Three good ways to end 2009 in the Western Balkans

Three key decisions at the end of 2009 – visa liberalization, Serbia’s application for EU membership and the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s constitution – provide significant momentum for the Western Balkans in 2010.

By Florian Bieber

Shortly before Christmas and the end of 2009, three key decisions were made regarding the European perspective of the Western Balkans: a) the EU abandoned the visa requirements for citizens of Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro; b) Serbia applied for EU membership and c) the European Court of Human Rights found the Bosnian constitution to be in breach of the European Convention of HR.

In addition to the obvious benefits of opening the borders to the EU for citizens of these three countries, the EU application of Serbia is a crucial step. It has not been supported unanimously by all EU member states, but Serbia has done well to ignore some critical voices. In fact, most EU membership applications have been met with some grumblings among member states as premature, but it is best for a future candidate to press ahead. The application has wide support in Serbia, from the Serbian Progressive Party of Nikolic to the Helsinki Committee of Serbia. Using the popularity of visa liberalization to apply for membership has helped to reinvigorate the EU accession process, not just for Serbia. The application – together with Montenegro’s a year ago – creates pressure on the EU to grant the two countries candidate status and to begin accession talks with Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia. Even if Bosnia, as well as Albania and Kosovo are lagging behind, this dynamic can also increase pressure there to speed up reforms and for the EU to re-engage in the region.

An editorial in the German FAZ expresses some skepticism regarding membership negotiations with Serbia, noting that there has been no coming to terms with the past and the legacy of nationalism in Serbia. The editorial notes that there is a need for Serbia to abandon hyper-nationalism prior to accession. Besides the obvious omission that of course member state can be quiet nationalist in their policies (i.e. Greece in regard to Macedonia), it neglects to note that without an alternative perspective, such as EU membership, there is little reason to abandon nationalism.

The third important event over the past week has been a decision of the European Court of Human Rights: In a ruling that has been widely expected, it decided that Bosnia discriminates against Dervo Sejdić and Jakob Finci, members of the Roma and Jewish community in Bosnia, respectively, as they are not able to run for the presidency or for the House of Peoples. The decision is important, as it increases the pressure to amend the Bosnian constitution to at least remove the aspects which openly disadvantage some of its citizens. While there is consensus among the main political parties over the need to change the constitution in this aspect, the hope of some to achieve more sweeping amendments has held up these minimal constitutional amendments for years. Considering that general elections are due in ten months, the pressure is on to amend the constitution now to make sure that the next presidency is not elected in breach with European human rights standards. The decision is a positive sign for Bosnia, as it shows how participation in European institutional structures can reduce the rigidity of the post-war institutions (NB: which were after all drafted by US state department lawyers).

Free travel, EU membership progressing and turning up the pressure to reduce discrimination in constitutions are important steps for the region. 2010 will be the year to put these prospects into reality. So what should be on Santa’s wish list for the Western Balkans for 2010?

  • Visa liberalization for Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo
  • Candidate status for Serbia and Montenegro, begin of EU accession negotiations with Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro
  • Constitutional reforms in Bosnia, focusing on human rights
  • Improvement of relations between Kosovo and Serbia.
  • Resolution of the border dispute between Slovenia and Croatia and conclusion of Croatia’s accession negotiations.

Not sure how realistic this is, but it’s worth wishing for.

Florian Bieber is a Lecturer in East European Politics at the Department of Politics and International Relations of the University of Kent, Canterbury, UK.

Email