The region as seen from a Europe within the Balkans – Interview with the diplomatic affairs analyst, Alexandra Voudouri

The Western Balkans cannot help but remain one of the hot spots of diplomacy even in 2023, with discussions and dialogues still open between the countries, opportunities to increase the mutual cooperation, as well as efforts to get closer with Europe as much as possible, with an eye towards full membership in the greater European community.

In terms of internal dynamics, the region continues to have a number of key issues to address, such as the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, the developments in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the diplomatic impasse between North Macedonia and Bulgaria, or the political situation in Montenegro, very unstable in the recent months.

Among the six countries, Albania seems to be positioned more fundamentally in the region and as an added factor of stability. Again, with its own issues to deal with.

Meanwhile, in the Balkans, countries, which have long been part of the European Union, such as Greece, also play a significant role.

With a broader perspective on what is currently happening and is expected to happen further in 2023, Albanian Post has interviewed the well-known journalist as well as the diplomatic affairs editor/analyst for Athina 9.84 fm, & Research Associate, ELIAMEP South -East Europe Programme, Alexandra Voudouri.

Full interview with Alexandra Voudouri

Albanian Post: Greece and Albania have a long shared history of cooperation, but also of conflict between the countries. The latter ones, move more towards two aspects: Maritime delimitation and the Greek law of “state of war” with Albania, which is still in play. How do you see these two issues between the countries from a journalistic point of view, but also from a Greek citizen point of view?

I would say conflicts is a strong word. In fact, the two countries have never fought against each other, despite the misconceptions about the issue in the two societies. But you are right to mention that there have been a number of bilateral disputes and points of disagreement.

It is quite unfortunate for our two neighbouring countries to still face outstanding issues that could and should have been resolved a long time ago. As we have heard many times recently on behalf of the Greek government there is indeed willingness to give an end to this anachronistic Greek law of war, which is absurd especially for two NATO allies. As for as the delimitation of the maritime borders is concerned, the agreement in principle of our two countries to refer to the International Court of Justice, is the most appropriate way since it will send a strong message to the international community and our Balkan region that International Law is the basis for resolving all inter-state disputes; additionally, this is the way that only confident states led by European principles are following.

However, strong political will is needed on behalf of both sides to resolve all our outstanding issues (which are more than the above-mentioned two, of course) as these certainly preserve the atmosphere of mistrust, at least, between the political leaderships of our two countries. Because our societies, even if they have their own sensitivities related to these issues, have progressed in building their own relations and close cooperation. Politics has, however, so far failed to bring relations between the two states to the same level.

Having said that, I really think that the latest visits of the Greek Prime Minister, the first in 13 years in Tirana, and in the villages of the Greek minority in Southern Albania, as well as the recent meetings of our two Foreign Ministers have signalled the beginning of a new chapter in our bilateral relations. If you read between the lines of the public statements, you will see an unprecedented warmth that certainly reflects the atmosphere and the confidence both sides currently feel for a resolution of all our disputes and other problems. The beginning of Albania’s EU accession talks last July certainly changed the mood and paved the way for brighter days for our two countries.

Albanian Post: How much are both countries losing in cooperation, because of these issues not yet being solved?

As I said, our countries have managed to find ways to build ways of cooperation even without a resolution of our outstanding issues. It is unfortunate, however, that Greece has not helped its neighbours enough, when it could especially during the Covid 19 pandemic, but perhaps its own financial troubles and other restraints for so many years could explain, but certainly do not justify, the lack of full cooperation in many areas.

Albania’s European course, however, certainly creates new and multiple ways for both countries to extend their relations and to jointly overcome certain regional problems, such as the ongoing energy crisis. For instance, last summer, Greece with the activation of the relevant European mechanisms offered its help to Albania to combat the wildfires in the Albanian south.

And I must tell you that for us, the team of the South-East Europe Programme of ELIAMEP think tank in Athens, along with our partners in Albania this is the “bet” that we will seek to win through a new research project entitled: “ALGREE: Albania/Greece: Understanding, Connecting, Partnering”. It will be launched in a few weeks with the publication of the first of a series of reports on problematic points, which the two sides will have to work from now on, including the problem of public discourse and the media coverage between the two countries. Our goal is not only to draw attention to problematic media coverage, but mainly to highlight those elements that can improve the level of trust, understanding and cooperation between the two countries. Greece and Albania deserve, through their constantly improving relations for the sake of their peoples, to also become a model of relations for the countries of the wider Balkan region.

