Western Balkans 2020: a year of mixed sorrow and happiness

On February 16, 2020, President Michel of the European Council, President Von der Lein of the European Commission, and leaders of the Western Balkans attended the EU-Western Balkans informal meeting at the EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

In the past few years, people’s descriptions of the annual situation in the Western Balkans have been “critical” or “decisive.” 2020 is no exception. This year, the situation in the region showed some new features and changes: Serbia, North Macedonia, and Montenegro ushered in parliamentary elections; Serbia and Kosovo resumed dialogue; the European Union issued a proposal for “improved expansion procedures” and held the third Western Balkans. Summit, but regional members have made no substantial progress in the process of joining the EU. At the same time, the new crown epidemic is raging around the world, and the economies and societies of the Western Balkans have also been severely impacted. Under the influence of multiple factors, the ending year of the second decade of the 20th century in the region can be described as difficult.

The political process of many countries is not “stable”
It is not an exaggeration to regard 2020 as the “election year” in the Western Balkans. Serbia, North Macedonia and Montenegro held parliamentary elections, Bosnia and Herzegovina held local elections, two autonomous regions in Kosovo held mayoral elections, and Albania revised its electoral law. The Serbian parliamentary elections and the North Macedonian parliamentary elections originally scheduled for April 2020 were rescheduled to June 21 and July 15, respectively. The local elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina were postponed from October 4 to November 15 due to insufficient funds. Judging from the results, there have been many new changes in the political arena of these countries. In Serbia, the party alliance headed by the Kadima Party led by President Vucic won 60.65 percent of the vote and won a majority of seats in the parliament with a landslide victory, but after the election, the country broke out the biggest riot in nearly a decade. , Brought a lot of trouble to the authorities and sounded the alarm for its future governance.

The Montenegrin opposition party coalition won the right to form a cabinet after the election. The Socialist Democratic Party lost its ruling position for the first time since 1991, and Montenegro’s first change of power since the transition.

For a period of time, local elections have been the focal point of Bosnia and Herzegovina politics, especially in Mostar of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and there have been no municipal elections since 2008. In July, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina reached a consensus on holding the municipal elections in Mostar on December 20.

In November, the cities of Podujevo and North Mitrovica in Kosovo both held mayoral elections due to the promotion of mayors to “members of the cabinet”. If it is expected that the mayor of North Mitrovica will continue to be controlled by the Serb List Party, then the position of the mayor of Podujevo has been changed from a member of the ruling party Kosovo Democratic Alliance to a member of the Self-Determination Party, indicating that the foundation of the administration’s governance is not stable. .

On October 5, the Albanian Parliament passed the “Amendment to the Albanian Electoral Law”. The main content is to reduce the threshold for political parties to enter the Parliament to 1%, which is conducive to more political forces, especially small parties, entering the Parliament. The purpose of passing the amendment is to meet the EU’s requirement to initiate negotiations with the Arab League. However, the opposition parties in Afghanistan are not satisfied. European and American countries believe that the passage of the amendment lacks political consensus and consultation. The European Commission’s advisory body, the “Venice Commission,” even accused the electoral law reform of “extreme hasty.

Little progress towards integration into Europe
Serbia and Kosovo will resume dialogue in 2020, and the process of “normalization of relations” between the two sides is progressing slowly. On March 26, the Kosovo Self-Determination Party government received a vote of no confidence due to its inability to fight the epidemic, and it fell in less than two months in power. After taking office, the Democratic League government showed a positive attitude to improve relations with Serbia. On June 6, the new government announced that it would withdraw Kosovo’s decision to unilaterally impose 100% tariffs on Serbian products in November 2018, which was a crucial step for the resumption of the Seko Dialogue. On July 16, Serbian President Vucic and Ko “Prime Minister” Hoti held talks in the European Union, marking the reopening of the dialogue between the two sides, which had been suspended for nearly two years. Subsequently, a new round of Secco expert dialogue was held one after another. On September 4, Vucic and Hoti met in Washington. Under the witness of U.S. President Trump, both parties signed the text of “economic normalization”. However, neither the EU-led dialogue nor the meeting facilitated by the United States have pointed to the signing of a comprehensive agreement on the “normalization of relations” of Seko. The negotiations and dialogues between the two sides have resumed at the level of missing persons, financial assets, etc., and are related to the sovereignty status of science and technology. And it is still difficult to break through on the core issues of the Serb autonomous institutions in northern Kosovo. Hoti even said that if the two sides cannot sign a comprehensive agreement, the section will consider re-imposing 100% tariffs on Serbian products. From this perspective, it will take time to resolve the Kosovo issue.

