West Balkans and the Polish Issue

15. 3. 2017

Croatian EU accession on 1st july 2013 will mean tightening the relations between Central Europe and West Balkans. Poland cannot afford to neglect its relations with this region.

In recent years it has been announced a number of times that the EU enlargement process in the Western Balkans would be halted. These announcements were always premature, for although the EU enlargement did slow down somewhat, Montenegro began negotiations last year and Serbia will probably start them this year. Albania stands a good chance of achieving candidate status this year. But the most important event in the Western Balkans in 2013 will be the Croatian EU accession.

Croatia is the biggest and richest economy in the region, plays the role of a bridge between Central Europe and the Western Balkans and its regional influence is significant. Croatian membership forms an important stage in the process of the emergence of a greater Central Europe, an area between Estonia and Albania, lying on the north-south axis and including post-communist countries which are or will become NATO and EU members. The borders of the area are marked by three seas: Adriatic, Baltic and Black, and it is situated on the frontier of the transatlantic world in the neighborhood of Germany, the key partner for the whole region. The most important common interest of these countries is catching up with Western Europe and the success of the modernization process. Consequently this would mean a full empowerment of the region in the EU, its ultimate emergence as an important actor.

As the poorest and least integrated region in the transatlantic structures, the Western Balkans are a major challenge for this process. The break-up of Yugoslavia was accompanied by the bloodiest conflicts in Europe since World War II. The West concluded, not unjustifiably, that the best if not the only guarantee of the region’s stability was its integration with the EU. Consequently, and unlike in the case of Eastern Europe and Turkey, their accession is unreservedly supported by all EU members, although the speed and character of this process is being debated.

Europeans have realised that a permanent existence of a huge belt of instability stretching from the Kola Peninsula to Albania would pose a gigantic threat to the EU. The hasty acceptance of Romania and Bulgaria, which was obviously treated as a lesser evil, since both countries were glaringly not up to standards as far as respecting the Copenhagen criteria were concerned, was an answer to this threat. The instability belt was broken into two separate parts: post-Soviet one and southern one (Albania, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina).

Any problems of the EU with the integration of the Western Balkans would undermine its credibility and its ambitions to play the role of a global power. And hence the EU activity in the Western Balkans is much more intense than in the east of the continent and will be increasing. Until the Balkans are stable, they will act as a kind of competition to the EU involvement in Eastern Europe.

The collapse of hopes for a rapid Ukrainian accession and removing this prospect to an indefinite future raises important questions regarding Polish foreign policy strategy and we must start considering these questions now. The enlargement issue should not be reduced to the Ukrainian accession in Polish political theory and practice. In 2013—2030 the matters of enlargement will be decided in the south-east: in Albania, Bosnia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia and Serbia. But Poland should not perceive the Balkan dimension in terms of a threat to Polish eastern policy. Whether we like it or not, without stabilizing the Western Balkans (through the accession process) a major increase of the EU involvement in Eastern Europe is impossible. Therefore a rapid stabilization of the Western Balkans is in the vital interest of Poland.

It would also be good if Poland was able to utilize the links between the Balkans and the Ukraine and Moldova (Strategy for the Danube, the Black Sea Synergy, Organization for the Cooperation of the Black Sea Countries, membership of Moldova in all Balkan organizations, Central European Initiative) for tightening the relations of these two countries with the EU. In terms of economic and political development some countries of the Western Balkans are perceived by the EU—with its high European standards—as placed on the same, and in some aspects even worse, level than the Ukraine, Moldova or Georgia. These three countries are similar to some Western Balkan states in being faulty democracies, which is a source of instability and at the same time it precludes a quasi-stability through introducing a Belarus- style authoritarian regime. Consequently, the stability in the Ukraine and Moldova, just like in the Western Balkans, requires a full democratization and building the rule of law, which is not very likely without EU support. Invoking these similarities, Poland should encourage the EU to implement some of the solutions from the Western Balkans in the countries of Eastern Europe (for example a full liberalization of the visa system) and then according the latter the status of potential candidates for EU membership.

