Professor Nikolaos Tzifakis/ Western Balkans Shouldn't Expect Any Grandiose Strategic Plans from US

By Genc Mlloja
Senior Diplomatic Editor

The current state of Albanian-Greek relations, the chances for the start of the first intergovernmental negotiations of Albania and North Macedonia with the EU within this year, COVID-19’s impact on the Western Balkans and EU’s effort to support the region were among the issues discussed with Assoc. Prof. Nikolaos Tzifakis, Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of the Peloponnese in an exclusive interview with Albanian Daily News.

“The bilateral relations are very good and the agreement among the two countries to bring the delimitation of maritime borders to the International Court of Justice is a very positive development. It is an issue that was meant to be resolved a decade ago. The idea of bringing the dispute to international justice is mutually beneficial for the two countries,” said Tzifakis, who is also Research Associate with the Martens Centre for European Studies. His research focuses on international relations theory, EU external policies and the Balkans. His publications include articles published in Cambridge Review of International Affairs, Conflict Security & Development, Ethnopolitics, European Foreign Affairs Review, Global Society, International Journal, Journal of Southern Europe and the Balkans, Problems of Post-Communism, and Southeast European and Black Sea Studies.

According to Professor Tzifakis, the compromise solution of the delimitation of maritime borders through an International Court verdict minimizes the political cost for both of them. “It also carries the expectation of avoiding another complication with Albania’s Constitutional Court and it creates a very good precedent for the delimitation of the Greek-Turkish maritime borders.”

In the meantime he confessed that the prevailing view in Greece is that Prime Minister Edi Rama contested the 2009 agreement in the Albanian Constitutional Court to please the Turkish side, and due to this some Greek analysts doubt his commitment to this issue. “They think that the Albanian government is just interested in clearing the way from all possible obstacles to opening EU accession negotiations ahead of the April 2021 parliamentary elections.”

His opinion on the reluctance of the Netherlands and other EU member states to concede to the opening of EU accession negotiations with Albania is not entirely unfounded, because in his view the country has been an underperformer in justice reforms with a non-functioning Constitutional Court for a long period of time, in electoral reforms, and in the combat against corruption and organized crime. The Professor hastened to say that he was not implying that Albania should not be invited to open accession negotiations. “Quite the contrary, this is long overdue. I am just arguing that the Albanian authorities have not tried very hard to dissipate the concerns of those believing that the country has made insufficient progress. The Albanian government has not convincingly demonstrated that it has the political will to pass from a procedural to a genuine compliance with EU rules and norms.”

Touching upon the health crisis cause by the coronavirus pandemic in the Western Balkans Mr. Tzifakis was of the opinion that at the height of the pandemic’s first wave, the EU decided to offer a package of over 3.3 billion EURO to support the efforts of the regional governments to tackle COVID-19 and attain the post-pandemic economic recovery. “A month ago, the Commission unveiled a very ambitious investment plan worth 9 billion EURO for the 2021-2027 period,” he said.

The Professor dwelt also on the election results in the US which, as he said, represent a clear message of disapproval of President Donald Trump’s governance that was marked by scandals, lies, policy amateurism, and a drive to divide and polarize the American society. “But we are expecting a return to normality and predictability in international politics. We are hoping for a renewed American commitment to the transatlantic partnership in a growingly multi-polar world where the influence of several non-Western powers is constantly rising.”

However, he did not expect that the Western Balkans will be a top priority of the new president as the stabilization of the region and the emergence of pressing issues elsewhere have long ago diverted the US attention away from the Balkans.

According to him, the exceptional state of transatlantic cacophony between US and EU gave ample room of maneuver to the leaderships in Belgrade and Pristina to openly discuss a possible change of borders between Serbia and Kosovo. Regarding the Washington statements signed individually in September by the leaderships of Serbia and Kosovo have been short-lived from day one and their time horizon has coincided with the duration of Trump’s Presidency. “I am afraid that we all witnessed a poorly-prepared event that visibly turned into a farce, planned by Richard Grenell and hosted by President Donald Trump, in a desperate White House quest for a foreign policy success in view of the Presidential elections,” Assoc. Prof. Nikolaos Tzifakis said in the following interview:

Albanian Daily News: At the outset let me thank you Professor for sharing some of your thoughts with Albanian Daily News and first of all the interest is to learn your assessment of the bilateral relations between Albania and Greece, and in this frame what is your opinion on the future of the resolution to the pending issues, including the maritime dispute over their sea borders in the Ionian Sea which, as the government leaderships of the two countries agreed, will be taken to the International Court of Justice?

Professor Nikolaos Tzifakis: Bilateral relations are very good and the agreement among the two countries to bring the delimitation of maritime borders to the International Court of Justice is a very positive development. It is an issue that was meant to be resolved a decade ago. The idea of bringing the dispute to international justice is mutually beneficial for the two countries. A compromise solution through an International Court verdict minimizes the political cost for both of them. It also carries the expectation of avoiding another complication with Albania’s Constitutional Court and it creates a very good precedent for the delimitation of the Greek-Turkish maritime borders.

