Article by Marika Djolai, member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), and an International Development Consultant and social inclusion Policy Analyst in the Western Balkans.
The future of the Western Balkans (WB6) remains uncertain and plagued by a number of challenges persisting in each of the countries. What makes matters more complicated is an array of unresolved bilateral issues between the countries located on the Balkan Peninsula. As a result, there is a constant worry among various actors, particularly international, that existing challenges are steering the region towards potential new conflicts, an outcome that nobody wants to see. The European pathway appears to be the most viable alternative for the Western Balkans in combination with strengthening regional cooperation between the countries in the spirit of good neighbourly relations.
Bilateral disputes encompass a vast range of issues – from unresolved border or territorial disputes between the former Yugoslav republics; identity, protection and representation of national minorities; to the status of refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from the neighbouring countries. Other challenges that emerged from the recent wars, which additionally strain the relations between the countries, include the rights of refugees living outside their home country, such as their rights to pension; the war crimes prosecution; transitional justice and search of the missing persons; and property restitution. Finally, succession issues of the former SFRY, pertaining to property, border demarcation and other issues defined in the UN-brokered ‘Secession Agreement on former Yugoslavia SFRY’ are an additional source of disputes between the Western Balkans countries. Because of their diverse nature, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
One possible path for finding solutions is with the Berlin process’ framework, a five-year initiative that has been inaugurated by Chancellor Merkel in 2014, in order to reinforce the commitment to the EU-accession. Its main goal is stabilisation of the region by revitalising the bilateral and multilateral ties between the Western Balkans countries and selected EU member states, particularly on issues of infrastructural and economic development and cooperation and resolving outstanding bilateral disputes. Many of these issues are being resolved using diplomatic back channels, for which the Berlin process is an important forum for exchange and mediation. More visible, the annual Western Balkans summits are the major milestones of the process, which are used for action planning and progress review.