Albanian Post: What is your point of view for the actual situation in the Western Balkans region, given the fact Greece itself is part of the Balkans, but also an EU member country? How stable is the region momentarily?

The illegal and unprovoked war in Ukraine has changed the world a great deal in 2022. As a result, we are witnessing a defining moment especially for the Western Balkans and the wider South-East Europe.  The problems in the region are very well known and it has become quite evident that the Balkans, as many times in the past, stand once again on the frontline of competing actors of influence. One of the main reasons for this is the uncertainty regarding the Western Balkans’ European future.

Moreover, this exact uncertainty does not only fuel the current geopolitical instability in the region but has also a very significant societal and human cost; that is, the continuous mass migration of its citizens to the EU. How could any region be stable, when it is losing a new generation of people, especially the youngest and perhaps, the brightest ones that could make a difference by shaping a new future for their countries? If I had to be concerned of anything related to the current situation in the Balkans, it would be more this continuous “demographic haemorrhage”, which is the result of both the inefficiencies of certain political leaderships, but mostly of the EU’s inability to deliver long overdue promises to secure a European, stable and prosperous future for the region.

Albanian Post: Do you see any chance of armed conflict between countries in the Western Balkans?

The current tensions in the Balkans are reminiscent of the region’s recent history of conflict and signal chances of possible violent incidents in the region or the continuation of certain tensions, especially in Kosovo.  Your question is justified due to the ethnic and historical complexities of the Western Balkans, in addition to the new geopolitical realities created by Russian invasion in Ukraine. But I don’t see any real chance of any serious armed conflict simply because NATO and the EU will not want to let anything to erupt in this fragile region to avoid a new source of instability jeopardizing once again Europe’s own security.

We have seen how immediate the reflexes of the international community have been lately in both Kosovo as well as in Bosnia – Herzegovina. In reality, I think that no-one outside and inside the region – even the usual troublemakers – can currently afford to see the region return to war. Having said that, even minor violent incidents, which may be sparked from uncontrolled escalation of tensions or by accident, could have very negative repercussions for the region. They could bring back images of war and tarnish again the image of the region, which has tried hard in the last 20 years to convince the world that it has left behind the legacy of the Yugoslav wars. They could also push the dream of European integration of the Western Balkans farther into the future, with dire socio-economic consequences for ordinary citizens. So, the tensions we see at present are dangerous and political leaderships in the region should be aware of the dangers of “playing with fire”.

Albanian Post: Greece has not yet recognized Kosova as an independent country, but positive steps have been taken, even with the last visit of FM Nikos Dendias in Pristina. Do you see a real chance of Greece recognizing Kosova formerly in the near future?

If you ask me, Greece should have recognized Kosovo for quite some time now, especially when the ICJ’s ruled in 2010 that Kosovo’s declaration of independence did not violate international law, as it was not the product of an illegal state of force condemned by the UN Security Council, as it happened in Cyprus; thus, explicitly making a distinction between the two cases.

The Greek government as well as policy and decision makers of the whole political spectrum, however, still remain sceptical over Kosovo’s recognition and raise the issue of the “right timing” for Greece’s own political and geopolitical interests. In addition, it seems that Athens’ calculation on the issue is also related to Serbia’s future geopolitical orientation and alignment between the West (& the EU) and Russia. It should be noted however, that compared to other non -recognizers and even to some recognizers, Greece has always had the most engaging relation with Kosovo.

And for the first time, perhaps, the Greek side appears willing to undertake some sort of initiative to at least ease the current ongoing tensions between Pristina and Belgrade. In fact, that issue has topped the agenda of Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias’ recent mini -tour in the Western Balkans. But I firmly believe that Greece could do more; maybe the issue of its recognition could be used as a possible incentive or part of any new initiative leading to a final resolution.

Albanian Post: Serbia is undoubtedly a factor in the region, but has caused mayhem either in Kosova, Bosnia and Herzegovina and also Montenegro. Could you pinpoint some of the main issues the three conflicts have in common and how they can be solved?

What the three countries have in common are serious internal divisions. Serbia plays, to lesser or greater extent, the role of spoiler of efforts for regional stabilization and integration in Western institutions. It supports or tolerates actions by extremists, prevents the resolution of disputes and the bridging of divides and internal differences. I don’t think Serbia wishes to see the region return to conflict. And, also, it is not necessarily in full control of the most radical Serb elements, like for example in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Moreover, non-Serb actors in the three countries also have some responsibility for the current state of problems. Having said that, the Serbian leadership certainly considers that its regional role is strengthening when problems and tensions within states and across borders escalate. But this is a risky strategy that flirts dangerously with serious destabilization that could have very negative consequences for the entire region.

