‘Something like a combination of chess and mountain climbing’, is how Richard Holdbrooke, the US State Department’s lead negotiator during the Dayton Accords that ended the Yugoslav Wars in 1995, described the very diplomatic process he led. Today, on their path towards European integration, the states of the Western Balkans face a similar combination of chess, by balancing international alliances, and mountain climbing, by traversing the perils of chronic cronyism, organized crime and ethnonationalism.
Under the Global Organized Crime Index of 2021, a global average of 4.88 was registered: of the 5/6 Western Balkan states, all fell below the mark, with Serbia in particular achieving a score of 6.22. By comparison, Malta was ranked at 4.65, Poland at 4.02 and Estonia at 3.06, with each of these 3 having joined the EU in 2004. With the Western Balkans set to dominate the EU’s enlargement agenda for years to come, why have they made so little progress in terms of mitigating the influence of the mafia?
For starts, it is clear that organized criminals have acquired political capital at the highest levels of government in most Balkan states: Milo Djukanovic, Montenegro’s de facto leader since 1991, is notorious for his close relationship with the mob, a relationship that has resulted in Montenegro being heavily used by drug and arms smugglers as a gateway to and from Europe. In recent years, the crime rate in the smallest republic of the former Yugoslavia has dramatically risen as gang warfare goes unquestioned by law enforcement, itself stifled by the rampant cronyism that has kept Djukanovic in power.
While the same ethnic lines of conflict that prevail in Kosovo have since disappeared in Bosnia, invisible fault-lines still remain in the federation, dictating not only the governance of the country but even the private lives of every single citizen. The deeply populist sentiment of ethnic communities is one that retains a deep stranglehold on Bosnia’s integration with the EU, or the rest of the international community for that matter: with the domination of national politics by ethnic parties, Croats, Serbs and Bosnians remain with their own for the most part, and are kept apart by dying generations still nostalgic for a time that the country was the bloodiest killing field in postwar European history.
Only one Bosnian political party has rejected the ethno-federalist consensus: Naŝa Stranka, or Our Party. Founded in 2008, the party aims to bring together Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks into a single political tandem with the sole purpose of reversing Bosnia’s stagnation. With an aggressive brain drain and an unprecedented number of emigrants leaving for the EU, this would hardly be an overstatement. In sharp contrast, the largest political parties, HDZ-BiH, SDA and SNSD, are equally devoted to keeping Bosnia federated and, to an extent, segregated, by retaining the distinct territorial borders that Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs have identified with since 1995.
In Kosovo, an even worse situation exists: in 2008, the renegade province of Serbia seceded to become an independent state. Till this day, the Serbian-majority population of the district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo wishes to remain part of Serbia, whereas the Albanian-majority population of the rest of Kosovo remains determined to avoid a repetition of the atrocities they suffered under Slobodan Milosevic’s regime between 1998 and 1999.
In an effort to ‘Europeanize’ and hasten their economic development, both Kosovo and Serbia have agreed to a variety of mutual concessions under EU auspices, the first of which was the formation of unofficial diplomatic ties between Pristina and Belgrade.
The solution to the ongoing conflict, however, has to go beyond simply struggling for EU accession: instead, both Kosovo and Serbia should work upon their respective bilateral integration, following the example given by France and West Germany, at a time when most modern European institutions never existed. A similar process ought to be observed within Bosnia, as well as between Serbia and Croatia, the latter of which joined the EU in 2013.
First, holdovers of ethnic hostilities from the 1990s ought to be put aside for the sake of collective economic development as opposed to the abstract and ineffectual rhetoric that has since caused the displacement and death of millions in the Balkans. Second, the de-escalation of ignorance and jingoism among ethnic parties should lead to their eventual dissolution and replacement by movements more concerned with collective goodwill. Should that happen, kleptocrats who came to power in a time of division and continue to monopolize off of it will be thrown out of power.
Finally, once the political climate is right, communities in the Balkans can start by integrating with one another before integrating with the EU. With the right set of incentives, towns, regions, and states can start exchanging resources and ideas in a competitive and productive manner that benefits both consumers and regional markets. The growth of an exchange-based regional economy will thereby contribute to the growth of transboundary industrial hotspots. Just as Alsace-Lorraine was once the bloodiest of battlefields, Franco-German rapprochement has since transformed the region into a productive and wealthy link between the EU’s largest member-states. In the Balkans, Kosovo could serve the same role between Serbia and Albania.
With productive and well-regulated trade, formal regulations can be installed that would make corruption and cronyism less viable; a wealthier population with more purchasing power also represents a more difficult situation for any corrupt politician to manipulate. With flowing trade, comes the opportunity for mending diplomatic ties and de-escalating conflict zones.
A pathway such as this one would certainly have the Western Balkans fast on their way to becoming EU members. The true pity of our present situation, however, is that if the above solutions were viable from a political level, all would be well. But for everything in the above to truly succeed, one would need a gradual transformation in the popular mindset of these nations – while not impossible, this process can only start when each of the Balkan nations put aside historical grievances, and focus on what the future has in store.