This year’s Western Balkans Summit in Trieste will be the fourth consecutive meeting of the heads of governments and Foreign Ministers of the six countries, aiming to build on the achievements of the previous meetings and take their commitments a step further. The Summits are organised under the framework of the ‘Berlin Process’, a five-year initiative inaugurated by Chancellor Merkel in 2014 to reinforce the commitment to EU-enlargement for the Western Balkan countries (WB6) by revitalising the bilateral and multilateral ties between them and participating EU member states. For the forthcoming Summit in Trieste, the looming question is to what extent the Western Balkans countries are prepared to fulfil commitments they agreed to at the previous Summits, and to tackle the obstacles to EU integration as a way of easing uncertainties that continue to plague the region.
My specific focus is on the commitment to the resolution of bilateral issues. It is now clear that, despite hopes to the contrary, the focus on regional cooperation, economic development and connectivity does not lead to tackling bilateral issues, let alone their resolution, despite them being one of the main challenges for the countries in the region. One year on since I last wrote here about the challenges that bilateral issues pose, with very few results having come about in the meantime, it is necessary to review some of my previous recommendations and the level of commitment of the Berlin Process participants, and see what is in stock when it comes to resolution. As we are approaching the fourth Western Balkans Summit in Trieste, there may be reasons for a certain level of optimism in the region that didn’t exist before, and I argue that, this year, participants should raise the bar and reinforce their commitment to the resolution of bilateral issues.
One of the main commitments from the Vienna Summit 2015 for the Western Balkan governments was not only tackling bilateral issues, but reporting annually on the steps taken to resolve them, starting from the Paris Summit in 2016. However, the reports never saw the light of day at the gathering of the countries’ leaders, while the bilateral issues were completely side-lined from the agenda by the hosts. To to ibservers, it was easy to assume that the Western Balkan countries simply avoided reporting, and as such failed to fulfil their first commitment. However, according to the senior civil servants at MFAs, all the Western Balkan countries did produce reports on the progress of the resolution of border disputes, as agreed at the meeting in Vienna in April 2016, the follow-up to the Vienna Summit. Avoiding the commitment to the resolution of bilateral issues and related background politics raises another serious question about the intentions and motivations of the other participants in the Berlin Process, the EU member states. It is important to emphasise that border and territorial disputes are just one item on the long list of challenging issues that remain, and that must be high on the list of the Berlin Process agenda. Unlike in previous years, we now have a reason to get our hopes up, following the appointment of the new Macedonian Government and, even more importantly, the new Foreign Minister of Macedonia Nikola Dimitrov. One of the most challenging bilateral issues when it comes to both stability in the region and EU accession is certainly Macedonia’s name dispute with Greece, which has been blocking the country’s progress to the EU and NATO for more than a decade since it was granted candidate status in December 2005. Dimitrov’s appointment brings hope that this problem may be moved on from the frozen status which it has been in for 25 years. While it is far too early to anticipate resolution, the first steps of Macedonian foreign policy are positive with one of the first engagements being a visit to Greece on 14th June, where Dimitrov held a meeting with his Greek counterpart Nikos Kotzias, who at least recognised that the naming dispute requires resolution. However, many other problems in the region are obstructing paths to EU accession, particularly continuously strained Serbia-Kosovo relations.
Positive development in the Macedonian naming dispute could open the path for tackling other regional issues, both at technical and political levels. Technical issues include the demarcation of borders and territories and existing legal frameworks, mechanisms and agreements that enable the tackling of these issues at the intrastate level. At the same time, the precise demarcation of borders and territories between the WB countries is also a political issue, as we have recently seen in the failed attempt to ratify the border agreement between Kosovo and Montenegro. It is a reflection of existing tensions between the ruling elite and opposition politicians in Kosovo, who argued that the agreement would lead to a loss of territory. Because the universe of the Western Balkans is very much connected, approaches to one border demarcation case are likely to determine settlements with other countries, and we should expect much more fierce opposition when the time comes for Kosovo-Serbia border demarcation. The status of national minorities, again with a strong political dimension, is another persistent challenge, as many nationals of the former Yugoslavia are now in a position to be classified as minorities in their own or neighbouring countries following the 1990s wars. Despite the little known fact, some of the WB countries have signed agreements or treaties on the mutual protection of minorities (e.g. Agreement between Serbia and Montenegro and the Republic of Croatia on the protection of the rights of the Serbian and Montenegrin minority in the Republic of Croatia and of the Croatian minority in Serbia and Montenegro, signed on 15 November 2004), but their implementation remains a challenge, as can be seen from state reports that are regularly submitted to Council of Europe. Of the same origin are the issues pertaining to the status and repatriation of refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and their property and status rights; war crimes prosecution; transitional justice and the search for missing persons.
The message about the importance resolving bilateral issues could not be clearer. They must be kept on the Western Balkans Summit agenda and the Berlin Process agenda. Many of these issues are often resolved using back channels, for which the Berlin Process is an important forum for exchange and mediation facilitated by the EU member states, the European Commission, and the EEAS. Equally important is that this platform also provides space for involvement of the civil society organisations in the debates and recommendations on how to tackle bilateral issues, thus bringing them open into the public arena.