Speech REBEGA Laurențiu
“Romania and its Balkan neighbors
Ladies and gentlemen,
The well-known metaphor coined at the beginning of the 20th, century that said “The Balkans are the powder keg of Europe”, is often being brought up nowadays. For the West, this meant a negative mark on the entire area throughout modern history. Terms such as “Balkanic” or “Balkanization” are used pejoratively or even alarmingly. Do the people and states in the area really deserve such labels? The truth is that few people have made efforts to understand the depths of the issues in the Balkans. Nowadays, luckily, the former conflict zones have been conquered by a relative calmness. Hence, it is precisely now that we have to try to make steps towards peace building and cooperation.
My intervention today entails a brief analysis of the political and geo political issues in the Balkans, but more importantly, it is an attempt to emphasize some ways of overcoming the blockages and re-launching dialogue. I would be happy to be able underline the positive role Romania can play and our county’s ability to intervene to strengthen trust between the states and communities in the area, so that our region will no longer be associated with a hotbed of tensions and inexplicable conflicts for the 21st Century civilization.
The Balkan peninsula is open, geographically speaking, as one of the three South-facing peninsulas in Europe which are surrounded by the seas of the Mediterranean basin. Compared to Iberia or the Italic peninsulas, in the case of the Balkan peninsula, it is extremely difficult to set a limit to the north, an isthmia that can separate it from the rest of the continent. Strictly geographically speaking, the narrowest portion between the Black Sea and the Adriatic Sea would be the line that connect the Skoder Gulf in Albania with the Burgas Gulf in Bulgaria. (see img. 1)
As it can be seen, such a delimitation is not sufficient. The Balkan space spreads across this line, both towards north and west. Another delimitation spreads, maximal this time, is the line that connects the Trieste Gulf with the Odessa Gulf. In the first case scenario, Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo are not in the Balkans. In the second case scenario, the “balkanism” can be used as a label for Tranisnistria and Gagauzia as well.
As a consequence, when speaking about the “Balkan space”, one must take into consideration the combination between the actual geographic territory and the states that occupy this territory. Therefore, the modern era definition of the Balkans has been, first of all, political and subjective, including the states in the area; and second of all – a geopolitical definition, just as subjective- in which the interest of the great powers have been outlined and the ways in which the alliances and front lines have been drawn between them.
For instance, during and after the interwar period, until the end of the Cold War, it was thought that Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Albania and Yugoslavia were part of the Balkan Peninsula. This composition was not thrilling for some. Several Western powers (including Germany) believed that Romania is also part of the Balkans, while the Catholic north-west side of Yugoslavia was not part of it. Romania, and more precisely the Romanian political class, always rejected the idea that it is a part of the Balkans. These disputes seemed insignificant to many, but their significance is profoundly geopolitical in nature. Talking about the Balkans as a problematic area implies that this area needs foreign intervention. This way, whether an area is considered a problem area or not by a certain entity becomes a very important matter. More recently, following the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999, the concept of “Western Balkans” became widely popular.
At that time there was a distinction between the stable countries, that were seriously engaged on the Euro-Atlantic integration path, meaning Romania and Bulgaria, and the pieces that resulted from the former Yugoslavia where tensions were very strong.
Apparently, at the beginning of the 90s, the entire former communist region of the Balkans, including Romania, seemed to be devastated by the never ending ethnic and confessional conflicts. In Romania and Bulgaria, there were tensions between the majority and the Hungarian and Turkish minorities. In the former Yugoslavia, the inter-ethnic disputes rapidly degenerated into a dirty, bloody war that has moved from Croatia in Bosnia and Herzegovina and afterwards in Kosovo. Greece and Macedonia began disputing the name and crest of the latter one. Greece and Albania, Greece and Turkey or Albania and Macedonia also went through some tensions.
Looking back, all conflicts were narrow, and they settled with the intervention of external forces, first NATO, and then the UN. Apparently, there had been a fire which initially was isolated and then put out. We don’t have to allow ourselves to be misled though. The current peace is guarded by foreign soldiers, and the resentments built over time are even bigger now that the foreign interveners have favoured one side of the conflict at the other side’s expense. In many bilateral situations, we cannot talk only about the lack of trust, but about aversion. Moreover, the state of war or conflict destroyed the economic life, blocked the commerce paths, and pushed the entire region into poverty, corruption, and tribalism. It is true, the countries that have managed to adhere to the EU escaped this tornado. But, the vicinity with the Western Balkans indirectly affects Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, or Croatia. Therefore, the interest for a longstanding development and peace in the area is unanimous.
