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Balkan Vital Graphics

GREY - Background

The west Balkans and the Black Sea region are characterized by numerous common risks and challenges, including fragile statehood, a shared history of violent conflict, unconsolidated democratization and economic underdevelopment. Given the crucial geopolitical position of both regions as (a) direct neighbours to the European Union (EU), North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and Russia, (b) a bridge to the Middle East and Central Asia, and (c) an increasingly important energy transport route, instability in either region can have significant ramifications for domestic, regional, and international security. (Ref: Berteismann Group for Policy Research)

People and identity

The wars in former-Yugoslavia speeded up the process of ethnic homogenization underway in the west Balkans since modern states started to take form in the 19th century. In Croatia, for instance, the proportion of Serbs in the overall population has dropped from 12 per cent to just 4 per cent in 10 years. Bosnia and Herzegovina now consists of two political entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republic of Srpska, and Distric Brcko hosting three main ethnic groups. The same is true of Kosovo, where the Serbs have lived in enclaves since 1999. A similar trend is at work in Macedonia, discreetly separating communities. It is even apparent in Skopje where segre­gation between Macedonian and Albanian neighbourhoods is growing.

The wars gave rise to significant movements of population, some temporary, others permanent. It has proved difficult for refugees and displaced persons to return to their former homes. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the process is often illusory. Returnees hurry to sell recovered property, particularly when it is located in areas in which the ethnic community to which they belong is now in the minority.

Fighting may have ended but migration continues. Despite increasingly strict EU policies on immigration, the “western dream” still exerts a powerful force of attraction on the people of the Balkans. This is particularly noticeable in Kosovo where half the population is under 20 and unemployment affects 60 per cent of people of working age. The brain drain, primarily among young graduates, is compromising the future of countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Albania. In recent years there has been an increase in the number of migrants being forcibly repatriated, under readmission agreements signed by all the west Balkan countries with the EU.

In the meantime, the rural exodus is continuing all over the region, particularly in Albania where people are deserting mountain areas and the population of Tirana has risen from 200 000 at the end of the communist era to almost a million. The newcomers cram into the city outskirts lacking any proper infrastructure. A similar pattern may be seen in Belgrade, Sarajevo and Skopje.

Fragile states

All the states that emerged from the break-up of Yugoslavia are still fragile, except Slovenia, which joined the EU in 2004, and Croatia, which is well on the way towards European integration. Since the Dayton Peace Agreement (1995), Bosnia and Herzegovina has constituted a state, but split into two entities: the Republic of Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, itself divided into 10 cantons. In addition, there exists the district of Brcko which is a self-governing administrative unit. All attempts at reform of this highly ineffective institutional framework have failed so far.

Kosovo is theoretically a part of Serbia but has been under provisional United Nations administration since 1999. The decision on its final status could have serious consequences for the region, with the risk of new disturbances in areas with Albanian minorities (in Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia).

Each government in the region has more or less restored law and order elsewhere. The “grey areas” of the 1990s have disappeared, particularly in Albania. However, corruption is still rife in government and public services (healthcare, education, etc.).

Green politics

In 1992, Montenegro, at that time part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, adopted a new constitution which qualified it as an “ecological state”, the first to lay claim to this distinction. It has never had any practical effect. Much as in the other Balkan countries, environmental awareness is very low in Montenegro and public policy attaches only minor importance to the ecology.

Unlike other countries in central and east Europe, environmental movements did not play a major role in precipitating the downfall of communism, except perhaps in Slovenia. Throughout the 1990s, politics in the former Yugoslav republics limited itself to a standoff between nationalist and pro-democratic forces, leaving very little room for other issues.

Today’s supposedly “green” parties are often little more than empty shells in the west Balkan region. Various political parties, particularly those with a regionalist agenda, nevertheless exploit environmental issues with varying degrees of enthusiasm and sincerity. This is for instance the case in the Vojvodina autonomous province, Serbia or in Istria, Croatia, where the Istrian Democratic Forum (Istarski Demokratski Forum, IDF), at the head of the regional government, is actively promoting sustainable tourism.

But in recent years significant citizens’ movements have emerged, in particular in the Republic of Srpska and Montenegro, to counter plans to build dams for hydropower generation with potentially serious environmental consequences. Their efforts have been met with success and the dam projects on the Vrbas, in Bosnia, and the Tara, in Montenegro, have been shelved at least for the moment. A powerful movement is developing in Pancevo, an industrial centre near Belgrade regularly affected by serious air pollution. Serbia’s independent trade union, Nezavisnost, pays close attention to the impact of industrial pollution too. 

Energy and transportation

Several transportation corridors singled out by the EU as development priorities pass through the Balkans, in particular corridors Vc (Budapest-Ploce), VIII (Sofia-Skopje-Thessalonica-Durres) and X (linking Germany to Greece, via Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia). Most of these projects only exist on paper, apart from corridor X, which corresponds to a line of communication essential to European trade. It is served by a busy, good quality motorway. The countries through which this route passes may use this transit function to leverage development.

In contrast, some countries remain on the sidelines, notably Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Albania, though the latter has the advantage of its coastline. Some infrastructure projects, such as the motorway slated to connect Kosovo to Albania, obviously have a political significance.

Trade in the region is still limited, due to customs formalities and poor infrastructure. The rail network, which is not very extensive, suffered during the various conflicts. The Danube was closed to navigation for a few years, due to NATO bombing in 1999 which destroyed several bridges preventing river traffic. Today, all the bridges have been rebuilt and navigation has been reopened in the area. 

A number of oil pipelines are currently under study or construction in the Balkans: the US registered Albanian-Macedonian-Bulgarian Oil Corporation (AMBO) project will carry oil from the Caspian to the Mediterranean, via Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania; the Adria Group project will channel Russian oil to the Omisalj terminal on the Croatian coast. The presence of President Putin, of Russia, at Southeast Europe’s first energy summit in Zagreb in June 2007, emphasised the region’s strategic importance to his country. It should be borne in mind that many Balkan countries suffer a serious energy deficit, further aggravated by the closure of four out of six units of the nuclear power plant at Kozloduy, Bulgaria, by 2006.

On the road to the EU

In 2003, the European summit in Thessalonica reiterated its “unequivocal support to the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries” but did not specify a timeframe for membership. Slovenia joined the Union in 2004, followed by Romania and Bulgaria in 2007, making the west Balkans a sort of “land-locked” island in the EU.

Two countries (Croatia and Macedonia) have enjoyed official candidate status since 2005, whereas all the others (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Albania) have engaged in the Stabilisation and Association process. These countries also benefit from specific European policies, in particular under the Stability Pact for South East Europe. Furthermore, the EU is taking on growing civil and military responsibilities in post-conflict management, primarily in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Serbia is in a particularly delicate position. For several years, the main obstacle to rapprochement was the lack of Serbian cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the Hague. Serbia has since made progress in this respect but the next step on the road towards Europe demands settlement of the Kosovo question. The idea of making any further progress conditional on Serbia adopting a “cooperative” attitude on Kosovo has frequently been raised. Come what may, it seems that the status of the territory currently under UN administration must be settled before any further advances can be expected. This brings the question of whether the EU will one day allow Serbia and Kosovo to join as separate states. Similarly, Brussels considers it impossible to entertain closer ties with Bosnia and Herzegovina until it undertakes root-and-branch reform of the institutions inherited from the Dayton Peace Agreement.

The present crisis in Europe’s own institutions rules out any idea of enlargement to include the Balkan countries in the immediate future. Yet this seems to be the only prospect capable of preventing further strife, particularly in the case of restless Macedonia.