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September 2020
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Balkans Peace Initiative Features Former Heads of State

London, United Kingdom—The former presidents of Albania, Montenegro, Serbia, and Kosovo were the distinguished speakers at a UPF webinar.

“The Western Balkans: Facing up to Historical Challenges and Seizing Looming Opportunities” was the title of the “Peace Talk” held on July 30, 2020. More than 250 viewers from over 40 countries took part.

The online event was organized by the Europe/Middle East chapters of UPF and of the International Summit Council for Peace (ISCP), a UPF project.

The Western Balkans region is at a crucial time in its integration process into the European Union. The COVID-19 crisis has brought enormous financial and economic problems to the region. Efforts to bring peace and prosperity are being undermined by national self-interest, burdens from past conflicts, and the big powers’ jostling for influence (among other factors).

Historically, the Balkan Peninsula has been a crossroads between civilizations, religions and cultures. As a bridge between East and West, it remains a great asset for Europe as a whole. In the post-COVID-19 environment, the Western Balkan nations are facing both historical challenges and opportunities. The ongoing process of social reform and democratization needs to be met with a commitment toward regional reconciliation and cooperation. Balkan leaders’ efforts toward integration need to be matched by visionary leadership from European Union policy-makers.

Panelists:

H.E. Alfred Moisiu, president of Albania (2002-2007)

Alfred Moisiu served as Albania’s vice minister of defense (1981 and 1991). He became a major figure guiding the reform of the Albanian armed forces and Albania’s integration into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). From 2002 to 2007 he served as president of Albania, helping to solve internal political conflicts and striving to develop regional peace initiatives. He remains a highly respected father figure in Albania.

H.E. Filip Vujanović, president of Montenegro (2003-2018)

Filip Vujanović served as minister of justice (1993-1996) and interior minister (1996-1998). He served as the first prime minister of Montenegro (1998-2003). After briefly serving as speaker of the Parliament, he was president of Montenegro (2002-2018) In 2006, he was instrumental in Montenegro joining NATO's Partnership for Peace program.

H.E. Nataša Mićić, president of Serbia (2002-2004)

Nataša Mićić co-founded and was active in the Otpor! (“Resistance!”) student movement in Serbia. She became a member of the Civic Alliance of Serbia (GSS) political party in 1996 and was elected to the National Assembly in 2000, becoming its vice president in 2001. She was president of the National Assembly and chair of its Constitutional Committee from 2001 to 2004 and was president of Serbia from 2002 to 2004.

H.E. Dr. Fatmir Sejdiu, president, Republic of Kosovo (2006-2010)

Dr. Fatmir Sejdiu has been a professor of law at Pristina University since 1987. He was a co-founder of the Democratic League of Kosovo (DLK) in 1989 and elected as a member of the Assembly of the Republic of Kosovo in 1992, 1998, and 2001. He served as president of Kosovo from 2006 to 2010.

Moderator:

Jolanda Trebicka, president of Europartners Development, Albania, and team leader of Municipalities for Europe, an EU-financed technical assistance project in Albania. She is an expert on public sector management and reforms.

Mark Brann, vice president of UPF for Europe and the Middle East and director of ISCP for Europe and the Middle East, gave the opening remarks.

Today’s "crisis" is more than the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. One dimension of it is the ever-increasing tension between a narrow and self-interested nationalism and a vision of the world based on the ideal of humankind being, or becoming, one family or one nation of humankind, going beyond boundaries of race, ethnicity, nationality, and religion to build a world of interdependence, mutual prosperity and universally shared values.

UPF unashamedly espouses the latter vision, Mr. Brann said. Indeed, at the Tirana (Albania) World Summit in October 2019, UPF co-founder Dr. Hak Ja Han Moon strongly called upon the nations and peoples of the Balkan Peninsula to embrace such a vision. In doing so, Dr. Moon said, the Balkans would not only transform their own painful past but also be the agent of transformation in Europe as a whole. This vision and profound hope of Dr. Moon inspired the holding of this webinar today, Mr. Brann said.

Mr. Brann then introduced Jolanda Trebicka, the president of Europartners Development, Albania, who served as the moderator for the panel and introduced the panelists.