Albanian Post: Many times have we heard the same sentence: WB belongs in Europe. How would it really help Greece if the six WB countries entered the EU in your point of view?

It is quite understandable and very rational that our neighbours especially in North Macedonia, who have made painful compromises, but also in Albania and the rest of the Western Balkans feel that this sentence is a dead letter.  In fact, 2023 will mark twenty years since the Thessaloniki Summit, when the EU led by Greece offered a political vision of belonging and proposed a process that would lead to the Western Balkans’ membership in the European family. It is, therefore, time for the EU to be finally honest with itself and with the region. The first step took place last July when Brussels unblocked the path of Albania and North Macedonia. That has been one of the most positive news of 2022 for the region and for Greece.

Last June, Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis even proposed a specific deadline for all the Western Balkan countries to be integrated into the EU by 2033; that shows Greece’s steady interest for the European prospect of the region. However, Athens should do more in this direction; maybe initiating -within the EU – a group of those willing to push forward the process of the region’s EU accession or taking separate initiatives to unblock political obstacles. It certainly has the knowledge and the necessary tools as the oldest member of the Union in the region.

For Greece, it is of utmost importance to see the Balkans being part of the European project, the most successful guarantor of peace, stability, economic growth and social prosperity. Greece like the EU cannot afford losing its neighbourhood to third actors seeking to undermine all the above. Greece understands that it simply cannot expect a stable and prosperous future without securing the prosperity and the stability of its neighbours. But it is high time both Greece and the EU kept its Thessaloniki promise.

Albanian Post: Albania as a stability factor in the region, do you see it this way? How would you comment on the organization of the EU-WB Summit in Tirana and also the continuation of the Berlin Process in Tirana next year?

Albania is indeed a stability factor, as it has zero problems with other countries of the Western Balkans and also has a clear pro-Western geopolitical orientation.  I really think that this fact played a significant role for the EU’ s choice to politically “invest” on Albania to host as the first country in the region both the EU – WB Summit, last December and in 2023, the Berlin Process. Albania has all the requirements needed to become soon an example in the region speeding up the necessary reforms that will bring it closer and eventually become a full member of our European family. And on its behalf, Greece, as a warm supporter of Albania’s European perspective, should be ready to assist in every possible way. This will be a fundamental element of the new era in our bilateral relations.

Albania has already proven that it can organize and host significant events like an EU – Western Balkans Summit, as it did in December. I am pretty sure that the Berlin Process Summit will just confirm once again that Albania is already speeding up its European course. The decision of the new German government to re-activate the Berlin Process has been one of the most positive news of 2022, especially regarding the agreements that were signed.

For us, at the South-East Europe Programme of ELIAMEP, the driving idea, and our operating logic however is that the Western Balkan countries should not be treated as separate entity, with a somewhat remote prospect of membership. The EU’s and member states’ thinking, and planning should be pan-European and should treat the Western Balkans as an integral part of their broader geopolitical and policy space in the making. Even before accession, which should anyhow have a realistic time frame, the Western Balkans should connect with the EU and the member states in every possible manner and in all relevant policy areas. In that context, ELIAMEP’s South-East Europe Programme is ready to assist any relevant process in all possible ways.

Albanian Post: In the regional perspective, Greece seems to be in “open fire” with Turkey. Do we really risk a proper conflict between two of the most powerful entities in the region?

Greece has been facing for more than two years a period of ongoing tensions with Turkey. What is more concerning than a conflict per se, is the subsequent effect that this period had in our societies. Old wounds have once again resurfaced and there is an increased suspicion and even hatred between our two peoples. Unfortunately, the media also play their own role in fuelling these sentiments in both countries. But the media are also reflections of the choices of the political leaderships.

In 2023, elections in both countries will take place sometime in the first half of the year and that does not leave any room for optimism that the situation will change. In fact, I think that the political leaderships in both Turkey and Greece will continue to play the nationalistic card. In both countries, ruling and opposition parties will choose this way as nationalistic narratives always secure votes. As politically understandable this may be, it is also quite dangerous for obvious reasons. I don’t believe that any conflict will happen as a strategic choice on behalf of Turkey. However, what concerns me in this ongoing toxic environment is the possibility of an accident. I really hope that following the elections, the new political leaderships in both countries will show political maturity to begin once again the necessary talks to end this hostile environment, which in reality is equally harmful for both countries as well as our region.

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