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EU risks setbacks in Balkans

The magnet of EU membership faces its toughest test in the Western Balkans in the coming weeks, Reuters says.

In an analysis about the crisis in the Balkans, the agency says that the worst-case scenario for EU policymakers would include Macedonian refusal to change its name and Greece blocking its bid for NATO membership; Kosovo partitioned de facto between Albanians and Serbs and becoming another frozen conflict; Serbia turning its back on the EU and electing a nationalist government. “This worst-case scenario could be reality by the summer,” said Gerald Knaus, a Balkans analyst and president of the European Stability Initiative think tank. In a drive to avoid that outcome, EU and United Nations officials are using the tools at their disposal, the article says, “diplomacy, money for regional cooperation projects, the prospect of visa-free travel and the power of emulation of the most advanced former Yugoslav republics”.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said this week he hoped every Western Balkan country would make progress on the road to European integration this year. Slovenia, the only former Yugoslav republic to join the EU so far, has invited foreign ministers from all the Western Balkans countries to join their 27 EU counterparts to discuss closer ties at an informal meeting later this month. There is optimism in Brussels that Croatia may overcome its fishing zone dispute with Italy and Slovenia, and that Macedonia will solve the name dispute with Greece in time for the NATO summit in early April. “Bosnia could sign a first agreement on closer ties with the EU next month provided parliament adopts a police reform law, and Serbia could do the same if pro-European forces win a parliamentary election due in May,” Reuters continues with the optimistic scenario, which includes closer ties with Montenegro. “But Balkan analysts fear Brussels may be indulging in wishful thinking and point to the risk of contagion from the Kosovo conflict,” it also adds. “We have to deal with the option that the EU’s transformative power doesn’t work for all.

There may be political elites, who are not in a rush to hasten the process of European integration,” said Jacques Rupnik, a Balkans expert at France’s Institute of Political Science. “While EU and NATO officials are relieved there has been little violence since Kosovo seceded from Serbia on February 17 and threats of economic sanctions or an energy cut-off have not materialized, they are worried at signs of a soft partition,” the analysis continues.

EU officials speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity acknowledge the risk of a split between a Serb “UNMIK-land” from which the EU is barred and an EU-supervised, independent Albanian Kosovo - with no prospect of a handover from UNMIK to EU supervision because Russia would block it at the United Nations. “While more than half the 27 EU member states have recognized Kosovo, wider international acceptance has been slow and some EU officials fear Latin American states may follow Spain’s lead in refusing recognition without a UN Security Council resolution,” the article says, and continues: “The EU’s biggest concern, and the one over which it may have the least influence, is the prospect that embittered Serbs, alienated by EU backing for Kosovo’s secession, could vote for hardline nationalists in May.”

Although Boris Tadić, described as pro-European, narrowly won over Tomislav Nikolić, seen as “radical nationalist”, “relations have since deteriorated over Kosovo”. Senior EU officials and foreign ministers have been told they would not be welcome for now in Belgrade, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said this week. “That leaves the EU with few levers to influence the vote, especially as the Dutch and Belgians continue to block the signing of an agreement with Serbia until it makes progress on handing over war crimes indictees,” Reuters says. “You can’t push on a rope,” one senior EU policymaker was quoted, warning that “another attempt to micromanage Serbian politics could backfire on Brussels”. (B92)