H.E. Alfred Moisiu, the president of Albania from 2002 to 2007, spoke first. He said it is quite disturbing that the nearly 25 million people of the Western Balkans, who have lived on this peninsula for centuries, still have not found a peaceful balance of coexistence and understanding among each other, while other European nations have succeeded in doing so.

Linguistic, cultural and religious differences and a painful past are just some reasons for this. However, it is clear that local policy-makers serving their own interests are a major obstacle to peace and mutual understanding. Moreover, in some countries religious leaders uphold old nationalist mentalities, which makes matters worse.

The political and economic development of the Western Balkan countries is not at the same level. Also some countries are closer to European Union membership than others. Serbia still refuses to recognize Kosovo—as do some EU member states. Progress in solving problems is so slow that young people lose hope and emigrate. Understandably, the EU is right to be reluctant to accept new members.

For this reason President Moisiu proposed that the EU become more tolerant; he referred to the old military saying: “The soldier learns the step by being in line.” An accelerated inclusion of the Western Balkans into the EU would be more productive than following established and highly bureaucratic procedures. It would benefit the economy and also security considerably. The EU must understand that without putting the Western Balkan nations in line, it will be difficult for them to embrace the ways of living and running a European democracy.

H.E. Filip Vujanović, the president of Montenegro from 2003 to 2018, spoke next.

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the global problems of sustainable development and climate change, have shown that multilateralism, global partnership and cooperation are essential, he said. These problems have shown the value of the United Nations and the World Health Organization, as well as the need to eliminate the weaknesses of these organizations and improve their efficiency.

The Western Balkan countries should learn from their painful past and accept those global interests. Cooperation and partnership are essential for the development of these countries and the region as a whole. In this regard, the membership of Montenegro, North Macedonia and Albania in NATO and the membership of Serbia and Bosnia & Herzegovina in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program are of special value.

Additionally, readiness for further European integration and membership in the EU is important for the future, as the Western Balkan countries will not fully prosper without the EU, and the EU is not complete without them.

The Western Balkan countries should further strengthen regional cooperation through agreements and initiatives, such as the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) and the South-East European Cooperation Process (SEECP).

President Vujanović mentioned the Podgorica Club, whose members—all former presidents and prime ministers of Western Balkan countries, Croatia and Slovenia—participated in this webinar. The club supports both the European integration of the Balkan region and operation within the region by strengthening ties in areas of mutual interest.

Finally, he said he was proud that Montenegro had succeeded in solving its border issues with Kosovo and Bosnia & Herzegovina without the intervention of other nations.

H.E. Nataša Mićić, the president of Serbia from 2002 to 2004, spoke next.

After COVID-19 the world will not be the same, she said. The crisis has exposed the inevitability of global connectivity, greater solidarity, and finding adequate and quick answers to new challenges.

Politicians should strengthen the trust of citizens that was greatly damaged worldwide even before the pandemic. In the wake of the crisis there is also the danger of increased authoritarianism, especially in the Western Balkan states, given their past.

Normalization and reconciliation have been a long and difficult process in the Western Balkans region. Though some progress has been made in recent years, the process has been hampered by regional political elites who are unwilling to give up their national policies.

There is no readiness in the entire Balkan region to face the past, which is the first step to reconciliation. The worst is Serbia, which refuses to recognize its role in the wars of the 1990s. Supporting Serbian innocence and relativizing Serbia’s role in those wars are dangerous because they strengthen expectations that the international community may change its opinion in favor of Serbia.

In recent times, the international liberal order on which the architecture of the Balkans is built has been seriously disrupted, which has an impact on this region.

Moreover, the region faces additional problems of its own, i.e., the process of creating new identities and consolidating new states and, at the same time, the process of adopting the value system of the EU in view of membership.

As to NATO membership, the Balkan countries also differ: Albania, Montenegro and North Macedonia are NATO members already. Albania sees a future in NATO membership, while Serbia is committed to military neutrality.

Only as a region can the Balkans be a relevant player in international relations. Therefore, regional cooperation under the umbrella of the EU and NATO is important to prevent other “partakers” from interfering in the region.

