Small steps and (not so) great expectations. Notes from the Vienna Summit

This post was first published on the Balkans in Europe Policy Blog

The Viennese Hofburg makes for a grand setting for any summit. When Western Balkan governments met with EU officials and representative from some EU member states, most notably Germany and Austria, but also Croatia, Slovenia and Italy, the planned signal was to show that EU enlargement is alive, as is regional cooperation. In comparison to the first such summit last year in Berlin, the Vienna summit comes after a host of regional meetings that some have joked that the prime ministers of the region see each other more often than their own ministers. Regional cooperation has picked up steam, even if EU enlargement remains no closer for most of the region than a year ago. It is undeniable, however, that there is a slightly renewed dynamism. The refugee crisis might have dominated reporting and the official discussion, it also highlights the absurdity of the Western Balkans being outside the EU. We are witnessing tens of thousands of refugees crossing an EU and Schengen country to escape through two non-EU countries—Macedonia and Serbia—to get to another Schengen country—Hungary—that is building a fence like the one it dismantled at its Western border 26 years ago. The summit was unable to offer more than symbolic support to the countries where thousands of refugees are stranded in their parks and train stations.

The issue of refugees—mislabeled as migrants—overshadowed the summit, but as with any such summit, the key decisions and substances are taken in the weeks and months before. Thus the refugee crisis and the horrific death of some 70 refugees some 50 kilometers from the Hofburg on a highway overshadowed the summit, but did not drown it out.

The governments of the Western Balkans seemed mostly interested in infrastructure and money. The message was mixed as Serbian Prime Minister Vučić said that he did not consider the EU to be an ATM—discoving values to praise Serbia’s treatment of refugees in contrast to some EU members—Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama rather suggested that it is money from the EU he is after. Either way, both Prime Minsiters emphasised the need to support infrastructure.

There is little doubt that regional infrastructure is in need of updrading and joint projects, such as a highway linking Albanian, Kosovo and Serbia, can have a great impact. The risk is that the physical infrastructure overshadows other forms of cooperation. Here, lengthy preparation have yielded two encouraging results at the Vienna summit. The governments signed an agreement to establish a regional youth exchange system based on the German-French youth office. By next year’s summit in Paris there should be a treaty and structure ready for the formal establishment. Whith the involvements of youth ministries, committment for European and government funding, this project holds some promise for enhaning cooperation of citizens. Key will be not to crowd out already existing youth exchanges and cooperation.

Similarly the summit was unusual as civil society was involvement for the first time in such an event. Over 50 representative from regional NGOs, media, trade unions and civic activitsts meet on the eve of the conference and presented recommendations on job creation, mediea freedom and regional cooperation at the summit itself (BiEPAG and I were involved in the preperation of these events which were supported by the Erste Foundation, the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation and the Karl-Renner-Foundation). The involvement of civil society was challenging as politicial leaders in the region are still not used to talking to civil society at eye level and civil society has come under pressure in several countries, such as Montenegro, Serbia or Macedonia. Not a single summit can change this dynamic, but at least the involvement of civil society by the Austrian Foreign ministry sent the signal that they should not be ignored.

Another important signal was the signing of a declaration on biltareral issues (BiEPAG prepared a study on bilateral issues for the Austrian Foreign Ministry and drafted the declaration). In the declaration, the Foreign Ministers committed themselves not to let bilateral issues stop the European initgration process of other countries in the region. This committment echos a similar one in the Brussels agreement between Serbia and Kosovo and a declaration of the Croatian parliament from 2011. However, for the first time, all countries of the Western Balkans signed up and also invited neighboring EU countries to join them (the message is clear, even if they are unlikely to join the committment). Furthermore, they agreed to report back on progress made at next years summit in Paris. This declaration came as Montenegro signed a border agreement with Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina on the eve of the sumit and Serbia and Kosovo agreed on key outstanding issues. The most serious bilateral issues involve EU and non-EU members (especially between Macedonia and Greece, but also the borders between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia remain a potential source of tension) and there is no immedeate perspective of resolving them, but the declaration and the agreements signal that at least some potential sources of tensions can be settled.

