Steering a new course in the Balkans

By Tim Donais | 2000-01-01 12:00:00

In the immediate aftermath of the Kosovo crisis, world leaders descended on Sarajevo for a two-day summit aimed at bringing peace and stability to Europe's most troubled neighborhood. Some 40 heads of state and the leaders of 17 international organizations, including Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy, attended the mid-July summit, hosted by a city that has come to symbolize Southeastern Europe's past decade of conflict and upheaval. The centerpiece of the Sarajevo Summit was a deal offered by the states of the West to the states of Southeastern Europe: international assistance and eventual entry into Western European political and economic institutions in return for greater regional cooperation, more progress towards democracy and human rights, and market-oriented economic reforms.

The impetus and the agenda for the Sarajevo Summit was provided by the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe, an ambitious blueprint for pan-European peace and prosperity spear-headed by the European Union. The Stability Pact's main objective is to bring the states of the Balkan peninsula - from Slovenia to Albania and from Croatia to Bulgaria - into the European mainstream by way of greater regional integration and cooperation. It seeks to transform a region plagued by authoritarianism, a rocky transition to market capitalism, and a decade of often brutal ethnic conflict into a zone of peace, stability, and prosperity. The Sarajevo Summit's final declaration is clear: "We affirm our shared responsibility to build a Europe that is at long last undivided, democratic, and at peace."

Regional Solutions

The Stability Pact represents a significant shift in thinking about how to deal with the past decade's violent and largely unresolved crises in Southeastern Europe. The major Western powers have spent the better part of the past 10 years attempting to isolate conflicts in the region and prevent them from spilling over national borders. The Stability Pact, conversely, begins with the recognition that the states of the region are intimately and inevitably connected by history, culture, politics, and geography. Similarly, it is premised on the assumption that most of Southeastern Europe's biggest problems are regional rather than state-specific in nature, and can therefore only be effectively confronted at the regional level. As Robert Barry, the head of the Bosnia Mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), has suggested, "the genius of the Stability Pact lies in its determination to view Southeastern Europe as a single political and economic zone, rather than a series of disconnected Balkan trouble spots."

Starting Points

From a regional perspective, 50 years of communism and nearly a decade of political unrest and ethnic strife have left no shortage of intimidating and seemingly intractable regional problems in need of solutions. The first among them are the unreformed economies. Within the inner core of the region, the violent collapse of the former Yugoslavia largely pre-empted the transition from socialism to capitalism. Re-connecting markets, re-building or modernizing economic infrastructure, improving the climate for private investment, and loosening the economic grip of ruling political parties are therefore vital prerequisites for sustainable economic growth in the region.

Organized crime and corruption also need immediate attention if the economies in the region are to be stabilized. Ambassador Barry, who is also the OSCE's special envoy for Southeastern Europe, has recently argued that within the region the growing nexus between extremist politicians, organized crime, and the former communist intelligence agencies represents "the single greatest obstacle to democratic reform, economic investment and membership in Euro-Atlantic institutions." Today, crime and corruption, much of which is trans-border in nature, represents as great a threat to regional stability as renewed military confrontation.

The situation is also complicated by a large population of refugees and displaced persons. The wars in Former Yugoslavia uprooted some 3.5 million people, and nearly half remain unable to return home. Greater regional cooperation will be required to overcome this ongoing source of instability and tension. Given that many of those displaced would be returning to homes in areas where their ethnic group now constitutes a minority, this question is also linked to the broader issue of protecting minority rights across the region.

Similarly, the region must be encouraged to support and strengthen its under-developed civil society. With few exceptions, civil society organizations across Southeastern Europe remain weak, fragmented, and disoriented, and pose few challenges to those currently in power. If democracy is to fully take root in Southeastern Europe, nongovernmental organizations, independent media, and opposition political parties will need to play a more active and effective role at all levels of society.

Finally, Southeastern Europe is plagued by military instability. Across the region, bloated military budgets are part of the legacy of a decade of conflict and volatility. Reducing military budgets and the number of soldiers in uniform will not only boost economic recovery, it will also help reduce the risks of renewed military conflict.


