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Balkan Leadership Conference: Session II

Skopje, North Macedonia—The second session of the 2023 Balkan Leadership Conference was titled “Perspectives on Peace and Reconciliation in the Western Balkans.”

The one-day international conference took place on October 14, 2023, at the DoubleTree by Hilton Skopje hotel.

It was organized by the Europe-Middle East branch of UPF in partnership with the Podgorica Club, an organization founded in 2019 by former presidents of Southeast Europe.

Malinka Ristevska Jordanova, a former director of the European Policy Institute, was the moderator for Session Two. She expressed regret that after 20 years of hoping for the resolution of conflict in the region, we again face a global threat to peace. She invited the panelists to address the new challenges that the global situation presents.

Hon. Talat Xhaferi, the president of North Macedonia’s Assembly, said that the topic of the Western Balkans’ integration into the European Union is even more relevant now with the crisis in Ukraine and beyond. Dehumanization, worthlessness of human life, lack of common sense, and diffusion of fabricated news all challenge us to feel responsible and be objective.

These conferences represent a good opportunity to coordinate activities and common goals within the region, Mr. Xhaferi said. Mutual parliamentary cooperation is another steppingstone: “In ensuring progress for the region with commitment to EU values of democracy, the role of MPs is very crucial in that they understand people in their diversity.”

Reconciliation and cooperation are the common denominator for success in transforming the Western Balkan region and its obtaining EU membership, Mr. Xhaferi said. Building bridges between the region and the European Union, and increasing progress in accord with the Berlin Process, the UN Sustainable Goals and EU policies will ensure a better future for the Western Balkans.

North Macedonia, after obtaining full NATO membership, continues to work toward achieving these strategic goals for the realization of peace. However, the European family would benefit by extending membership to the Western Balkans. This would confer prosperity, security and stability.

Mr. Xhaferi concluded his official speech by saying that the conference “should become a strong voice to awaken one’s conscience and incite taking responsibility and action for a better and just world where every human being is valued and respected equally.”

He then added a personal note about his life experience. Through the challenges in the region and loss of human lives, everybody could come to their senses and learn that living together is the only solution for the future. The compromises that this implies, though difficult to make, resulted in gaining a lot. Furthermore, sitting together at a table in 2001, in a situation in which everybody could speak frankly and discuss their feelings, made a good starting point for long-term solutions for the benefit and well-being of all. He expressed his conviction that North Macedonia will never get into the same situation again.

H.E. Filip Vujanović, the president of the Podgorica Club, the conference co-sponsor, as well as a former president of Montenegro (2003-2018), said that reconciliation is unrealistic as far as the first generation is concerned, because pain and wounds are still too fresh. To come to respect the other nations, it will take several generations.

Mr. Vujanović emphasized the term “coexistence”; people should focus on communication and cooperation to live together and not just live side by side. A common perspective is needed to live for the benefit of all nations and for the good of the Western Balkans.

The best contribution for coexistence would be rebuilding mutual trust, he said. Two factors would contribute to this: economic cooperation and trade, through which the borders would progressively disappear; and mutual recognition of diplomas, which eventually would bring higher employment.

For a better future, Mr. Vujanović said, we need to encourage cooperation and coexistence through looking at factors that bring us together rather than those that tear us apart. The five wars experienced in the Western Balkans resulted only in poverty and a low quality of life.

The European Union needs to integrate the Western Balkans to become whole, Mr. Vujanović said. The Berlin Process helped to develop cooperation between the EU and the Western Balkans. Yet cooperation is still needed in terms of education and economics. It makes no sense that the Western Balkans should trade with countries that are situated much farther away rather than with their neighboring countries.

In conclusion, he stated that it is better to live in the present than the past and that reconciliation eventually will come. His expectation for the future is that “the EU finally understands that there is no future for the EU without fully integrating the Western Balkans.”

Hon. Slavjanka Petrovska, North Macedonia’s minister of defense, who has worked at the government’s Secretariat for European Affairs, said we need to frankly discuss the lessons learned from the past to be able to deal with the challenges we are facing.

EU membership is very high on the agenda for all leaders in the region. Yet, the essence of the speeches heard during the elections campaign take us further away from EU integration, she said.

The EU itself exemplified integration in 1958, when former enemy nations signed an agreement in Rome which brought a unified Europe the way we see it today. It is true that reconciliation takes time, she said, but during that time we will work on reconciliation through coexistence and cooperation to become EU members with dedication and sincerity.

Meanwhile, we feel as though we have been left in the waiting room of EU integration, Ms. Petrovska said. What makes EU skepticism grow is that we are expected to do all the homework alone. When we analyze our shortcomings and our good points, we expect the EU to take greater engagement. Much effort has been made in developing common projects, such as recognition of university degrees, economic cooperation, etc.

However, people, not just politicians, feel that these efforts are not being recognized and valued. Integration needs to be done from both sides. The European integration of the Western Balkans is a security issue. By ignoring the sincere efforts made by our region, the European Union will contribute to the rise of malicious influence from non-NATO countries.