The stars of the summit were Serbian and Albanian PMs Vučić and Rama who appeared together at a debate with civil society and the talk show «Okruženje». Demonstrably on a first name basis, Edi and Aleksandar played up their good ties to put pressure on the EU to deliver. This is a great shift from less than year ago when it took German intervention to get the two meet first and the abandonded Serbian-Albanian soccer game led to a war of words. However, now it appears like an elaborate game the two play in which regional cooperation is working as a distraction, especially for Vučić. As long as he delivers on regional cooperation and Kosovo, the EU and also Germany seem to avoid a second, more critcially look at how he is controling and micro-managing Serbia.

The Vienna summit could not address the creeping authoritarianism in the region, but when Gruevski scored two goals in the football game of politicians from the Western Balkans against the EU, there is certain irony and maybe symptomatic that somebody who was under strong pressure a few months ago and who clearly appears to have stretched democratic principles and rule of law can be leisurly kick a ball in the goal of the EU team in Vienna.

For a list of the final documents from the summit see here.

No news news from Albania

Sali Berisha at the celebrations in Skopje with Ali Ahmeti and Hashim Thaci in 2012 (from

Sometimes the absence of news is the biggest news.When parliamentary elections were held ten days ago in Albania. Tim Judah remarked on Twitter that “Albania holds election. The opposition win convincingly, no one cries foul and the prime minister resigns. Er…that is it.” And of course, despite some violence on election day the fact that elections resulted in an uncontested change of government is hardly news in any democracy, except in Albania which has not only seen violence in the most recent elections, but also only experienced two changes of power since the fall of communism, one after the state and government effectively collapsed in 1997 and in 2005 when Sali Berisha returned to power.

A second ‘no news’ news from Albania is the failure of Albanian nationalism to gain ground. In a speech in Skopje in November 2012, Berisha pledged to work for the unity of Albanians and challenged the existing borders in the region. While the idea of a “natural Albania” (i.e. an Albania based on ethnic criteria to include all territories where Albanians live or used to live, e.g. the Cham region in Greece), has been promoted in extreme nationalist circles and maps of such an imaginary Albania have been for sale in Albanian and Kosovo for years, the idea of Albanian unification has never received such a high level endorsement. Berisha’s call was noted by observers, including the historian Oliver Schmitt as a change of tone and leaked US memos took a critical line towards Berisha for abandoning he previous support for existing borders. While his party back-paddled not to lose critical external support (he had to go back on an election promise to extend Albanian citizenship to ethnic Albanians elsewhere in the region), a new political party, the Red and Black Alliance fully supported this agenda. The group attracted quite a bit of attention (see here, here, here and here)in recent years for its extreme nationalist policies and its links to the strong opposition movement Vetevendosje in Kosovo. Opinion polls  in recent years have additionally been indicating that a majority of Albanians in Kosovo and Albanian would support unification of the two countries.

Picture from Red-Black Alliance Rally (from website

In the end, the Red and Black Alliance performed poorly. It only gained 10,171 votes (see here for results of the election commission), nowhere close to the 3 percent threshold with a support below one percent (only in the district of Tirana did the partydo slightly better than 1%). In brief, the party failed to break the polarized Albanian political system between Socialist and Democratic Party and nationalism seemed to not be a successful tool to achieve more than some international attention. While Berisha was not defeated for his nationalism, his efforts to evoke Albanian nationalism provided him with no electoral advantages. Dusan Reljic noted that it was economic and social issues that dominated, but still the rhetoric of Albanian unity is also evoked by the new governing party. However, the striking ‘no-news’ news remains the fact that while some romantic imagination of a unified Albanian state might exist among some, the reality of corruption and a difficult economic situation cannot be overcome with evoking the ‘national question’ as elsewhere in the region. In this sense, these ‘no-news’ are good news.

Notes from Ditchley


I returned a few ago from a very interesting conference at Ditchley on the Western Balkans. The discussions with policy makers and analysts did not raise any radical new ideas, but it was good opportunity to take the temperature on thinking about and from the region. It was also a lesson in bad metaphors. Many felt that carrots and sticks are not working, but theories why differed: People in the Balkans prefer meat to carrots or the carrot is actually a stick. Either way, the days of carrots and sticks seems to be over (nobody mentioned that the metaphor implies that the person in question is either a horse or a donkey).