North Macedonia and Albania started negotiations for accession to the EU but failed. In June and October 2019, the EU twice postponed the opening of accession negotiations with the two countries and decided to postpone new relevant arrangements until the 2020 EU-Western Balkans Zagreb summit. At the same time, under the advocacy and promotion of France and other countries, on February 5, 2020, the EU issued an “improved expansion procedure” proposal, highlighting that the new procedure will apply to the accession negotiations between the two countries. On March 24, the European Union reached an agreement and agreed to “give the green light” to the start of the two countries’ accession negotiations. The third EU-Western Balkan Summit (Zagreb Summit) held in May focused on the “European Prospects” of the Western Balkans, but did not involve the specific “timetable” and “road map” for accession. The specific time of Albania and North Macedonia’s accession negotiations is not mentioned. Entering the second half of the year, especially at the end of the year, the European Union’s rotating presidency, Germany, and the European Parliament and other institutions have called for the opening of accession negotiations with the two countries as soon as possible. However, Bulgaria refused to start the EU membership negotiations with North Macedonia on the grounds of disputes over language, common historical figures and events. Albania was rejected by some EU member states because of “substandard conditions”.

The integration of other members into the European integration process has nearly stalled. On June 30, the European Union and Montenegro opened the last chapter of Montenegro’s accession negotiations at the intergovernmental meeting held in Brussels, the eighth chapter “market competition.” So far, Montenegro has opened all the chapters of the EU membership negotiations, but only completed three chapters. For the first time, Serbia did not open any new chapter of its accession negotiations during the year. Bosnia and Herzegovina is still striving to become a candidate for the EU. In accordance with the “road map” for EU membership, the European Commission will evaluate the questionnaires for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s accession to the EU. After receiving affirmative suggestions, Bosnia and Herzegovina will become a candidate. Throughout 2020, Bosnia and Herzegovina will strive to advance reforms in accordance with the 14 priorities emphasized by the European Commission. However, there has been little progress in reforms in core areas such as the rule of law. In addition, the process of Kosovo’s integration into Europe has stalled.

Will the EU push the Western Balkans to the forefront of geo-competitiveness?
The EU has increased its investment in the Western Balkans. In 2019, the newly appointed President of the European Commission von der Lein positioned his team as a “geopolitical committee”, and this idea is directed to the Western Balkans. In addition to the European Union’s assistance and support to the Western Balkan countries in response to, prevention and control of the epidemic, the EU’s agenda and “actions” in the region have been frequently: “improved expansion procedures” have been passed; the third Western Balkan summit has been held; Miroslav Lechak, a diplomat with extensive work experience in the Western Balkans, was appointed as the EU Special Representative for Western Balkan Affairs and the Special Representative for the Seko Dialogue; in July 2020, with the efforts of the European Union, the two sides finally returned Dialogue table: In September, the EU pressured Serbia to give up participating in the “Slavic Brothers-2020” military exercise.

Does the EU have the ability to offset the influence of extraterritorial actors on the Western Balkans? In 2020, the United States and Russia will continue their policy of intervening in the affairs of the Western Balkans. The most important move by the United States is to intervene in the Seco dialogue. The Seko leaders met in Washington and each signed the “Economic Normalization” text. Russia still has an important influence on the affairs of Serbia and the Serbian Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. On June 23, as soon as the Senate parliamentary elections ended, Vucic visited Russia and met with President Putin. Although Serbia failed to continue participating in the military exercises of the “Slavic Brothers”, the enthusiasm for military cooperation between Russia and Serbia has not diminished. In October, the Russian government passed a document authorizing the Ministry of Defense to open an office in Serbia. In November, Russia exported the T-72MS “White Eagle” main battle tank to Serbia.

In terms of integration into Europe, 2020 in the Western Balkans is largely another “lost year”. Some commentators believe that in the next few years, since the accession of the Western Balkans is almost excluded from the EU agenda, the reform of various members may be stagnant, and the region will face more risks. In addition, the Western Balkan policy of the new US administration and the trend of US-Europe relations will have a significant impact on the process of the region. Although the European Union’s high representative for foreign and security policy Borelli said after the US presidential election, Europe and the United States are not game relations on the Western Balkans, especially the Seko Dialogue, the EU welcomes cooperation with the United States. However, the interests and concerns of the United States and Europe in the Western Balkans are not exactly the same, and there are still variables whether they can cooperate effectively in promoting the Seko Dialogue. At the same time, Russia will still exert a special influence on key issues. In this sense, the process of Western Balkan countries’ integration into European integration will face uncertainty, and it does not rule out the possibility of a new round of geopolitical games and even conflicts in the region.