While the EU concentrates on its own agenda and political reforms, time passes by, and in a few years, the requirements for EU integration will be even more difficult to fulfill. As a result, enlargement will become impossible to realize because of geopolitical changes in the region.

Lessons learned from past mistakes and from the achievements of predecessors can ensure continuity and allow us to reach the goals faster. In 2018, the Republic of Macedonia became a NATO member and at the same time became the Republic of North Macedonia. It has been a challenge for all citizens to accept their new identity. Now we have the responsibility to work together with other nations in the region to obtain EU membership.

As a member of the younger generation of politicians who love their country and would like to live in peace and coexistence, she is convinced that they can learn from the lessons of the past and achieve that goal.

H.E. Rexhep Meidani, the president of Albania (1997-2002), said that the long and complex history of conflicts in the Western Balkans is reflected in the sentence, wrongly attributed to Winston Churchill: “The Balkans produce more history than they can consume.”

How can Europe help the Balkans consume their history? Europe already has done a lot to support the region and foster good relations, Mr. Meidani said. Even though a lot more can be done, it is our job in the Western Balkans to work together and consume this history of the past. To achieve peace in the region has been and still will be an outstanding challenge. In his opinion, there are various perspectives to consider:

  • European integration. The initial enthusiasm of 20 years ago has slowly disappeared, as a consequence of the many delays and broken promises. The European Union and the United States should take a strong stance against countries that undermine democratic values through demagogy and autocracy, he said.

  • NATO integration. Albania, Montenegro and North Macedonia are part of NATO. On the other hand, Kosovo, Serbia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina have developed close ties with NATO, thus contributing to an increase of optimism in the region.

  • Diplomacy and mediation. Both trust and equality are needed, not only for conflicting parties but also for mediators. That has not always been the case for international organizations in the past.

  • Civil society organizations. Their work is very important in fostering mutual dialogue and building bridges. For this, UPF has played and continues to play an important role.

  • Truth and Reconciliation organizations or commissions. The viewpoint that these commissions would help resolving past wrongs and avoiding nationalism is debatable. Mr. Meidani remarked that the political climate is not ideal, since some promote terrorists and make them national heroes.

  • Economic stability and development. This will address the root cause of conflict. Building infrastructure and creating jobs will reduce poverty and increase cooperation in the region.

  • Historical narratives. Common efforts to share understanding of the past among various ethnic groups would reduce the tension. Civil societies could help and encourage this, even though it is not easy.

  • Security and stability. The EU and the Western Balkans must cooperate on security issues. A full commitment to rule of law and democratic values with integration, regional cooperation and mutual dialogue are requirements for the realization of lasting peace and reconciliation.

At the end of the Ukraine-Russia conflict the situation in the world and in the Western Balkans will be different, Mr. Meidani predicted. We can expect a division into two or even three poles.

H.E. Mirko Svetcovic, the prime minister of Serbia (2008-2012), gave a PowerPoint presentation:

  • Reconciliation is the only necessary option, because of the bitter experience lived during the Yugoslavian disintegration.

  • The main obstacles to reconciliation in the Western Balkans are the scars left after the collapse of Yugoslavia and also the low democratic capacity.

  • The process of reconciliation is very slow but ongoing. While political leaders seem to have difficulty in taking responsibility for reconciliation, NGOs and activists are more successful. Massive involvement from the EU is needed to speed up the process

  • The EU is important for the Western Balkans. The EU is the Western Balkans’ most important foreign trading partner. Furthermore, labor migration from the Western Balkans to the EU—about one-fifth of the population—contributes to 10 percent of the region’s GDP.

  • Reconciliation in the Western Balkans in our lifetime will come only through greater involvement of the EU and major steps toward democratization within the region.

Dr. Werner Fasslabend, a former Austrian minister of defense and the current president of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy, said that the main danger in the Western Balkans is that 20 percent of young people have left their country. Stability is endangered when there is a difficult economic and demographic situation. As a consequence, no foreign investments are coming into the region.

Dr. Fasslabend pointed out that the responsibilities are threefold:

  • First, Brussels who should put more pressure on countries to be more constructive. The whole region has its membership stalled because of one or two countries.

  • Second, if the politicians within the region had been acting in the best interests of their nation, a solution already would have been found. Corrective actions should be taken from the institutions and from civil society.

  • Third, it is also our responsibility as the Podgorica Club to influence, to make a statement as a corrective action.

In the end, Dr. Fasslabend said, stability and development start with cooperating with neighbors. Most exports in Austria are with the small neighboring countries rather than with really big countries far away. When you live on the border, you can collaborate with neighbors, even though they belong to different countries. Neighborhood matters. Trading in such a way will make the nation stronger and will bring jobs to young people. In conclusion, a better future for the region will be ensured by a more intense cooperation with Brussels institutions, better cooperation with national institutions and civil society.

By Christine Chevé, UPF Europe and the Middle East
Saturday, October 14, 2023


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