Analysis: Balkans' obstacles to recovery
By DAVID PATRICK LUNDQUIST
WASHINGTON, March 4 (UPI) -- Euro-bickering dominates the political atmosphere of the Balkans, where statesmen have effectively traded their guns for writing utensils, allowing them to draft referenda and free-trade agreements.
Steadily healing from a past decade or two of disintegration and ethnic cleansing, southeastern Europe prepares itself to engage in more serious political discourse.
Just how long it will take the states of the region to achieve their collective and respective goals remains in doubt due to issues new and old. While the multiethnic populations of the Balkan countries attempt to heal their wounds, their leaders try to initiate the reforms that may assist the disparate processes already underway.
The 1995 Dayton Accords quelled the first Bosnian War. In 1999, though, the Clinton administration led a NATO air-strike campaign on Serbian positions to halt Serbian attacks on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Croatian and Serbian generals are now facing arrest warrants issued by the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague.
The fighting may be over but the region's myriad of territorial and economic problems continue to hamper development and recovery efforts.
Erhard Busek, special coordinator of the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe, a Brussels-based intergovernmental body, asseverates that "the region is moving in the right direction," but notes that significant barriers persist to realizing the kind of post-Cold War equanimity witnessed in the rest of Europe.
In recent years, many if not all of the Balkans countries have taken steps to enter 21st century continental Europe. Officials from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development judged the elections at various levels of government in several states to be fair and legitimate.
At present, 31 free-trade agreements link Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia & Montenegro, Moldova, Macedonia and Romania. Because of this, says, Busek, trade has doubled in the last few years.
In October 2005, the aforementioned eight countries signed a landmark agreement with the EU to strengthen safety and supply of energy to southeastern Europe. For this and other reasons, the European Union loaned a total of $4.3 billion to members of the area, signaling the EU's interest in developing the region to the standard of modernized Europe.
But even specialists of the Balkans recognize the enormous impediments before them. Busek identifies both lingering and newly arising matters as highly concerning.
Foremost, corruption, both small-scale and large, acts as a drag upon economic growth as well as a mark against the legitimacy of those countries. Narcotics traffickers, dealing primarily in heroin originating in Afghanistan, use the rugged and mountainous topography of southeastern Europe as a gateway to Central and Western Europe.
To maximize success, traffickers will bribe local officials. On the other end of the spectrum, national lawmakers demonstrate susceptibility to bribery and other forms of corruption, sometimes initiated by Western corporations. Because patronage and various forms of corruption are vested in history -- the notoriously corrupt Ottoman Empire once ruled the region -- Busek warns that it may long before this tradition is uprooted.
Similarly, following an intense period of conflict, the Balkans remain heavily militarized. Dismantling weapons installations and securing vulnerable facilities will be essential to both regional security, as well as alleviating the concerns of the EU and the United States. Many view arms availability and recovering states as a mixture for disaster insofar as they provide terrorists with a fertile base.
Next, Busek recommends, privatization must commence in order to attract capital from Western investors. Problematically, "the privatization process is difficult sometimes because political interests keep (businesses) in the hands of the state." With economic growth in the area overall reaching 5 percent to 7 percent of GDP in the foreseeable future, he says, the prospects for such a process are favorable.
Factors inhibiting economic expansion include other systemic issues, like faltering education and the classic "brain drain" effect. Most of the region lacks the educational infrastructure to compete in science and math, subjects critical to growth.
Brain drain refers to the phenomenon of the flight of the educated elites. Seeking opportunity elsewhere, members of the intelligentsia who could help to reconstruct the Balkans take up residence in Western Europe and the United States. Vjeran Pavlakovic, co-editor of a new book on Serbia, explains that a sense pervades "that there is no political future to Serbia" because of the loss of talent.
Inclusion in the European Union remains a goal for the political leaders of the Balkan countries. Bulgaria, for one, will enter the EU in 2008. Sometimes, though, leaders' and diplomats' goals diverge quite starkly from those of their peoples. For example, scholars Martin Sletzinger and Nida Gelazis of the Wilson Center's East European Studies Program in Washington, D.C. point out, "Croatia's case is illustrative. It has led the pack in the Western Balkans in the EU integration process, but membership negotiations were postponed in March when unreformed nationalists strongly resisted the EU's demand that Croatia turn over" General Ante Gotovina, who has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
In recent news, just weeks ago, reports surfaced that Serbian officials had cornered or captured one of the most-wanted Serbian war criminals, Ratko Mladic, who remains implicated in the killing of about 7,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995. The Serbian government denies these reports as unfounded rumors, sources in Belgrade told United Press International.
Even before EU accession, the very cartographic integrity of the region must be secured. At issue is the upcoming referendum in Serbia and Montenegro, wherein Montenegrin voters may opt to secede from their marriage to Serbia and become an independent state. If they do so, Serbian President Boris Tadic vows to honor that decision.
Also in Serbia, Kosovars continue to agitate for independence, but against greater odds than Montenegro. Erhard Busek at this point does not advocate independence for Kosovo, and for the sake of regional stability believes it "probably more prudent" for Kosovo to gain complete autonomy instead.
Others disagree. Charles Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University contends that, for reasons of practicality also, "the time has come to let pragmatism triumph over principle -- and move toward independence for Kosovo."
Much like in Croatia, a gap between the leaders and the masses on the fate of Kosovo exists in Serbian politics. Busek hears from Serbian politicians who must stoke nationalistic impulses for political purposes, but secretly gripe that such extremism is not likely to lead to progress in Serbia.
As for the Stability Pact itself, Busek says he would like to embark on roadmap which would lead to free-standing region and regional stability in the Balkans, even if that includes the dissolution of the Stability Pact. If this is to occur, the region must "grow up and show responsibility," he believes, a weighty task in an area with a storied history of domination by outsiders.