When you hear the word Srebrenica, what comes to mind is the moonlight, the sunlit trees, or a dewy meadow in the early summer morning. The silver, beauty and romance of nature. But don’t be fooled – this is not a place of love. It is a place of murder. It is where people have invented a war where they can kill along ethnic lines. In Srebrenica, everyone understands how illogical and ruthless this type of war is. A war whose mission is ethnic cleansing and the elimination of the opponent.
I will not go on with the horrible story of the massacre – anyone who has any interest in politics knows what and how, but the most important thing is to realise that, in this part of Europe, things are different from what they should be according to the ‘standards’ of Brussels, according to the various charters of friendship between peoples and of human equality.
What we have come to call the Western Balkans is geographically not the Balkans, but geopolitically the region is called that because of its supposedly common ‘Balkan’ specificity, which is, after all, the synergy of the expansion and political influence of the former empires of the Ottomans, the Habsburgs and the Romanovs. From an optimistic point of view, the region is a protracted post-war; from a pessimistic point of view, it is the end of the interwar period. It is acknowledged that the political climate is now deteriorating and, unfortunately, portends a new “srebrenica” if… If we still do not understand the specifics mentioned above.
The Euro-Atlantic community knows that leaving the region ‘unattended’ is unsafe. Integration is politically risky and economically unviable. The Euro-Atlantic Community understands that the Western European model of democratic communities is not easily adopted in the Western Balkans. Still, neither the European Union nor the Euro-Atlantic Community has an alternative model that fits the region’s specificities. There is a declaratory desire to integrate and to live as “Brussels is teaching”, but there is also a clear cynical motive that the EU has already “swallowed the hook”, i.e. it will be forced to accept the countries of the region for what they are.
It is said that it is not up to the region to prepare for membership but up to the EU to prepare, and it will accept the countries as soon as it is ready to have the region in its ranks, with all the perennial issues of Macedonia, Kosovo or Bosnia. It is easy to say to the Bosnians that we need to move from an ethnic community to a civil community, but neither the EU knows how to do that, nor do the communities in the country want to do that. The internal political processes in the region, which the EU does not fully understand, are, to a large extent forcing it to look for some non-standard solutions. Still, so far, the EU has not offered anything non-standard. Time is passing, and the region’s countries are ‘organising themselves’, creating their own ‘shengens’ and other alliances that are not at all in line with our Western wishes.
Formally, the EU acts as if it is convinced that it will be no different and that the countries will eventually become what the EU requires. Still, there is a growing feeling of enlargement fatigue, a feeling that enough is enough and that there is nothing more to come. If we were to ask whether the European Union needs new members very much today, the official answer would be a restrained affirmative. Still, the unofficial answer would be that it does not need much if any. NATO is coming here ‘faster’ than the EU, but what NATO’s enlargement mission is in the region is not very clear either. And are these newest NATO countries strong or at least reinforcing links in the system? So new members are more of a concern than a real benefit.
Let us not forget that we are not alone in the Western Balkans with our aspirations. Russia and China seem to know much better what they want and act largely without major long-term mutual commitments. This is not ‘love infinite’, but rather a love of cynical calculation. Russia is undoubtedly manipulating the levers of ‘historical brotherhood’ and religion, while China is manipulating the levers of economics and finance. Turkey is playing a supposedly pragmatic, impartial policy, but it is part of Turkey’s long-standing ambition to become a regional leader, which would include parts of south-eastern Europe.
Lithuania is mainly seen in the Western Balkans as a very successful country with a track record to emulate. The Baltic countries are said to be the EU’s diligent “apprentice pupils”, doing things quickly, patiently and correctly. There is no bad history with the Baltic countries. So any ‘coming’ from us – economic, logistical, political – is welcome and welcomed. For us (I say, unfortunately), the region is seen as “not in our yard”, and we will not do any “geopolitical business” here – it is too expensive for us. We should not think like that. It is possible to create a genuinely friendly region, and it would certainly not be too expensive, perhaps even more viable than the South Caucasus.
Russia’s aggression links our policy in the Western Balkans to what is happening in Ukraine. This is a sign that enlargement may be forced in a way. However, the formal mechanism for accession negotiations is in place, involving the negotiation of individual negotiating chapters and the planning of various transition periods. This could have been the case twenty years ago. Still, today the “end of the story” is over, and the EU (and NATO, too, for that matter) needs to realise that political rather than technical considerations are the most important in deciding on membership.
Thus, a geopolitical European Union (as declared by the European Commission) can become a reality. Politically, the region needs to be “disconnected” from Russia (“disconnected” in Serbia in particular, but Russia quite strongly influences the whole of the former Yugoslavia). The best gift to Brussels would be an evident solidarity of the Western Balkan countries with Ukraine, without any “balanced” positions. An opportunity to “tame” China? A plan needs to be devised, and so far, there is none… Turkey is, so far, mostly thought of as a less significant influence. Still, it would have to be considered differently, especially if Turkey eventually becomes an ally of war-winning Ukraine.
The future of Srebrenica? It is said that more history is “made” there than is consumed. We often think that unnecessarily… It is naive to expect the “spirit” of the Western Balkans to change. It always has been so. But if we tame that “spirit”, the region’s specificity can be made not somehow “mysterious, incomprehensible or hostile” but part of the spirit of the EU. Risky, but maybe worth it?