The Western Balkans in 2010 – small improvements, big scandals

Though the prospect of EU candidate status spurred on some very real changes in the region in 2010 – particularly concerning regional co-operation and tackling corruption – several scandals, especially those in Kosovo, threaten to inhibit further progress.

By Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik

The Western Balkans, as a region in transition, are prone to bouts of activity, and are rarely out of the news. The past year was no exception. Several events stood out – the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled on Kosovo’s declaration of independence in July 2010, expressing its opinion that this move was not against international law; former Croatian prime minister, Ivo Sanader, was accused of corruption; the current prime minister of Kosovo, Hasim Thaci, was implicated in an illegal organ smuggling racket in a Council of Europe report, whilst Kosovo held its first elections since independence; Schengen visas were waived for Bosnia and Albania and Montenegro’s prime minister, Milo Djukanovic, resigned. Some minor but significant events also took place: Serbia and Turkey signed a visa waiver agreement and in Serbia itself, a spate of arrests and anti-corruption investigations against high profile public figures took place, and the government officially approached the INTERPOL to seek assistance with two remaining war crimes suspects, Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic. At the same time, the leading Serbian daily, Politika, opened up the debate on the pros and cons of Serbia’s NATO membership.

With the exception of fraud and smuggling allegations, the developments in the region have been, on the whole, positive. Notably, they indicate that important changes are taking place in the formerly war-torn and unstable region, and most of those are geared towards Euro-Atlantic integration. The prospect of EU membership particularly, has long been a catalyst for change in the Western Balkans, particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina where it is deemed to be the only common goal of a still ethnically divided population. But, as events of 2010 indicate, changes in the region are starting to take place much faster than they used to. Serbia, for example, has been criticised for its slow, reluctant and often non-existent cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), but in the space of two years, has achieved a much more positive progress report from chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz. Serbia, for its part, has finally taken the process of EU integration seriously, complying with its war crimes conditionality in a much more serious – if not altogether productive – way.

Similarly, the commitment and readiness of Croatia and Serbia to tackle corruption is a strong indicator that politics in both countries are finally maturing and are approaching something that we may expect in a stable, European democracy. For decades, corruption across the Balkans has been endemic, reaching the highest echelons of power. The sudden flurry of activity at tackling corruption amongst the business elite marks a very important change in the governance of the region. Thanks to a serious commitment to transparency and democracy, the region in general, but Serbia in particular, is finally demonstrating that it is starting to overcome its legacies of conflict and Communism.

Of course, not all developments in the past year have been positive, as the case of Kosovo demonstrates. The elections of 12 December 2010 are still marred by accusations of voting irregularities, and it is believed that only two Serbs out of an estimated 60,000 in Kosovo’s disputed northern territory, turned out to vote. Only days later, a Council of Europe report dealing with the grotesque case of organ smuggling (implicating Serbs from Kosovo), raised serious allegations against the current prime minister, Hasim Thaci. The report raised tensions between Serbia and Kosovo – Thaci denied all allegations, whilst the Serbian leaders and media responded angrily to the report and threatened to suspend any future Kosovo-Serbia negotiations. However, only days later, the Serbian President Boris Tadic responded in a much more measured way that the dialogue will continue. The report will be considered in detail by the Council of Europe in January.

Despite this, the region has demonstrated that it is perfectly capable of working together to solve its main obstacles to EU integration. Cooperation between states has certainly improved, as has the political will to tackle corruption. This bodes well for 2011. Although the road to EU membership has been long and does not look like it will end any time soon, the prospect of candidacy has spurred on some real changes in the region in 2010, demonstrating that when the political elite is mature and understands the importance of change, huge leaps can be made in cooperation and improved relations in a relatively short time.

This trend of small improvements, spurred on by prospect of Euro-Atlantic integration, looks set to continue in the next year. The case of Hasim Thaci will continue to mar regional politics until it is finally resolved, but if Kosovo demonstrates real commitment to the case and takes it as seriously as Croatia has the Sanader case, then the prospects are positive, demonstrating that Kosovo is well on its way to becoming a serious player in regional politics. If, however, Kosovo authorities dispute the case before its ultimate conclusion, this will only agitate Serbia and Republika Srpska (Serb entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina), potentially also drawing in others into the argument and threatening to undo all the current progress on regional cooperation.

Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik is a lecturer in politics and international relations at Aston University.

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