Stay the course

Daniel Serwer

I spent last week visiting two allegedly dysfunctional states in the Balkans: Macedonia and Kosova. Rumors of their incapacity or even demise are exaggerated. I visited with government officials, parliamentarians, NGOers, journalists, and old friends. I saw their presidents and prime ministers, but not their foreign ministers, as both were traveling. Despite their real problems, both states are functional and have made enormous progress over the past twenty years.

I started in Macedonia, which is saddled with two current issues: a law on language that the President refuses to sign and a dispute concerning its name with Greece.

The former raises constitutional questions, as the parliament has passed the law twice, after which the President is obliged to sign. He claims however that the law, which increases the required use of Albanian by state institutions, contradicts the constitution, which he is sworn to uphold. People get really worked up over this, but I just don’t see how it compares even remotely to the political crisis that enveloped the country in 2016 and 2017, when the opposition was publicizing wiretaps that demonstrated abuse of power. I’m betting Macedonia’s citizens and politicians will figure out how to get the constitutional court to decide who is right. That would be an institutional solution appropriate to the challenge. Not so bad.

The second problem is a congenital one. From the moment of independence, Athens challenged Skopje’s right to use “Macedonia” and has refused to accept Macedonia into NATO either as the Republic of Macedonia (its constitutional name) or as The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (The FYROM), the appellation Greece agreed in 1995 would apply to membership in international organizations.

This is the moral equivalent of the United States objecting to Mexico’s official name (Estados Unidos Mexicanos), or the Mexicans objecting to “New Mexico.” As in the rest of the Balkans, the real issues are territory and identity, not the name. Here too there are lots of solutions and an ongoing negotiation that appears to be making progress. Current betting is on “Republic of Upper Macedonia,” but precisely when and where that would be used is still uncertain. Any solution will have to pass muster in parliament and get approved in a referendum: again, institutional solutions.

Kosova has also been through a rough patch, with two issues that created disorder in both the streets and parliament: demarcation of the border with Montenegro and creation of an Association of Serb Municipalities (ASM).

The former verged on silly, since only a few hundred hectares were involved and the agreement had already been concluded as well as ratified in Montenegro before it became controversial in Kosova. It is now solved and the waters have calmed.

The ASM is still a problem, as it is part of the plan that got Kosova its independence 10 years ago but risks making Kosova like Bosnia, which is to say so ethnically divided as to be dysfunctional. The constitutional court has made clear within what parameters the issue should be solved, but some think it will be necessary to go further. That is going to be difficult, especially as the situation in Bosnia is worsening because the leader of its Serb 49% “entity” is using its power-sharing arrangements to block effective governance at the state level. Kosova Albanians are right to want to avoid that kind of trouble.

Another recent incident has also roiled Kosova’s waters: Turkish security officials were allowed to seize some of President Erdogan’s political opponents on Kosova territory and deport them to Turkey, where they face a court system that is doing the President’s bidding. The proper court proceedings were not followed in Kosova. A parliamentary committee has been commissioned to investigate.

The distinguishing characteristic of all these issues is that they touch on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states that are not yet consolidated, or self-confident (I’m grateful to Veton Surroi, a tough critic of Kosova’s state-building process so far, for this realization). The result is a level of political (and occasionally physical) conflict that challenges weak institutions.

America’s own early republic had quite a few such challenges to sovereignty (look up Whiskey Rebellion and Marbury v Madison) that had to be decided in the courts, and we are still capable of creating new ones. It would be a mistake to conclude from their existence that the state-building process in the Balkans is a failure. The citizens’ preference for institutional solutions in both Macedonia and Kosova is clear, even if the politicians don’t always abide by it.

Sovereignty is not yet complete, and territorial integrity not yet ensured. Reassurance on those scores is critical. In the 21st century Balkans, the US and EU need to continue to play their vital roles in ensuring that borders are not moved, minorities are treated in ways that make loyalty to the states in which they live appealing, and governance is not only fair but also functional and effective in producing services and prosperity.

I would guess Kosova and Macedonia are a lot more than midway between independence and EU membership. Completing that trajectory is the shortest distance to regional peace and stability. We and they should stay the course.


(Reposted from the original, in Prof. Serwer’s blog: