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Trouble still lurks in the Balkans
By Dan Kobayashi
Global Beat Syndicate
BOSTON—Six years after the conclusion of the Kosovo war and four years after the Ohrid Framework Agreement ended ethnic violence in Macedonia, the Balkans have settled into a real, if tenuous peace and vanished from Western headlines. But as the troubled region moves toward a final discussion of borders, minority rights and its place in Europe, the risk of renewed conflict grows.
This became abundantly clear six weeks ago when three bombs exploded in the center of Pristina where I was visiting. The blasts contained a message from Albanian nationalists to the UN as it evaluates whether Kosovo is ready to advance to final status talks—the Balkans are at peace today, but they need not be tomorrow, and anything short of independence for Kosovo will lead to violence.
Another war in Kosovo could quickly spread to Macedonia and Montenegro, both of which have large Albania minorities, and might even draw in Albania itself. In other words, it could create the nightmare scenario that originally led NATO to intervene in the Balkans in 1999. While the sentiment in Kosovo is that independence is inevitable, the UN does not unilaterally redraw the borders of sovereign states like Serbia, so securing independence for Kosovo, and therefore peace, is completely dependant on the willingness of the Serbs to voluntary relinquish what they perceive as their spiritual and historical homeland.
There is only one solution: Europe. The belief that Europe is the answer to problems of economic stagnation, corruption and ethnic tension is the only idea that binds almost everyone in the Balkans, regardless of ethnicity, nationality, party affiliation or profession. And eventual EU membership is the most powerful incentive to good behavior and reform in history. The wealth offered by the EU is so great that in most countries, political parties are willing to work together to create the open political and economic systems demanded by the EU and form coalitions against ultra-nationalists whose election would jeopardize the prospects for EU accession.
Moreover, fast-track EU membership is the only “bribe” that could potentially persuade Serbia to voluntarily relinquish Kosovo. A Balkans enmeshed in the EU would be far more prosperous, and the free flow of capital and people would gradually dissipate rivalries and tensions, just as it did between France and Germany.
The trouble is that betting everything on Europe is a serious risk. The promise of EU accession has helped win the peace in the Balkans, but the removal of that hope, a prospect raised by the recent defeat of the proposed EU constitution in referenda in France and the Netherlands, could quickly inflame the region. Even if the EU remains open to expansion, Europe is gambling that every Balkan country can reach the standards required for accession and that by admitting them all at the same time (with the exceptions of Slovenia, which is already a member, and Croatia and Bulgaria, which are scheduled to join in 2007), they can solve every border dispute and minority rights issue in one grand maneuver.
But if one border dispute cannot be resolved or one country cannot respect its minorities, the whole plan could crumble under its own weight. With no other solution to the Balkan Question, Europe could be forced to make the painful choice between risking new ethnic violence by locking out either the offending country or the whole region and inviting countries that are not up to European standards to join the EU.
With the EU as “Plan A,” there is no “Plan B.” The only Plan B is more war, more poverty and more ethnic cleansing.
While the lack of a Plan B is unfortunate, it is also probably unavoidable. If there was another solution, the Balkans might not have suffered so terribly for centuries. Thus, it is essential that the Europeans, the UN and even the United States listen to the message in the rumbling of the Pristina bombs—the woes of the Balkans have not been solved, only mitigated, and unless the West can make the political, financial and intellectual investments required to prepare all Balkan countries for EU membership and the Europeans can maintain the will to embrace them, future explosions may carry far more than a message.