Speech at the 11th Meeting in the “EU-Russia” Series held by the Russian International Affairs Council and the Embassies of the Chair Countries of the Council of the European Union
Russia’s relations with Western Balkans enjoy a centuries-long tradition. Despite a geographic distance that separates us we are closely united by our common history, Slavic roots, likeness of temper and culture, language and traditions, strong ties of friendship with the peoples in this part of Europe.
We believe that WB is a crucial juncture of a variety of cultures, a region whose unique geographical position has defined its special, even fateful role in the world history.
Influenced by various civilizations the WB always managed to maintain their identity or originality, its distinctive spirit and as we say “its own truth”.
We in Russia always treated WB with respect, recognizing its particular features. Never sought to gain any political, military or economic advantage in our engagement with region countries.
This approach together with understanding of unique Balkan realities helped us during the most difficult times of conflicts in the 1990s to bring sides together, establish dialogue, negotiate ceasefire and peace agreements. Our peacekeeping forces successfully served in a number of hotspots. Our civil, military and police experts were and remain indispensable in numerous UN and OSCE missions.
During the last two decades we were consistent in our efforts to ensure post-conflict normalization, good-neighborly relations and trust between WB countries. Our investments and trade cooperation were beneficial for the economic prosperity of the whole region, making it more secure, stable, competitive and prosperous.
We know that EU actively develops its relations with WB, bringing countries of the region to its membership. In this context I’d like to recall that back in 2004 Russia and the EU adopted a Joint Statement on EU enlargement and Russia-EU relations. It reaffirmed the mutual commitment “to ensure that EU enlargement would bring Russia and the EU closer together in a Europe without dividing lines, inter alia by creating a common space of freedom, security and justice”.
In 2005 a Russia-EU summit approved a Road Map on the Common Space of External Security. It says, in particular, the following (I quote): “Russia and the EU recognize that processes of regional cooperation and integration “…” play an important role in strengthening security and stability. They agree to actively promote them in a mutually beneficial manner, through close result-oriented Russia-EU collaboration and dialogue, thereby contributing effectively to creating a Greater Europe without dividing lines…”.
In a nutshell, back then we saw EU-WB rapprochement as a process that can – if handled with care—be used to strengthen Russia-EU partnership and interdependence.
However this optimistic vision has not realized. Apparently drawing inspiration from the controversial “Eastern Partnership” programme some have sought to impose an inherently false and artificial geopolitical choice on the countries of the WB region. EU aspirations were instrumentalized for economic and geopolitical competition. The Western Balkans were declared by some to be an exclusive sphere of influence where “third countries” are not welcomed (and this is in the region were the Non-alignment movement was born and this year we marked its 60th anniversary). This somehow a reflection of almost century long definition of Winston Churchill, who called WB as the “soft underbelly of Europe”. Nowadays we more and more hear another reference to the region as “the backyard of EU”, which is far from respectful attitude to the nations living there. This unwelcome trend accelerated sharply following the events in Ukraine in 2014, bringing new tensions to a deeply fragile region longing for stability.
Against the backdrop of developments in Ukraine we cannot fail to notice the pressure that has been and continues to be exerted on WB countries to force them to join EU sanctions policy against Russia without any regard to specific national interest and long-lasting ties.
A policy of drawing WB countries into NATO, another matter lacking consensus in local regions’ societies, adds fuel to the flames. In 21st century such methods of building political alliances, having nothing to do with democracy, are not only unacceptable, but dangerous.
Situation in Kosovo (especially in the north) remains explosive and needed to be addressed on the basis of UNSCR 1244. The reaction of respective players (EU among them) on Pristina provocations, resulting with injures to the civilians, should be unambiguous and openly critical. We should not justify the use of force.
Disastrous state of Serb minority in Kosovo can not be ignored. Daily attacks on Kosovo Serb homes, arson, property damage and vandalism continue. The rate of return of refugees and internally displaced persons to the region remains unsatisfactory.
A serious problem is Pristina efforts to create a “Kosovo army”. Contrary to 1244 provisions this intention is supported by some EU countries. There are no guarantees that the so-called “armed forces”, consisting mainly of the “KLA” terrorists, will not be used against the Serbian population in the north of the region in the future.
We support the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue under the auspices of the European Union with the aim to resolve the Kosovo problem. We hope that EU will perform its mediating functions in bona-fide way.
We believe that the key to successful progress on this track is the implementation of decisions already agreed by the parties, primarily in terms of the formation of the Community of Serbian Municipalities in Kosovo. Pristina has been sabotaging this commitment since 2013. This key agreement should be implemented.
Attempts to promote the idea of a “Greater Albania” can overthrow post-conflict normalization in the territory of former Yugoslavia.
Intra-Bosnian process require close attention and global consensus. The initiative of the former High Representative to Bosnia and Herzegovina Valentin Inzko, introduced without prior consultations, to pass a law on criminalizing “genocide denial” has caused significant damage to interethnic dialogue. It provoked an unprecedented crisis in internal Bosnian political life. With a stroke of a pen mediation efforts by the international community aimed also at transferring all responsibility to the Bosnian authorities were critically disrupted.
The situation with the appointment of Inzko’s successor did not contribute to BiH stability.
We are ready for close and constructive interaction with other members of international community on the future of BiH. During the voting in the UN Security Council on November 3, we supported the French draft resolution on the extension of the mandate of the operation of the European Union Forces in BiH “Althea” for one year. Now we need to return the Bosnian post-conflict stabilization process to a positive course based on the Dayton principles of equality of the three constituent peoples and two entities with broad constitutional powers. It is important that these principles remain in the core of the election law of the country.
Dayton architecture remains the only guarantee of peace and stability. Attempts to “modernize” or “adapt” it to certain standards (to centralize BiH and abolish the “ethnic veto” in the decision-making system of the country, strengthening the central authorities and the so-called “civil” BiH) are dangerous for the fragile internal balance between the interests of the three constituent peoples. They are contrary to the spirit and letter of Dayton. Implications of new experiments can be quite dire.
Summing up, we do not want WB to become an arena of geopolitical and geo-economic confrontation or a zone of “either with us or against us” paradigm, especially today, when cooperation of all states is needed to counter common threats (terrorism, drug trafficking, protecting the environment, countering climate change and pandemics). These challenges are aggravated by persisting regional and interethnic frictions. Settlement of these problems as well as many others in this fragile region requires a common approach. Russia and the EU have a good chance and a responsibility to work together for the best of the local people—Serbs, Croats, Bosniacs, Macedonians, Albanians and others. It’s obvious that win-win option and mutually beneficial cooperation is key to stability, security, social and economic prosperity in the region. We need to find mechanisms that will allow the countries of the region to benefit from interaction both with East and the West. It is now on us to build bridges that will be useful for all.
The famous writer, diplomat and Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andrič once wrote: “From everything that man builds in his urge for living nothing is in my eyes better and more valuable than bridges. They are more important than houses, more sacred than shrines. Belonging to everyone and being equal to everyone, useful, always built with a sense, on the spot where most human needs are crossing, they are more durable than other buildings and they do not serve for anything secret or bad.”
This is more than true. Especially in WB region.