My non-paper will delight none and restrain all

By Daniel Serwer

This nonpaper presents a proposal for a joint US/EU/UK effort to resolve the last remaining war and peace issues in the the Western Balkans: normalization of relations between Pristina and Belgrade centered on mutual recognition and constitutional reform to create a more functional state in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Both require adherence to four fundamental principles:

  1. Statehood: the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all the current independent states in the Western Balkans.
  2. Minority rights: state sovereignty rooted in respect for the rights of all citizens, regardless of ethnicity.
  3. Reciprocity: whatever one state asks for itself it should be willing to give the equivalent to the other.
  4. Subsidiarity: social and political issues should be dealt with at the lowest level consistent with their resolution.

It is important for the West to act now, because Russian trouble-making and Chinese financing are undermining Serbia’s democracy, reigniting Belgrade’s regional ambitions, weakening Montenegro and Bosnia’s statehood, and unraveling the post-war settlements in Bosnia and Kosovo. If the region is left on autopilot, we can expect growing instability, ethnic strife, state weakness, increased migration, and authoritarian restorations. There is no better place on earth to demonstrate the viability and benefits of democratic governance than in the Western Balkans, where most of the countries have already accomplished much of the required transition, the citizens want open and democratic societies, and their problems need relatively low, often diplomatic, investments to complete the process.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

There is no hope of making Bosnia a more functional state without constitutional change to weaken if not eliminate the stranglehold on governance of the ethnically defined parties, granted to them at Dayton. The way forward is indicated in the Sejdic-Finci decision of the European Chamber for Human Rights and other court judgments. All individuals should be eligible for any position in the state without regard to ethnicity, and all citizens should be able to vote for whom they want regardless of ethnicity. Power-sharing arrangements that ensure the hold of ethnically defined political parties should be eliminated, along with the unnecessary and burdensome levels of governance that exist mainly to provide those political parties with patronage and opportunities for corruption. Redistribution of their functions should follow the priniciple of subsidiarity, which will mean enhanced local as well as central governance.

None of this can be accomplished by international fiat, but a strong guiding hand is required. That should in large part come from the High Representative, who will need clear goals and unequivocal support from the US, EU, and UK. Their support should come not only in the form of “carrots” but also in willingness to cut off financial and political assistance, sanction and prosecute individuals, and name and shame those who are preventing the necessary constitutional reforms. The internationals should also be prepared to support a broad popular effort to discuss and propose constitutional reforms based on the above principles and counter anti-democratic interventions by neighbors, illiberal EU governments, and authoritarian powers.

2. Kosovo

The existing EU-sponsored dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina has made virtually no progress for eight years, during four of which it was distracted by apparent divisions between Washington and Brussels. There is no need to rush to revive it. President Vucic has made clear that he will not recognize Kosovo as an independent and sovereign state before the next Serbian presidential election in the spring of 2022.

The year until then is needed to prepare the ground in the EU as well as in Serbia and Kosovo for normalization based on mutual recognition. The US, UK, and the EU member states that recognize Kosovo need to increase the pressure on the five non-recognizers and at least ensure that the visa waiver is extended to Kosovo, as well as additional recognitions. In Serbia the year should entail a far more serious discussion than has occurred so far on how and why sovereignty over Kosovo was lost under Milosevic and why it can’t be restored now. In Kosovo, the year should be used for a far more serious discussion about ensuring the rights and respect of its Serb population as well as the Serbian Orthodox Church and why union with Albania is not just a bad idea but a ruinous one. The EU-sponsored dialogue should continue once both capitals are ready, but only if both are prepared to be mutually supportive instead of undermining each other at every turn, as they do today.

In the end, Serbia will need to arrange for Kosovo membership in the UN and establish formal diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level. Nothing less should be acceptable to the US, EU, and UK.

3. The region

Whether in CEFTA or mini-Schengen or bilaterally, there is a compelling need to lower barriers to trade, people, services, and investment throughout the Western Balkans. A regional single market is no subststitute for EU accession, but it will improve competitiveness, increase incomes, and enhance mutual interdependence while awaiting improved conditions for EU enlargement. That day will come: once COVID-19 and the associated recession pass, Europe will be looking for cheaper labor and increased competitivity, as it did in eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Balkans are an obvious source. The non-EU members in the Balkans should get ready now.

The Western Balkans have come a long way in the past two decades. Far less time than that lies ahead before all its sovereign states can hope to become members of the EU. Now is the time to redouble Western commitment, not let it flag.https:/