The ministers from six Balkan states recently met in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, for a regional ministerial conference. The meeting of the “Western Balkans 6” begun with a summit in Kosovo that brought together the Foreign and Infrastructure ministers of Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and for the first time, Serbia. The regional decision makers met alongside senior representatives from the international community, including Johannes Han, Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement, and the European Commissioner for Transport, Violeta Bulc, who addressed the conference by video call.
The joint meeting of the Balkan ministers and European Union officials was organized in the same format as all European Union meetings and was chaired by Kosovo’s Deputy PM, Hashim Thaçi. The meeting in Kosovo had been preceded by a series of conferences held in Belgrade, Berlin, and Budva, as well as by a number of informal ministerial meetings. The meetings that created a pathway to this most recent Conference were used to emphasize the need to define common infrastructural and energy projects. At these precursor meetings the Western Balkan countries committed to annually prepare and submit national programs of economic reform to the European Commission.
During the conference in Pristina, discussions for the establishment of a Central Region Transport Network took place. If implemented, this network would ensure a better connection between all the Western Balkans and the European Union, with developments in connections between major cities, economic centers, and the most important seaports. Not only this, but it would also guarantee progression towards a more transparent decision-making process and coordinated approach to economics and infrastructure for the six participating countries. In so far as to say, the meeting emphasized the importance of regional infrastructural connectivity for the implementation of major regional projects in transport and energy.
The plans for such developments are to be presented to the European Commission and European Union countries at a Western Balkans conference, scheduled for late summer in Vienna. If successful, the plans made at this most recent Balkan ministerial meeting will be followed up in Vienna to enable significant connectivity improvements in the region, which will boost overall competitiveness, raise job growth, enable further job creation, and make a real improvement to the lives of Balkan inhabitants.
Whilst the joint meeting itself represented a significant step towards creating a Western Balkans transport network, the meeting also reflected the combination of modest steps and giant leaps the Balkans have taken in cooperation and tolerance since the Balkan conflicts of the 1990’s. Notably, the developments have taken place in the midst of the continued ethnic division and political instability that has become the reoccurring theme since the breakup of Yugoslavia. The modest steps manifest in the sheer participation in the joint meeting, held in Kosovo, as this is the first time Serbia has attended, which serves to illustrate the inclusive nature of the meeting’s cooperation.
On the other hand, the giant leaps in development in cooperation and tolerance between Western Balkan states are characterized by their will to reignite past connections, albeit in a very different way to their former Yugoslav ties, to intensify economic cooperation between them. The intensification of economic cooperation will require EU-compatible reforms in order to ensure the best regulatory environment to implement and operate the planned projects. Moreover, it also means the Balkan states must establish core investment priorities, credible planning, and funding mechanisms, as well as ensuring that their individual countries have the fiscal space to take up the necessary loan-financing to get all the projects implemented on time. From this meeting, it is clear that the path of development for the Balkans is inherently tied to their cooperation, connectivity, and importantly, their economic governance.
Seven years after Kosovo’s declaration of independence, faced with failed European Union visa arrangements, high unemployment rates, and low job security, an estimated 100,000 of Kosovo’s citizens have made the choice to illegally migrate towards Western Europe. Furthermore, Kosovo’s political situation is another push factor spurring the illegal migration. Many of Kosovo’s citizens are not just frustrated by the country’s economic woes, but also the political turbulence and corruption facing Kosovo’s future. Last month Kosovo saw the most significant civilian and political unrest, followed by mass protests, since it’s declaration of independence in 2008. The political crisis coupled with economic instability has meant many of Kosovo’s citizens are willing to make the illegal journey westward where they hope to find jobs and better living conditions for their families.
The mass illegal migration of Kosovo’s citizens seeking asylum in the EU block during the past three months has now become a foreign policy problem, as EU countries struggle to deal with the burden of illegal migrants infiltrating their borders. In so far as to say, mass exodus of Kosovo’s citizens has created a growing problem for many countries in the EU, in particular, the highly sought recipient countries of Germany, France, and Austria. However, Serbia and Hungry, which are the predominant transit countries for the illegal migration, have been hit with an alarming notion of just how porous their borders are, as migrants from Kosovo seep through westwards onto EU’s borderless Schengen area.
The exodus follows a relaxation of travel regulations in Serbia in 2012, which were encouraged by the EU, as a part of Serbia’s path to EU accession. Since 2012, Serbia has allowed people to enter its borders with Kosovo-issued documents. Once in Serbia, Kosovo’s migrants legally make their way to the popular border crossing of Subotica, where they then illegally cross the Serbian-Hungarian border into Hungary. Hungary has since seen a startling rise in asylum seekers from Kosovo, with 10,000 people filing for asylum in Hungary in February alone, compared to 6,000 for the whole of 2013. However, whilst Hungary is the preferred transit-state westwards, it is not the preferred destination. According to Hungary’s Office of Immigration and Nationality, which deals with administrative duties related to asylum, citizenship, and aliens policing issues, an estimated 40-50% of asylum applicants normally leave the country within 24 hours, and a further 30-40% within 3-10 days.
