27 December 2019

Realism versus Idealism in the Western Balkans

Niculae Iancu

Considering nowadays’ geopolitics, “Western Balkans’ Region” is defined as a group of six states, placed between the Danube river and the Adriatic Sea, five former Yugoslav republics and Albania. Extensively, other two states join this group, Slovenia and Croatia, also republics of former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, but their different Euro-Atlantic path, completed with the NATO and EU accession, got these two majoritarian catholic states out of region’s label.

Image source: Mediafax

Today, Western Balkans is composed of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. Treating these states as a geopolitical bloc relies, first of all, on the Western vision regarding Europeans’ unique destiny. “The European Union leaders should look at the Balkans’ future within the bloc as the priority for the economic prosperity and security of the region and the EU”, was saying EU’s High Representative, Federica Mogherini, at the Sibiu summit, from May 2019. This is the same vision Brussels’ future leaders are sharing. In the middle of July, the future Chief of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, was highlighting that EU’s door should be opened for all Western Balkans countries.  

Most likely, Western Balkans’ European perspective is region’s strongest stability anchor. Its political developments are deeply dominated by Brussels’ promises in respect of the moment all people on the European continent will find their way inside the European Union. For Union’s leaders, the reasoning of such ideal are equally intuitive, simple and strong. EU is the space of human rights and liberties, trust and wealth, common security and prosperity. People’s normal will to join such a space comes from their natural openness to cooperation and dialogue. Although people’s violent instincts should not be neglected, these are absolutely accidental and cannot be limited by the conditions mentioned above.

The Enlightenment is the era that can perfectly describe how human beings were forced to fight all evil’s temptations in order to get to a better condition. Furthermore, states’ behaviour cannot be totally different from their citizens. Common prosperity will always come first and leaders only have to be tolerant and cooperative. When it comes to statehood, this path, state’s logic, has a major importance, staying away from all day-to-day obstacles, issues and any other interests, whether there are political economic or even cultural, placed in time and space following local or regional geographic criteria. Regardless of the situation, openness towards the community should definitely come before isolation. Sovereignty should be seen and implemented along with following all Europeans’ common space. The alteration of sovereignty’s meanings, by using political practices which go against it, cannot but destroy the space and lead it to failure.

Indeed, it also have to follow some conditions. The continuous consolidation of the common European construction proved that democracy is more important than any other governance form, and its liberal functioning proved to be effective once with West’s victory in the Cold War. Almost half century after the end of World War II, it was clear for West’s camp winners that liberal democracy is not going to make past’s problems go away. The “indefinite peace” was starting to become reality, after being, for many centuries, a utopia altered in the bloodiest way possible, through devastating wars which shook the entire Europe. Now it was the moment for liberal democracy’s universal valences to be fully capitalized through free world’s quick extension towards old continent’s Eastern borders.

In fact, after signing the Maastricht Treaty, in 1992, union’s space identity was going to change its direction towards deep integration. Its major objectives are more than just edifying: “EU will promote economic and social progress, which is balanced and sustainable, in particular through the creation of an area without internal frontiers, through the strengthening of economic and social cohesion and through the establishment of economic and monetary union, ultimately including a single currency in accordance with the provisions of this Treaty. EU will assert its identity on the international scene, in particular through the implementation of a common foreign and security policy including the eventual framing of a common defence policy, which might, in time, lead to a common defence, to strengthen the protection of the rights and interests of the nationals of its Member States through the introduction of a citizenship of the Union.” Starting from these defining benchmarks, “any European State may apply to become a Member of the Union”, as mentioned in Union’s official documents.

Hence, EU’s door is opened for Western Balkans’ states also. The European Council committed to fully support the “European perspective of Western Balkans states”, at the Salonica reunion, from 19-20th of July, 2003. After many years, in his 2017 speech on state of the Union, European Commission’s president, Jean Claude Juncker, was reconfirming Western Balkans’ countries European future, when stating “if we want more stability in our neighbourhood, then we must also maintain a credible enlargement perspective for the Western Balkans. It is clear that there will be no further enlargement during the mandate of this Commission and this Parliament. No candidate is ready. But, thereafter, the European Union will be greater than 27 in number.” Furthermore, during his 2018’s speech on the state of the Union, Juncker was saying “There can therefore be not a moment's respite in our efforts to build a more united Europe. Europe can export stability, as we have done with the successive enlargements of our Union. For me, these are and will remain success stories – for we were able to reconcile Europe's history and geography. But there is more to be done. We must find unity when it comes to the Western Balkans – once and for all. Should we not, our immediate neighbourhood will be shaped by others.”

