In 2010, I took on the task of coming up with a strategy for the development of civil society and its role in the Western Balkans. After an inclusive process involving civil society, activists, think tanks, journalists, (not the NGO mafia and the usual suspects – the post conflict mushrooms, as I call them), I crafted a strategy. The main goal was to support reform in the Western Balkan states and enable civil society to play its proper role in their accession process.
Nine years on, the EU is even more relevant now than it was then to the people of Western Balkans.
The 2010 strategy I worked on focused on three areas: 1. Democratic development through free and fair elections, support mechanisms for transparent and accountable governance and participatory democracy through empowerment of citizens; 2. Sustainable development, to push policy reform that ensures transition from fossil fuel-based, corrupt and closed energy systems to green, renewable and democratic energy; and 3. Peace-building work, which encompasses and responds to a complexity of myths from the past and to hate stemming from the recent wars in the region.
The work planned to tackle the issue of peace-building at its roots: documenting the truth about what happened in the wars of the 1990s, and getting people to face up to their past and stop the denial of war crimes.
This strategy has been implemented through a unique “triangle” approach, of deep collaboration between grassroots, think tanks and investigative journalists – boots, brains and noses.
Clearly, many great people, institutions and interventions have contributed tremendously to moving the region forward over these years. But what I am proud of most is how many of the institutions that were part of that strategy became key carriers of the EU vision for the Balkans at country and regional level in all three fields.
Today, with EU funding and support, the grassroots, the think tanks and investigative journalism in the region are all at their best.
Clearly, I faced plenty of sceptics. “Do you think the EU will still exist (by the time the region’s countries join)?” was one question. Another was: “Perhaps you should reconsider the goal, as EU membership is not realistic.”
At one point, it looked like these sceptics were going to win, as were the radicals from both ends, the right-wing-ultra-nationalists and the left-wing extremists.
Thank god, this bleak picture – in which Germany’s Angela Merkel looked stranded and alone in her struggle to uphold the vision of the EU against its naysayers – changed after the European Parliament elections.
Chancellor Merkel was and remains the hero of Europe, and the bravest leader at the global stage. She alone stood and protected the most precious values of humanity, helping people in the direst situations, both refugees and migrants. Moreover, Merkel succeeded while surrounded by various other male leaders who silently looked on, with contempt or laughter, at what they thought her “naivete”.
In their limited minds, it was impossible to keep the German government intact in a strongly united EU while extending a hand to millions of Syrians fleeing their country because of the Syrian regime, the Russians and everyone else trying to gobble up Syria.
But she did it. The German government stayed intact, the radicals did not take over, and neo-Nazi parties did not succeed in painting a picture of migrants and refugees as evil people. The EU succeeded not only in defending its fundamental democratic values but has done much more to advance policies of peace, stability, development and protecting the environment.
After the EU parliamentary elections in May, Green is the new colour of the European Parliament. The fight against Russian interference in the US seems to have benefited the European Union as well; the EU has closed the space for Russian meddling. Meanwhile, Brexit has ended up as the shame of the 21stcentury, the triumph only of those who think isolation and persevering in rigid sovereignty in a globalized world is the way to go.
The EU is not ideal, but it is much better than anything else we know or have tried so far. To name a few successes, it is leading on climate agreement and on the reduction of emissions; has helped to successfully resolve the long-running dispute with Greece over the name of Macedonia; is still holding on to the agreement with Iran; and is the largest funder of peace and prosperity in the world.
The EU is also waking up to the challenges it faces in its own backyard, which means completing the integration of the Western Balkan countries. Chancellor Merkel and President Emmanuel Macron of France rightly intervened to prevent the catastrophic partition of Kosovo that was being prepared by Aleksandar Vucic, President of Serbia, and Hashim Thaci, President of Kosovo.
Their secret talks, facilitated by the former EU commissioner for foreign affairs and pushed by lobbyists, was laying the path for a deal that would serve nobody, except Vucic and Thaci. Had it succeeded, it would have opened the door to the secession of Republika Srpska from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Such a deal would, however, have benefited Thaci who lives in fear of one day being indicted for war crimes carried out during and after the war in Kosovo. Such an indictment would come from the special chamber that was voted into office by parliamentarians from his own party. But, in a newly defined Kosovo, that special chamber might simply become void.
Allowing borders to be carved out along ethnic lines would not only set a very dangerous precedent for how genocide can be used to partition countries, but would have done huge damage to the core values of the EU, which are that the continent is a stronghold of multiculturalism and coexists in diversity.
An EU that would allow something like that to happen in its backyard would lose all credibility to engage anywhere else in the world. More importantly, what else would be left in the world to guard these democratic and human values, if not the EU?
While it is true that in most Balkan countries real reforms are slow, the blame for this lies with the political elites and their calculations in each country. Most of them are in power today thanks to corruption, organized crime and wars. It is hard to imagine them carrying out reforms that would result in these networks being wiped out.
In the case of North Macedonia, reforms were possible only after the former government was ousted by a popular demand for change and thanks to the EU’s outright support for the rule of law and political reforms.
Both Albanians and Macedonians in the country stood together for change, proving that people will vote across ethic lines when it comes to their future and prosperity.
Now we need to change Vucic’s regime in Serbia, which has narrowed the space for media and civil society and controls pretty much every part of Serbian society. We also need to change Thaci’s capillary dictatorship, which controls the justice system in Kosovo, the private sector, and has brought state institutions to collapse through nepotism and corruption. These leaders were not elected through democratic processes. Democracy in Serbia and Kosovo as well as in Albania is hostage to organized crime and corrupt networks.
This challenge is too big to be fought by individuals, civil society or the media alone. This task is both dangerous and daunting, especially in the absence of a professional and independent judiciary, and when networks of organized crime and corruption are trans-regional and trans-international.
EU help, therefore, is not only welcome and desirable, but is a must, to protect the common interest and security of Europe in addition to supporting Balkan people’s desires to become fully fledged European citizens. This is urgent, as the battle with the brain drain is being lost; there is a real risk that smart people leaving the Balkan countries will only create more room for the ignorant to continue to lead.