Good news is in short supply in the Western Balkans. But this could change after Kosovo and Serbia signed a landmark accord on August 25 that could bring these two neighbors closer to the EU.
The accord, shepherded by Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, was overshadowed by the tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the wars in Syria and Iraq. The refugees have made the Western Balkans—which consist of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia—into a conduit to reach EU countries, especially Germany.
The German government reckons that 40 percent of those applying for asylum in the country come from Serbia or Kosovo. Forty percent!
“You can’t imagine how serious it has become in the Western Balkans,” said Sonja Licht, the indefatigable president of the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence, an independent think tank. “The poor and the vulnerable, most of whom are Roma, are leaving in order to escape the abject poverty,” Licht told Carnegie Europe.
Not only that. “There is also a brain drain taking place among the youth,” added Licht. “There’s little to keep them here. Youth unemployment is around 50 percent in Serbia and over 70 percent in Kosovo.”
One of Licht’s biggest worries is the radicalization of the region that will feed growing anti-EU sentiments. Such a pessimistic scenario will do nothing to stem growing corruption or encourage much-needed foreign investment—let alone spur attempts to introduce economic, political, and social reforms, which have all but stopped across the region.
Moreover, prospects for joining the EU, to which all countries in the region aspire, would fade, hampering long-term stability and the consolidation of democracy in this part of Europe.
That is why the summit in Vienna, the second of its kind at the initiative of Germany, cannot ignore the potential combustibility of the Western Balkans. The meeting must also revive the region’s European perspective instead of just concentrating on the migration crisis, which is dominating the Vienna agenda.
Such a perspective received a fillip on August 25 after the accord signed in Brussels between Aleksandar Vučić, the prime minister of Serbia, and Isa Mustafa, his counterpart from Kosovo. The accord will have immense political and psychological implications for the region. In essence, it moves Serbia and Kosovo another step toward normalizing their relations and, as a result, it is hoped, closer to beginning EU accession negotiations.
For the two neighbors, which were plunged into a bloody war in 1998–1999 that ended with the intervention of NATO against Serbia, the importance of the agreement cannot be overestimated.
The Serb community in northern Kosovo, long at loggerheads with Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority, will be granted considerable autonomy over judicial and budgetary affairs and will be able to receive financial assistance from Belgrade. The community will also have its own official symbols such as a coat of arms or a flag, subject to Kosovar law.
As for Kosovo as a whole, which declared its independence in 2008 but which Serbia and several EU countries have yet to recognize, it will get its own telephone country code, a big concession by Serbia.
Ivan Knežević, deputy secretary general of the pro-EU European Movement in Serbia, has no doubt that the attraction of joining the EU one day was the main incentive for reaching some an accord. “The European perspective is just so important to Serbia and Kosovo,” Knežević told Carnegie Europe.
“This accord is very encouraging. It will contribute to the normalization of relations. I hope that Brussels can now open one of the chapters with Belgrade,” he added, referring to the list of topics that are negotiated between the European Commission and a candidate country.
The breakthrough says much too about the commitment by Mogherini and her predecessor, Catherine Ashton, to establishing a rapprochement between Belgrade and Prishtina. Both have invested much time in mending those ties. Of course, Brussels has a big interest in closing this long chapter of violence and animosity. Only with closure and substantial reforms will foreign investors return to the region and prospects for joining the EU will rise.
Merkel made those points a year ago during a summit with Western Balkan leaders in Berlin and again when she visited Belgrade in July 2015. “Merkel’s visit to Belgrade was crucial. Germany’s support for supporting the rapprochement between Serbia and Kosovo and the region’s integration to the EU is just so important,” Licht said.
The hope now is that the European Commission will begin accession talks with Serbia.
“The signing of the accord just before the Vienna summit is no coincidence,” said István Gyarmati, president of the International Center for Democratic Transition. “It sends a clear message to the leaders there about the political will of Serbia and Kosovo to normalize relations. The EU should open a few chapters with Serbia.”
Now that would be good news.