Velislav Iliev: The insurmountable challenges that the Western Balkans face on their path to the EU in 2023

One of the most hotly debated subjects in 2023 was EU enlargement to the Western Balkans. Despite the hand given by Brussels, the nations of the area remain captives of the disputes left over from Yugoslavia's disintegration.

Following Serbia's assault against Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo, as well as ongoing attempts to destabilize Macedonia, geopolitical commentators frequently misinterpreted the Western Balkans area as a hotbed of simmering ethnic and religious tensions. And the reality is that there is a country in this region of Europe that has not abandoned its hegemonic ambitions, unified in the so-called "Serbian World."

With Russia's aggressiveness in Ukraine, the explosive potential of this danger zone has escalated even more. The affinity that several regional political actors have for Russia and the Putin government is well known. The historically strong Russian influence now poses the risk of rekindling simmering disputes, and it is this risk that has heightened the EU's interest in regional integration. During the Strategic Forum in Bled, Charles Michel expressed a demand for EU expansion in 2030 in this geopolitical scenario.

Several nations in the area have long sought to join the union, but none have even begun the formal negotiations. Each country must satisfy distinct prerequisites to begin discussions with the 27-nation union. The question is whether the region's governments have enough political will to execute the long-delayed obligations. What are the latest advances on these very unpleasant topics over two years after Russia's invasion of Ukraine?

North Macedonia's constitution is being revised.

The governments of Bulgaria and North Macedonia signed a treaty of friendship and good neighborliness in 2017, with the execution of its points expected to lead to the start of discussions between Skopje and the EU. However, North Macedonia has not demonstrated the political will to either cease the violence against Macedonian Bulgarians or to stop the fabrication of historical truths and promoting hate of Bulgaria. As a result of the treaty's non-implementation, Bulgaria's 44th National Assembly approved a framework stance that reiterated Skopje's support for European integration, but demanded that the promises be properly fulfilled.

This resulted in the EU Council proposal (dubbed the "French proposal"), which was released at the end of June 2022. Both nations approved it, and the requirements that Skopje had to meet under the 2017 treaty became part of the country's negotiation framework with the EU. Furthermore, the inclusion of Bulgarians as a nation-building country in the preamble of the Macedonian constitution became a need for the start of discussions.

The difficulty with implementing the latter is that a constitutional amendment required a two-thirds majority in the Assembly, which the authorities of North Macedonia lacked. The resultant conditions rendered the VMRO-DPMNE party critical to the RSM's continued path to the EU. The formation, however, indicated unequivocally that it would not accept the modifications to the basic legislation, which it described as a "Bulgarian dictate." A decision was made to have early parliamentary elections in 2024, which are unlikely to result in a fundamentally different position. If we believe the website "Europe Elects" (which aggregates sociological polls from across Europe), the current opposition will take first place with 35%, while the socialists in power until now will have only 12% of the DPMNE, making constitutional changes and the initiation of negotiations increasingly unlikely.

Along with the acts of the political scene, opponents of the RSM's European future attempted to worsen relations with Bulgaria through provocations directed against Bulgarians in North Macedonia. The beating of Hristiyan Pendikov, secretary of the Bulgarian cultural society "Tsar Boris III" in Ohrid, and the obstruction of hundreds of Bulgarians at the border on the day of Gotse Delchev's birth, were the most severe examples. As an example, consider Macedonian President Stevo Pendarovski's reaction on the 120th anniversary of the commencement of the Ilinden Uprising. The president chose to celebrate the holiday with his Serbian counterpart Vucic rather than with representatives of Bulgarian institutions, as stipulated in the 2017 agreement.

Macedonia will have a technical government and new elections in 2024. One thing is certain: the decade-long governmental strategy of hostility toward Bulgarians and our shared history has no place in our bilateral ties or inside the EU. Sofia has often stated that there are no bilateral issues with Skopje. The Republic of North Macedonia's future as a legitimate European country is dependent on Macedonian society and government, which have no stronger ally than Bulgaria.

The war in Kosovo and Serbia

The year 2023 may have seen the worst deterioration in ties between Kosovo and Serbia since the Kosovo War of Independence in 1999. In this manner. The situation deteriorated during Kosovo's local elections in April, when the Serb minority, the country's main ethnic group in the north, boycotted the vote in the four northern municipalities. As a result, ethnic Albanians won the mayoral elections in the four northern municipalities despite a low voter turnout of 3.5%.

Hundreds of enraged Serbs took to the streets, demanding the recall of the Albanian mayors. Mass skirmishes erupted between protestors and soldiers from NATO's peacekeeping operation in Kosovo (KFOR), injuring scores of peacekeepers and Kosovo Serbs.

What makes this instance notable is that these incidents occurred against the backdrop of the Ohrid Accord reached on February 27. The agreement is an addendum to the primary accord signed by both parties in Brussels nine years ago, with the principal goal of normalizing bilateral relations. The Ohrid Annex contains obligations that both nations must meet to continue on their journey to the EU. On the one hand, Kosovo must establish an Association of Serbian Municipalities (ASO) in the country's north, while Belgrade must acknowledge Kosovo's independence. The steadfast unwillingness of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to follow this section of the agreement, while Albin Kurti's administration has stated willingness to implement the ASO, creates a wild card for the post-election turmoil scenario.

It is generally known that the Belgrade dictatorship has a great influence among Kosovo Serbs, which is also pushed through political entities such as the "Serbian List" (the main Kosovo Serb party). According to this school of thought, the boycott of elections in Northern Kosovo might be seen as a denial of statehood, which corresponds with the Vui regime's narrative.

The attack carried out by a group of armed Serbs on September 24 in the village of Banska, Northern Kosovo, was yet another indication of Belgrade's disruptive and ultimately anti-European strategy toward Kosovo. A Kosovo police officer and three of the assailants were killed as a result of this act of hostility. Milan Radojcic, Vucic's close friend and deputy chairman of Srabska Lista, claimed responsibility for the attack and admitted to taking part in it. Radojcic sought shelter in Serbia, where he was rejected for extradition to Kosovo. This incident prompted the EU to reconsider its policy against Serbia and to call for an investigation into Belgrade's involvement in what transpired in Banska.

Milorad Dodik's political views

Although the majority of the region's countries do not have bilateral concerns with any of its neighbors, they do have essential issues to address, such as the rule of law, dealing with corruption, and dealing with internal problems. Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is possibly the most visible example of a country struggling with comparable issues. Although the nation will be granted candidate status in 2022, its internal political challenges, which appear insurmountable at the moment, do not provide the impression of recent entrance to the union.

The country's ethnic divide, which is also mirrored in its administrative-territorial structure, is possibly the most critical challenge for BiH. Ethnic Serbs have de facto autonomy inside the entity Republika Srpska, which is led by Milorad Dodik, a separatist with close relations to Vucic and Vladimir Putin. Dodik's provocations continued this year, and a lawsuit has been filed against the president of Republika Srpska for refusing to implement the judgment of the High Representative in BiH, Christian Schmidt. Dodik, who is sanctioned by the US, even went so far as to brand Schmidt a "Nazi pig." The actions of the RS president, who has stated several times that he would rather see a "Greater Serbia" than BiH in the EU, do not bode well for the federal state's admission.

Although the EU has benevolently extended its hand to the Western Balkans in response to geopolitical conditions, it appears more probable that governments in the region will stay subject to ethno-nationalism and the entrenched interests of political elites. If the leaders of these nations do not make an attempt to achieve the strategic goal, but instead continue with populism, 2030 may turn out to be a deadline that is too soon for many of the region's countries./BGNES

Velislav Iliev is a BGNES International Department editor.