European executive’s diffident attitude, comparing to his previous optimism, was lacking the process of expanding concrete data on the accession process’s completion and was, somehow, calling on the presence of Russia’s interests in the region, contrary to Balkans’ European future to Brussels. This is a reality the European idealism does not know, yet, how to handle. It is a scenario placed outside the above mentioned conceptual framework. It is the field wherein democracy’s enemies are using a whole weapons arsenal, which the idealistic paradigms see as immoral and unacceptable. In fact, this is the type of reality which goes against the main premises of a scaffolding of values and principles and leaves people’s concerns, who live by these principles, with no answers. And they definitely cannot ignore that not everybody follow the same rules.

The obvious question is how Western Balkans are treating all these incongruences. Russia’s more and more increased influence in states in the region gets intensified within the economic fields, especially those related to energy, the weapon Moscow uses so much lately. In some of the cases, especially in the relation with Serbia, Russia monopolized the military field as well. The great number of common military exercises and the armament sales to Belgrade made Serbia’s West aspirations be clearly separated between a favourable attitude towards EU and an unfavourable one towards NATO.

China’s presence in the region has also increased lately. The Western Balkans are highly important for Beijing’s economic enlargement policy in Europe, a bridgehead for the access on European Union’s rich markets. The Chinese projects are elaborated so that to speculate region’s states’ primary requirements, especially in terms of infrastructure, but also to offer alternative economic solutions to EU’s programs.  

This whole interest game puts an extraordinary pressure on Western Balkans, questioning the future of all six states in the region. EU, Russia and China’s interests’ collision, whereat we add the more or less visible presence of other actors that could possibly change the region, such as the United States or Turkey, produces rather faction than unity.

Given this complicated geopolitical context, we can hardly say if the Western Balkans are enjoying a homogenous vision and Euro-Atlantic aspirations, that necessary willpower for the region to enter the European Union. Moreover, history does not actually give us an optimistic scenario on region’s European future. The cultural and religious diversity proves to be rather an obstacle than an argument for peaceful cooperation and mutual tolerance of different social groups in the region. Probably one of Western Balkans’ less steadfastness elements was the continuous tensions buildup, which, once solved, have ended with violence. In the Western Balkans space, the instauration of eternal peace, at the end of Cold War, came, paradoxically, with war. Former Yugoslavia’s disintegration came with conflicts that lasted almost a decade and afflicted all former federal state’s republics. Old wounds were re-opened and new contradictions emerged and, in addition, West’s world interference came out.

Due to regional collisions, NATO and EU tried to keep peace through operations and reconstruction programs, which created the irreversible perception of a democratic reform launch. However, the populism, built on nationalist scenarios and bilateral territorial disputes manifested in varying configurations, is creating an adverse realistic political climate which goes against reconciliation. The apathy of some reforms are increased by the lack of a first tolerance and abjuration step that no one wants to make if the entire regional platoon stays put.

The status quo increases the mutual distrust and, eventually, stops the progress towards the absolutely necessary changes needed to actually reach the European integration. Caught between paradigmatic incongruences, Western Balkans region remains a “regional security complex”, accordingly with the meaning of Barry Buzan’s concept, the founder of the Copenhagen School for security studies. Hence, a fundamental dilemma emerges. How will Western Balkans states naturally work inside EU, if they cannot do it during the accession process?

One of the conclusions would be that, within the current regional context, the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of Western Balkans states come from deeply realistic reasons, being determined by the struggle for survival, contrary to European Union’s liberal model. Hence, despite the fact that Western Balkans states have a strategic importance for European construction’s stability and security, European leaders systematically announced that region’s full integration in the European Union will not happen within a predictable timespan. The consequence would be that Western Balkans states will remain caught in a purgatory phase, for an undetermined time. The integration appetite will diminish in the absence of Union’s signals that its door will open until 2025, as initially predicted. And this is not the example of one or two states in the region, but of all. Otherwise, Russia, China and other interested actors that have different interests in the region than Brussels’ ones, will be able to change the direction of a region which is so important for Europe’s prosperity and safety.

Translated by Andreea Soare