Go West: do the Western Balkan nations have any real EU perspectives?
Anton Rovenskyy, Master of International Relations, International Political Scientist
'Current Albanian parliamentary elections are decisive for the EU membership negotiations' — a typical media headline during the Albanian national election held on April 25. An electoral reform, as well as a democratic election process are among the key demands considering Albanian EU perspectives. Are there any prospects for the European integration of the Western Balkan nations, which was proclaimed in a 2018 'A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans' strategy? The previous EU membership target year — 2025 — now is highly unlikely due to the COVID-19 pandemics and might be corrected.
Since 2012, Serbia has been an official candidate for EU membership. Such European pledges were a part of a so-called deal with the official Belgrade, who remained mostly silent during the 2008 Kosovo declaration of independence. Meanwhile, for the last 9 years there were no significant steps towards Serbian EU membership.
Many political experts had high hopes on the official visit of Serbia and Kosovo leaders to the White House in September 2020, however a signed deal on the economic normalisation did not overcome political implications between the two parties. Any legal fixation of Kosovo's independence in documents, without which Brussels is not ready to give Serbia the green light to join the EU, will mean an instant collapse of a political career for those Serbian politicians without any slightest chance of revenge. In addition, European establishment in Brussels fears that Belgrade, if it joins the European Union, will become a lobbyist for the Kremlin's interests, relying on the historical ties between Serbia and Russia. In this regard, one should point out the fact that Serbia has become the only European country that has not joined the EU and US sanctions policy towards the Russian Federation.
One of the smallest European nations, famous for its tourism, Montenegro is the most likely candidate to become a member of the EU. Little population and a rather small economy, which will help the EU to cope with the Montenegrin integration painlessly, as well as the use of Euro as an official currency and NATO membership form a strong basis for the nation's EU perspectives. By now, Montenegro meets the largest number of the so-called Copenhagen criteria, a list of conditions to be met in order to gain EU membership.
Considering the prospects of the nation's European perspectives, the 2023 Montenegrin presidential elections are of particular importance. The current President Milo Đukanović, who has ruled the state for 30 years on various positions, was defeated in the parliamentary elections last year, having lost his monopoly on power. Further demonopolization of Montenegrin policy can give a new impetus to the development of the national economy and a qualitative transformation of social institutions, which will contribute to the implementation of the strategic goal to join the EU by 2025.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), which was formed in its modern shape as a result of the 1995 Dayton Accords, finishing the Bosnian war, is a unique European political entity. Due to the confederal structure of the state, which includes the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (sometimes referred to as the Muslim-Croatian Federation) and the Republika Srpska, BiH has become an extremely complex bureaucratic system of public administration, which practically excludes any possibility of quick and effective decision implementation, especially considering the norms aimed at transforming its political, economic and social systems. In turn, the Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina is Annex 4 to the Dayton Accords, and the supreme authority is vested in the hands of the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, who has a UN mandate. At the same time, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska do not have a sufficient number of social and economic ties among themselves; in fact, they live on a separate agenda from each other.
In 2016, Bosnia and Herzegovina officially applied for EU membership. However, all parties to the process realize that the path depends on the nation's ability to overcome the economic, social, and demographic consequences of the civil war of the 1990s, which looks problematic due to the lack of sufficient internal and external resources. Both tasks of maintaining civil peace and overcoming the split between the largest communities remain relevant for BiH, especially when the interests of major geopolitical players, including the US, Germany, China, Russia, and Turkey, are closely intertwined in the republic.
Partially recognized Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008, remains the most problematic region of the Balkans. Weak state institutions, a high level of cross-border crime and migration, ethnic tensions along the Albanian-Serb line, high levels of poverty and unemployment - these factors do not provide any chance to talk about steady progress in achieving the Copenhagen criteria. Moreover, in recent years, the official Pristina for several times has demonstrated a deviation from the general course of the EU and NATO in trade, economic, socio-legal and military-political issues, which does not strengthen Kosovo's position on both EU and NATO integration tracks.
A brand new stage of Kosovo-EU relations may start after the total reload of the political power in Kosovo, including the current political elites. The first step towards this process were the last year accusations against Hashim Thaçi, which had to resign from the post of the President of the Republic of Kosovo. Kosovo Specialist Chambers in The Hague accused him of war crimes dated from 1998 to 2000.
Albania, which has led isolationist policy until the 1990s, became a member of NATO in 2009 and received a status of an official candidate for EU membership five years later. The main obstacles to the country's accession to the EU are the high level of corruption, the influence of organized crime on the public administration system and the high level of poverty. The lack of development resources in Albania is a constant cause of political squabbles: one should notice, from 2017 to the present day, the majority of opposition MPs did not take part in the parliamentary meetings, considering the last elections to be fraudulent.
However, the Albanian ruling class is rather optimistic on the matter: on the verge of April 25 parliamentary elections, Albanian PM Edi Rama stated, that he expects Albania to become ‘the Balkan champion in the field of tourism and agritourism, economy and agriculture, as well as fast high-quality digital services’. Time will show us the ability of the official Tirana to realize such a program. In the mid-term perspective (3-5 years), we do not expect any significant progress in the negotiation process between Albania and the EU. The elections on April 25 were recognized by the European Union as ‘well-organized’, ‘lively and inclusive’, but it is not clear whether the Albanian opposition will receive leverage over the actions of the executive branch. Let us note that following the results of the last elections, the Socialist Party, led by the above-mentioned Edi Rama, was victorious.
The former Yugoslav republic, which changed its name to North Macedonia a few years ago, has been already a candidate for EU membership since 2005. However, since then, the republic has not made a proper breakthrough in terms of transforming public relations and economic development, and even the country's admission to NATO in 2020 is not indicative.
Relations between North Macedonia, Greece and Bulgaria, which are rather skeptical on the European integration of the former Yugoslav republic, remain tense. Meanwhile, in recent years the nation itself was on the verge of coup d'etat several times. The situation worsened in 2017, when Albanian became the second official language, which led to a negative reaction of a big part of North Macedonian society.
At the same time, the European integration perspective outlines a kind of 'red lines' for North Macedonia, which the ruling class cannot cross. These lines act as a safety net for the republic, saving it from far more serious political and social upheavals.