Balkanalysis on Twitter

Is There No Independence Station for the Kosovo Train?

By Borka Tomic (Serbian Institute for Public Diplomacy, Brussels)

While some high US officials have claimed that Kosovo’s “train for independence has left the station,” recent developments show that the train for Kosovo’s future might not be stopping at the station of independence. Namely, the Council of Europe, the continent’s oldest political organization, with the input of deputy delegations from all European countries apart from Belarus and Montenegro, has voted to exclude from the proposed text of Lord Russell Johnston the part of the resolution containing an open call for Kosovo’s independence in the name of Balkan stability.

The meeting of the Council of Europe showed that the support for Kosovo’s permanent secession from Serbia seems to be waning, not only in the neighboring Balkan countries or Spain, mindful of its Basque separatist problem, but also with permanent member states of the Contact Group such as France and Great Britain. The internationally recognized state of Serbia confirmed its sovereignty over Kosovo in its recently adopted constitution. And the EU Commission representatives confirmed that as well.

In addition, the stance of Russia remains ever firm in its opposition to Kosovo’s independence, and various high-level Russian officials announced earlier that their country’s UN Security Council veto would be used against any decision on the future status of Kosovo not previously accepted by Belgrade.

There are strong concerns especially in the US as to how to overcome Russian opposition to Kosovo’s independence. Russian President Putin has raised the stakes by calling for ‘universal principles’ to apply in settling frozen conflicts, referring in particular to Georgia’s two separatist regions — Abkhazia and South Ossetia. What’s more, the emotional dimension of the Serbian-Russian relations cannot be undermined, as Russia will not leave Serbia’s Christian Orthodox cradle in Kosovo at the mercy of its majority Muslim Albanian population.

At the same time, another major world power, China, has a similar stance regarding the Kosovo issue. As Jiang Men, a professor at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies of the Free University of Brussels put it at a recent conference organized by the European Institute for International Relations, “China and Russia agree and cooperate in the matter of Kosovo, and China’s veto against Kosovo’s independence at the UN Security Council is very possible. This is even more likely, bearing in mind the timing of the Taiwan elections due in 2007 and Olympic Games in China in 2008. China would, thus, try to prevent any destabilizing factors that question its sovereignty over Taiwan.” These significant comments were not however widely reported in the media.

On the other hand, the tension and the threat of violence in Kosovo are increasing. Demonstrations from the majority Albanian population are expected on 10 February as the word “independence” was not included in lead negotiator Martti Ahtisaari’s proposal. The proposal is rather frustrating for the Serbs too, and it is not easy to predict how the remaining Serbian population, less than 10 percent, will react to the potential unilateral secession of Kosovo.

NATO, with its 16,500 soldiers, however, claims to have learnt its lesson from past turbulence, especially the March 2004 pogrom in which a total of 4,100 Serbs were expelled from their homes by Albanians, and 35 Serbian churches and monasteries were torched, among them several dating back to the Middle Ages and of irreplaceable value to Serbian and indeed European cultural heritage. Nevertheless, NATO promises to maintain peace in the troubled Serbian province.

Not many people would like to step into the shoes of the special UN envoy for Kosovo. As for now, Mr. Ahtisaari has presented his proposal to the Contact Group in Vienna and the North Atlantic Council at the level of Foreign Ministers in Brussels, as well as to the authorities Belgrade and Pristina. While there was hardly any consensus to report following these meetings, the two sides will have to bring closer their divergent views through new talks, for a peaceful resolution to be realized.

Why the EU Needs a Strategy for the Black Sea Region

By Lara Scarpitta*

It is old news that geography matters in foreign policy. A dormant EC/EU had to learn this vital lesson in 1989, when communism crumbled behind its safe walls. Faced with the sudden prospect of bordering poor, unpredictable and unstable neighbours, it responded by anchoring the former soviet satellites of Central Europe with the offer of EU membership. But now that a new enlargement has been completed, geography matters even more. With the accession of Romania and Bulgaria on the 1st of January, the EU’s new eastern border has moved south, to the shore of the Black Sea. Across its waters, however, lies one of the most unstable and conflict-prone regions of post-Soviet Eurasia.

For centuries, the Black Sea region has been a theatre of violent conflicts and power struggles, due primarily to its geographical location and character as a transit route. During the Cold War, all Black Sea states (except Turkey) were within the Soviet sphere of influence and at the periphery of international strategic interests. But as the Soviet Union began to break down in 1991, the Black Sea region plunged into chaos, torn apart by several ethnic and separatist conflicts. The end of the Cold War’s artificial stability freed long concealed (and suppressed) historical grievances and a number of new independent states such as Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Azerbaijan emerged from the ashes of the Soviet Empire.

