The parallel universe: bilateral issues and the future of the Western Balkans

The future of the Western Balkans (WB6) remains uncertain. The region is plagued by a number of persisting challenges, most notably bilateral issues which require resolution. These largely fall within the political sphere, and are primarily related to the history of the region and its recent wars. Existing disputes between the Western Balkan countries encompass a vast range of issues, from unresolved border or territorial disputes between the former Yugoslav republics to economic and property issues, identity, protection and representation of national minorities, and the status of refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from neighbouring countries. Finally, succession issues of the former SFRY, particularly pertaining to property and other issues defined in the UN-brokered Agreement on Succession Issues are an additional source of disputes between the countries in the Western Balkans. These challenges are not limited to the WB6, with many issues involving the neighbouring EU member states. The persistence of unresolved bilateral disputes in the region, both open and latent, poses a real risk of renewed instability by delaying EU integration, creating grave barriers to regional cooperation and threatening regional security. Most of the WB6 countries are dealing with more than one dispute, which are all politicised in different ways. This becomes particularly challenging when a situation develops in which a specific bilateral dispute starts to dominate relations between the countries or block their path to EU accession.

In the case of the WB6, border disputes are strongly linked to the current political agenda of the new states, particularly their vision of their influence in the future of the region as it moves towards the EU and NATO membership. The border disputes mainly concern the precise demarcation of borders between the former republics of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), and represent territorial claims of one or more parties. Some of the border disputes involve two WB6 countries, while others, since Croatia joined the EU in 2013, involve an EU Member State and a candidate country. In addition, there is an open maritime border dispute in the Ionian Sea between Greece and Albania. The rights of persons belonging to minorities are another major challenge for the region, which remains ethnically diverse and multi-cultural despite the recent wars. In the accession process, the Western Balkan countries are required to develop a legal framework for the protection of the rights of minorities, but this is often exclusive and incomplete, while its implementation in practice requires continuous efforts and improvement. Additional challenges persist for social groups which are not ethnic minorities in their host countries (e.g. displaced Serbs from Croatia residing in Serbia), and their rights are not protected under the national minorities’ framework. At the same time, they now fall into the category of national minorities in their home countries, which often presents a serious obstacle to exercising their equal rights as citizens, and to their political participation and representation. One of the main bilateral issues in this domain is property restitution in the home countries of displaced persons. In the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, border and minority issues are amalgamated, with their territories divided and internal boundaries drawn on ethnic principles, which can easily give rise to political instability.

It is not always possible or fruitful to tackle each problem head on and in a public way, but transparency must be maintained, and there can be no one-size-fits-all solution. Many of these issues are being resolved using back channels, for which the Berlin process is an important forum for exchange and mediation facilitated by the EU member states, European Commission and EEAS (European External Action Service). The Vienna Summit in 2015 has already produced significant results, most notably the signing of the Final Declaration by the Chair of the Vienna Western Balkans Summit by all the foreign ministers of the participating countries. Specific attention has been paid to the Regional Cooperation and Solution of Bilateral Disputes as well as Connectivity and Regional Youth Cooperation,

for all of which plans of action were signed as separate Annexes to the main Declaration. The signing of Annex 3 by all the WB6 countries, in which they agreed neither to block nor encourage others to block the progress of neighbours on their respective EU paths, is an important step forward in resolving outstanding bilateral issues. This platform also offers provisions for preventing EU member states from using asymmetrical powers to obstruct the accession process of the candidate countries, but this still remains a remote prospect because the Declaration was signed only by the WB6. Despite participating in the Berlin process, and being part of the Balkans, neither Slovenia nor Croatia signed the Declaration in Vienna, and both countries are in a position, as EU member states, to use asymmetric powers to block the accession of a neighbouring candidate or aspirant country. This is what happened in April, when a problem escalated between Croatia and Serbia at the point of the opening of Chapters 23 and 24. Perhaps more importantly, Greece is not participating in the Berlin process activities, but its bilateral issues with Macedonia are one of the most striking examples of using asymmetric powers to block a candidate country on the EU accession path. Macedonia was granted candidate status at the same time as Croatia, but has not made much progress towards membership because of the ‘naming dispute’ with Greece, and is currently going through great political turmoil. 

Even after a formal resolution, bilateral issues can easily flare up. To deal with potential internal challenges and to make their solution sustainable, two-tier negotiations are recommended to avoid or minimise domestic opposition and local challenges. Stage I negotiations should involve the governments of the two states, who work towards an agreement of the key points of the bilateral agreement, based on the prepared technical and legal framework. Stage II negotiations should constitute a national and local consultation process, which entails the presentation of the draft agreement to domestic groups, civil society organisations and the local population, particularly in the case of border agreements. Adding local consultations, involving civil society organisations and citizens directly in mediation efforts at the national level would ensure that their voice is taken into account. There needs to be a dialogue between national and municipal institutions and both formal and informal representatives of local people, particularly in deciding on the forms of cross-border cooperation at border crossings. Finally, the parliaments of bilateral state parties need to be involved too, and at both stages of negotiations. The discussion on bilateral disputes should be addressed in parliamentary sessions and the parliaments will also have a final say in the ratification of the bilateral agreements. If a bilateral agreement is not ratified in the parliament, this carries a degree of danger and probability that the issue will be reopened, such as in the case of borders between BiH and Croatia.

At present, it is crucial to maintain the momentum gained at the Vienna Summit 2015, and channel it into a sustainable dispute resolution process between the Western Balkans countries as well as with the EU member states. The EU should continue to play a crucial role in facilitation and mediation by focusing on the incentives for the resolution of disputes and available mechanisms, particularly for the settlement of border disputes and minority rights issues, while the Western Balkans countries should place structure and national policies at the centre of attention. To accelerate the process, a specific EU coordination body should be appointed to oversee reporting on the progress of bilateral dispute resolution and to facilitate bilateral dispute resolution. The European External Action Service is the most obvious choice to take on this role, with the involvement of the EU Parliament and the Council of Europe. By signing the Declaration on the Solution of Bilateral Disputes, the Western Balkan countries committed to reporting annually on the steps taken to resolve bilateral issues, starting with the Paris Summit in 2016. Establishing this annual reporting mechanism allows for systematic state and regional update, and ensures commitment to dispute resolution and their lasting settlement. 

Marika Djolai

Marika Djolai is an International Development Consultant and social inclusion Policy Analyst in the Western Balkans. She studied at the University of Novi Sad and the University College London and received her Doctorate in Development Studies (Conflict and Violence) from the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. Since 1999 she is based in the UK where she worked for the UK political establishment and BBC Media Action. For number of years she worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina managing projects and conducting research for UNICEF, the British Council, the Delegation of the European Union to BiH and as a Visiting Researcher at the Faculty of Political Science in Sarajevo.... Read more about the author

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