Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Western Balkans and the Caucasus are left with many a lost chance. The analysis of Tihomir Loza, deputy director of "Transitions on line", since 1999 among the major online news media devoted to the former Eastern Bloc

30/10/2009 -  Laura Delsere

Can the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall be an important date also for the Western Balkans? And for the Caucasus? And why?

It is perhaps a good occasion for these two regions to reflect on how much they missed in terms of political, social and economic development compared to Central Europe and the Baltic countries. While in the period between 1989 and 1991 the subsequently successful former communist countries hit the ground running, using all the support from the West that they could get—and there was indeed a lot of support available—the past two decades in the Balkans and the Caucasus have been defined by ethnic conflict. For them the demise of communism was just a footnote. In these two regions the main feature of the big change that marked the end of the last century was the demise the USSR and Yugoslavia which both managed, if often in different ways, to keep peace among its many ethnic groups, though failing their citizens in many other ways. Once the USSR and Yugoslavia collapsed, ethnic and national identity issues that some other parts of Europe fought over in previous centuries came to the fore. But while some ethnic disputes in these two regions are unlikely to be fully resolved in the foreseeable future, there are now many encouraging trends.

`How far did the isolation of some of these countries, for example Albania, affect their development in the following twenty years?

In Albania's case, the isolation from the outside world was extreme, comparable to North Korea's in a number of elements. Most former Yugoslavs were free to travel, and they did travel visa-free to many countries as Yugoslavia balanced between the blocs throughout the Cold War. Albanians are now free to travel, but not always able to do so because of visa requirements and the fact that many are still quite poor. The same applies fully or partly to the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Of course that consequences of both past and present restrictions on travel are tangible. These are societies that have in their own, usually imperfect, ways sought to modernize themselves, in some cases for good two centuries now. They very much look to the outside world and regard themselves as part of that world. As such, they are dependent on unrestricted communication with the rest of the world for successful development of most walks of life. The persistence of the European Union member states on visa requirements for much of the Western Balkans for so long after the actual conflicts ended has been a colossal mistake. It discouraged democratic trends, entrepreneurship and scientific and cultural cooperation. Did it protect the EU from Balkan gangsters? Of course not. The visa requirement, in fact, encouraged organized crime.

Would you say that the wars in former Yugoslavia have been the greatest defeat of the European Union of these last 20 years?

I don't think that the EU itself is to blame for the wars following the collapse of Yugoslavia. At the time, the union didn't have common foreign and security policy or structures to speak of. Nor does Brussels command the kind of means necessary to stop wars today. But European military powers, Britain and France, as well as the United States, which, mainly through NATO, had and still has responsibility for European security, could and should have intervened militarily very early on to protect civilians and create space for a peaceful resolution of ethnic disputes. The process of Yugoslavia's disintegration and the accompanying wars were separate from the process of integration of CEE and the Baltic countries into the EU inasmuch as Yugoslavia's internal dynamics followed its very own logic, which had been set in motion long before anyone was able to predict the collapse of Eastern Bloc. But Yugoslavia's own collapse was, of course, related to, and to a very great extent made possible by, the collapse of communism and the ensuing explosion of freedom that was yet to be institutionalized . While Poles or Hungarians used that freedom to build democratic institutions and their economies, the former Yugoslavs used it in the first place to articulate issues related to their ethnic identities and national sovereignties, an area in which they had not seen eye to eye even in the golden days of Yugoslavia. Coming back to your question, it could in my opinion be argued, though, that Yugoslavia did pay a price of no longer being strategically important to the West. Once the wall was gone, half a continent was suddenly up for grabs, as it were. The communist Yugoslavia's past distance from Moscow, once greatly valued and to a significant extent bankrolled by the West, was now irrelevant. So even though in the early 1990s many in Europe were embarrassed and truly concerned with what was going on, it was hard for the governments of military powers to properly focus on the region in the absence of any self-interest, especially given that the wars in Croatia and Bosnia never threatened to spill over. But the embarrassment was too great to bear by 1995, which is when a quick intervention by the US, UK and France ended the fighting. Kosovo was, of course, different. The crisis there did have a potential to spill over into neighboring countries, so NATO had clear strategic reasons to act. Equally important motivating factor was the accumulated embarrassment for not having intervened early enough in Bosnia. In a way, the regime of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic was punished over Kosovo, not so much for what Milosevic had done in Kosovo, but rather for what he had done in Bosnia and was suspected of preparing to do in Kosovo. The 1999 NATO intervention itself, though, was in my opinion conducted without proper regard for civilian life.

In your opinion, how long will most of the Western Balkans remain a hole in the heart of the EU-27? Is it possible to forecast a schedule of their inclusion (looking at the procedures of association and adhesion for each nation), in the light of the recent ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by Warsaw and its possible fast release by Prague?

