US, WASHINGTON (ORDO NEWS) — Last week, at a meeting of the Council of the European Union, it was decided to begin negotiations with Albania and Northern Macedonia on full membership in the union. At a meeting held via video conference in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic, EU foreign ministers agreed on the expansion of the union into the Western Balkans.
The European Commissioner for EU Enlargement, Oliver Varhelyi, said at the end of the meeting: “It is very pleasant that the EU member states have reached a political agreement to open accession negotiations with Albania and Northern Macedonia.” Vargeli noted that at the same time, this decision sends a clear signal to the states of the Western Balkans and the future of the countries of the region is in the EU.
In Skopje and Tirana, the decision of the EU foreign ministers was welcomed. A number of countries, including Turkey and the United States, welcomed the decision and issued statements in support of it. In fact, at a meeting of EU foreign ministers, it was not easy to decide to start negotiations with Albania and Northern Macedonia. The obstacle in the form of criticism voiced at the beginning of the meeting by France, the Netherlands and Denmark, after lengthy negotiations, was overcome, and these countries also indirectly approved the start of negotiations.
Relations of the Western Balkans with the EU
The fact that the EU foreign ministers gave the green light to negotiations with Albania and Northern Macedonia is in line with the general strategy adopted by the alliance with regard to the Western Balkans in 2003. At the EU Summit in Thessaloniki in 2003, the Western Balkans were declared part of Europe, and the states located in this region, it was decided to gradually admit to the EU, subject to the fulfillment of the Copenhagen criteria.
The countries of the former Yugoslavia, except Slovenia, and Albania belong to the countries of the Western Balkans. Namely – Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Northern Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo. Croatia began negotiations on full membership in the EU simultaneously with Turkey and in 2013 became a member of the union. With Serbia and Montenegro, accession negotiations are still ongoing. Macedonia, which in 1991 proclaimed itself the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, was prevented from building close relations with the EU by Greece.
Athens, putting forward the presence of the Greek region under the same name as the basis, used the name “Skopje Republic” instead of “Macedonia”. Because of this dispute, Greece hindered the development of Macedonia’s relations with the EU. As part of the efforts to overcome the obstacles posed by Greece, with the conclusion of the Prespan agreement, the country began to be called “Northern Macedonia”, and this fact was fixed by the results of the referendum. And the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are countries of the Western Balkans that cannot achieve progress in relations with the EU.
Obstacles faced by Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo on their way to the European Union
The Dayton Agreement impedes progress in relations between the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina with the EU and NATO. This 1995 agreement, which ended the civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, consolidated the country’s administrative structure, consisting of two entities called the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska, as well as the constitutional structure of the country.
In accordance with the Dayton Agreement and the current constitution, for the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina to assume international obligations, this requires the consent of both entities. In other words, for the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina to take the initiative on any issue in foreign policy, the consent of the Republika Srpska is necessary.
The Republika Srpska, dominated by Serb ultranationalists, does not recognize itself as part of Bosnia and Herzegovina and advocates the annexation of the territory in which it is located by Serbia. This idea, aimed at aggressive seizure of land and not corresponding to the realities of the Balkans, is not supported by the leadership of Serbia, which has been negotiating with the European Union since 2014. Meanwhile, the leadership of the Republika Srpska interprets this situation “as a betrayal by the homeland”.
Today, the Republika Srpska negatively affects the relations of the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina with the EU and opposes the country’s accession to NATO. Until the Dayton Agreement is revised, Bosnia and Herzegovina is unlikely to make progress in relations with Euro-Atlantic international organizations.
Another country in the Western Balkans, which is in some ways isolated, is the Republic of Kosovo. As one of the autonomous regions of the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo in 2008 declared independence in accordance with the Martti Ahtisaari plan. Kosovo is recognized by 116 countries of the world. In Ahtisaari’s plan, three conditions of independence were put forward. The first of them takes as a basis the point of view according to which the Serbian leadership applied ethnic cleansing against the Albanians, who constitute the majority of the population in Kosovo, and for this reason the NATO operation was carried out in March 1999.
In this regard, the preservation of Kosovo as part of Serbia was recognized as incompatible with life realities. According to the second condition, Kosovo should not be divided. Today, the majority of the population of the Mitrovica region in the Republic of Kosovo are Serbs. The agreement blocked the separatist demands of the Mitrovica Serbs. Finally, in accordance with the third condition, the independent Republic of Kosovo should not unite with another state.
Thus, the unification of the Republic of Kosovo with Albania or the Albanian region of Macedonia was prevented in the future.
One of the biggest obstacles facing the Republic of Kosovo is the controversial nature of the decision on its independence. Some states, primarily Russia and China, opposed the independence of Kosovo and regarded the secession of a minority living in a region of a sovereign state within the framework of the right to self-determination as contrary to international law.
Although the legitimacy of separatist aspirations rests on the actions of the Serb leadership comparable to ethnic genocide, Kosovo’s independence has been cautiously greeted by many countries. Due to obstacles from Russia and China, the Republic of Kosovo could not become a member of the UN. This situation has negatively affected the Republic of Kosovo’s building close relations with the EU, and its integration with the EU. Five out of 27 EU countries do not recognize Kosovo. This is the Greek administration of Southern Cyprus, Greece,
Such a detached position of these countries regarding the Republic of Kosovo is explained by their concern that similar problems will affect themselves. Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration are afraid that Kosovo will become an example for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Slovakia does not recognize Kosovo because of the separatist demands of the Hungarian minority in the country, and Romania because of the Transnistrian Republic, which was created by the Russian separatist minority in the territory of Moldova. Spain’s fears are mainly related to the attempts of the Basque and Catalan separatists to legitimize their demands. Thus, since Kosovo is not recognized by five of the 27 EU member states, progress in relations with the union cannot be achieved.
