Sarajevo and the „Western Balkans“ today
1) 100 years after the outbreak of World War I and soon 20 years after the end of the Yugoslav war: what has the Balkan region achieved and how is Bosnia and Herzegovina with its famous and tragic but again lively capital Sarajevo presenting itself today.? Progress is visible, but some developments have been interrupted or went even backwards. To promote the way forward and prevent stagnation, it is absolutely necessary to design a reset or a new beginning in the region itself and in its relationship with the European Union. The now also officially stated interlude of no enlargement the next five years must be used not to sit back and wait, but to give new impetus in order to do the necessary reforms in the countries concerned and to give the EU policy of enlargement a new clearer structure. There will be a five years break in accession but there must be no break in preparing the next accession round neither by the countries of the Western Balkans nor by the EU institutions.
What we need from the side of the EU is at the one hand a new flexibility to deal with the different accession countries and on the other hand a clearer and controlled oversight of progress in the different countries. The different stages of implementation of the reforms must be more comparable and at the same the countries should have more flexibility in the timing of the reforms according to their specific needs and possibilities. In Bosnia- Hercegovina other areas of reform have priority as in Albania or Serbia. And even the common priorities like the fight against corruption ask for a differentiated approach.
But what all countries in the region need is certainly more jobs to keep their well educated younger generation in the region. We must not push them out into other countries and regions because the lack of jobs. The fact, that also in the rest of Europe, we find many unemployed people and do not have a very promising economic situation may help the region to keep the people away from emigration. But as the demonstrations in February in Sarajevo showed, the basic dissatisfaction with politics and politicians which and who do not address the main issues is still present.
2) Recently we have got a new initiative of two major member states, Germany and Great Britain to reset the course of the Balkan enlargement and especially to give Bosnia-Hercegovina a new guide line for preparing the EU rapprochement. The German government with Chancellor Merkel and Foreign minister Steinmeier gave already a start with a summit in Berlin. And now came a German- British initiative, which is underlining the necessity to give economic and social reforms priority. It may sound strange, that a country like Great Britain, which is considering to leave the EU is now trying to be helpful to make it easier for Bosnia Hercegovina to join it at some time. But even if Britain in general is always having in mind to diffuse EU’s strength by making it bigger and bigger, the countries of the region and especially Bosnia Hercegovina should take the chance and act. Unfortunately after the October elections they still do not have a government.
Action is not to be mixed with declarations. Again and again we hear that politicians of the region underline the necessity to go the European Way. But sometimes one has the feeling, that it is just window dressing and it is not translated into action and reforms. EU politicians should clarify things by challenging the respective politicians and ask them, what they expect by joining Europe, want kind of Europe they have in mind. We need an open and frank dialogue and should stop remaining vague.
All politicians of the region must get rid of using the past as an excuse for not acting or not trying to form alliances and compromises. The wars of the past and ethnic divisions do not bother the citizens so much as the lack of jobs and opportunities. It is true, some politicians and some oligarchs may lose power and influence if the reforms the EU is demanding are implemented. But citizens would win, if the reforms would be high on the politicians agenda. In any case, if – and this is the importance of the German-British initiative which should be also officially the EU Initiative – the reforms would be combined with clear programs for investment and job creation, citizens would have more trust into their own politicians and the EU. From foreign direct investment to the promotion of start ups from within the region, there are still possibilities for creating new opportunities for the work-force of the region.
The new importance given to the economic and social questions should not be misunderstood as neglecting the questions of media freedom, human rights and rule of law. But even with the importance which the EU has given to these areas of reform, in some countries we see a dramatic deterioration of these basic freedoms. New authoritarian structures and politicians have arisen and put some countries backward. But again because high unemployment and no hope for better future, some parts of the society are “ tolerant“ and open vis-a-vis these authoritarian tendencies, others leave the country and the rest resigns. The EU institutions should have the courage to express its concerns and clearly point to the a unacceptable measures.
3) But as mentioned at the beginning of this comment, we need in addition to flexibility a more reliable and objective oversight of the real progress of the reforms. A tableau of reform criteria for all accession countries including Turkey should make it possible to compare the legislation and its implementation. Clear measurement of the fulfillment of the requirements should be the basis for making the objective progress of each country visible and facilitate the comparison between all accession countries.The European Stability Initiative is at the moment working on a such a tableau which would take into account the visa liberalization process. The EU (Council, Commission and Parliament) should seriously work on the comparability of the reform achievements and results of the different accession countries.
The overall picture the region of the Western Balkans presents today is very mixed. It is not generally positive, it also not generally bleak. Even with the the recent clashes in Belgrade between Serbs and Albanians on the occasion of the football match we saw a very moderate and reasonable reaction of the Serb and Albanian leaders and also some help from the Kosovo side. Realistically we cannot avoid all such conflicts, but in case such conflicts happen, leaders must react with moderation and common sense instead of inflaming the conflict further. So the process of enlargement into the Balkan region must continue. The five year interlude should not be interpreted as an end to enlargement. And the importance given to the economic and social issues should not be interpreted as a neglect of human rights and the rule of law.
4) Sarajevo today is the symbol of hope for the „Europeanization“ of the Western Balkans, or should we say of Europe and its not always respected and realized values and attitudes coming back to the region. The elder generation know, what prejudices and war means, and the young cannot understand why and how a civil war started. Only a part of the political and economic class is still misusing the religious and ethnic differences to preserve and create new antagonisms. Europe should do everything to enhance the new climate of tolerance, acceptance and respect you can see and feel in today’s Sarajevo. The situation is still fragile, but with the support of Europe and the region’s countries already in the EU, the situation can be settled and made „permanent“ whatever that means in today’s changing times.