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Altmann: Ukranian crisis puts the Balkans in focus again

Franz-Lothar Altmann

The accession of the Balkan countries to the European Union becomes even more important given the protracted crises in Ukraine, which reverberates across Europe, so these countries can reach "safer waters" before Russia expands its influence in the region, says Franz Lothar Altmann, former director of the Balkan branch of the Berlin-based Institute for International and Security Affairs.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Altmann stresses that a August 28 Balkan summit in Berlin, hosted by German chancellor Angela Merkel, should reaffirm the Brussel's position that Balkan countries are still in focus, though it is unlikely to yield tangible results with regard to their accession to the EU.

Here is a transcript of the interview:

RFE/RL: What outcome do you expect from the upcoming meeting in Berlin organized by [German] Chancellor [Angela] Merkel. Is it going to push the badly needed sweeping reforms in the Balkans, mainly in Bosnia, or it will be just one among many meetings, including the one in Thessaloniki 11 years ago, but without any visible results?

Altmann: This meeting was scheduled months before, but it has become much more important under these circumstances we observe in the neighborhood of the Balkans. So, the meeting was intended to reaffirm that enlargement [of the EU] will not stop, that it will proceed. There was some skepticism in the Balkans, that the process is too slow and that the conditions are becoming harder and harder; and therefore the meeting was intended as a signal that there are conditions which must be met and it might be that the EU is much more keen that they satisfy the conditions than that they be welcomed into the EU . But [enlargement] continues. The proof is Croatia, the next proof is Montenegro and now Serbia. Now the situation has changed in the sense that the Balkans became afraid that the attention of the EU countries and of Germany in particular has switched to developments in Ukraine and the Crimea. Now this meeting has become much more important and now [candidates for accession] must be reassured that the Balkans haven’t lost our attention. Now, maybe in the midterm future it becomes even more important that the Balkans are let into the so called safe waters toward the EU because of the events in Ukraine and because of the events that have happened in Crimea. So this is a second reaffirmation. We want them to see that the Balkans are even more important before Russia extends its interest to the Balkans, which obviously was Moscow’s agenda. You see South Stream for example, the attempt to bring Serbia closer to the Russian economy. This meeting is important to say that we see this and now, even more, we want to make clear that the Balkans are not abandoned, they are now even more important.

RFE/RL: Serbia, for example, is trying strike a middle ground by following the European path which includes the recognation of the Ukrainian territorial integrity with Crimea as its part, but at the same time is not willing to support or implement any sanctions on Russia as Montenegro did. Do you think that accession to the EU is not the only reason to summon this meeting but it obviously worries about Serbia’s position, too?

Altmann: Of course, because a candidate state is on one hand assuring the EU that this is the only direction they want to follow in the future--namely towards Brussels--and who at the same time it is not willing to join the club in foreign politics. One of the areas where EU has problems is keeping members together. And now even new member candidates are not following this path from the very beginning, and this has to worry Brussels and it also worries Berlin. So this sandwich position of Serbia is partly understood from the interest of Serbia but on the other hand Brussels must say that this is not what we expect from a neighbor who wants to become a member of the club.

RFE/RL: How long the EU will tolerate Serbia’s “sitting on two chairs at the same time” position?

Altmann: What might become the turning point or provoke more outspoken reaction from Brussels is when other countries like Brazil or Croatia or let’s say Macedonia will use Serbia as an entry point to the Russian market. And you know that there are already negotiations between Serbia and Russia to extend the list of companies that get open access to the Russian market. So there is the temptation of other countries to use Serbia to re-label export products in Serbia and use Serbia as an entry to Russia. And if that happens, then of course Brussels will react.

RFE/RL: But following an "aide-memoire" received last week from Brussels, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic tried to reassure the EU that Serbia will not use this opportunity to fill the gap left by European companies and to increase its export to Russia. But, at the same time, he reiterated that Serbia is not going to impose any sanctions on Russia. So would that, including the aide-memoire, be discussed in more details in Berlin?

Altmann: It will not be discussed, it will just be accepted. The question is how much one can believe in that. Because this is not only the question of the politicians but also of the companies, considering that Serbia is negotiating very openly with Russia to extend the number of those companies that have access to the Russian market. Then this is a double game.

RFE/RL: When Chancellor Merkel said that she is a bit disappointed because Balkan countries advance towards the EU at a "snail's pace", did she refer mostly to the Serbia’s position to Russia or to the overall bleak situation, mainly in Bosnia, that is divided into two entities without a non-functional central government.

Altmann: Bosnia is a really sad case and one cannot see in the near future that things will change substantially. I think that Republika Srpska and the Federation will not be able to come to terms to form a stronger central government. You know, if Republika Srpska has established its own office in Brussels, it shows that it is not willing to go via Sarajevo to Brussels. So Bosnia and Herzegovina is a special case. The other is certainly Serbia. Serbia really has to deliver reforms and improve its relationship to Kosovo considering complaints from Brussels that the implementation of last year’s agreement is going too slow-- that it’s really not moving forward. So this is the second issue and the third is the relationship to Russia.

RFE/RL: Two years ago the EU and the US tried to mediate and to push reforms in Bosnia. Last year [European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy] Stefan Fule presided over many meetings but nothing conclusive came out of them. So do you think that Germany is poised to take a much more active role and which means it has at its disposal in order to instigate badly needed reforms belated for almost 20 years.

Altmann: The EU is practically the partner for Bosnia and Herzegovina and the EU tried hard. Of course Berlin is very interested that Bosnia really goes forward but I think not too much can be expected from Berlin itself regarding Bosnia. This will continue in the future mainly via Brussels. If Fule has not managed to bring the two parties in Bosnia to compromise, then Berlin will not be able [to do so] because the real strong moment and the strong target is Brussels, involving the implementation of the stabilization and association agreement and possible membership in the future. Berlin cannot offer too much and it will also not give more money and it cannot bring more personnel support to Bosnia, so we should not expect too much from Berlin.

RFE/RL: If everything has to go through Brussels, the EU and the European Commission, why then Germany is organizing this meeting? Many expect that Germany will take the issue of the EU enlargement to the Balkans into its hands.

Altmann: Germany has seen that Brussels is obviously blocked by the elections for the parliament and also is somewhat annoyed by the stalled situation in the Balkans. Therefore, Berlin wants to give another push but it cannot itself move anything too much. This is the signal that Germany, as the strongest economy, is also a leading country with regard to enlargement in the southeast. So Berlin felt it should gather these people and say that Germany, as a guiding force, is still behind them but the end depends on them and on Brussels. That will be pushed, too, but this must be accomplished together.

RFE/RL: Given the recent failures of the international community, then, could it be another unsuccessful attempt to bring about reforms to the Balkans, mainly in Bosnia, and the meeting might end with verbal statements but not producing breakthrough?

Altmann: I do not expect a breakthrough. I only expect the reaffirmation that the Western Balkans are still in focus and maybe even more than some months ago because of the events in the east--I mean in Ukraine. So that will be one of the main issues. We want to reaffirm that … [Balkan countries] will be our main focus in the future and that we will support you, but you must deliver. And this goes for Sarajevo and Banja Luka and it also goes for Belgrade and Kosovo.