Nevertheless, most of them are still very weak democracies, facing territorial separatism, ethnic tensions, undemocratic trends in domestic politics, slow economic progress, environmental degradation and endemic corruption of public officials. The long years of armed conflicts have caused disruption to trade and damaged infrastructure. Due to its potential for conflict, the region has attracted relatively little foreign investment and most such countries are still today heavily dependent on the Russian economy. Unemployment rates are generally very high, with almost all states suffer from a hemorrhagic migration abroad of a consistent percentage of the working-age population.

Today the Black Sea region is also a major source and transit area of several security threats, from terrorism to international organised crime as well as arms and human trafficking. It is home to four so-called “frozen” conflicts — Transnistria, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia – the unresolved separatist issues which followed the breakdown of the USSR.

Despite years of diplomacy and talks, hopes for finding a peaceful and long-standing resolution for these conflicts remain bleak. Apart from fuelling bilateral tensions, these “frozen’ conflicts have been a bane for the region’s democratic and economic development, breeding instability and corruption and favouring the proliferation of organised crime. Uncontrolled territories in Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh, for example, have become safe havens for the activities of powerful organised criminal groups involved in people smuggling, human trafficking as well as goods and arms trafficking. The phenomenon of arms trafficking is widespread in the region and much of the large weapons stockpiles abandoned by Russia in the early 1990s have ended up on the grey and black markets. The region is also a major source of drug production and a trafficking route for drugs coming from Central Asia and the Middle East (especially Afghanistan) into Europe. Large profits are also being made from smuggling people across the region with a promise of a better life in the West, and there is evidence that these profits are being reinvested into drugs and arms trafficking, as well as financing terrorist activities, as a recent Europol report highlighted.

This situation carries significant implications for EU security. A power vacuum in the region can potentially result in a security vacuum with consequences which are self-evident yet highly unpredictable. Because of its sudden and new geographical proximity to the wider Black Sea states, the EU will no longer be immune from the backlashes of instability and conflicts in the region, but rather will be directly exposed to a whole range of security threats, from organised crime to drugs and arms trafficking, as well as refugee and illegal migration pressures.

Aside from these security concerns, however, the Black Sea region offers many positive opportunities. The most obvious is in the field of energy. Thanks to its proximity to the oil-rich Caspian Sea and its vast energy resources, the Black Sea region can play a major role for the EU’s energy strategy, to secure alternatives to Russian energy supply.

Many ambitious pipeline projects were launched in the 1990s to guarantee direct access to Caspian oil via the Black Sea. These include the U.S. East-West Energy Corridor and the EU Traceca project (Transit Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Central Asia).

Although these failed to materialise when conflicts erupted in the Balkans and in the South Caucasus in the 1990s, it is in the interests of the EU that these projects be reinvigorated to ensure greater Western access to Caspian energy resources.

Perhaps most importantly, the Black Sea region matters for its strategic importance, owing to its proximity to the Middle East. Since 9/11, the US has played an active role in the region to safeguard its vast security and economic interests, especially access to Caspian oil and gas reserves. American “pipeline politics’ has gone hand in hand with its war on terror and the U.S. administration has been keen to support the NATO aspirations of some Black Sea countries.

Yet is the EU ready take up these challenges with similar energy? Can it exploit the region’s huge and lucrative potentials and prevent the Black Sea from becoming a permanent source of security threats?

Most likely, it will only be able to do so partially. The reasons are multiple. First, the EU does not have a Black Sea policy, or at least not a coherent strategy as such. It has opted instead for a patchwork of policies and approaches: enlargement to South-eastern Europe and Turkey, the “European Neighbourhood” policy and a structured cooperation with the South Caucasus states.

Indeed, therein lays part of the problem. While the EU enlargement policy – with its strict conditionality and convergence to EU norms and standards – has (at least so far) been relatively a success story, other policies failed to deliver the expected results. Bilateral cooperation with post-Soviet Eastern neighbours like Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, as well as with the South Caucasus states (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan), put in place since the mid-1990s hardly proved a recipe for stabilisation and prosperity. The over 3 billion euros from the EU’s TACIS funds allocated in the last ten years have failed to convince reluctant post-Soviet governments to introduce sound democratic and market-based economic reforms. Part of the problem is that the EU lacks sufficient leverage to push for such reforms. This is hardly a surprise if one considers that most of these states are still heavily under Russia’s influence. The 2006 energy crisis in Ukraine and Moldova, as well as Russian import bans on Moldovan and Georgian wines and water are a stark remainder of Russia’s economic power over its neighbours.

