Europe continued to generate news throughout every summer because it was the only country on the continent where the politicians were too poor to take lengthy vacations.

That situation, to the extent that it was ever true, seems to have passed into history. Instead, many of the main news stories from the western Balkans in recent weeks centered on the referendum campaign over the Macedonian government's administrative redistricting plans. The referendum threatens to upset relations between ethnic Macedonians and the 25 percent Albanian minority, and even endanger the 2001 Ohrid peace agreement itself. Meanwhile, the 7 November referendum continues to dominate the Macedonian political scene.

Other recent Balkan news stories centered on possible changes in international policy toward Kosova in the direction of granting more powers to the province's elected officials at the expense of the UN civilian administration (UNMIK). This idea has won increasing support in the United States and the United Kingdom. A recent report by Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and several statements by Danish diplomat Soren Jessen-Petersen, who is the new head of UNMIK, indicate that the UN is moving in a similar direction.

A related issue involves possible changes in the international community's "standards before status" policy there. Some Western critics feel has it reached a dead end and that progress is needed on resolving the status question as a prerequisite to peace and stability in Kosova and the region as a whole.

Meanwhile, much attention is focused on the 23 October parliamentary elections in Kosova and the possibility of a Serbian boycott.

Another topic in the news through much of the summer was the perennial disagreement between Slovenia and Croatia over their maritime border. This is one of several issues that have bedeviled the two countries' relations since independence in 1991 and shows no sign of being resolved soon. The policy options are well known to both sides, but the political will to break the logjam seems to be lacking.

The Croatian government of Prime Minister Ivo Sanader has, in any event, made progress toward EU membership. Sanader has been largely effective in convincing many at home and abroad that his Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) has broken with the ultra-nationalist legacy dating from the rule of the late President Franjo Tudjman in the 1990s.

Croatian EU and NATO memberships are still far from a reality, however, partly because Sanader's government has yet to remove all doubts about its willingness to cooperate with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal. To do so, it must first arrest fugitive indicted war criminal and former General Ante Gotovina or conclusively prove that he is not in Croatia. Sanader has staked much political capital on his ability to achieve EU membership together with or shortly after Romania and Bulgaria, probably in 2007. Whether he will achieve his goal is another matter.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is even further behind in realizing its aspirations to Euro-Atlantic integration than is Croatia. The main issues standing in Bosnia's way are its frequent inability to function as a single state and the continuing failure -- primarily of the Bosnian Serb authorities -- to arrest fugitive indicted war criminals Radovan Karadzic and former General Ratko Mladic, who were the Bosnian Serbs' principal leaders during the 1992-95 war. As a result, Bosnia is not a member of NATO's Partnership for Peace program, nor has it signed a EU Stabilization and Association agreement.

Many inside and outside Bosnia feel that the constitutional system set down in the 1995 Dayton peace agreement has proved dysfunctional, but there is no consensus as to what must be done. For now, Bosnia remains divided into the Republika Srpska and the Croat-Muslim Federation, both of which are governed by the same respective nationalist parties that were in power during the 1992-95 war. Local elections are slated for 2 October.

The international community's High Representative Paddy Ashdown continues to hold virtually absolute power in Bosnia, which places him in the paradoxical role of sometimes having to impose European standards by fiat in the face of opposition or inaction by duly elected Bosnian officials. He is pursuing a strategy of emphasizing his hitherto secondary role as representative of the EU in preparation for moving Bosnia toward a Stabilization and Association agreement.

The EU is expected to take over Bosnian peacekeeping duties from NATO at the end of the year, although the Atlantic alliance and the United States will continue to maintain a security presence with the backing of the Bosnian authorities.

Serbia and Montenegro, too, is not a member of NATO's Partnership for Peace program, nor has it signed a EU Stabilization and Association agreement. Like Bosnia, much of the problem stems from its failure to cooperate with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal. Carla Del Ponte, who is the tribunal's chief prosecutor, has said repeatedly that the Serbian authorities in particular do not cooperate with it.

Serbia, furthermore, continues to be plagued by its long-standing problems of crime, corruption, and poverty. But the election of reform-oriented Boris Tadic as Serbian president in June has given a fresh boost to that country's international image.

A recent poll indicates that the political landscape is increasingly dominated by Tadic, Serbian Radical Party leader Tomislav Nikolic, and businessman Bogoljub Karic, leaving the once highly popular Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica a poor fourth with the backing of only about 10 percent of the electorate.

Nikolic's ultra-nationalist followers have been linked to a series of incidents in 2004 against the Hungarian and Croatian minorities in Vojvodina. Meanwhile, the ethnic Albanian parties in southern Serbia recently agreed to seek regional autonomy, which suggests that the Belgrade leadership has yet to win the confidence of the ethnic minorities.

The future of the joint state of Serbia and Montenegro also remains open to question. The governing coalition in Montenegro is committed to holding a referendum on independence in 2006 if a peaceful dissolution of the joint state cannot be negotiated in the meantime. One of the smaller governing coalition partners in Serbia, the G-17 Plus party, also believes that the joint state is dysfunctional and should be dissolved. Polls suggest that the joint state is not popular in Serbia, although it has strong support from pro-Serbian Montenegrins, many of whom live and work in Serbia.

The EU, which is largely responsible for the creation of the joint state in 2002-03, recently decided to consider a "two-track" approach in negotiating a Stabilization and Association agreement with Serbia and Montenegro because each of the two constituent republics has its own separate internal market and customs system. Some observers suspect that this is a first move by Brussels away from its previous insistence on maintaining the joint state.

Within Montenegro itself, the governing coalition continues to be dogged by periodic scandals. The most recent one involved the still unexplained killing of an opposition journalist in Podgorica. In any event, the opposition seems unlikely to be able to mount a serious challenge to the government of Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic in the near future.

In Albania, the political scene remains heavily polarized between Prime Minister Fatos Nano's Socialists and former President Sali Berisha's Democrats. It is not clear what effect, if any, the recent decision by former Prime Minister Ilir Meta and 10 other legislators to leave the Socialists and set up the Socialist Movement for Integration will have on the overall political landscape. General elections are expected in 2005.

Although the Albanian government has won wide international praise for its "constructive" policies toward its neighbors, it has not made sufficient progress at home in implementing reforms and cleaning up crime and corruption to qualify for NATO membership or a EU Stabilization and Association agreement. Many critics charge that neither the government nor the opposition is really interested in breaking with old habits of patronage and self-interest.

A number of broader regional and international questions also involve the western Balkans. Will the individual states succeed in introducing effective political and economic reforms and continue on a path toward Euro-Atlantic integration, or will all or parts of the region become a "black hole" where crime, corruption, human trafficking, and smuggling flourish?

Will the EU, NATO, and the United States be able to deal jointly with problems effecting general Western interests, or will the EU seek to elbow the remaining Americans out in order to prove that Brussels can deal with European problems by itself, regardless of what the Balkan governments themselves want?