Interview with Milan Nič, Senior Fellow at the Robert Bosch Center for Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), and a member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG). The interview was conducted at the Belgrade Security Forum 2017, which took place on 11-13 October and on which Nič was a speaker.

European Western Balkans: There were recently parliamentary elections in Germany, where Merkel’s CDU won the relative majority, but will have to form a coalition. Discussions over the coalition are not yet underway. What does that bode for the EU and Germany’s role in the EU?

Milan Nič: First of all, that will mean that there will be a delay in serious discussions about how to reshape some key EU policies until Berlin gets a new government. There is an expectation that there will maybe be a new government before Christmas. This means postponement of a few months in the political calendar of the EU, because without a government in Germany, for instance, you cannot have discussions at the December summit on Eurozone or other key policies.

Second, if the “Jamaica government” is formed then, in comparison to the Grand coalition, German position on these issues will be the subject of tough talks in Berlin and in the Bundestag ahead of key summits and meetings at the EU level. This means generally slower Germany, which will take time to reach a consensus in this wide coalition, and more lively discussions about the EU issues in Bundestag with AfD, as well as more pressures, especially on migration and on everything with budgetary consequences, starting with the Eurozone. So, the anticipation is a tougher EU reform, but at the same time, there is a wide consensus that the reform has to start with finance.

EWB: What effect will this “Jamaica” coalition have on EU enlargement in the Western Balkans? What do you think is the position of the Greens and Liberals, the potential coalition partners of the CDU?

MN: I think there will be a lot of continuity and maybe there will be a more strict approach to the rule of law issues, human rights, and democracy, especially if the Green party gets a Foreign ministry, because that is in their platform. Other than that, the FDP will bring more fiscal logic in the discussions about the EU budgetary issues. Enlargement is very likely to continue to be a side issue until there would be no more migration from the Balkan countries and until there is stability.

So, I expect Germany to be tougher on the rule of law and corruption, at the same time when the whole setup in the Balkan countries lies on stabilitocracy and on the “strongmen”. This is the paradox that the EU has to cope with.

EWB: Do you believe that the EU is now seriously committed to enlargement in the Western Balkans, having in mind the already-famous Juncker’s announcements?

MN: What I hear in Berlin is that there is a renewed commitment. Juncker was listening to member states on a few things before his speech. I think Germany would like to see more support and commitment in this task from other big countries, especially from France.

The key change here was the migration crisis which created an impression to German decision-makers and diplomats that the security of Germany is tied to the Western Balkans, and they still have to convince German public and other parties in the Bundestag, which will be more lively because the AfD will be there. The renewed commitment will have to be defended by the administration vis-à-vis parliamentarians and this is a good challenge for the frontrunners of the accession process to show that the enlargement process brings the positive results.

EWB: EU membership is still far off, but some states have made important steps towards NATO membership – Montenegro joined, Macedonia will maybe do so soon, the issue has resurfaced in BiH. How do you see this rapid NATO enlargement, is it due to the changing security environment, fear from Russian influence, or perhaps something else?

MN: It is far away, but it at the same time not far away. For instance, Croatia had to close the negotiations two years before it became a member. The date is very ambitious and it means that the negotiation process has to be carried out at a high speed.

And I do not see such dynamism here. You need to keep that process moving, this would need to be high on the agenda, not only verbally, but also in the center of the focus of the government to respond to the political support they are gaining.

But what I see is that when you ask the questions quietly to the people leading the accession negotiations from the side of the accession countries in the Balkans, when do you plan to be ready, they say – 2023 at best.

In Belgrade there is also a big need to build the administrative capacity of Serbia in order to be ready and to have everything changed according to the EU standards by 2023. You need to have a roadmap for the next five years and I do not see that roadmap in key areas.

And the concentration on Kosovo, especially the chapter 35 and some particular issues on the rule of law is in disservice to other areas in which huge work is expected.

My worry is that the countries will not be ready in 2024 with this tempo. Even if Germany and other countries manage to keep the doors open, my opinion is that these countries will not be moving through the open doors. So, it is not that the date is far off, but the countries themselves are not prepared for such a move.

