In the last 2 decades the European perspective has proved a powerful catalyst of reforms and strife for better existence for the countries from the former socialist camp and most of all for the Balkans, defined for centuries as Europe's black hole, a powder keg and as the place where bloody wars can start from nothing. For Central Europe this catalyst proved successful - Poland already is a developed 'western' democracy, with well moving economy, growing regional influence and a self-confidence and prosperity on the rise. It is not only Poland. The Baltic countries, although they suffered severe troubles because of the economic crisis they demonstrated that with the will and efforts of the entire society things can be achieved that seem impossible at first sight.
But Central and Baltic Europe had 20 years of peace to complete the reforms, to prepare its societies and it did not have any significant regional conflicts to deal with. This is not the case with the Balkans, though, where shameful and insane wars ended just less than 20 years ago. The wounds are still fresh and easy to become inflamed. But still, as Gerald Knaus, chairman of the European Stability Initiative, writes, Croatia is an example that decisive leadership, courage and perseverance could lead to successful achievement of goals.
The biggest challenge
In fact the biggest challenge the Western Balkan countries are facing after they have already made their choice for European integration, is that the community they are striving for is going through severe difficulties. This puts into question not only what kind of a European Union these countries would join but whether it is indeed capable of being their mentor on the difficult and often thorny path. The faster the politicians and leaders from the region realise that they can do on their own (Croatia is a wonderful example), the better it would be for them because the European perspective is something more than a mechanical accession to some organisation. It contains in itself idealism and strife for something better.
This is why it is worth praising the initiative of the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs which, together with the Centre for Liberal Strategies, a Bulgarian think tank, organises the Sofia Forum for the Balkans. It is taking place on June 8-9 in Sofia. The organisers aim to make precisely a reassessment of the agenda of the Balkans against the backdrop of the problems Europe is going through, and also of the global shifts. The forum has another goal too, which is also very important - "identifying and enhancing the voice of alternative elites which could renew the constructive, pro-European agenda in the Western Balkan countries". Is this going to be successful is too early to tell before the first edition of the forum. But the more often politicians, leaders of opinion, analysts, journalists and citizens meet, the better.
Although among the discussions in the various discussion panels there are foreign ministers and members of governments from the region, the expectations are the tone to be indeed discussionary. This expectation is assisted by several essays, written especially for the purpose by some of the participants.
We are used to talk lately, including on this website, that the Balkans are at crossroads (especially in terms of Serbia). The correspondent of The Economist for the Balkans, Tim Judah, however has exactly the opposite opinion: "One of the greatest clichés over the years has been that this or that Balkan country is at a crossroads. Now, when talking about the western Balkans at least, that is no longer the case. They have settled down to a period of normality, beset by economic and other woes for sure, and in terms of strategic direction, are all heading slowly towards Brussels. The problem is that everyone else is now at the crossroads".
The journalist points in his essay to Greece, which from a developed European country is returning to the Balkans to turn into a black hole, in spite of its membership in the EU and NATO. "The Greek collapse may have untold long term consequences for the rest of the region. If a Balkan state and long-time fully paid up member of the West
has proved that its institutions are rotten to the core this could potentially have devastating effects on the EU accession hopes of the Balkan hopefuls", is Tim Judah's opinion.
These fears sound scary and sad but should not be excluded as a possibility. The Balkans at the moment resemble a man who is trying to quit smoking while being constantly told that there is no former smoker - they are fragile, instable, susceptible to external influence. They are facing more question than answers, as can be judged as well by Vessela Tcherneva's essay, spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria:
"It is a matter of weeks for the EU to find solutions to difficult economic and political problems that have remained unresolved for too long. How to reconcile the calls for austerity with the need for growth? How to sustain the political legitimacy to the European project while pushing the problems to the EU level many times and nationalising the solutions? And most importantly, how to maintain the sense of belonging to the EU when solidarity is the first collateral of the crisis? It is a matter of weeks for the Western Balkan countries to make some significant decisions that will shape their future for the years to come. Is there an alternative to the EU membership for the region, and is it possible to pick and choose reform policies that suit the political moment while neglecting inconvenient others? Is a structured transatlantic partnership with NATO still a vital part of the journey towards the EU? And most importantly, do the countries of the region have a strategy for the rainy days in Europe's economic periphery?"
What the Balkan governments need is a collective economic wisdom and a high level of political confidence, is the opinion of Yulian Popov, a political analyst. The coming years will be a huge test, a litmus test, that the societies in the region are grown enough to take their own destinies in their hands and start managing their own lives by themselves, instead of relying on constant external pushing. The world is busy enough with its own problems to be able to spare more time and resources to deal again with the "problematic" Balkans.
The good news is that the region has its role model - Croatia. It would have been good Bulgaria to be such a model but, alas, it has failed in a number of areas. But this is not the bad news. It would be a bad news if the country does not draw lessons from the mistakes and does not start a new. As wise people say - better later than never. The situation at the moment provides for another chance - to try again and this time to bring things to success for the sake of a stable and economically prosperous region.