The Balkans are no longer a black hole. These are countries with great problems, including serious structural problems, but they are all making progress, even though discerning this progress from the daily grind of headlines is difficult as headlines naturally focus on the negative side. But comparing more or less any aspect of life in the Balkans of today with that of ten years ago reveals significant progress. The region is more stable, a fair bit richer, more democratic and more orderly. In developmental terms, a decade is not a very long period of time. As for when exactly individual countries will join the EU, we can say with some certainty that Croatia will complete accession negotiations in less than two years from now and will likely join shortly after. The EC has just recommended the opening of accession negotiations with Macedonia. Once it becomes an official membership candidate, Serbia will probably be able to move fast on the road to membership and one can probably expect the same in regard of Montenegro. Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo will move a bit slower, each for their own set of internal problems. None of those problems, though, are insurmountable. While Bosnia and Kosovo have problems related to their internal makeup, all three countries must make an extra effort to strengthen the rule of law and ensure proper functioning of state institutions.

The visa regime will soon be loosened for many Western Balkan countries. After the Polish plumber, will the EU fear the Balkan one?

The scope for hostile views of immigrants is always greater in times of economic hardship, so it is possible that a slow recovery in Europe will create a few fresh scapegoat groups. But I don't think there will be a particularly big wave of Balkan talent coming into the EU once visa requirements are lifted. Most Western Balkan countries have aging populations and low birthrates. Many economically active and young people, including many well educated, have already emigrated to Western Europe, North America or Australia. In terms of development potential, this is a serious problem for the region, Bosnia in particular. In any case, visa-free travel will only make it easier for a potential worker to reach his or her destination, but it won't necessarily entitle them to seek job. Once the region's countries are in the EU, their citizens will be free to seek work elsewhere in the EU, though restrictions such as in the case of the entrants earlier this decade, are possible. But I'd be surprised to see very many people from the region flocking to the West in search of work.

Europe does not seem to have an exit strategy from the Western Balkans, in particular from Bosnia and Kosovo, two artificial institutional constructions, both in serious crisis although the strong funds received over the years...

Dependency on foreign aid and political tutorship is a serious problem, mostly because it restricts initiative and ownership of local issues by domestic actors. Clearly, in Bosnia the EU should move toward building a partnership with local communities and encourage them to reach a compromise on outstanding constitutional questions. It should certainly not be playing the role of an arbiter in domestic affairs. In Kosovo, the EU has assumed certain responsibilities when it comes to strengthening the rule of low. There is also the issue of Pristina's relationship with Belgrade where the EU is well placed to play a role in search of modalities that perhaps won't solve the issue any time soon, but that both sides would be able to live with.

The EU borders have been stretched farther and farther East in the last 20 years. Today, Europe finds itself closer to the Caucasus than ever, though keeping to cautious distance from the Chechnyan violations of human rights and from the increasing instability in Daghestan and Ingushetia. Do you think that the EU Eastern Partnership, mainly supported by the new EU members, in favor of this region, can become more and more important in the next future?

Yes, the EU's Eastern Partnership will likely become more important because the target countries are and will increasingly be significant players on the international scene. Their stability and economic performance impact on the EU. Energy is, of course, an important element here inasmuch as these countries are now widely seen as alternative routes for Europe's energy supplies. But the relationship does and should go beyond energy. These are countries that all, though in different ways and to different degrees, look to the EU. Brussels is in a unique position to influence their development into prosperous and democratic societies.

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the mosaic of the minorities in Eastern Europe remains underrated by the West, and inside the single Balkan States `walls' stand, raised towards their minorities. Which were in these years the improvements realized with the EU's help or by EU soft-power?

The levels of human rights awareness, though still very unsatisfactory, are far greater today than they were during the 1990s. The role that the EU played in raising the visibility of human rights and minority issues in the Balkans and CEE is second to none. EU funding, along with that that came from individual governments and private foundations, sustained civil societies through all these years. Human rights of ethnic and other minorities are still too often breached, but breaches no longer pass without a protest from civil society and other groups. This puts governments under pressure, often prompting them to act in a positive manner. The EU's soft power has also transformed political party scenes in Balkan and some other East European countries. It is now a common occurrence that political parties once known best for their ethnic extremism start to preach tolerance. Very often they do it in order to make themselves acceptable as partners in the process of EU integration. The sincerity of some of these transformations is, of course, debatable, but there is little doubt that the fabled EU soft power has often been transformative.

The energy question seems to give Moscow the power to divide the EU and isolate in bilateral and exclusive relationships the Balkans the and Caucasus states. Instead, could the energy independence - through a common EU gas market and through alternative sources and supplies- become an inclusion factor in the EU for the Western Balkans, even in advance on the political-institutional road map?

Diversification of energy supplies is in any case desirable. Dependency on Russian supplies is a real problem for Europe. But Europe is and will remain Russia's most lucrative market, so Moscow too has every reason to keep the energy relationship stable. But long-term, energy and Europe's relationship with Russia must not be seen in adversarial terms. Russia is an enormously important and complex country that the West needs to be firm but patient with. Russia carries a difficult historical baggage and will probably need a few decades to fully democratize and modernize.