Twenty Years After: Perspectives and Challenges for the Western Balkans

International Conference “Twenty Years After: Perspectives and Challenges for the Western Balkans”

Statement by Mr. Niels Engelschiøn, Director General, Department for European Affairs, Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Delivered at the Conference “Twenty years after: Perspectives and Challenges for the Western Balkans” in Prishtina, 29th May 2019.

Let me first thank the Balkan Policy Research Group (BPRG) and the Kosovo Centre for Security Studies (KCSS) for organizing this event. Norway has developed a close cooperation with both BPRG and KCSS in promoting good governance, reconciliation and institution-building in Kosovo. It is a pleasure for me to attend today’s Conference, and to offer Norway´s thoughts on the perspectives and challenges facing the Western Balkans, twenty years after the NATO intervention here in Kosovo.

Let me start with the perspectives, or maybe we should call it visions. I would like to share four visions with you here today:

The first vision is a united Europe. Europe is not complete without the Western Balkans. The region belongs to our continent both geographically and culturally. As Europeans we have a shared destiny – we are in the same boat. Our security, freedom and prosperity are mutually dependent. We need to safeguard and further develop our common European values. This basic insight is the foundation for our engagement in the Western Balkans. In recent years, even the most robust Western countries have been set under pressure, due to migration, terror risk, as well as economic and social alienation of large groups in society. Some seem to believe that the best way to solve such challenges is through an autocratic model of government and society. Let me be clear; that will not work! The system we want to protect is based on lessons from past conflicts, instability, mistakes and chaos. Binding cooperation and true democracy have been a successful recipe to promote safety and prosperity in Europe for more than sixty years. This should be acknowledged throughout Europe, also in the Western Balkans.

The second vision is the fulfillment of the six countries’ desire for integration in Euro-Atlantic structures and institutions. The backdrop is a fragile stability in the Western Balkans. The economies are relatively weak, youth unemployment is very high, corruption is widespread, and rule of law is inadequate. The positive evolution of the countries of Western Balkan cannot be taken for granted. The risk of backsliding is present. Any vacuum being created in the region, may be filled by forces with an anti-democratic and anti-Western agenda.

Norway strongly supports the integration of Western Balkans into Euro-Atlantic cooperation. We assists all six in implementing reforms required by NATO and the EU, as well as in advancing human rights and rule of law standards formulated by the Council of Europe and the OSCE. Our development assistance has a special focus on stability, democracy and human rights, rule of law and economic development. We are a substantial contributor to the EU-based Western Balkans Investment Framework (WBIF) and support the connectivity agenda of the Berlin Process/WB6. Norway has also contributed personnel to international operations and institutions operating in the Western Balkans, most notably to KFOR, where more than 6150 Norwegians have served since 1999. KFOR continues to play an important role in Kosovo.  

Genuine progress will require a lot from the countries in the region. Participation and membership in Euro-Atlantic institutions are based on defined criteria. The responsibility for taking steps to meet those criteria lies with governments, parliaments and other good forces in this region. I believe that you can do it. But it will take leadership and courage. Leadership to articulate a clear strategy and make sure it is implemented - and courage to look forward, and to not remain a hostage of the past.

The third vision is genuine reconciliation and strong cooperation throughout the Western Balkans. It may not be easy to agree on narratives about violent conflicts in the past, and to develop a common understanding of what is needed to reestablish justice, trust and cooperation. However, any rejection to deal with these issues may have a negative impact for generations – and put countries into a more permanent state of stagnation, tension and recurrent open conflicts. The objective should not only be to co-exist, but also to pave the way for strong regional cooperation. We believe that compromise is not a sign of weakness, but of strength. I understand that Euro-Atlantic integration is the number one priority, but you should prepare for this not only as individual countries, but also as a region. With few exceptions, the greatest benefits from cooperation comes from interaction with your closest neighbors, both regarding trade, business, infrastructure and human resources. Norway welcomes the agreement on REA (Regional Economic Area), and hope that this will be an inspiration for ambitious regional cooperation in other areas as well.

The fourth vision should be to solve outstanding conflicts. Norway applauds the steps taken by North Macedonia and Greece, and hope that their courage and leadership will serve as an inspiration for others. We encourage Kosovo and Serbia to show restraint, to refrain from provocative steps and statements, and to resume the normalization dialogue, facilitated by the European Union. Compromise will be needed from both sides. To successfully conclude the dialogue is a core national interest to both countries. It will provide new opportunities – so-called “peace dividends” – and open doors that today are closed, especially for Kosovo. Many have seen this year – 2019 – as a window of opportunity to reach a mutually acceptable compromise. I have been told that the vast majority of Kosovo citizens supports the dialogue. The main message is that people want change – to continue status quo is not an option. For the moment, however, unilateral actions from both sides, including the Kosovo tariffs on Serbian and Bosnian goods, are making it hard to achieve any progress in the dialogue. Such actions also influence our own policy. I hope that all parties as soon as possible will give the dialogue a fair chance to succeed. A positive step would be for both countries to take actions to implement all agreements already signed in Brussels.  

That were the perspectives or visions; now let me draw your attention to two key challenges, as I see it:

The first and most obvious challenge that needs to be addressed with more efforts, is the serious organized crime and corruption in Western Balkans. Such activities are like a disease, which may kill all optimism and belief in the future. Unless effectively addressed, it may tarnish this region and slow down Euro-Atlantic integration. It does also have negative impact on other parts of Europe. It is no secret that a large part of drug trafficking to Northern Europe, including Norway, stems from the Western Balkans.  

The second challenge is zero-sum politics. Political elites in the region should find modalities for political competition that builds respect, trust and a sense of shared responsibility across party lines. The opposition and other stakeholders should be included in a respectful and credible way. This is also necessary if you want to be able to effectively process the many rather tough reforms that Euro-Atlantic integration will demand.

If you tackle these two challenges, I am convinced that progress will be swift. Left unaddressed, however, these challenges will gradually undermine much of the hard-fought progress the last twenty years. It will make this region vulnerable to negative outside influence, lead to further migration and a deeper sense of contempt towards institutions and politicians.   

To conclude: Let us not forget that Kosovo and the rest of the Western Balkan countries, have made big steps and progress the last two decades. That is a fact and should be acknowledged. The bold objective should be to complete the transformation process as much as possible during the next decade. The overriding purpose is to deliver stability, wealth and progress to citizens and to the region as a whole.

Transformation means change, which sometimes may be difficult. There will always be certain groups and vested interests that do not want change. Some may be afraid of losing power and privileges. It is the responsibility of politicians to make the hard decisions and show the way, to the great benefit of the whole society in the long run. I am confident that Kosovo and the wider region have the skills, capacity and determination to succeed!  

Thank you for your attention.