In Image one, I emphasized the threats in the region: it can be seen that the most serious migration routes go through this region and it can be concluded that the conflict zones from the past 30 years are all geographically connected with the Balkan peninsula.
The Balkan Peninsula is, overall, one of the most beautiful areas of Europe.
In the Eastern side of the Balkan Peninsula there is a strip of water only 800 meters wide, that divide Europe from Asia. The strategic importance of the Bosporus and Dardanelle straits is extraordinary and can be found among the most important spots of this level in the whole world. This is where Europe connects with the Near East and also represents the maritime connection between North-East Europe and the Mediterranean sea. The battle for this spot has marked the destiny of the Balkan Peninsula.
What are the roots of the conflicts in the Balkan area? Again, the first answer is based on geography. The land is bumpy and, besides a few major transportation routes, most roads barely go through the mountain areas. This natural environment decided that whoever was winning the major battles could only conquer the main roads and a few crossing points. For a long time, wide areas have been hardly accessible, and the local population har little or no contact with the de jure administration powers.
However, within the communities, the memories of the independence battles and legendary heroes have been kept alive. Unlike in the West where folklore or literature have modeled an independence ideal that was preponderantly feudal and aristocratic, in the Balkans, ever since the Middle Ages, this model was mainly ethnic and confessional. While in the West the construction of states and nations was made top-down (from the kings to the serfs), and the state centralization uniformed the language and customs, in the Blakans, states were built bottom-top — starting from the strongest ethnic communities that fought mainly for their identity: language, culture, beliefs. Such a differentiation led to the fact that the ethic and confessional tensions were much more intense in the Balkans than in the West.
In the presentation above, I have avoided to point fingers or go in too much detail. Considering our aims, the present and the future are more important than the past. I have underlined the historic only to prove that today’s situation is far from being stable for long. We are dealing with frozen conflicts. Let us remember that the foreign intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina or in Kosovo took place after the mass media disseminated barbaric and bloody episodes that shocked the international public opinion. At that time, the international community’s alternative was easy: do we let them kill each other, or do we separate them? Now, 20 years from the last war, the dilemma is much more difficult to solve: do we keep hiding the conflicts under the rug, or do we aim for a long-lasting solution?
As we have seen, the communist period of over 40 years in Yugoslavia did not lead to memory loss regarding the resentments. And we have to remember that, during that time, Yugoslavia was a stable, dynamic, and prosperous state that benefitted of large investments and a positive inter-ethnic education. Therefore, I believe that ignoring the potential conflict in the Western Balkans will not ease the conflicts, but will remain a hidden bomb, regardless of whatever will be said by the rest of the world.
The only realistic perspective for a lasting peace in the Balkans is the brave management of the conflict and the honest dialogue between all interested parties.
But, this solution has two prerequisites. The first one is a bottom-up approach. This is difficult to achieve because of the usual tendency to solve conflicts by allowing the leaders to decide. It is time for a revolution in democracy, in order to give real power to those that are actually in the middle of the conflict. Any kind of solution that comes from the top will generate complaints. But, if the people get to choose, even if the process takes a long time, the profound causes of the disputes will be eliminated.
The second prerequisite is, to some extent, a corollary of the first one. The Balkan Peninsula, and many other places in the world, are and have been, objects of interest for the great powers. The two world wars as well as the aftermath, showed that the intervention of the great powers in local business has generated long wars and crisis periods instead of solving the problem. It is natural for the great powers to have interests and pursue them in various strategic areas of the world. But it is profoundly immoral to fulfill those interests at the expense of third parties. The great powers should admit that, on the long run, stimulating tensions across the globe will not be advantageous.
Of course, these two prerequisites might seem idealistic. But not a long time ago, the idea of universal suffrage was considered naive. Rebuilding trust and kindness between enemy communities is a lot like a micro-surgery: the instruments used must be well calibrated for the dimension in order not to cause extra damage and allow the tissue to heal naturally. On the other hand, if the great powers restrain themselves, it will be beneficial for all interested parties.