The prevailing view in Greece is that (Prime Minister) Edi Rama contested the 2009 agreement in the Albanian Constitutional Court to please the Turkish side. As a result, some Greek analysts doubt the commitment of Prime Minister Edi Rama to this issue. They think that the Albanian government is just interested in clearing the way from all possible obstacles to opening EU accession negotiations ahead of the April 2021 parliamentary elections.

Similarly, Albanian analysts have expressed concerns about the merits of such a deal. In this regard, it is crucial that the leaderships of the two countries move on very quickly with the recourse to the ICJ to prove critics on both sides wrong.

- As a follow up, Professor, how would you consider the reluctance of some EU member countries to okay the start of the intergovernmental talks of Albania with the Union? In your view, could the engagement of the country in the talks along with North Macedonia bring about more positive results for Albania’s reformation process in line with EU standards?

- I ought to admit that the reluctance of the Netherlands and other EU member states to concede to the opening of accession negotiations is not entirely unfounded. Albania has been an underperformer in justice reforms (with a non-functioning Constitutional Court for a long period of time), in electoral reforms, and in the combat against corruption and organized crime. The vetting process in the justice has manifested the magnitude of the problem. And the way the Albanian authorities managed the question of the demolition of the National Theatre demonstrated the absence from the authorities of a rule of law mentality. Having said that I am not implying that Albania should not be invited to open accession negotiations. Quite the contrary, this is long overdue. I am just arguing that the Albanian authorities have not tried very hard to dissipate the concerns of those believing that the country has made insufficient progress. The Albanian government has not convincingly demonstrated that it has the political will to pass from a procedural to a genuine compliance with EU rules and norms.

The idea of coupling Albania and North Macedonia in the EU discussions about the opening of accession negotiations has without doubt benefited Albania so far.

- The COVID-19 pandemic continues to hit the region like the rest of Europe and parts of the world causing a multifaceted crisis. How would you assess the regional cooperation in face of the crisis, and the EU's solidarity with the Balkans?

- Notwithstanding that many external powers such as China, Russia and Turkey are visibly struggling to exert influence in the region the EU remains the only actor that has devised a noticeable medium-term strategy for the region’s economic growth and development. At the height of the pandemic’s first wave, the EU decided to offer a package of over 3.3 billion EURO to support the efforts of the Western Balkan governments to tackle COVID-19 and attain the post-pandemic economic recovery. A month ago, the Commission unveiled a very ambitious investment plan worth 9 billion EURO for the 2021-2027 period. It aims to support the region’s economic convergence with the EU primarily through investments and support to ten flagship priorities. These include transport and energy connectivity, green and digital transformation, private sector competitiveness and support to health, education and social protection, with a special attention to the youth.

The EU financial assistance is definitely not enough. However, it aims at stimulating the region’s growth, not to perpetuate the Western Balkan dependence on external assistance. And definitely, it is not a fairy tale as the Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic claimed last March. It is much more meaningful than China’s mask diplomacy, or the Chinese financed projects in the region that carry several risks such as engulfing the Western Balkans in a debt trap.

-Now let me turn to the highlight on the world political scene – the after presidential election in the US where President Trump insists not to accept the defeat versus Joe Biden, who as results indicate will be the new President of this country.

- I think that the election results represent a clear message of disapproval of President Donald Trump’s governance that was marked by scandals, lies, policy amateurism, and a drive to divide and polarize the American society. We should not overlook the fact that the Republican Party has got a better outcome in the Senate elections in comparison to Trump’s own results in the Presidential elections. It is very unfortunate that the outgoing President has so far failed to stand to the heights of the circumstances and contribute to the normal alternation of power.

But we are expecting a return to normality and predictability in international politics. We are hoping for a renewed American commitment to the transatlantic partnership in a growingly multi-polar world where the influence of several non-Western powers is constantly rising. We are waiting to see the United States acting again like a defender of the liberal postwar world order – revolving around the operation of the market economy – that opposes the return to national protectionism. We are urged to see climate change becoming again a policy priority.

-President- elect Biden is very familiar with the Balkans. Do you think there will be a shift in the US policy towards the region, and secondly will the deal brokered by Mr. Trump in the White House between Serb President Alexander Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti be affected?

- I do not think that the Western Balkans was a top priority for either candidate in the US Presidential elections. The stabilization of the region and the emergence of pressing issues elsewhere have long ago diverted the US attention away from the Balkans. In this respect, we should not expect any grandiose strategic plans or very ambitious initiatives for the region. What we need, and we missed during the previous four years, is a better coordination among the transatlantic partners in a division of labor in the Western Balkans where the EU has the primary policy initiative and the US provides critical political support.

We should not forget that it was the exceptional state of transatlantic cacophony that gave ample room of maneuver to the leaderships in Belgrade and Pristina to openly discuss a possible change of borders between Serbia and Kosovo. The Washington statements signed individually in September by the leaderships of Serbia and Kosovo (strictly speaking, there was no bilateral Serbia-Kosovo deal) have been short-lived from day one and their time horizon has coincided with the duration of Trump’s Presidency. I am afraid that we all witnessed a poorly-prepared event that visibly turned into a farce, planned by Richard Grenell and hosted by President Donald Trump, in a desperate White House quest for a foreign policy success in view of the Presidential elections.