Finally, President Mićić said that implementing a uniform system of European values would solve many problems among the Balkan countries, such as nationalism. Even though Serbia has been confronted with its responsibility in the war, nationalism is on the rise among young Serbians, who did not experience that war.

H.E. Dr. Fatmir Sejdiu, the president of the Republic of Kosovo from 2006 to 2010, was the final speaker.

All nations have a history of their own, he said. Many wise leaders have shown the ability to overcome extremely difficult situations in the past. In the Balkans region we still suffer to this day because of the difficult situations we went through. There have been wars for territories and non-existent “rights,” based on lies, at a time when a new history was being made.

Because of terrible wars, there have been many civilian victims. This has led to apartheid and a large-scale exodus of more than half of the population. Thanks to the intervention, solidarity and humanitarian aid of the wider international community, an end was put to violence.

Our path to building a free Kosovo was and is still based mainly on human rights and freedom for all citizens. We resolutely reject hatred, contempt and apartheid, evils that we experienced ourselves.

Many challenges remain in the Western Balkan nations:

First, the COVID-19 pandemic affects everyone indiscriminately. In this situation, cooperation, mutual understanding and uniformity are essential in tackling the pandemic.

Secondly, the pandemic has affected economies worldwide—especially weaker ones, such as Kosovo’s. In this situation, irrational decisions may endanger the relations between countries.

Thirdly, the negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia have been very painstaking. The latter still opposes what Kosovo has achieved with the international community, i.e., to be an independent country.

Next, peace and stability are still at stake in the important geostrategic position of the Western Balkans, as some would still like to redesign the borders. Russia, an opponent of an independent Kosovo, is exerting its influence in the region. Hence, the countries in the region should develop policies to strengthen peace.

In conclusion, today’s world is different from yesterday’s. Let’s make sure tomorrow is better than today and yesterday. The beauty of this world is its diversity. Mother Teresa said: “Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.”

A question-and-answer session and closing statements followed:

In response to a question from Sead Sahman of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs of Montenegro, on the possibility of some Western Balkan countries joining the European Union by 2025, President Moisiu of Albania said that the Balkan nations must work hard to meet the conditions imposed by the EU and to keep or gain EU member states’ trust in the Balkan region.

On the question from Shkurta Hodolli of the Center for Human Rights of Pristina University, Kosovo, as to the role young people from the Western Balkans can play in the process of integration into the EU, President Vujanović of Montenegro said involving young people in the process of both regional and EU integration is most important. This should be done by regional institutions, such as the Regional Center of Cooperation in Tirana, founded in 2017, and with the support of foreign nations. Also the Sarajevo-based Center for Cooperation for Eastern Europe, with EU support, has launched the Youth Laboratories of the Western Balkans, a three-year project to improve education and job possibilities, which should result in fewer young people leaving their countries.

On the question from Brenton Kottori, public auditor at the Supreme Audit Institution of Albania, as to the best solution for the Serbia-Kosovo conflict, President Mićić of Serbia said that, above all, political reconciliation is needed. Of course, economic and cultural cooperation is very important too. We need to get to know each other better, she said. Traveling and tourism do help. Serbia has a very heavy burden in relation to Kosovo, which in turn also affects Serbia’s relationship with Albania. Too much time has been lost. Regretfully, Serbia is a destructive factor in the peacemaking process, she said.

On the question from Ivan Dcurić of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, Serbia, as to whether Serbia and Kosovo are ready for an agreement, now that the Serbia-Kosovo official dialogue has resumed, President Sejdiu of Kosovo said that his nation has always wanted good relations with Serbia, which is in the interest of not only Kosovo but of the entire region and beyond. Unfortunately, Serbia keeps telling the story of the wolf and the sheep—the moral of which is that unjust people do not need an excuse for their behavior. Peace will prevail only when all remaining issues have been solved.

In his closing remarks, Mark Brann, the vice president of UPF for Europe and the Middle East and director of ISCP for Europe and the Middle East, said that one of the core precepts of UPF is that to establish a world of lasting peace, it is essential that we all go beyond historical boundaries and divisions of race, ethnicity, nationality, and religion and seek to identify first and foremost as members of One Family of Humankind—or "One Family under God."

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