What could Romania or the other neighboring countries do to support this moderation surgery? first of all, it should not ignore the tensions that are to be moderated or eased, Unfortunately, we, the small states, always preferred to let the “big guys” intervene. The prevailing idea was that the “big guys” have the power to solve the conflict, power that we do not have. The statement is correct but the reasoning behind it is partially wrong. The “big guys“ can and have to use their economic power to solve the conflict. But the big ones are, usually, unaware of the local problems and tend to be impatient and very statistical about facts.
Right now, the biggest problem in the Balkans is poverty. It is a problem that affects not only the Western Balkans but also EU member states, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, and Greece- countries where there is a harsh disparity between them and the European average. However, it is not about just poverty, but about a poverty increased psychologically by the remembrance of a period of relative prosperity, dating before the 90s conflicts. I would like to emphasize the fact that poverty and the attitude towards politics are strongly subjectively conditioned. It is not the same thing if today you are poor, but richer than yesterday, or today you are poorer than yesterday. The problem in the Balkans is not just poverty, but becoming poor. And when it comes to poverty people are looking for causes and responsible structures.
Before 1990, Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia had a stable economy where, financially speaking, individuals could imagine a predictable future. Countries had a functional internal market, even if it was distorted by the communist command system. More so, between the Balkan countries (except for Albania), bilateral trade was abundant and constantly increasing. Unemployment was low, fact that maintained the social stability, even if the salaries were low. The fall of the communist regimes generated sudden and significant economic irregularities, which later brought the inter-ethnic disputes to light.
At the moment, in the former Yugoslav countries (apart from Slovenia and Croatia), the internal market is down, investments are low, the unemployment is high and the largest part of the young work force want to emigrate to the West. From this point of view, even before re-launching the inter-communitarian trust, the Balkan area needs investments, jobs, and market and economic connections. For the negotiations to lead to a long-lasting result, those who sit at the table need to be already full.
At the same time with the economic development efforts, regional assistance must be consolidated. There has recently been a meeting in Varna between the Prime Ministers of Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, and Serbia. We still do not know the results but, this type of political initiatives are essential for the future of the region. These high level meetings should take place more often – also between experts and the neighboring states- in order to re-build a Balkan market.
After the fall of the communism, Romania and Bulgaria, for instance, oriented their economic decisions towards the EU, “forgetting” how beneficial bilateral trade can be. Luckily, it seems like nowadays, there are perspectives for re-connecting the economic ties within the Balkans. This could also be beneficial for Romania when it comes to its position related the harsh nucleus of the EU.
I am not an adept of economic autism and it is obvious that the Balkans need Western investments. But our countries can and have to overcome their “tow” status within Europe or the “backyard” of one Western power or another.
The Visegrad group is widely criticized. many commentators consider it a threat for Europe. Neoliberal euphoric circles criticize Budapest or Warsaw for being stubborn and opposing some of Brussels’ decisions. The subject of the Visegrad- Brussel argument is not relevant. I want to emphasize that a joint position of a couple of countries, smaller or weaker, can bring the strong ones back to reality and determine them to negotiate.
I repeat, the Varna Reunion sign has to be continued and amplified. We should not wait for the great powers to clean up our room, because this will never happen. We obviously have to consult with all the parties that are interested, but we have to impose our point of view because no one knows the situation here better than us.
I would now like to say a few words about Romania and Romanian politicians. Our country has a tradition in diplomacy. A tradition that has been characterized by manner, initiative, and modesty. I believe these things can help us become an active actor in the Balkan development process.
We have to avoid becoming a Big Brother in the region. We must start from the idea that decreasing the tension and development is in our advantage. The idea of a Balkan unity seems, for now, an utopia, but it is based on a common cultural background. A Balkan unity would not be opposed to the EU or other international cooperation mechanisms — such as the Visegrad Group. A Balkan unity would also mean an excellent source of material and human resources. It would connect the continent with Asia Minor and the Easy, the Adriatic area with the Black Sea and even further, the Caucasus and Silk Road.
We must not fear dreams, because dreams change the world!
In Romania, exceptionally, there are communities representing all the Balkan nations. More so, they have recognized political organizations that are represented in the Parliament. Even if, every once in a while, one can hear excessively nationalist voices in Romani, our country is a place for real inter-ethnic and inter-confessional dialogue. I believe this should be the starting point of the Balkan unity.