The flow of illegal migrants from Kosovo has proven to be a lucrative operation for people smugglers, as they exploit the easily infiltrated border at Subotica. Admittedly, those from Kosovo make up the most substantial numbers of illegal migrants crossing the border, but as the most favorable passage for people smugglers; Syrians, Afghans, and Iraqis, among other nationalities, are also being smuggled through the border. In an effort to quell the startling number of illegal immigrants entering the EU, in particular the most favored destination of Germany, Hungarian authorities permanently patrol the frontier region. However, it would seem such measures are not enough. From February, German police, equipped with vehicles operating thermal vision cameras, have started to aid Serbia and Hungary in border patrols. Whilst the extent to which increased border patrols and tightened security will affect the flow of illegal migrants is yet to be seen, the alarming number of Kosovo’s citizens traveling westwards in search of a better life does not show any signs of abating.
Since Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008, the country has been fighting an internal struggle, baited with ethnic division, corruption, organized crime, and political wrangling. The newly independent state has progressed in the past seven years. Yet, with its seven year birthday looming this month, it would seem that the country, with its continued international supervision and expected future EU accession, is not through the ethnic hatred of its past. Moreover, it would not be difficult to suppose that ethnic division, which led to the death and displacement of thousands in 1999, could potentially derail the country’s future. The dawn of 2015 saw Kosovo’s largest protests since 2008. And it all began with the ethnically charged comments of a government official.
On January 6 2015, the ethnic tension between the majority Albanian and minority Serb populations came to a head. During the Serbian Orthodox Christmas, around 100 Albanian protesters rallied against Serbian pilgrims who were traveling from Belgrade, Serbia, to visit an Orthodox Church in Gjakova. Many of those who rallied against the pilgrims were women who had lost family members in the 1999 Kosovo conflict. The pilgrims consequently called off their visit after their route was blocked and their buses pelted with Ice by the ethnic-Albanian protesters. To put it into context, the location of Gjakova was the scene of heavy fighting in Kosovo’s 1999 conflict. Following both heavy military and civilian bloodshed in Gjakova, the once ethnically mixed town is now a majority ethnic Albanian. The relatively small clash between the Serbs and Albanians at the beginning of January 2015 is far from an isolated incident in Kosovo. Nonetheless, it became the fuel for a series of violent protests in Kosovo.
Following the altercation between the Serbs and Albanians in Gjakova, Serbian Minister for Communities and Returns, Aleksandar Jablanovic, of the recently elected Isa Mustafa’s government, responded by calling the protesters “Savages”. His comments were followed by a public apology days later, in which Jablanovic apologized to the mothers and relatives of war victims for his comment. However, Jablanovic’s statement reopened deep wounds of ethnic hate in Kosovo. National-scale protests for his dismissal swiftly followed.
The protests began on January 16 and concluded in the largest and most violent protest in Kosovo’s independent history on January 27. The protests, comprised of thousands of people, took place across Kosovo, but primarily in the capital, Pristina and were organized by the nationalist opposition movement, Vetëvendosje. Over the course of the protests, police officers were forced to use tear gas and deploy water cannons on protesters as they threw stones, bricks, Molotov cocktails, and damaged government and private property. They carried Albanian flags and chanted “out with Jablanovic”, “Down with the government”. Protesters also attacked journalists who were attempting to report on the fierce demonstrations. Hundreds of protesters and police were injured in the violent clashes, which were for the large part, situated in and around Pristina’s famous Mother Teresa Street. The protests themselves were organized primarily to demand the dismissal of the Kosovo-Serb minister. However, Prime Minister Mustafa’s freshly elected government became an additional source of national dissatisfaction. Protesters also gathered to record their frustration with what they believe is the outgrown role of Serbia in Kosovo’s present and future. Supported by Vetëvendosje, the protesters called for Kosovo’s Prime Minister to carry out the nationalization of the Trepça mining complex. The nationalization of the Trepça mining complex, which is rich in lead, silver, and zinc, has always been met by Serbian contempt. Serbia firmly advocates its claim to the mine, as a result of Belgrade’s management of it during the final Yugoslav years. Subsequently, Mustafa’s dawdling nationalization of the mine has been perceived as not just an economic knock to Kosovo’s future, but also a grave disrespect to Kosovo’s national pride, which Kosovo Albanians fought so hard to achieve.
The run of violent protests during January has now concluded with the dismissal of Minister Jablanovic. Yet, the storm is far from over in Kosovo. The threat of further protests for the nationalization of the Trepça mining complex still remains. What is more, the ramifications of the public movements against the government and a government official are a stark reminder of the national pride felt by the ethnic Albanian majority. They are also a stark reminder of the underlying (most of the time) and constant ethnic division in Kosovo.