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The Visegrad Four Should Commit to the Western Balkans

Published on , , Zagreb

The Western Balkans are at a tipping point - on the one hand they suffer from exhaustion from the blur filling of the phrase "European perspective", from enlargement fatigue, as Montenegro's chief negotiator Alexandar Andrija Pejovic told euinside, but also from the negative effects of the eurozone crisis and the world at large, which adds to the already tough economic situation in the region, torn by war until recently. On the other hand, in most of the Western Balkan countries, although fading, support for the European integration is prevailing. European integration is key for the democratic transformation of the countries in the region which is why more than ever they need the EU and its focused efforts.

Alas, the EU is too busy with itself and will become even busier if it comes to the drafting of a new treaty (according to Angela Merkel of Jose Manuel Barroso). But no matter how clear it is that the Balkans need help, statements that the countries from the region should do their homework first while Brussels is at their disposal all the time are not a rarity. Such was the message of Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council chief, in Sarajevo last week - implement the reforms, be ambitious and we again reiterate our commitment to your European perspective. The experience with Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary, however, shows that relying on fragile democracies to walk the tough evolutionary path alone, that took the old member states centuries, is too unrealistic.

Who should do the job?

We have wrote a number of times on this web site that there are no more appropriate to provide permanent assistance to their neighbours and also to raise the issue of their problems at a European level than Bulgaria and Romania. The two countries are the worst pupils in terms of European democracy but bad experience is always the best teacher. It is much better to say what went wrong rather than deliberating on what would work well. Moreover, Bulgaria and Romania know the region well, the mentality, the national specifics and the internal conflicts. Regretfully, however, the two are not ready to undertake the role of mentors for their neighbours because they are still not ready to acknowledge that the blame for their failure does not lie in some conspiracy theory against them but is a result of their refusal to invest their own efforts.

Bulgaria and Romania, however, have an alternative. Quite a strong one - the Visegrad Four. These are the four Central European countries that excelled in the big enlargement wave of 2004 - Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. The four have many successes but many failures as well in the process of evolution. And since Poland has emerged as a clear leader among the "new member states" and this year it presides over the Visegrad Four, the activity of the group increased noticeably. In this thread of thoughts is the analysis of the Polish Institute for International Relations (PISM) which thinks that the V4 is the most appropriate platform to assist the Western Balkans.

First of all, the four authors of the analysis (one for each country in the group) point out that three of the V4 foreign ministers are directly involved and very committed to the Balkan affairs. These are the very well known Miroslav Lajcak, Slovakia's foreign minster who by 2009 was EU's special representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Czech top diplomat Karel Schwarzenberg and his Hungarian counterpart Janosz Martonyi are also very interested in the Balkans.

Only Poland's Radek Sikorski is a little bit distanced from the region because a main focus of Poland's foreign policy are the countries from the Eastern Partnership, an essential part of which are close neighbours to Poland. According to PISM's analysis, each of these countries has a real contribution to boosting the European integration of the countries from the Western Balkans. For example, the Czech Republic develops intensive bilateral relations, provides transformation aid, which only in 2011 amounts to almost 8 million euros for projects in three countries - Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo (to many of our readers this amount of money might seem small but for a former communist nation in the geographic centre of the eurozone crisis, this is a lot of money). Prague also focuses on cultural and educational exchange. The membership of the countries in the region in the EU and NATO is one of the main priorities of the Czech foreign policy.

Hungary, in spite of the problems it has at the moment with the image of a returning to totalitarianism former outstanding student in European integration, has a huge interest in the development of the Western Balkans because it is a direct neighbour to countries in the region and has minorities in many of them. The Hungarian development aid and its contribution to peace keeping operations are mainly focused on the Western Balkans. During its first EU presidency, Hungary ended the accession negotiations with Croatia, it fought Serbia to receive a candidate status and supported Montenegro.

For Slovakia, the authors add, the Western Balkans are in the centre of the foreign policy of the country. The main driver of this policy are the diplomats and the non-governmental organisations on the ground, as well as its own example as a country with successful transition (the country is already a member of the euro area). Until recently, Serbia was a priority country for Slovakia's development aid, with a total budget of 10 million euros, allocated in the form of small grants and projects for five years, directed mainly at development on community level, civil society and infrastructure, write Milan Nic, Istvan Gyarmati, Jan Vlkvovsky and Tomasz Żornaczuk.

In October in Warsaw, there will be a meeting of the foreign ministers of the V4 and the Western Balkans which the ministers from Bulgaria and Romania are also invited to attend, the authors write. For the meeting are also invited Catherine Ashton as a high representative of the EU for foreign policy and Stefan Fule, the EU enlargement commissioner, he himself a Czech with a very innovative approach toward overcoming the obstacles before the European integration of some Western Balkan countries and Turkey (the special dialogue with Macedonia, the reversing of the negotiations process of Montenegro, the positive agenda with Turkey). The Polish Institute for International Relations recommends this meeting to be used to come up with a clear message as for the EU leaders and their summit in December but also for the new (or old) president of the United States, where there will be presidential elections on November 6.