The date of the start of negotiations will be determined by the heads of state and government
The fact that European Union foreign ministers have approved the start of full membership negotiations with Albania and Northern Macedonia is without a doubt an extremely important stage and turning point for these countries. Both countries have long been waiting for the start of negotiations.
At a meeting of the EU Council in October 2019, France vetoed the start of negotiations, citing EU deep problems. After this veto in the Western Balkans, disputes began about confidence in the EU. So the decision made by the foreign ministers at a time when the COVID-19 epidemic occupied the entire world agenda should be considered good news for the Western Balkans. Especially for Macedonia, which has been preparing for EU membership since 2005, this news marks the beginning of a new era.
Similarly, for Albania, which has been isolated from the world throughout the Cold War, this decision also means admission to the European family. In the coming months, the completion of administrative procedures is expected, which will serve as the basis for the start of negotiations between these countries and the EU.
On the other hand, the beginning of negotiations on full membership implies the need for Albania and Northern Macedonia to fulfill the Copenhagen criteria. The criteria established at the EU Council Summit in Copenhagen in June 1993 provide for candidate countries to achieve European standards in the field of democracy, human rights, the rule of law, minority rights. To these criteria, including the minimum obligations that must be fulfilled by the countries of the former Warsaw Pact,
Further development of relations between Albania and Northern Macedonia with the EU will be largely formed in accordance with the framework document on negotiations. The document, which the EU adopts at the beginning of the negotiations and submits to the candidate country, contains provisions on how negotiations will go on for full membership, clauses on exceptions and transition periods. The decision on a specific date for the start of negotiations with these countries will be made by the Council of the EU at the level of heads of state and government.
The struggle for influence continues in the Western Balkans
The decision to start negotiations with Albania and Northern Macedonia on full membership in the European Union means that EU influence in the Western Balkans will increase. However, this does not mean that the region will fully enter the EU zone of influence. After all, the Balkans have been a buffer zone between the major powers for almost 20 years. In the Western Balkans, countries with strong US influence include Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and North Macedonia. The United States has a large military base in Kosovo left over from NATO intervention. The vast majority of Albanians gratefully recall former US President Clinton for their support. One of the largest streets of metropolitan Pristina is named after Clinton. The US influence in Macedonia is explained by similar reasons.
In November 1991, the United States decided to deploy two thousand marines in Macedonia as a peacekeeping contingent, so Serbia, led by Milosevic, was unable to use force in response to the declaration of independence of this country. And in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the United States became a player that put an end to the civil war, which lasted three and a half years. It was as a result of US pressure that the Dayton Agreement was signed in 1995. The fact that at the time of the bloody massacre in central Europe, the United States took the initiative, while the EU countries were inactive and took a passive position, strengthened sympathy for the United States in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Another force that is trying to establish influence in the Western Balkans is Russia. In the wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, Russia supported Serbia. Today, Russia seeks to maintain its influence in the region on the basis of ethnic, religious affiliation and energy. From time to time, Russia raises Slavic solidarity in the Balkans on the agenda, puts forward the thesis that the vast majority of the region’s inhabitants belong to the southern branch of the Slavs, and Russia patronizes the Slavs in a fatherly way. Secondly, Russia claims to be the center of Orthodox peoples in the Balkans.
The peoples of the region are invited to recognize the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church. The third tool Russia uses is energy. Most of the Balkan states satisfy their energy needs with natural gas coming from Russia. In the Balkan energy market, the weight of Russian oil companies such as Rosneft and Lukoil is growing day by day. At the same time, Russia could not prevent Serbia from starting negotiations with the EU, and did not conduct the South Stream gas pipeline through Bulgaria. Despite Russia’s attempts to hinder, Bulgaria, Romania joined NATO in 2004, Albania and Croatia in 2009, Montenegro in 2017, and Northern Macedonia on March 27, 2020.
Another player who is expanding its influence in the Balkans, actively using elements of soft power, is Turkey. While in the early 1990s the list of countries with which Turkey cooperated in the Balkans was limited to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania and Macedonia, today it covers almost all Balkan countries. Even in countries such as Serbia and Montenegro, with which Turkey had not the best relations in the 1990s, the Turkish Agency for Cooperation and Coordination (TİKA) continues to operate successfully. The main factors that strengthen the position of Turkey before competitors in the region are historical and cultural ties, as well as economic dynamism. The basis for the stability of Turkey’s influence in the region is that the western part of the Balkans remained under the domination of the Ottoman Empire for 200 years.
Thus, today the struggle for influence in the Western Balkans is in full swing. In the current circumstances, we can say that the EU, which decided to start negotiations with Albania and Northern Macedonia on full membership in the union, gained an advantage over its competitors and stepped forward. In addition, the EU puts an advantage in the fact that countries such as Greece, Slovenia and Croatia are members of the EU, while Serbia and Montenegro continue negotiations on joining the Union.
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The article is written and prepared by our foreign editors from different countries around the world – material edited and published by Ordo News staff in our US newsroom press.