The EU, by contrast, continues to have a limited impact on the region. But the EU “stabilisation’ policy has also been too weak in its incentives to push for reforms. The so-called Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (PACs), lacked not only a prospect for membership but also a strict conditionality and were based primarily on a multidimensional cooperation on economic and cultural questions and a political dialogue on issues concerning minorities, human rights and security in Europe.

The “European Neighbourhood” policy, launched officially on the eve of the 2004 “big bang’ enlargement, was aimed at addressing some of these problems. But judging by the results so far, the innovative offer of “everything except institutions,” has not been the trump card the EU was looking for as an alternative to enlargement. The colour revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia have not given way to the expected substantial democratic reforms. Moldova continues to struggle to control its separatist region of Transnistria and there are no signs of Belarus abandoning its totalitarian regime. Little progress has been made in fulfilling the various Action Plans, the EU’s own financial commitment for the region for 2007-2013 has increased but remains marginal and the EU has continued to politely dismiss the long-term membership aspirations of some of its pro-Western neighbours.

Paradoxically, with these differentiated approaches towards its neighbours the EU has in fact achieved the rather unexpected results of widening the economic, political and social gap between them. While in Romania and Bulgaria the EU accession process has arguably ensured the successful creation of sound democratic institutions and fast economic growth, the EU’s eastern neighbours have witnessed a halt or reversal of their democratic process, as highlighted by the 2005 Freedom House Report, with most struggling with macroeconomic and structural difficulties and declining standards of living.

So what should the EU do? For a start, think strategically. After the 2007 enlargement and with the accession negotiations already underway with Turkey, the EU has already become an actor in the Black Sea region. Developing a coherent and well articulated Black Sea policy to protect EU economic and strategic interests has therefore become imperative.

No doubt, anchoring the countries of the Black Sea region is not going to be easy, not least of all because without a realistic prospect of EU membership for most of these states, the EU lacks its most powerful point of leverage. On the positive side, however, the EU is now in a far better position to develop an ambitious and realistic policy for the region than it was some years ago. It can now draw on its expertise and the instruments developed in the past decade, by abandoning rhetoric and reinforcing its concrete actions.

The coming months may be crucial for the development of a coherent EU Black Sea strategy. German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier made it clear that Germany intends to achieve concrete results in Black Sea Region during its presidency by examining the effectiveness of the European Neighbourhood policy.

Still, by itself this policy is not sufficient. The stability of the region requires political courage and long-term strategic thinking. The EU should certainly put “some meat on the bone’ on its neighbourhood policy, by offering to its neighbours concrete and lucrative economic incentives in exchange for serious and tangible commitments to democratic and market-based reforms and the protection of human rights. But a credible EU Black Sea policy also needs to demonstrate that the EU is serious about the resolution of all the “frozen’ conflicts in the region. The support for the EU Border Assistance Mission between Ukraine and Moldova and the appointment of a EU Special Representative for Moldova in 2005 is a positive sign that EU commitment heads in this direction.

However, concrete steps must be taken at regional and bilateral levels to find durable peaceful solutions. In this respect Brussels must also find the political courage and determination to take the initiative diplomatically with Russia. Unfortunately, EU reactions to Russia’s allegedly “imperialist’ policy to its near abroad have remained weak and not much more has been done beyond expressing disappointment.

Finally the EU needs to step in with greater support and financial involvement to support regional cooperation efforts. So far the EU has paid lip service to regional cooperation preferring to focus instead on bilateral relations. As active regional partners and new EU members, Romania and Bulgaria are likely to play an active role in this respect.

Romanian President Traian Basescu has made it clear on several occasions that Romania intends to promote more assertively the idea of a strategic vision for the Black Sea region and a greater involvement in regional dynamics. Black Sea economic cooperation in particular can offer the EU an ideal forum for promoting projects in the field of energy as well as non economic areas, such as the protection of the environment, controlling immigration and fighting arms and human trafficking. Ultimately, the extent to which the EU will be able to secure its immediate and distant neighbours in the Black Sea region will depend on its ability to increase its role and impact on the region and become a pulling factor for democratic change. A democratic and fully integrated Turkey will be crucial in this respect.

The benefits of a coherent, realistic and forward-looking strategy towards the Black Sea region are enormous. If the EU’s “close’ and “distant’ neighbours can successfully complete their economic and political transition, security threats will be weakened. Similarly, the creation of stable democratic institutions, functioning economic structures and vibrant civil societies will undermine the operation of criminal groups. To achieve this long-term objective all EU instruments and forces should be mobilised. Otherwise, the region may well plunge once again into chaos. However, this time EU citizens many not be immune.

*Lara Scarpitta is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies of the University of Birmingham. Before embarking on a PhD, Lara worked in Holland, Italy and recently in Brussels where she worked as an intern in the Cabinet of Vice President of the European Commission Franco Frattini, EU Commissioner for Freedom, Security and Justice.

