The Balkans Break Free

Ancient ethnic hatreds? That's so 1998.

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

On July 1, 2013, to much fanfare and fireworks, Croatia celebrated its accession to the European Union, two decades after it emerged as an independent state from the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia. To mark the occasion, thousands of Croats celebrated to the tune of "Ode to Joy" in the streets of the capital Zagreb. "This will change the life of this nation for good," Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, told the crowd. For good? But wait — aren’t we talking about the Balkans, Europe’s most volatile region? Surely this is one part of the world that’s always been hostile to the optimists.

Lately, though, the Balkan countries have been displaying a remarkable capacity to break with the darker aspects of their past. There’s been such a stream of good news emerging from the region over the past few weeks that some journalists have seen fit to reassure their readers that their reports aren’t a joke.

After the collapse of the communist bloc in Eastern Europe, ethnic rivalries re-emerged in Yugoslavia, turning the country into one the bloodiest battlefields in Europe. Following the smash-up of the old federation, politicians transformed its components into independent states. The new nations of Croatia and Serbia were dominated until the end of the 1990s by nationalist autocrats like Franjo Tudjman and Slobodan Milosevic. Both left behind legacies of hatred, corruption, and cronyism. The Dayton Agreement, the peace treaty that ended the war in Bosnia, left the country saddled with an inefficient, costly government that only preserved the zero-sum dynamics of the war. Against this dismal background, Zagreb’s E.U. membership highlights not only Croatia’s transformation but the decisive U-turn that the region has recently made toward a democratic future.

In Tirana, Albanians are still exulting in the outcome of their parliamentary election last month, when the Socialist-led opposition handed a decisive loss to conservative Prime Minister Sali Berisha. A towering figure in Albanian politics since the country emerged from its hardline Stalinist regime two decades ago, Berisha resigned as head of his party and conceded defeat to his opponent, a scenario that few people could have predicted.

Berisha, who served as Albania’s president from 1992 to 1997 (when he was ousted by widespread street protests), returned to power in 2005 on a campaign that made "clean hands" its slogan. He promised to rid the country of corruption, which has plagued Albania’s difficult transition to democracy. Predictably, however, his own hands, and those in his inner circle, soon turned dirty. Over the past few years Berisha has cracked down on the judiciary to stifle corruption probes. The scandals that plagued his government involved everything from rigged road construction tenders to the shooting of protestors outside his office during an opposition rally in 2011. Eventually voters got tired of Berisha’s increasingly autocratic and arrogant behavior, handing a landslide victory to the left-wing opposition headed by former Tirana mayor, Edi Rama.

Last month also marked a watershed for Serbia. The European Council, after acknowledging the progress made by Serbia in its negotiations with its former province Kosovo, gave Belgrade a start date for E.U. accession talks. That offer reflected the successful outcome of talks between Serbia and Kosovo, who recently signed a power-sharing agreement designed to defuse a long-standing quarrel over control of Serb-populated Northern Kosovo. The Council also approved a decision to open talks with Pristina on a Stabilization and Association Agreement, the first step toward E.U. membership. European Commission President José Manuel Barroso called the decision "historic," explaining that "We often use this word, but this is really a historic decision because we must not forget what was happening in this part of Europe not so long ago," Barroso said, referring to the wars of the 1990s.

Although the attention of the world has been centered on Taksim and Tahrir Square, Bosnians have been protesting on the streets of their capital, too. In early June, thousands of them formed a human chain in Sarajevo, refusing to let parliamentarians leave until they broke a stalemate that prevented vital identity documents from being issued. The rallies have continued since then. Serb representatives in Parliament have insisted on a special prefix on IDs to distinguish their entity, Republika Srpska, from the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The so-called "baby protests" erupted after newborn Belmina Ibrisevic, who needed leave to go to Germany for an operation, was unable to get travel documents because of political deadlock on ID legislation. Popular anger intensified as government inaction meant that the infant couldn’t receive medical care and then later died.

Winston Churchill famously described the Balkans as a region that produces more history than it can consume. The bloody breakup of Yugoslavia reinforced the long-standing view of the Balkans as a land of strife at Europe’s edge, driven by implacable "ancient hatreds."

Yet nothing seemed farther from the truth when the presidents of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia joined their Croatian counterpart Ivo Josipovic for a summit on July 1 — something that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago. The leaders discussed ways to resolve the issues that still weigh heavily on regional ties. "Croatia has become a better society and I hope our neighbours will also complete this journey, as quickly as possible," Josipovic said after the meeting, underlining that Zagreb wanted all its regional neighbors to join the European club.

The E.U. accession process has become an important benchmark for progress towards democracy. Aspiring states not only have to pass hundreds of pieces of legislations to harmonize their laws with the European Union, but as Gerald Knaus and Kristof Bender of the European Stability Initiative have pointed out, to qualify for membership Croatia not only "adopted hundreds of new laws and regulations but also radically changed its political culture."

Croatia accession to the European Union could provide an impetus for other countries in the Western Balkans that aspire to E.U. membership. Although Serbia has received it accession negotiations date, progress in the talks is premised on the implementation of its agreements with Kosovo. Macedonia, another E.U. candidate country, has seen accession process stalled for years due to a row with Greece over its name. In Albania, E.U.-minded reforms came to a standstill in the past four years after a political crisis erupted following the 2009 contested parliamentary elections. Tirana is hopeful that it will receive its E.U. candidate status this fall.

There’s no question that the E.U. aspirants in the Western Balkans have much work ahead of them in terms of strengthening public institutions, the independence of the judiciary, and combating organized crime and corruption. They not only have to set their houses in order, but have to battle skepticism and "enlargement fatigue," both accentuated by the financial crisis. There is growing skepticism among E.U. member states, particularly Germany, against further enlargement of union for the time being.

Yet the deal with Croatia serves as a reminder that the European Union’s "soft power" can yield results when used consistently and effectively — a message especially welcome as Europe nears the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo and the start of the first World War. That’s an event that’s sure to prompt plenty of anguished reflection in the region. Nonetheless, many are starting to wonder whether the latest developments herald the dawning of a hopeful new era for the Balkans. It’s certainly long overdue.

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