Roland Catalin Pena’s speech – “Avoiding a New Crisis in the Balkans”
Serbia believes that Kosovo is the root of their nation, the Altar of the Orthodoxy, following the loss of the Kosovo Polie battle against the Turks in 1389, which is a major reference in Serbia’s history. This historical event marked the end of the Serbian kingdom and the beginning of the Ottoman Empire domination in the Balkans.
The de-structuring of Yugoslavia, was best reflected by the Balkan wars (1992-1995), and then by the Kosovo war in 1999- these bloody events having left the deepest scars in these former Serbian territories.
Even though the battles ended, the fear of going back to armed clashes remains a threat, because of some political, ethnic, and religious stumbles that have been difficult to manage.
Cohabitation between the actors involved stays difficult. The people and the leaders are hesitant and divided based on their interests, on the one hand, and by the inclination towards European and Western integration, on the other hand. There is still some reciprocal mistrust between the actors that were born from the split, and, at the same time, the process of abandoning nationalism remains ongoing.
The current crisis
As a main operations theatre of the Balkan war from 1992-1995, Bosnia and Herzegovina was divided, according to Dayton (1995), between Muslim Bosnians, Croatians, and Serbian.
The latter ones might be tempted to request the auto-determination right or the attachment to Serbia, based on Kosovo’s precedent.
The Great Albania followers, who wished to unify Kosovo with a part of Macedonia that is populated by Albanian ethnics (25% of Macedonia’s population), have less chances now.
Albania’s weak development does not allow for an “attractive” war, and Tirana does not wish to compromise its relationship with the Western countries, as a problem-state that requires a revisal of the territorial status quo.
Macedonia is facing the challenge of its Albanian minority integration. Also, it faces difficulties in its relationship with Greece, which accuses it that it wants to assure a considerable part of the Hellenic patrimony, calling itself Macedonia and requesting the Northern Greece part. Formally called the republic of Macedonia of the Former Yugoslavia. Macedonia has into consideration the EU and NATO integration process, which is blocked by Greece.
In June 2003, at the Thessaloniki European Summit, the EU proclaimed the vocation of the Western Balkan countries -Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania- without establishing a deadline or a schedule. Croatia was supposed to be the first integrated country, being accepted in NATO on April 1, 2009, together with Albania and on the 1st of July 2013 Croatia joined the EU. On the 5th of June 2017, Montenegro joined NATO.
Serbia was not able to stop Kosovo from proclaiming independence and could not prevent the other vast majority of the Western countries from recognizing it when the 1244 Resolution regarding substantial autonomy was invoked in 1999. Even though it has cooperated with the Hague, Serbia is still hoping that one day, it will be repaid with EU membership. The paradox is that the International Tribunal declared Milosevic innocent. Romania never recognized Kosovo, considering it a dangerous precedent.
Perspective scenarios and uncertain situations
The perspective for EU membership calms the national and identity demands. This possibility for EU integration makes arguments, and national “fights” less animated, promoting economic development and peace policies. These diverse countries’ objective is joining the EU. The deep financial crisis that the Balkans went through and the nationalist demands influence each other. The Albanians from Macedonia, Serbs from Bosnia, and the Serbs from Kosovo complain about Kosovo’s independence. The secessionist tendencies are developing, triggering strategic uncertainties and economic hiccups.
The Europeanization process in the Balkans is not improving a lot, due to Russia and Turkey’s interests in the area.
It is obvious, by looking at the example of the former communist countries, including Romania, that the accession to the EU is preceded by the accession to NATO. This is already a habit.
Turkey and the Balkans
Turkey has lost its EU perspectives due to its increasingly authoritarian governing. The fact that it has been denied accession to the EU, led Turkey into the temptation of destabilizing the Balkans and drifting them away from the EU, building ahead of time a strong political and financial influence: large investments, development aids, trade with the majority of the states in the region.
Turkey has become the second biggest investor in Kosovo, having a special relationship with this country. There are approx. 60 Turkish companies in Kosovo and almost 4,000 investors. Tens of new mosques have been built and some other older mosques dating back to the Ottoman occupation have been restored with Turkish money.
Turkey gives Bosnia a lot of importance, but also to Serbia where there are 75 active Turkish companies in the field of textiles, food, and construction industry.