Bulgaria Enlarges Its Airspace, Balkan Militaries Expand

( Research Service)- New NATO member and Washington favorite Bulgaria is taking the lead in establishing “a common air defense network” with its western neighbors, Albania and Macedonia.

As it aspires to NATO membership, Macedonia has been told to scrap its few fighter planes, in favor of its somewhat less fearsome helicopter fleet. And one of Albania’s “flying coffins,” an antiquated, Chinese-made MiG, crashed and burned the other week in Tirana. So that leaves only one contender.

On Friday, Bulgarian defense minister Nikolai Svinarov announced that the decision had been reached following his meeting with counterparts from the two Balkan states. According to an anonymous “expert,” this means that Bulgaria is “…effectively extending its current system across the airspace of its two neighbours” – hardly a reassuring thought for Macedonians who remember well from the previous century of wars the fondness their eastern cousins have  previously for their land.

For his part, Macedonian defense minister Vlado Buchkovski restated his ardent appreciation of Bulgaria’s counsel and support. According to the Macedonian Information Agency, Buchkovski rose to “…commend the support and remarkable cooperation of the Republic of Bulgaria whose successful story motivate us to endure in fulfillment of our goals. I am convinced that our Bulgarian friends will continue to support the open door policy and will unselfishly share their experiences and expertise from the NATO integration process with us.”

Bulgaria, which is eager to host US military bases as the Bush Administration continues with its strategic relocation program, is upgrading its current air defense system with help from the Americans. According to News24, the country will also be modernizing its 20 MiG-29 warplanes and 36 Mi-17 and Mi24 helicopters.

One day before the Bulgarian air network plan was announced, the five Nordic countries came out with a plan to help modernize the militaries of Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia, Albania and Serbia-Montenegro. Danish defense minister Soeren Gade stated that this will involve “seminars on modernizing those countries’ armies,” reports the IHT.

Following its successful NATO accession, Bulgaria’s relations with Western defense contractors have solidified. Memorandums of understanding in the area of air defense were signed last week with Britain’s BAE Systems and Gripen, a joint British-Swedish company.

But in points eastward, Bulgaria ran into a controversy last month when it was accused of gunrunning by Edward Kokoity, self-declared president of the autonomous Georgian province of South Ossetia. According to Kokoity, “…Bulgaria is steadily supporting [the] Georgian army, supplying it regularly with weapons and ammunition.”

His side claims that almost all of shells used by the Georgian army against their positions were manufactured in Bulgaria. The Russian daily Komsomoletz had claimed in early August that an “impressive” quantity of 2,500 boxes of mortar shells, “enough to destroy all Ossetian arsenal,” was transferred from Bulgaria to the Georgian port of Poti – and thereafter used on the Ossetian rebels. While not denying the transaction outright, Bulgarian officials claimed that the number of weapons involved was considerably less than what the indignant Russians had claimed.

The big unknown for Bulgaria’s military has to do with the increasingly unpopular mission to Iraq. Troops in the field are getting edgy, now that deeply symbolic Islamic religious holidays are almost upon them. Defense Minister Svinarov has announced a Nov. 9 meeting to discuss possible redeployment with American counterpart Donald Rumsfeld – provided the latter holds on to his job following the US presidential elections expected to be held one week before.

As a NATO hopeful, Macedonia must count on the backing of established members of the club. Earlier this month the leaders of Turkey – one of Macedonia’s strongest allies- reiterated their support for the country’s bid, and Vecdi Gonul, the Turkish Defense Minister, was warmly received on his official visit to Skopje.

As a NATO member, Turkey is becoming increasingly important to American interests: according to UPI, bases are to be shut down in Italy and Greece to make room for one in the more strategic port of Izmir:

“…Reflecting its changing geostrategic priorities, NATO’s Joint Command Southeast in Naples, Italy, has been deactivated and Component Command Air Headquarters-Izmir has been activated. Further drawing down the NATO presence in southern Europe, NATO’s Joint Command SOUTH in Verona, Italy, and its Joint Command SOUTHCENT in Larissa, Greece, have also been decommissioned. Izmir’s municipal authorities are salivating at the prospect of the imminent arrival of 1,000 affluent foreign families.”

According to AFP, a high-level meeting held between the US and Turkey last week was designed “…to seek ways of increasing global and regional military cooperation.” An unnamed embassy official told the agency that the purpose of the meeting was not to win permission for the deployment of warplanes at Incirlik Air Base, but rather “…to discuss broad issues of Turkish-US cooperation, such as NATO, new threats, the struggle against terrorism, ways in which Turkey and US can increase cooperation in the region such as the Caucasus, Afghanistan and Iraq.”

2004-2009 Back Archives