Even as the mechanisms of the Stability Pact slowly begin to take shape - primarily in the form of working tables on democratization and human rights, economic development, and security issues - the Pact has come under increasing criticism for being long on rhetoric and short on specifics. The veteran Balkans commentator Christopher Bennett noted recently, "for all the talk of a mini-Marshall Plan, the Stability Pact is at most a vague commitment to the peoples of the Balkans, assuring them that they have not been forgotten and promising them that they will, somehow, be assisted in making a successful transition to democratic rule."

With an international donor's conference on Stability Pact funding (coordinated by the World Bank and the European Commission) not scheduled until early 2000, the initiative's key players are acutely aware of the danger that disillusionment and cynicism will quickly set in if the Pact's mechanisms are seen as little more than another set of diplomatic talking shops. Speaking at the recent OSCE Summit in Istanbul, the Stability Pact's E.U.-appointed coordinator, Bodo Hombach, acknowledged this danger by stressing the need for concrete action. "All the necessary conferences have been held, the necessary declarations of principle have been drafted," he said. "We now need to get to work on the ground."

Hombach's other major challenge is the sheer unwieldiness of the ship he's steering. Not only are the aims of the Stability Pact ambitious and the means through which they are to be achieved ill-defined, but there is also an alphabet soup of international, national, regional, and local actors that will have to be managed and coordinated if the Stability Pact is ever to emerge as a coherent project.

The Epicentre

At the same time, there also remains the thorny issue of how to deal with the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia within the context of the Stability Pact. Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was the most notable non-invitee at the Sarajevo Summit in July, and the Summit Declaration mustered little more than a plea to the people of Yugoslavia to embrace democratic change and regional reconciliation. Six months after NATO bombs stopped falling on Yugoslavia, there is still a dearth of good ideas about how to most effectively promote peaceful and democratic change there. Given the country's strategic position at the heart of the region, it is unlikely that any of the Stability Pact's ambitious goals of regional stability, prosperity, and democracy can be achieved in the absence of fundamental political reform in Yugoslavia. The Pact's efforts will be initially focused on the former Republic of Yugoslavia, Croatia, Bosnia and Hercegovenia, Albania, and Macedonia.

Forging Ahead

Despite the challenges and the critics, however, the Stability Pact process is slowly gathering steam, and a number of concrete initiatives are moving forward. In mid-November, a project to fight organized crime on a region-wide basis opened its offices in Bucharest. A regional task force on gender issues is now up and running, while progress is being made towards a regional Investment Charter. Similarly, infrastructure and transportation projects are being identified and prioritized, and an initiative to reduce the flow of small arms in and through the region is taking shape. At the Sarajevo Summit itself, Bosnia's joint presidency announced a unilateral commitment to reduce military budgets and personnel by 15%, and challenged the other states of the region to match this commitment.

The initiatives being developed by the states of Southeastern Europe themselves are particularly important for the viability of the Stability Pact, since it is widely acknowledged that the aims and goals of the Pact cannot be imposed from outside. The question of ownership is therefore crucial, for unless the states of Southeastern Europe fully embrace the principles embedded within the Pact, the process is doomed to failure. This issue may yet prove to be the real Achilles' heel of the Stability Pact. For while the prospect of eventual integration into Euro-Atlantic structures such as NATO and the E.U. provides a powerful incentive for change, economic reform and the deepening of democracy will no doubt threaten the privileged position of many of the region's political elites, who may ultimately decide that they prefer the status quo.

There is much that sympathetic Western states such as Canada can do to promote the goals of the Stability Pact, from providing the Pact's mechanisms with human and financial resources to strengthening political and economic ties with states across the region. As the world's self-anointed champion of human security, Canada has an opportunity with the Stability Pact to show leadership in helping to bring stability and security to a troubled part of the world. Even from a self-interested perspective, investing in economic reform, regional cooperation, and democratic development in Southeastern Europe will ensure that Canada's peacekeepers in the region will finally come home for good.

Timothy Donais is a public information officer with the OSCE in Bosnia.

Peace Magazine Winter 2000

Peace Magazine Winter 2000, page 26. Some rights reserved.

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