On Feb. 17, Kosovo declared its independence. Several Western states recognized the new country, Belgrade and Moscow dispute its right to exist. At any rate, independence is not the end of the road but just the beginning of a long uphill fight.
Kosovo is independent. But the formerly Serbian and since 1999, UN-administered province is still beholden to foreign institutions – in the future mainly the European Union. So Brussels faces a mountain of problems.
Despite the billions that have poured into Kosovo since the war ended in 1999, the new country remains the poorhouse of Europe. The overwhelming majority of its 2.1 million residents live from handouts. Directly or indirectly, the few jobs that exist depend on international organizations.
Crime and corruption are rampant among both locals and international administrators. At best, there is evidence of a boom in the underground economy – building without permits, trafficking in drugs and people and smuggling.
Things don’t look much better in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina, even though this former Yugoslav republic has been internationally administered since 1996. In view of the money that especially the EU has pumped into Bosnia in all those years, the country should be a model for its neighbors – a beacon of prosperity and democracy. Yet the opposite is true.
Bosnia, divided into the Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation, is and remains a social, economic and political basket case. The main reason for the paralysis is that local politicians are incapable of reaching consensus, even on small things. The helpers from the West, especially Europe, share the blame.
Since the 1995 Dayton Agreement, power-sharing along ethnic lines has had constitutional status in Bosnia. It has not only institutionalized microstate structures based on ethnicity but helped them flourish. Financed with Western, mostly EU money, the country of 4.5 million today has more elected representatives per capita than any other state in Europe.
Yet no one claims the administration functions properly. Instead of building or rebuilding streets, schools and hospitals in Bosnia, the EU has been funding a system in which politics feeds the interests of the country’s ethnic cliques.
Instead of learning from postwar Bosnia’s reconstruction flaws for the future in Kosovo, the EU is heading down the same path again. Serbs and other minorities in the new, Albanian-dominated Kosovo will gain rights like those of Bosnia’s Croats, Muslims and Serbs. But will they coalesce?
The EU is about as poorly prepared for its new task as it possibly could be. “Eulex,” the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo, began to take shape only weeks before independence was declared. It is still unclear whether this approximately 2,000-strong EU mission will replace or simply support the thousands of UN employees in the new Balkan state.
It has been clear for years that the EU would one day take over Kosovo. Just like Bosnia, the region is squarely within the EU bailiwick. The EU could have tapped a wealth of expertise during this time. A phalanx of experts on Balkan history, culture and politics has evolved in the 17 years since the wars in the region began.
Another factor in the EU’s favor is the fact that the European Union does not suffer from national antagonisms in the same way as the UN. Russia and other states that plan to boycott an independent Kosovo have no say in the EU. Even though some member countries haven’t recognized the new state, none of them rule out joining a mission there.
Certainly, Europe could help Kosovo and Bosnia turn the corner. The fact that it hasn’t yet is because the EU has no clear concept of what to do with the region.
For years, the Europeans have agreed that a kind of Marshall Plan was required to hoist the Balkans up to EU standards. Since it was initiated in 1999, the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe has transferred €25 billion to the region. But it has had scant impact on the former Yugoslavs’ daily lives.
In the 17th year after the outbreak of the latest Balkan Wars, the Stability Pact and Eulex are hardly sufficient to finally get the former Yugoslav states ready for the EU. It’s going to take a whole package of measures − and a timeline.
To get ready for EU membership, the economies of Bosnia and Kosovo will need massive infrastructure projects, including construction and expansion of road networks, railways and airports, as well as subsidies for local economies. The question what role the future EU Balkan countries will play in a united European market also needs answering.
Straight talk directed at local politicians is just as important. Only those who do their work well should be funded; those who don’t, should be cut off. If local partners can’t be found, EU institutions ought to carry on alone – and say so to the outside world. People must realize that they owe their rising living standard to those responsible, not to those who boycott or hamper development.
In general, Europe should communicate more with the people and the many civil society organizations in its southeast European protectorates and less with local politicians. The EU administration should not close its ears to questions and criticism from Bosnian and Kosovar society.
The European system will require strict discipline. Unpunished corruption and rules regularly breached thanks to diplomatic immunity permanently damaged the UN’s reputation in Kosovo. That is something the EU can’t afford.
Education and training also need to be overhauled. Nationalist monopolies on curricula are simply unacceptable in the heart of Europe. Schoolbooks that convey a slanted, ethnic viewpoint have as little place in the schools of EU protectorates as they do in those of the union.
The university education of Bosnians and Kosovars also needs to be raised to EU standards as soon as possible, and a degree from a university in Sarajevo or Pristina shouldn’t just be recognized EU-wide, it should also have a first-class reputation.
The EU needs to bring the people of Bosnia and Kosovo closer to life in the union. Most of the young population has never traveled outside their countries. A student exchange program would give them the opportunity of getting a first-hand picture of what daily life in the EU holds in store. Indeed, all visa requirements for inhabitants of the EU-protectorates should finally be lifted.
Serbs will notice when the people of the EU-administered part of former Yugoslavia fare better than they do. When that happens, Serbia will resound with a different, more European tone.