This message must contain a call the EU and US commitment to continue for the Western Balkans. Special attention must be paid, according to the analysts, to the new government in Serbia which initially scared with the possibility of restoration (Prime Minister Ivica Dacic is a former spokesman of Slobodan Milosevic and President Tomislav Nikolic made several statements which evoked sharp reactions in the region). According to PISM, Serbia will remain a key country in the region because of its size, its influence on several neighbours and its central geographic position. May be here we should add to the PISM's analysis that the nationalist mindset of the Serbs also contributes to why Serbia is of key significance for the progress of the region. In this regard, the big challenge as for the V4 so for the EU at large, but also for the other interested parties, would be the political dialogue with Kosovo.

The analysts are quite ambitious in proposing for Serbia to be applied the same scenario as for Montenegro last year when the EU used an unyielding warning that unless the country implemented all the reforms it would not get a beginning of the negotiations. But if it did well, the EU doors would open for it. On June 26th this year the EU leaders gave their unanimous consent Montenegro to start accession talks, which is assessed accordingly in the country itself. Beside this approach, PISM also proposes the conservative parties in the V4 countries to lobby for the affiliation of the Serbian Progressive Party to the EPP. This, the analysts think, would open another channel for European influence and peer pressure on the current Serbian government.

V4 could be very useful in Montenegro as well, which is at the moment under a screening procedure - the preparation for the real accession talks. As they will start with the problematic for the country (and the entire region) chapters 23 and 24 ("Judiciary and Fundamental Rights", "Justice, Freedom and Security"), this can be an opportunity for the Four to share their experience. By the way, here the experience of Bulgaria and Romania could be invaluable, as the two countries joined the EU with a surveillance mechanism in the area of precisely these two chapters which is going on for 5 years now and there are no chances to be suspended any time soon. Croatia has managed to avoid joining with such a mechanism but it does not have the same problems as Montenegro. This is why, may be, Romania and Bulgaria should be more active but indeed within the V4 as alone they lack weight.

The biggest problem for the eurointegration of the Western Balkans, however, is Macedonia. Although officially the country is a candidate for EU membership for several years now, it cannot start negotiations because of the dispute with Greece on the name of the country, recognised mainly as Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). The PISM analysts think that if Skopje could show more flexibility in terms of the name issue and if the Commission adopts a positive progress report in October, then the V4 could call on the Cypriot Presidency to include the issue on the agenda for the General Affairs Council in December. By the way, although this is perceived as a taboo issue, there is no more appropriate time than now for pressure on Greece.

Greece is being perceived more and more as a failed Balkan country and as a very bad example, separately from the fact that it caused global economic and financial havoc. This weakened significantly its internal position in the EU, which is a good time the country to be asked to be "more flexible" in solving the name issue with Macedonia. Moreover, this is in the interest of Greece and the entire region, because if Macedonia is left isolated it will turn into a black hole which will slowly but systemically swallow everyone else. There are already indications for this in terms of the sporadic but not quite innocent exchange of teases between Macedonia and Bulgaria, for instance. And here too the V4 can have a really strong role because it does not have any direct issues with Macedonia and is well respected.

Another recommendation of the PISM analysts is attention to focus on Bosnia and Herzegovina which, they say, remains the most complex case in the region. Here a valuable ally could be Croatia which at the moment is trying in a "mature" way to solve its border disputes with the federation and announced its firm reluctance to turn into "Slovenia for Bosnia" (with which are meant the problems the country has with the Slovenians on its accession path). If Croatia's diplomatic efforts prove successful, then Zagreb could be involved more actively in the V4 efforts to boost reforms in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro. In order to prove that it is mature, however, Croatia has to decide what will it do with Serbia. For the moment President Ivo Josipovic refuses to meet his counterpart Tomislav Nikolic because of his remark some time ago that Vukovar was a Serbian town.

Mr Josipovic insists Mr Nikolic to apologise as a precondition for a first meeting. Nikolic for his part clearly states in a number of interviews that he is ready for a meeting whenever and wherever it is convenient for the Croatian president. No matter that Croatia's reactions can be accepted as justified, maturity requires dialogue to continue, moreover that Croatia is perceived in the region and has the ambition to remain a role model.

For the Western Balkans and the EU it would really be very useful if the V4 countries commit themselves really seriously with helping the region on its path toward European membership. A proof that the EU can trust the V4 would be if Catherine Ashton and Mr Fule attend the meeting on October 25 in Warsaw.

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