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Give the Balkans a Chance

By Ellen C. Bryson, None

Last month, ethnic Albanians in Kosovo celebrated the one-year anniversary of their country’s independence from Serbia. This anniversary is, in some ways, a triumph for Kosovo. The United Nations-backed government is slowly taking over some of its own administration, although 15,000 NATO troops are still deployed there to maintain security and internal stability.

But, despite this progress, Kosovo is by no means in a secure position regarding its statehood. Serbia continues to claim that Kosovo is still part of Serbia, and the refusal of Russia as well as many other countries, including five European Union member states, to recognize Kosovo’s independence has contributed to international ambiguity regarding Kosovo’s status. The conflict is not limited to the diplomatic sphere; last year, when the United States officially recognized Kosovo’s independence, riots broke out in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, and in Kosovo itself ethnic tensions between Serbians and ethnic Albanians are still rife.

Although conditions have improved drastically since the Kosovo War in 1998-9, it is clear that the stabilizing force of EU membership is the only way to normalize relations between the two countries. The EU must immediately take a strong stand in favor of admitting the Balkan nations, including eventually Serbia and Kosovo, if the scars from centuries of ethnic and political conflict in the region are ever to be healed.

While Serbia has traditionally been closer diplomatically to Russia than to the West, its current leadership is pro-Western and has announced its desire to apply for EU membership in the first half of 2009. The Serbian populace would almost certainly look more favorably on their pro-Western governing coalition if joining the EU becomes a more realistic goal.

Serbia is still barred from entrance into the EU, however, by several problems, most notably its failure to comply with EU demands that it arrest Ratko Mladic, a former Bosnian Serb general who is accused of carrying out the massacre at Srebrenica during the 1992-5 Bosnian war. The EU has made it clear that Mladic’s capture will be one of the conditions of Serbia’s membership bid.

Kosovo also aims to join the EU, and it already uses the euro as its currency. It is, however, far from ready to join. It is still dependent on NATO security forces, and its economy is extremely weak—at least 40 percent of the population is unemployed.

While neither state will be able to join the EU in the near future, Brussels should make it clear to both Belgrade and Pristina that membership is a very real possibility for both—assuming, of course, that they fulfill all the requirements of membership in the near future. This would have major implications for regional stability: Serbia would be discouraged from trying to reclaim Kosovo by force because of the consequences such an action would have for its EU membership bid.

Integrating Serbia and Kosovo into the EU can only remain a far-off prospect until Brussels finishes the accession processes of the more stable Balkan nations that are ready, or close to being ready, for membership. However, the bids of several countries in the region are becoming unnecessarily protracted, leading one to wonder whether the EU’s drive to incorporate the former Yugoslav states will ever be completed.

Croatia, which should be a shoo-in for membership, is stalled in the accession process because of a border dispute with its neighbor, Slovenia. Montenegro, another flourishing Balkan state, is currently trying to apply for EU membership, but the current global economic state has made the EU leadership cautious about further expansion. Macedonia’s bid, although weaker than Croatia’s or Montenegro’s, cannot move forward because Greece argues that Macedonia’s name suggests an aspiration to the Greek province of the same name.

With some Eastern European member states, most dramatically Latvia, falling into crisis, it is easy to criticize EU expansion and argue that it should be stopped before any more damage is done. However, strong economies like Slovenia, a former Yugoslav state that is now a regional powerhouse, demonstrate the benefits that EU membership can bring, even to countries that were struggling 20 years ago. In addition to cementing the central role of democratic institutions and the market economy, EU enlargement helps other countries in the union, which reap the benefits of free trade and an expanded market.

Kosovo and Serbia are certainly not ready for EU membership right now and probably will not be for some time–-at least until Serbia agrees to at least a de facto recognition of Kosovo’s independence and Kosovo can govern itself without the assistance of NATO forces deployed there. Nevertheless, the EU can and should play its own role in shaping the politics of this region by showing Kosovo and Serbia that it intends to extend EU membership to both of them when they are ready. This is the only way to permanently bring stability to the Balkans and finally banish the specter of the Yugoslav wars from the region’s politics.

Ellen C. Bryson ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history concentrator in Cabot House.

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