Balkans Overhaul Urged

New report slates the status quo and demands bold action.

Balkans Overhaul Urged

New report slates the status quo and demands bold action.

An influential panel of top international experts and politicians has warned that without fundamental constitutional changes and a radical new approach from the international community, the Western Balkans is in danger of becoming the “black hole of Europe”.

Rounding off 12 months of research, a new report by the International Commission on the Balkans, ICB, says the legacy of war and years of heavy-handed international interference have resulted in “weak states” in which crime and corruption flourish and collapse could be just around the corner.

“The region is as close to failure as to success,” warn the group’s members, who include six former prime ministers among their number.

The bold set of solutions offered includes independence for Kosovo, referendums on the relationship between Serbia and Montenegro and the abolition of the Office of the High Representative, OHR, in Bosnia and Hercegovina.

And the European Union, the analysts add, must also take a more active role in helping to build state institutions in the region.

The authors of the report say many of the problems affecting the Western Balkans today stem from the fact that the constitutions relied on by states in the region were originally born of negotiations aimed at bringing an end to the wars of the 1990s.

“The processes that led to [these] constitutions were not informed by popular mandates but by hard-nosed trade-offs to persuade the elites to stop fighting or avoid destabilising acts,” the report notes.

The members of the commission argue that it is partly this legacy that contributes to rampant crime and corruption in the region, “Powerful private actors, including political parties, oligarchs and criminal syndicates spawned by the wars of the 1990s have remained influential and largely escaped scrutiny.”

But the analysts add that the weakness of the states that grew out of this process has been perpetuated by the influential international actors who dominate regional politics. The protectorate systems in Kosovo and Bosnia in particular come under fire for their part in the impasse.

“With no real stake in these territories, international representatives insist on quick results to complex problems; they dabble in social engineering but are not held accountable when their policies go wrong,” the report states.

The commission acknowledges that progress has been made in Bosnia since the end of fighting there in 1995.

But the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, comes in for damning criticism, with the report’s authors arguing that it has failed to make any real progress since the bout of inter-ethnic rioting that broke out last March.

“Since [the riots] UNMIK has demonstrated neither the capacity nor the courage to reverse this trend [of greater tension],” the report says.

It goes on to describe the Serb enclaves in Kosovo, whose inhabitants live under international protection and are often unable to travel freely because of security fears, as “the greatest indictment of Europe’s willingness and ability to defend its proclaimed values”.

The commission warns that a series of “half-baked” reforms have left underlying problems in the region unresolved, and have led to a very real threat of renewed violence.

“We run the real risk of an explosion of Kosovo, an implosion of Serbia and new fractures in the foundations of Bosnia and Macedonia,” the report notes.

According to the authors, these complex problems require a drastic rethink.

In Bosnia, it is argued, High Representative Lord Paddy Ashdown should be replaced by an EU negotiator, who would lack Lord Ashdown’s powers to dismiss public officials and enact legislation without parliamentary approval.

And the people of Serbia and Montenegro should be allowed to vote on the future of their state union as early as next year.

The report also calls on the EU to rethink its own strategies with regard to the region, which currently exists as a dangerous source of instability on its borders.

This new approach would focus on using targeted financial support and enforcement of existing agreements to help build institutions that meet EU membership standards on freedom, security and the rule of law.

This would be a radical departure from the last round of EU accessions, where the key requirement for candidate states was a commitment to economic liberalisation and reforms to facilitate entry.

In terms of concrete steps towards implementing this new approach, the report calls for a greater role for the EU’s enlargement commissioner in the Balkans, the creation of a designated EU budget to be spent in the region and an end to the policy of conditioning union membership talks on cooperation with the Hague tribunal.

It also calls for a drive to improve economic relations between Balkan states by reducing customs duties and combating corruption and smuggling.

Other important new steps would focus on building public support for EU-oriented reform, partly by giving students and businessmen from the region easier access to the EU and freedom to travel within it.

The report also calls for an EU conference on the Balkans to be held no later than 2006. Among the aims of this conference would be to set a provisional membership date for all potential candidate states in the region, along with a road-map outlining the accession process, in order to emphasise the urgency of institutional reform.

The ICB paper has been welcomed by other think-tanks whose work focuses on the region.

“This is a bold strategy for resolving the current problems,” Gerald Knaus of the European Stability Initiative, ESI, told IWPR. “The commission’s report is excellent and it should be widely read.”

James Lyon, director of the Belgrade office of the International Crisis Group, also approved, “In Kosovo and Serbia and Montenegro, the commission’s findings are broadly in line with what Crisis Group has been recommending for several years now.”

But Lyon added a note of caution, “There remains the question of whether politicians and policy-makers in the EU are prepared to actually take the necessary measures to ensure that life in this region improves for ordinary people.

“As recent history has shown, events on the ground have often dictated policy, rather than the other way round.”

The authors of the report are aware that what their proposals are ambitious.

“We do not cherish any illusions about the current political will among the member states of the European Union to make major new commitments….enlargement fatigue hovers over the European capitals these days,” they note.

But they emphasise that to simply preserve the status quo could prove a dangerous option,

“If the reform and transition process fails, the Western Balkans will become even more of an isolated ghetto and loom as a threat to stability and peace.”

Hugh Griffiths is IWPR’s investigations coordinator

Frontline Updates
Support local journalists