But the credibility of the Polish argumentation will be very limited if Poland does not get more intensely engaged in the Western Balkans. In the last two decades, Poles have often served important functions in the UN missions in the region (for example the former prime minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki). Additionally, there was a time when Polish military contingents belonged to the largest in the UNN missions (for example EUFOR in Bosnia or EULEX in Kosovo). It is also worth remembering that the Western Balkans are among the most important directions in the Polish development aid (bilateral and multilateral, through EU institutions). In some years Poland was in the top ten of donors for Bosnia or Montenegro. Despite all this the awareness of the scale of our involvement in the stabilization of the region is very limited and rarely exploited on the international scene.

Today the presence of Polish businesspeople is much more important than the presence of Polish soldiers, police officers and officials. But the volume of trade between Poland and the Balkans was just $1.5 billion in 2011. By way of comparison, in the case of tiny Estonia, it almost reached $1.3 billion and with Latvia it was over $1.5 billion. Only the economic relations between Poland and Croatia are slightly more important for the smaller partner. According to Croatian data, joint Croatian investment in Poland amounted to almost 5% of total Croatian foreign investment in 2012. The Poles constitute about 5% of foreign tourists (one of the largest groups) in Croatia, where tourism is responsible for close to 20% of the GDP.

Raising the awareness of the historical and cultural ties between Poland and the Western Balkans is also extremely important. The Polish involvement in the region is not unprecedented, on the contrary: it is a “nostalgia trip.” Relations between Poland and the Balkans stem from the relations with Central Europe, especially Hungary and the Habsburg Monarchy. A large part of the Western Balkans (Croatia, Bosnia, Vojvodina, Belgrade) was directly or indirectly (fiefdom) located within the borders of the Hungarian Kingdom for centuries. In the Austrian-Hungarian period (1878–1918) the Poles constituted a significant part of CK officials and judges in Bosnia; a Pole was deputy mayor of Sarajevo. Relations between Croats and Serbs on the one hand and Poles on the other had a great influence on the development of the proto-Yugoslav and Yugoslav idea (for example, the conceptions of archbishop Łaski and the federalist ideas of Adam Czartoryski). And in the 16th–18th centuries it was Poland rather than Russia that was perceived by Balkan Christians as a potential liberator from the Turkish rule. It is no accident that the greatest work of Croatian literature, the epic poem Osman by Ivan Gundulić, tells the story of the Polish-Turkish battle of Chocim (Khotyn, 1620).

Poland cannot afford to neglect its relations with West Balkans. A greater involvement of Poland in the region would make it easier to persuade the partners from the Visegrád Group that they should intensify their cooperation with Poland in Eastern Europe. What is more, the Western Balkans need to deepen regional cooperation, while the Visegrád Group needs joint actions beyond its own backyard.

The Visegrád Group countries already have made an important contribution to the development of regional cooperation in the Balkans. On the initiative of the V4 countries the Central European Free Trade Association (CEFTA) was established in 1990 and in the following years joined by Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia. After the EU accession in 2004 the V4 Group left this organization but as the most important economic organization in the region CEFTA remains a very significant contribution of Central Europe to the development of regional cooperation in the Western Balkans. In 2003—2007 all countries of the region became its members.

Today Poland should get more involved in the Visegrád Group actions addressed to the Western Balkans and aimed at sharing our experiences with the transition. Poland should also make sure that the V4 becomes an inspiration for intensifying the development of regional cooperation in the Western Balkans. The best solution would be to establish permanent relations between regional organizations and the Visegrád Group in the V4 Plus formula.

Adam Balcer

is a political scientist, expert in Polish foreign policy. He works as a Project Manager at WiseEUROPA and a National Researcher at the European at Warsaw University.

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