A 5-Point Agenda For The Western Balkans



By Abdullah Khurram

The Balkan states have come a long way since the Yugoslav wars and the ethnic cleansing of the 90s. The region has improved both economically as well as politically. Slovenia and Croatia have become members of the EU while all other countries in the region are actively working towards this goal. However, despite the tremendous progress, the region is still confronted with considerable political, economic and security challenges.

On my trip to the region in July, I interacted with a number of Balkan based centers of intellectual thinking especially in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia and Albania. These discussions helped develop these five key areas that can help the Balkan nations deal with their domestic and international challenges.

1- Economic and political stability is the key, and for that, engagement with all global powers can be valuable
2- Increasing advocacy for joining the EU
3- Leveraging the role of moderate Islamic clerics to counter extremism
4- Restoring hope in the state
5- Rebranding the region and developing best practices from within


1. Economic and political stability is the key, and for that, engagement with all global powers can be valuable

Instead of choosing one international camp over the other, the Balkan states should rather be focused on engaging with all global powers, while promoting regional cooperation to deal with local challenges. Moreover, the attraction of becoming a corridor for transporting goods should not take away the emphasis from strengthening domestic economic and manufacturing capability. This requires being aware of one’s strengths and limitations and the ability to create win-win scenarios.

The EU, US, China, Russia and Turkey can all help the region advance towards attaining political and economic stability.

The Bush administration played a key role in supporting the Albanian and Croatian membership to NATO. It also helped improve Kosovo’s diplomatic status by encouraging its parliament to unilaterally declare independence.

The Russians too have shown a keen interest in engaging with the Balkans; visits of politicians and businessmen have increased over the past decade, which has consistently increased Russia’s economic clout and strategic assertiveness in the region.

On the other hand, Turkish companies have made heavy investments in areas like healthcare, airport management, and agriculture. The facility of visa-free travel and trade liberalization, both have helped boost business between Turkey and Western Balkans and it has increased by 84 percent between 2000 and 2008.1

China is also committed towards advancing the New Silk Road project and is not only enhancing regional investments but also creating a network of large ports and railway lines. As part of this, Montenegro chose a Chinese company to build a 800 million Euro highway that connects the country to Serbia. Similarly, a Chinese company is to construct a highway between Albania and Macedonia. The third largest Albanian port of Shengjin, located in the Adriatic Sea, has also been leased to China for the next 25 years.


While the US and the EU might not be in the best of their financial condition to invest heavily in the region, they still maintain a tremendous diplomatic leverage to improve political stability in the region. At the same time, Turkish economic penetration and Chinese investment can help the region become economically more prosperous.

Thus the regional countries should be willing to openly engage with all global players who can contribute to local stability and development.

2- Increasing advocacy for joining the EU

The EU nations have consistently supported the case for the Balkan states becoming full members. However, many in the region think that due to the current problems being faced by EU, it is not prepared to accept any new member in the near future. Despite such perceptions, support for their membership does exist.

On 25 May, 2015, the Bulgarian Foreign Minister Daniel Mitov noted that “There must not be the slightest doubt that all of the countries of the Western Balkans should be part of the EU one day. They have clearly and categorically expressed their desire for this. We have to help them constantly”.2

Similarly, Albania’s Defense Minister Mimi Kodheli emphasized during her speech at the Atlantic Council in Washington D.C. that “If the EU wants our countries to one day be prosperous member states,” then it must reach out more enthusiastically and energetically, rather than “placing all responsibility for achieving this on these countries themselves”. 3


To create a sense of urgency, the Balkan nations should increase their advocacy not only towards EU states but also in the US, a country that maintains significant influence over Europe. To do this, the embassies of these nations in the US could either host joint conferences in collaboration with the think-tank community, and/or create a joint lobby group with regional countries pooling in their resources.

3- Leveraging the role of moderate Islamic clerics to counter extremism

Different regions of the world where Muslim populations are predominant are searching for methods to counter violent extremism. The role of clergy is key in this regard, who have often not lived up to the preset day requirements by coming out with a clear-cut narrative on what it means to be a good Muslim in the modern pluralistic societies. Their messages either promote hatred or do not publicly condemn extremism.

In a recent video, as it is doing in other places, the Islamic State (IS) has attempted to recruit Balkan citizens. It has also been attempting to extend its reach to the region. IS is trying to do this by promoting a distorted version of history and by claiming that the design of World War I was to conduct a “global assault by [infidel] nations against Islam” and that its primary goal was to “create nation states in the lands of the Muslims.” 4

According to the video, this humiliation can only be finished with a “hijra” (migration) to the IS-controlled territory in Iraq.

The Balkan states should engage with influential religious leaders in the region, and beyond, to promote tolerant views and to prevent extremist groups from misusing religion to their advantage. In this regard, influential Islamic clerics should emphasize that resorting to extremist ideologies is an unacceptable way to address the grievances people may have with their respective governments.

The think-tank community of the region can also play a pivotal role in understanding militant ideology and motivation. For example, the Tirana based think-tanks, Institute for Democracy and Mediation and the Albanian Institute for International Studies, have been conducting instrumental studies on preventing radicalization of masses. 5

4- Restoring hope in the State

The hopes of joining the EU have already improved rule of law and accountability, while at the same time reducing corruption in the Balkans. However, this progress is not shared equally amongst different states. Moreover, the region is experiencing a number of economic challenges; FDI is low, unemployment remains high, and the average salaries very low.

