Interview with Ditmir Bushati, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Albania, conducted at the Civil Society Forum Tirana, where he was one of the participants.
European Western Balkans: After three years of Berlin Process, how do you see its potential in facilitating European integration of the Western Balkans?
Ditmir Bushati: There is a political dimension of the Berlin Process that has brought the engagement of political elites in the region up to a new level. We have demonstrated the political will and the political leadership into a process that, of course, needs a political soul. Over the past three years, there have been more thoughtful discussions about regional cooperation and joint projects, and the overall climate is better than three years ago. But, we also need to materialize in concrete terms what we have agreed in the Berlin Process. Nowadays, we have a connectivity pact, but we are lacking financial instruments and in some cases this has been coupled with the lack of absorption capacities by Western Balkan countries.
EWB: How do you see the future of this process? Do you think it will continue after next year or not?
DB: We consider the Berlin Process as a facilitator of the EU accession process of the Western Balkan countries. Three years ago, it had tremendous psychological and political effects, especially if you take into account that the Junker Commission adopted the so-called “enlargement break”, according to which there should be no accession during the term of the incumbent Commission. In this respect, we have acknowledged the political vision of the Berlin Process for Western Balkans. We do not want to see the Berlin process as a substitute for EU membership, and we want to make sure that projects that have already been agreed within the framework of the Berlin Process are implemented. We also need to synchronize our efforts in combining political and financial instruments and means in order to make sure that the Western Balkans is transformed, out of a fragmented geographic area into a true region in political, economic and security terms.
EWB: Civil society has been recognized as an important actor, with Civil Society Forums now becoming a major part of the Berlin Process. How do you see the benefits of inclusion of the civil society?
DB: Civil society in our region is entering a phase of maturity, which was also demonstrated through its proactive engagement with the Berlin Process. Tirana’s Civil Society Forum is yet another proof of such maturity and of the fact that important political initiatives cannot bypass civil society actors.
While the Berlin Process needs soul and high-level political engagement in order not to lose momentum, citizens should not be alienated from the process and its benefits. Civil society initiatives are attempting, successfully one might add, to fill the existing people to people connectivity gaps. At this stage I believe the process needs more follow-up meetings in-between summits in order to guarantee deliverables and provide opportunities for the CSOs to be engaged. We should see the civil society as a complementary and strategic actor when it comes to the Berlin Process, as it can act as an invaluable communication agent for the whole process.
We are currently witnessing the centrifugal forces of the EU accession process and the risk that it becomes an exclusive elite driven process. To the contrary, EU accession should be a societal change. And to achieve societal change the role of civil societies is crucial. In communicating the EU accession process, civil societies can bridge the current gap between citizens and the political establishment.
EWB: You also come from the civil society. What do you think will be its role in the EU accession negotiations of Albania?
DB: We have established a National Council on European Integration and members of this Council include the civil society representatives. It is a forum where we have the opportunity to discuss our challenges and viewpoints with civil society representatives and also to receive their input for the whole set of policies that we implement within the framework of the EU accession process. I have been a regular guest in the Council, explaining various stages in the candidacy process of Albania for EU membership, but also presenting novelties and instruments offered by the Berlin Process, and other regional forums that we participate in. It goes without saying that I highly appreciate the role and the active participation of civil societies in these processes, having in mind my previous career.
EWB: Despite all the achieved progress, there seem to be many challenges in bilateral relations of Western Balkans states. How do you rate the state of bilateral relations in the region?
DB: We have signed a joint declaration in which we commit not to block each other’s EU accession. It is a statement of good will, but frankly speaking, the Western Balkan countries are not in a position to block each other, because none of the Western Balkans countries are members of the EU. Recently, I have noticed a renewed rhetoric of division which goes against the spirit of regional cooperation, and in some cases, political obstacles that emanate from bilateral disputes still hinder regional cooperation and our countries’ ability to deliver on their commitments of regional cooperation.
EWB: You were recently accused by the Macedonian government of interfering with the political process in Macedonia, which created an international problem. What do you think can be the effects of the Macedonian crisis of the region?
DB: I think this is part of the wave of propaganda that we are confronted with in the Western Balkans, because facts are well known. You will never find a friendlier neighbor to Macedonia than Albania. A neighbor that has never put into question the territorial integrity of Macedonia, neither its language nor its identity, as other neighbors might have done. We have always urged the authorities in Macedonia to create a better interethnic climate in the country, which is necessary not only for the democratic stability of Macedonia, but also for its Euro-Atlantic path.
We were concerned by recent actions and moves of political actors in Macedonia, who have tried to transform the current democracy crisis into an interethnic crisis. In such a tensed context we have advised our friends in Macedonia to overcome political differences, to improve interethnic relations and to implement fully both the Ohrid and Pržino agreements, because this is the only path that can ensure democratic stability and prosperity in Macedonia.
Nikola Ristić, EWB Executive Editor
European Western Balkans is an official media partner of the Civil Society Forum Tirana, supported by European Fund for the Balkans, ERSTE Stiftung and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.