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New Balkan Instability Rattles EU

Posted by hkarner - 10. März 2017

Date: 10-03-2017
Source: The Wall Street Journal

Growing concerns push region to top of bloc’s summit agenda

Fears are growing in Europe that political stability is unraveling in the western Balkans after years of quiet progress.

Even a year ago, the Balkans, the spark for so many past European conflicts, seemed headed toward a longstanding European Union dream: reformist governments deepening regional cooperation and heading toward membership in the bloc.

Now, with stepped-up Russian interference and the prospect of U.S. disengagement under the Trump administration, the Balkans are again setting off alarms.

A political crisis in Macedonia that some fear could revive ethnic conflict, renewed flare-ups between Serbia and Kosovo, and allegations of a Kremlin-sponsored coup attempt in Montenegro have European officials worrying about what European Council President Donald Tusk on Wednesday called a “destabilization of the region, both from within and from outside forces.”
Those concerns have elevated the region to the top of EU leaders’ agenda at their spring summit that started Thursday in Brussels. Leaders were set to pledge deeper engagement in the region, which encompasses Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania, and to reassert their desire to offer these governments a “European perspective.”

Europe’s leaders hoped to demonstrate that, as EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini said Monday, “there is no other power in the world that has so much impact for good on the western Balkans” as the EU.

Yet as so often in Europe, the gap between aspiration and delivery is significant.

While the 28 countries of the EU are easily the largest trade partners and investors of most western Balkan countries, the path toward EU accession remains tortuous and slow.

There is talk of new money and projects, both from the EU and from bilateral initiatives such as a German-led process seeking to bind the region together through multicountry economic and infrastructure projects. But specifics are still lacking.

During the 2015-16 migration crisis, EU governments were quick to send extra money and resources to help Macedonia, Serbia and Albania stop the migrant flow into Europe. But it was EU governments that reaped the benefit.

“The big question now is what is the leverage of the EU?” said Petrit Selimi, a former foreign minister of Kosovo. “This is the time for more than public statements.”

European officials say Thursday’s summit should be the start of a process of intensive engagement in the region.

They want stepped-up visits from national politicians and new on-the-ground initiatives on everything from deradicalization to education links. The EU’s foreign service is adding a western Balkans unit to fight pro-Russian “disinformation” and talk up the EU’s role there.

But some diplomats say the bloc has turned complacent on the Balkans, even at a time when, after the Ukraine crisis, Russia has shown its willingness to project power there. There has been plenty of firefighting—EU officials are currently trying to end a crisis in Macedonia, where the president is refusing to appoint a new government made up of a center-left party and parties from the ethnic Albanian minority. But too little else, they say.

While some European officials talk of accelerating accession talks, many capitals are wary of the bloc’s further enlargement and worried about rampant corruption, economic malaise and organized crime in Balkan countries.

There was no willingness ahead of Thursday’s summit to set a target date for new accession deals. Even the word “enlargement” is expected to be absent from the summit’s final statement.

The fact is that some EU governments’ sensitivities have hurt the region.

The region’s powerhouse, Serbia, has seen its progress toward EU accession repeatedly slowed by its old rival, Croatia, an EU member. Five EU governments don’t recognize Kosovo and after 25 years of talks, Greece is still blocking Macedonia’s path to the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization because Athens objects to its use of the name Macedonia.

In the past, Europe was able to lean on Washington’s influence in the region to keep governments on a Western track. Yet Washington’s commitment is in doubt after U.S. President Donald Trump criticized NATO and talked of striking deals with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

NATO is expected to add Montenegro as a 29th member in May but the prospects of other Balkan countries joining soon are slim. Russia has opposed Montenegro’s decision to join the alliance and Montenegrin officials accuse Russia of orchestrating a coup attempt last October to derail its accession. The Kremlin has dismissed the claim.

In an interview last month, Montenegro’s Foreign Minister Srdjan Darmanovic said his government hadn’t so far seen evidence of a shift in Washington’s Balkans policy. However, he urged the EU and NATO to step up efforts to guarantee the region’s security and stability in the face of outside threats.

“We are just a piece of the puzzle,” he said. “This is an assault on the international liberal order, an assault on the pillars, including NATO.”

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