This article has been written for Albanian Free Press newspaper and www.albanianfreepress.al
By ALFRED PEZA
Albanians have often cursed the fact that they live in the Balkans, relating this to their poverty, wars and divisions. A few weeks ago, when the European Commission recommended the opening of negotiations for EU accession for Albania and Macedonia, many people here rejoiced, but it looks like the door into Brussels is not as easy as it looks to be opened on June 28.
Although Brussels admits that Albania and Republic of North Macedonia have fulfilled all the necessary criteria, in the best case scenario, Tirana and Skopje may be required to deliver several conditions before their negotiations are opened. In the worst case scenario, the European aspiration for both countries will remain a distant dream.
The reasons why the EU is hesitating to accept Western Balkans are numerous. But we can mention three main ones, turning this issue into a Bermuda Triangle: domestic challenges, the dilemmas of the US-EU and the influence of the Russian factor not only in the region.
Albania and Macedonia find themselves in the same EU accession phase and both of them are waiting to receive the green light in order to start the last segment of their marathon for accession. Serbia and Montenegro have overcome this phase. Kosovo is expecting the visa liberalization process to take place within 2018, while Bosnia and Herzegovina is last in this process, due to its internal problems.
As far as Albania is concerned, the reform in the justice above all, but also the other four key priorities which have been imposed as conditions for the opening of negotiations, have been delivered. This is also admitted by senior officials in Brussels, considering the issue of the Albanian judicial reform as a model to be followed by other countries. July has been considered to be an important month, because Tirana and Athens have announced that they will strike a deal concerning key issues carried forward from the past, including the maritime border and the war law.
On Sunday, prime ministers Zaev and Tsipras were present in the ceremony of the signing of the agreement reached between Skopje and Athens regarding the name. Now, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia will be renamed Republic of North Macedonia. This is considered to be a historic step in the relations between the two countries and the Balkans in general. This agreement also enables Macedonia to launch EU accession talks.
According to the Voice of America, corruption, rule of law and reforms continue to be the main obstacles that Western Balkan countries encounter in their path toward EU integration. This was said by the participants in a debate held at John Hopkins University in Washington. “There exists unrealistic optimism among millions of people in Western Balkans for a quick accession in the EU”, said Thomas Countryman, former senior official of the State Department concerning European affairs. According to him, Balkan countries need to focus on delivering the technical criteria regarding the process of integration.
“The countries of the region need to realize that there exists no clear political path toward EU accession. In the past, some countries have been successful in their integration in the European Union by following a political path. Forging friendships with EU countries is a good thing, but the political argument is a hundred times stronger if countries have delivered their technical criteria”, Countryman said.
When it comes to accession in the European Union and NATO, Western Balkan states see this as a process which needs to be signed off by Europe and the US too. This seemed to be the case with Obama’s presidency, but Trump’s foreign policy, despite the great expectations, has not really changed in the Balkans.
A stronger presence of the United States and European Union is important for the advancement of the Balkan countries in the European-Atlantic process, was said by the participants of the discussion taken place in Washington.
The Russian factor
Balkans remains a priority of the Russian foreign policy and Moscow sees its presence in the region, including Montenegro, as an attempt to balance Western presence there. This was said by Montenegro’s Health Minister, Nevbojsa Todorovic. Meanwhile, Thomas Countryman said that Russia wishes to exert its influence and encourage the Balkan countries to adopt its model of a corrupt government which has control over the media. “This is not a smart route for any of the Balkan countries. Putinism is not the formula for EU accession”.
Daniel Serwer said that the Balkan countries must not ignore Russia’s attempts to have an influence on the region’s integration processes.
“Serbia continues to flirt with Russia, because Russia has an influence. Russia exerts its legitimate influence through diplomacy and other ways which may not be that legitimate. No politician in the Balkans can ignore the fact that Russia was behind Djukanovic’s attempted murder. This must be taken seriously”, Serwer said.
As we can see, the European destiny of Western Balkans is now “travelling” in the middle of the “Bermuda Triangle” and its fuel can only last until 28th of June. Albania and Macedonia have done everything they could, following every guideline that Brussels issued for them. If USA and EU decide not to give the green light to Tirana and Skopje, one thing is sure: the next journey will be surrounded by mystery.
When George W. Bush visited Tirana 12 years ago, he referred to the proclamation of the independence of Kosovo by saying “time is now”. Meanwhile, the time that United Europe opens its doors to Albania and Republic of North Macedonia is now.
Note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Albanian Free Press’ editorial policy