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Balkan Table Talk

The Albanian capital Tirana was at the crossroads of the Balkans last December when it hosted the Regional Table of the Stability Pact. For the fifth year, governments of South East Europe and representatives of the international community gathered under this umbrella.

They’ve come a long way… after years of war and destruction, Balkan countries now sit around the same table, and work together within the specific mechanism of the Stability Pact.

When this mechanism was launched, the countries of the former Yugoslavia were far from cooperating. In July 1999 in Sarajevo, just after the Kosovo conflict, a gathering of world leaders came to put a symbolic end to the cycle of wars and open a new chapter for the region. The Stability Pact was then created as an instrument to foster reconstruction and prevent new conflicts.

Five years later, Southeastern Europe didn’t solve all its problems, but it is indeed a lot more stable than at times of the Sarajevo summit. The role of the Pact itself also looks different – the key words are not reconstruction and conflict prevention anymore, but Euro-atlantic integration. For Stability Pact Special Coordinator Erhard Busek, the main priority is bringing the region closer to the European Union:

Erhard Busek, Special Co-ordinator of the Stability Pact (Eng)

“The region is bordering the EU, on the other side it is bordering the Eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea, the near East and Central Asia. That is of a great importance. I think that the Stability Pact in the region and sustainable solutions in the region are quite important, not only for us Europeans, but also for the neighbourhood. That’s why the next step of EU enlargement is quite logically, and also announced by the Thessaloniki summit, South East Europe.”

In June 2003, the Thessaloniki Summit gathered the whole of Europe and offered a clear perspective of EU membership to Western Balkan countries. But if these countries made the step from post-conflict reconstruction to EU integration, why would they still need the Stability Pact? The answer is in the word “stability”. The message is clear – in order to cooperate with Brussels, you have to cooperate with your neighbours first. The Stability Pact focuses exactly on that – the cooperation among countries of Southeastern Europe.

Erhard Busek

“If you are neighbours you have to live together and to sit together to improve the framework conditions. This is regional cooperation. And here after 4 wars and having a new map in the region it is quite necessary to develop it and to bring them together.”

Many claim that the story about regional cooperation has been artificially imposed, or that all the countries were put in the same basket. Still, the magnet of European integration made regional leaders talk more about regional cooperation than ever before.

Ivo Sanader, Prime Minister of Croatia:

“We must develop good relations with all our neighbours, with all neighbouring countries as well as with countries of Southeastern Europe. We want to have good relations with Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro, Albania, Romania and Bulgaria. We want good relations with all of them.”

For journalists from Southeastern Europe who cover European issues, regional cooperation is a normal thing. However, they differ in their assessment of the performance of the Stability Pact. The role of this organization fades as EU membership gets closer, but in spite of all objections, the Pact has already played a positive role, says Ines Sabalic, a Croatian journalist.

Ines Sabalic, Croatian correspondent in Brussels :

“What they were always telling us and it jangled our nerves because we felt that Brussels was patronising us, is that we first have to learn to communicate between ourselves in order to be able to communicate with Brussels. But that is in fact quite true and that demand hasn’t been addressed only and specifically to us. However, since we were going through a post-crisis period, they insisted particularly hard on it.”

Michael Emerson from the Centre for European Policy studies says that from the initial stage of overinflated expectations, when many thought it would be a source of financial aid for the Balkans, the Pact ended in becoming a less pretentious yet very efficient organization. The next step is that the countries of the region take over the cooperation process in their own hands.

Michael Emerson, Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), (Eng)

“It’s a very good thing if there is interest and willingness of the States of the region to do things themselves in the mechanism they own – if that can progress it’s a good thing. But that means a shift from the SP to the South East Cooperation Process.”

The Stability Pact offers a unique forum for discussion about topics ranging from reconciliation to investments or organized crime. Critics though say that it’s just many words and few deeds.

Erhard Busek (Eng)

“I think you have no alternative than sitting together, and you can always criticize the way in which it was done institutionally, and here we are open for critics. But the fact that it is happening is very important. And I may say that nobody wanted to go out of the St. Pact, therefore there must be some reason that it is a very helpful instrument.”

The list of areas covered by the Stability Pact is very long – from democracy and human rights to organized crime and managing border crossings. A joint center for the fight against organized crime has been established in Bucharest, where police and customs of all the countries of the region work under the same roof. At the initiative of the Pact a network of mutual free trade agreements has been formed and this network could evolve into a common, 55 million people-market in Southeastern Europe.

The Stability Pact can also be looked at as an institution representing or lobbying for the interests of Southeastern Europe. Last November Erhard Busek travelled to Ireland in order to make sure that the Balkans would be on the agenda of the Irish EU Presidency, despite its location on the opposite side of Europe. The Pact also hosts informal meetings like in the case of this special Balkan dinner gathering key international actors in Southeastern Europe. Those who are disappointed argue that instead of financial assistance and concrete support the Pact has offered conferences and debates. But many think those events were a unique opportunity to get acquainted and compare their experiences with those of their neighbours.

Besim Becaj, Stability Pact coordinator for Kosovo

“This is as well a good opportunity for Kosovo, being part of the Stability Pact through UNMIK. And this gives us the chance that the Kosovo voice would be heard in the region and we appreciate the Stability Pact’ pragmatical orientation towards inclusion of Kosovo in the regional co-operation according to UN resolution 1244.”

Jelica Minic, Stability Pact co-ordinator for Serbia-Montenegro

“I think that the Stability Pact has already fulfilled its role in facilitating cooperation between the countries of the region. I think that it’s function will be completed when we will cease to need its support and be able to develop our regional projects on our own and lobby for them internationally.”

The Special Coordinator sees his job as getting different partners together on joint tasks of regional interest.

Erhard Busek

“Sometimes there are some problems for the role of the Stability Pact and for the role of the EU but if I may say --it’s here in Brussels. Because sometimes we know what they have to do, but the real approach must be that they have to learn by themselves what they have to do and we are only assisting.”

Assistance to this part of Europe through the mechanism of the Stability Pact is set to continue for a while. The end of this mission will be a clear sign that Southeastern Europe is on the doorstep of the European Union.