There was broad consensus that overall things were heading in the right direction, but there were a number of warnings: many (but not all) thought that the state of democracy & rule of law and lack of deep rooted reforms in the economy will continue to be a source of difficulties in the years to come. There was a bit of a divide between a number of Western policy makers who felt that the EU and its member states were doing enough to bring the countries of the region into the EU and that it was up to political elites to make an extra effort and a number of analysts who thought the EU should do more and make the membership perspective more realistic. A specific suggestion was for the EU to begin accession talks with all countries of the region as soon as possible rather than wait for each country on their own to fulfill the specific conditions. Once talks begin–the symbolic year of 2014 was mentioned as start date–the negotiation process will force countries to shape up and carry out reforms in a manner that is unrealistic prior to the beginning of talks. It seemed clear that such a scenario is unrealistic at the moment with a many member states skeptical about enlargement and afraid (although unjustifiably so–see Turkey) that accession talks would lead to membership ‘on the sneak’. A problem that has become more pronounced in recent years is the use of individual member states to use the accession process to set additional conditions. This has made the accession process less predictable as the Commission cannot guarantee the next step in the process as individual countries might block whatever comes next for unexpected reasons that have little to do with accession. Of course, this also undermines the credibility of EU accession. The current approach of the Commission to launch dialogues with countries without accession talks has been a good way forward but without beefing up the DG Enlargement this cannot be expanded more broadly.

The most encouraging signals came over the Serbia-Kosovo talks which are expected to lead to some tangible conclusions before the summer and when the current window of opportunity might close. On the other hand, Bosnia was much discussed, but there were few new ideas on how to help the country out of its current deadlock.

I found it encouraging that there is a clear sense that incrementalism is the way forward, there is not going to be a big bang, but rather small steps that will change the region and resolve the open questions. For this to be successful, one needs to overcome the dynamics of what one participants aptly called the EU member states pretending to enlarge and elites in the Western Balkans pretending to reform.

Oxford also in Kosovo, Bossi in Albania

Thanks to a colleague, I just found out that not only the Paneuropean University Apeiron, Slobomir University, Euro College and Megatrend, as I  noted  in my previous post, have been honored with an award from Oxford, i.e. the European Business Assembly, but also the Iliria Royal University in Kosovo received a recognition in “a solemn ceremony organized in the European Summit of Leaders in the Oxford University, nominated by the European Club of Rectors, University Iliria won the European Prize for Quality.” This means that of the ten universities I commented on last year, four received this honor.

Another university of list, Crystal University, got some attention in Italy (and here) recently for granting the son of Umberto Bossi, former head of the Lega Nord,  Renzo Bossi a university degree in just one year.

The Risks and Benefits of Ethnic Citizenship

Millions of people in Southeastern Europe are citizens of more than one state. Many acquired this status when they were gastarbajteri [guestworkers] in Germany, Austria and elsewhere in Western Europe; others received a second passport as they fled the wars that accompanied the disintegration of Yugoslavia. For some people, dual citizenship seems due to a quirk of fate: for example, their father may have been born in a different Yugoslav republic than they and held that republican citizenship when Yugoslavia was still a single country and when republican citizenship had no practical significance. Due to some long abandoned vestiges of patriarchal rules, today they have the right to a second citizenship of a republic they never lived in. Among the many ‘multi-citizens’ of Southeastern Europe there are probably a million who have received passports from countries they have never lived in. Hundreds of thousands of citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina hold Croatian citizenship as a result of their ethnic Croat identity. Over 50,000 Macedonians also became citizens of Bulgaria after declaring themselves to be ethnically Bulgarian. Recently, Serbs from Bosnia (and elsewhere) have been able to become Serbian citizens by declaring their loyalty to Serbia—most prominently, President of the Serb Republic, one of the two Bosnian entities, and Milorad Dodik, who publicly submitted his request for citizenship to the Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremić in 2007. Nearly a million Moldovan citizens have applied for Romanian passports and over 100,000 have been granted EU citizenship, on the grounds that they are descendents of former Romanian citizens who lost their Romanian citizenship when Bessarabia was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1944.

Read the rest of the comment at:


Plagiarism in speeches

It turns out that Sali Berisha plagiarized a speech from his much beloved predecessor Fatos Nano (as if talking about “solving the system of equations” wouldn’t give it away). Coincidentally, I found out recently from a colleague that a draft constitution of an unnamed African country plagiarized its neighbors constitutions. Hmm, how could one punish governmental plagiarism? Maybe there should be an EU guideline against state plagiarism, but then how would candidate countries adopt all this acquis communitaire…


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