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Balkans: Is Stability Pact Only A Shadow?

The Stability Pact for Southeast Europe has been in existence for nearly four years. During that time, however, it has never really emerged from the shadows. Its deeds remain a mystery to most of the people in the Balkans, the region the pact was designed to help. So what is it achieving?

Prague, 9 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It all started on a cloudy summer day in July 1999. NATO-led troops were on high alert in Sarajevo, and the air above the Bosnian capital was vibrating to the beat of helicopter blades.

In the city's Olympic sports stadium, world leaders were gathering to sign the Stability Pact for Southeast Europe. Behind them, on a hillside, lay the graves of some of those killed during the harrowing siege of the Bosnian capital.

Hailed as historic, the pact was designed to create an international effort to channel expertise and money to the Balkans, and through economic and social development to lessen the risk of further ethnic conflicts there.

But almost four years on, little is heard of the stability-pact organization, and most people are at a loss to assess its achievements. One such person is Mark Wheeler, the director in Sarajevo of the Bosnia project of the International Crisis Group. "I just don't know. I'm aware of the fact that there is some controversy over whether the stability pact is marginally useful or utterly useless," Wheeler said.

Wheeler said the profile of the stability-pact organization is so low that it is difficult to know if it is fulfilling "any particular useful function."

With opinions as devastating as that to face, life cannot be easy for the staff of the pact. Similar, if less radical, views are held by Gjerji Buxhuku, director of the Institute for Effective Policy Making in the Albanian capital, Tirana. "I don't know, but I think that maybe up till now [in Albania], the stability pact has failed," Buxhuku said.

He went on to say that the organization has been too slow to get projects started.

In Brussels, analyst Gergana Noutcheva of the Centre for European Policy Studies added to the criticism, but she also offered a measure of praise. She noted that the initial fanfare when the stability pact was created led to unrealistic expectations, which could not be met.

She said the pact lies in the shadow of the big player in the region, the European Union. "All they [the Balkan countries] want is to get into the EU, and the EU is the strong actor in the region. The pact is just an auxiliary. And you know many people believe the whole [pact] project should be scrapped because there is no need for it," Noutcheva said.

Noutcheva noted that one of the criticisms aimed at the stability pact is that it does not have a real budget of its own, but instead acts as a sort of forum for donor coordination or as a framework for dialogue. "All it can do is organize donor conferences and try to serve as an intermediary between donors and set certain priorities," Noutcheva said.

But she acknowledged that it has done well in putting in place a series of free-trade agreements among the Balkan countries. And she said the head of the stability-pact organization, Erhard Busek, and his predecessor Bodo Hombach have good standing internationally and have been able to develop and maintain useful political contacts in the recipient countries.

Busek himself naturally sees the general picture differently. To the charge that the stability pact and its work are almost invisible, he replied: "Visibility is not the main thing, stability is. It is not a visibility pact, it is a stability pact, and if you are looking at the situation in Southeast Europe, I think we have by comparison a very stable situation if you think back to two or three yeas ago."

Giving some statistics, he said the pact is presently handling 46 projects, many of them infrastructure projects, with a total expenditure of some 2.6 billion euros ($2.73 billion). Other projects range across headings, such as supporting human rights and the development of democracy, education, and justice.

Busek gave concrete examples of the pact's infrastructure program. "It is the cleaning up of the River Danube at Novi Sad and the rebuilding of the bridge there. It is building another bridge between Vidin and Calafat in Bulgaria and Romania. It is the highway between Bucharest and Cerna Voda, in the direction of the Black Sea. It is [modernizing] the airport of Sofia. It is the [improvement of the] port of Durres in Albania. It is some improvement of railway stations and improvements to electricity lines," Busek said.

The last heading, electricity lines, perhaps explains why the stability pact's work is not well-known by the public. It involves work of little general interest, such as the creation of a regional electricity market and the upgrading of power lines.

Busek said it is always easy to criticize but that it takes time to get major projects started. He said the pact is now tightening and consolidating its efforts. And he said the pact sees itself as preparing its recipient states for eventual EU membership and enhancing regional cooperation.

Busek said the stability pact is also participating in preparations for the EU's Balkan summit to be held in Saloniki, Greece, in June.

He said this summit will seek to set out a road map for EU membership by agreeing on assistance to help the Balkan countries reach that goal.