Let’s face it: the region is in many ways still largely (mis)understood, treated, and referred to internationally as the ‘powder keg of Europe’.
It is expected that the security cooperation in a region with such recent history as the Western Balkans’ one would represent a must to prevent further conflicts arising from the nationalist past, but the truth, however, is quite different. Though the conflict 1990s were soon replaced by the increasing prospects of EU integration and heightened regional cooperation following major political changes in the region after 2000, only Slovenia and Croatia have so far managed to become the Union members.
The rest of the region remains faced with a rather unsuccessful and ultimately vague European integration agenda that has in the last decade become entangled with the migration crisis, new security (largely terrorist) threats (with some of these emanating in the Western Balkans itself), economic stagnation partly caused by such stagnation in the EU, and, last but not least, rising Western Balkan's authoritarianism. All this has since then additionally influenced regional security cooperation in a highly negative manner. The said cooperation has thus to this day remained largely EU-induced and ultimately dependent on the (changing) will of political elites when (not) to cooperate with their neighbors. This indicates the fact that security cooperation in the region has been effectively reduced to the political motivation of the elites (not) to act with respect to EU rewards and benefits received in this regard.
Having regional security cooperation subjected to the political will of the ruling elites in the Western Balkans is highly problematic, indicating that the region may not be able to solve those burning issues that stand before it and the entry into the Union in years to come. Not only that, but the lacking security cooperation also indicates an identity crisis that may additionally complicate the said EU entry for the Western Balkans.
This does not mean that there have been just a few regional cooperation venues aimed at security issues so far or that all of these security frameworks have been unsuccessful, but rather that their voluntary nature and being subjected to the domestic political elites’ preferences in (not) initiating cooperation with their neighbors remains worrisome. A multitude of regional security efforts has nevertheless been seen in the past two decades in the Western Balkans, the bulk of which have been generated, influenced, and funded externally by Brussels. Only some of these are considered successful, revealing the fact that regional security cooperation has remained an elite issue as such.
The Common Identity Test
Let’s face it: the region is in many ways still largely (mis)understood, treated, and referred to internationally as the ‘powder keg of Europe’, being tagged in a highly stereotypical manner, as Hehir recently discussed in his piece. This is not only seen in academic scholarship but chiefly in the popular discourse where the Western Balkans is portrayed as a synonym for perennial disorder and chaos, echoing, in Hehir’s words, colonial discourses and entertaining the thoughts of the need for the region to be supposedly ‘civilized’ (by EUrope).
In that respect, there is no wonder that there is very little (political) will with the elites to self-identify as coming from/being part of the said region, resulting in a major lack of common regional identity in political and security terms. For instance, Koneska wrote on this particular issue 14 years ago, indicating that the said problem was effectively stopping the Western Balkans from achieving a more meaningful regional cooperation framework security-wise. She mentioned several issues similar to the ones discussed by Hehir recently, highlighting the fact that negative connotations on the region had by that time already become part of both political and popular discourses in the region.
The unwanted tag of being/belonging to the Western Balkans is additionally caused by the 1990s, with the Yugoslav wars being fueled by the nationalist agenda that is even today reiterated by some political elites and their leaders. This is the reason why Emini and Marku in their joint piece elaborated on “the lack of trust among countries that have shared a conflicted past”, indicating this as a major obstacle towards more developed and meaningful security cooperation in the region. Taking into consideration the issues of stateness and disputed statehood (as in the case of Kosovo) that emanate from the nationalist past and continue to complicate relations in the region, it is fair to claim that the matter of achieving/having a common regional identity is quite problematic.
Several ways how to deal with this particular issue that come to mind are, for instance, developing trust among the political elites in the region, and, on the other hand, investing in political and social narratives that support advancing positive ideas and images of the region rather than remaining the prisoner of daily politics where clichés and banalities about the Balkans (many of them created in the region itself, to be honest) are replicated and abused towards gaining cheap political points in domestic politics. Last but not least, civil society should be included in this regard as well.
It is hard to imagine a move forward towards common regional identity without developing trust among the elites leading these states. Developing trust means, above all, developing consciousness that there are security concerns that are shared with one's neighbors. In addition to this, developing trust requires an additional step, this being the need to meet the shared security concerns, largely with respect to the issues of ethnic intolerance, extremism, organized crime, and terrorism. Once this step is done and security cooperation in this respect maintained, trust will be achieved accordingly and in the process of developing and widening the said cooperation. The aforementioned concerns are not only those of and emanating in the Balkans itself but are additionally shared with the Union.
For instance, the recent migration crisis as well as arms originating from the Western Balkans smuggled and used in terrorist attacks in Europe reveal the need to meet these security concerns that by far transcend national borders. This is the way to make the region more secure, allowing it to become an area of stability, with all states of the region participating. More than that, it is necessary to invest in political and social narratives that support advancing positive ideas and images of the region that the elites in region should advance rather than doing the exact opposite in advocating agendas that are exclusive (and segregationist) in ethnic, religious, and even social terms. This is the only way to successfully tackle major (regional security) problems, such as terrorism, smuggling, organized crime, and corruption, to name just a few.
Bringing NGOs and CSOs to the table
Inviting non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) to the table that have so far been largely excluded from regional security cooperation is the third step in this regard. Both NGOs and CSOs should be partners in this regard, with their role being pivotal in making the security cooperation framework more holistic (and therefore less dependent on the usual elite ‘want to/do not want to cooperate’ routine). Not only that this would make the framework more holistic, but it would make the security cooperation framework more extended and robust to tackle contemporary security issues.
This step would enable a base to be built towards developing a common regional identity that, unless created, will in all likelihood continue to significantly stall regional security cooperation, thus endangering the overall democratization of the region. In that respect, there is a need for the region to start identifying at the same time with itself in positive terms and with Europe alike. When saying ‘identify with’, I mean putting additional efforts into meeting shared security criteria and therefore working one’s way towards adopting the European Union values in the said process. This may indeed be difficult at times when the Union itself is facing backlash against liberal values in some of its member states, but is nevertheless necessary requirement for stabilization of the region in general.
Since Brussels has been the largest single donor to the Western Balkans not only with respect to the security cooperation frameworks, the region has a unique chance to use this support and move forward, building the base towards common identity that relinquishes the stereotypes and banalities of the past to create a solid base for the future. Hence, by meeting the shared security concerns, the states in the region would be able to break the curse of trust that has for more than two decades now been preventing them from having a common regional identity, allowing them to truly recreate the image of the region towards stability and prosperity.
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Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute of Communication Studies or the donor.