Turkey has already built pillars in economy and politics in the Western Balkans, having the possibility to become a destabilization factor in the Balkans, forcing the Muslim communities to choose between their loyalty towards the EU and Turkey.
Russia’s influence in the Balkans
Following the intervention in Syria, Russia makes all efforts to consolidate its political and military position among the Slavs in the Balkans. Russia’s involvement in the Western Balkans increased visibly, since it is an area located in the middle of NATO and behind Romania.
Expanding the Alliance in the region (Croatia, Albania, Montenegro), determined Russia to change its geopolitical position in the region, using several methods and ethnic, cultural, religious tools to attract Slavic language states in its area of influence, hence transforming Serbians and Macedonians in real targets. The Russians have started an information war of maximum intensity, putting the EU in a difficult position and weakening the Balkan countries’ interest to join the Union.
The instability brought along by attempted political assassinations in Montenegro and Serbia, where former Prime Minister Milo Djiukanovich and Alexandr Vucici were the main targets, must be taken into consideration.
Serbian right wing paramilitary structures have been employed, as well as structures of the Russian secret services. A kind of information seduction process can be noticed, having arms delivered at no cost besides the maintenance and ammunition that have to be covered by the Serbian side. They have received aviation aid in the form of MIG_29 airplanes. Separatism in the Srbska Republic, part of Bosnia & Herzegovina relies on Russian aid through Serbian extremism. Russia has generated direct threats against Montenegro’s integration in NATO, promising sanctions for the Podgorica leaders.
The counter-intelligence/ espionage service of Macedonia publically revealed the fact that the Russian special services are trying to block, by any means, the country’s accession to NATO and create a strip of neutral states in the Balkans.
The Russian Secret Services tried to influence Macedonia’s internal policies as well as other Balkan countries in order to prevent them from joining NATO and promote Russia’s interests.
Russia significantly increased its influence in the Balkans in general and especially in Macedonia.
Russia uses the so-called soft power methods as part of the strategy to isolate the Balkans from the West.
The Russian foreign policies in this respect is closely correlated with its energy strategy.
The European crisis post-Brexit and the indecision of the EU leaders regarding migration, phenomenon that has divided the Union, have generated continental malfunctions and demonstrated a certain level of powerlessness that brought the Balkans from a state of hope regarding the EU integration to a state of skepticism. The Balkans look like an area where instability feels at home, where tensions between states are difficult to control– all these opening perspectives for Russian and Turkish interests.
The Balkans, apparently calm in the EU waiting room, lack stability, which if is not controlled can have serious consequences upon peace in the region.
If the EU collapses, due to its solidarity and identity crisis, as well as the lack of a firm decision regarding finances, we will witness another war in the Balkans.
The initiative for a common market in the Balkans can be useful for the states there but its embodiment has to go hand in hand with the EU adherence. Brexit has complicated the stability process in the Balkans. Serbia and Kosovo are still unable to understand each other, Bosnia has difficulties with the Sirbska Republic and the stillness is ostensible.
Montenegro managed to join NATO after repeated and sinuous adventures.
Therefore, the EU has lost a part of its prestige in the region after Brexit and due to the longstanding oppositions regarding the expansion of the block, coming from Greece, Cyprus, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain regarding Kosovo.
This unsettling picture, offered to a Europe in a state of crisis, becomes an uncertain waiting horizon, an argument of the mistrust regarding the accomplishment of something certain in this area characterized by smoldering fire.
This state of being can only be overcame if all political actors desire it, if the great sponsoring powers wish to put out the fire in the Balkans, and if the global geopolitics does not reshape the outlines of the great powers.
The EU is running against Russia for the Western Balkans. This is also the reason why, during this summer, seven EU member states and six Western Balkan states organized another Summit (at Trieste), in order to promote regional cooperation and decreasing the gap between them and the Union.
The Summit’s objectives were some measures meant to improve the economic wellbeing of the region, but it was also an opportunity to warn Russia that it is running against the EU in the competition for the Western Balkans, the Union reiterating its old promise for expansion.
The Trieste Summit took place on the background of the amplification of the Russian diplomatic efforts towards planting ethnic divisions in Bosnia and Macedonia and consolidating the old alliance between Russia and Serbia.
The Western Balkans are likely to become another chess table at the gates of the Orient, being involved in the geopolitical disputes between Russia and the West, especially that the inter-ethnical tensions have increased.”