To tackles these issues, the governments would have to step up their efforts.
They  could do so by further supporting the local businesses and by developing regional and global commercial and academic linkages. The region can specially benefit from promoting tourism. Croatia has been particularly successful in promoting tourism on its coastal cities of Split and Dubrovnik.

When it comes to governance, Bosnia and Herzegovina poses the greatest challenge. The Dayton Accord, reached two decades ago, was praised for protecting representation of various ethnic groups in the government. However, the model that was established has created unique impediments for the proper functioning of a state. The formula had allowed Bosniaks (Muslims), Croats (Catholics) and Serbs (Orthodox) each to choose their own president, with the chairman of this tripartite Presidency rotating between the three every eight months.

It created one country, but two entities, The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (home to Bosniaks and Croats) and the Republika Srpska (dominated by ethnic Serbs). Today, Bosniaks aspire for a centralized government, Croats look for a third entity of their own, while the Republika Srpska seeks even greater autonomy. Such a political system essentially reduces any chances of improved governance.

To improve the state of affairs in Bosnia, perhaps there is a need to promote a Bosnian identity as opposed to a system that re-emphasizes ethnic divisions. Ultimately, Bosnia needs international support to establish a system of governance which is pluralistic, all-inclusive and progressive in nature. It needs a single head of state that can work towards benefiting the entire country.

5- Rebranding the region and developing best practices from within

Over the past few years, the Balkan nations have made considerable progress towards improving regional ties. For example, Slovenia and Croatia agreed to settle their border dispute through international arbitration, a move that was also ratified by the parliaments of both countries.

Moreover, under the outgoing EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, Serbia and Kosovo have also improved their relationship.6 While Serbia is not likely to recognize Kosovo’s independence in the near future, nonetheless, the two have started talking on various issues.

On the other hand, Albania has started to think beyond its historical rivalry with Greece by opening its doors to Greek investment.7 Furthermore, in October 2009, Kosovo and Macedonia concluded the demarcation of their border, which made Macedonia the first former Yugoslav republic to demarcate all of its borders.8

With these successes, the nations of the region have a tremendous opportunity to rebrand the global image of the Balkans. Instead of being associated with conflicts and divisions, the Balkans could become an image of diversity where different states and various ethnicities are actively trying to overcome the past and reaping the benefits.


This may also require them to reframe the challenges that are viewed as domestic to be now considered as international.

The trade of illicit drugs is one such area. It is generally accepted that the Balkan networks play a crucial role in facilitating the smuggling of Heroin from Afghanistan to Europe. As the European Stability Initiative points out, the heroin first has to pass through “EU members Greece, Bulgaria and Romania to even get to the Western Balkans,” and “Smugglers then still have to cross the external Schengen borders in Slovenia or Hungary as well”.9

Another area needing attention has to do with refugees, asylum seekers and migrants making their way across the Balkans. Increasingly, they are getting trapped in Serbia due to Hungary’s new wall and its border with Serbia

Addressing such issues would require a multilateral approach.


Since the breakup of former Yugoslavia, the Balkan countries have demonstrated progress on various fronts. To avoid the risks and overcome challenges, they would need to increase their advocacy in the US and the EU to fasten their membership prospects.

While the US and EU might not be investing heavily in the region, they still maintain a diplomatic leverage that helps in maintaining political stability. At the same time, Turkish and Chinese investments can help the region become economically more prosperous. It is imperative that the regional countries be willing to openly engage with all international players who can contribute to the stability and development of the region.

Additionally, the Balkan governments should work to improve local employment rates, attract more FDI, and develop local industries that include tourism. These countries should also engage influential religious figures in the region, and from beyond, to promote tolerant views and to prevent extremist groups from misusing religion.


In the emerging interconnected world, overcoming challenges require adopting regional and multilateral approaches to various issues. While ethnic tensions have bedeviled the region in the past, to avail future economic opportunities necessitates more interdependence and cooperation.


End Notes

1 http://csis.org/blog/western-balkans-turkey-back

2 www.novinite.com/articles/168778/Bulgaria,+Croatia+Unanimous+on+Need+of+Western+Balkans’+Integration+into+EU#sthash.tIXRepDo.dpuf

3 http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/ukraine-isis-wars-increase-europes-risks-in-western-balkans

4 http://www.rferl.org/content/islamic-state-balkans-targeted-message/27058370.html

5 http://idmalbania.org/?p=4195

6 http://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/?fa=56484

7 http://www.newsweek.com/balkan-success-story-69243

8 http://www.usip.org/events/diplomacy-in-the-balkans

9 http://www.esiweb.org/rumeliobserver/2010/06/16/iiss-trafficking-and-stereotypes-about-the-wild-balkans/
About the Author:

Abdullah Khurram is a South Asia and Middle East Fellow at PoliTact and is based at Johns Hopkins University in Washington D.C. He just finished a tour of the Balkans where he was invited by the Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies in Ljubljana, Slovenia, to deliver a talk on the “Geopolitics in Middle East & South Asia: Lessons for the Balkans.”

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