Regarding NATO enlargement, since 2008 – when the decision in Bucharest was made to invite Albania and Croatia – there was only one country, Montenegro, that has been fulfilling the Membership Action Plan and criteria. So, it got the criteria ready and it pushed the other member states for a long time, with some results.

Second, it is quite real that the Russian actions towards Ukraine changed the security environment in Europe, so there was more willingness on the part of the US and others to accept new members.

Montenegro was for a long time trying and for some time of this decade, it was not ready. For some time, there was a split among the member states of NATO, where some of them maintained that it should be accepted and the big ones were hesitant, partly because there was no push, no lead, no emergency, and partly because of the corruption and other security issues inside Montenegro.

Macedonia could be next because Macedonia was ready back in 2008, but it was different back then, Gruevski changed the whole internal politics after the rejection.

First, the internal stability is needed and a viability of this new government. Second, the issue with Greece. Greece needs to be willing to keep its cards on the EU track and allow the NATO track to move ahead. Then, because the Americans are not so focused on the European security now, they will need to be more pressured by the Europeans in NATO.

This is partly what happened in Montenegro, as Montenegro in NATO was a European cause, and I can imagine that something similar might happen to Macedonia. I think it will be good for the Balkans and good for Europe, but I do not see any “wave”, not even in Bosnia, as they are not ready and they do not fulfill the criteria because of the army property issue and Tallinn criteria.

EWB: This is an interesting observation because, when you hear the American diplomats and officials in the past few years, you get the impression that Montenegro’s accession to NATO is something very important for them. This gives us a cause to believe that, for America, the Balkans are also becoming important. So, why is Montenegro joining NATO of such value? Is it because of the improvement of the security situation in the Balkans or it is more like a symbolic victory for NATO to expand?

MN: It is not easy to receive a vote in favor of the enlargement of NATO to any Balkan state in NATO member states’ parliaments. What happened with Washington is that it generated a relative narrative, which was not about Montenegro, but was about the whole Alliance, and it was successful in getting a vote of the Senate, which was overwhelming and not only about Montenegro, but about keeping enlargement open.

Also, I think the strategy that might have been behind the events in Montenegro in October 2016 is that they understood that they were so fragile and that every trouble, chaos, and instability in that country could have delayed the quest.

EWB: There is an impression that NATO is – in a way – a “waiting room”, that the Balkan countries are joining NATO as if being in the waiting room before eventually joining the EU. Do you think that has a stabilizing role in the Balkans before the accession comes?

MN: Let us hope it does. It had a role in the previous era when the hard security was provided by NATO in the post-conflict period. We are still in a post-conflict period, but we do not know to what extent we will sustain the existing security structures, and to what extent we will sustain American presence at the time when you obviously realize that they have to take more responsibility in defense issues. It is not even easy for Macedonia now to convince partners that they are ready.

EWB: Recently there were speculations about comparisons being made between Kosovo and Catalonia. The Serbian government insisted that the EU is hypocritical for not accepting the referendum in Catalonia, whereas most EU member states recognized the independence of Kosovo. Then, there was that famous letter, written but not sent to Brussels due to the Spanish intervention. How do you comment on this comparison and what do you think Serbia Serbia wants to get by making this comparison?

MN: I think it is done completely for domestic politics and it can hurt Serbia’s interest and EU integration. What I heard in Berlin is that if this comes from the officials, if they misuse it for long, they will just provoke some member states to stress the differences between Catalonia and Kosovo beyond the obvious one, which is that Catalonia is an issue of a member state of the EU. As a Slovak, I would not dare to make a comparison between the division of Czechoslovakia in the 1990s and Catalonia because these are two completely different eras of history.

When it comes to secession, you always have to consider the current circumstances on the ground and the international system. What you hear in some capitals is – OK, we might remind our Serbian friends about the great differences and their role in the 1990s, the policies driven by the Milošević’s regime with war crimes, mass graves and ethnic cleansing, which made any kind of attempt to keep countries of former Yugoslavia in one state really impossible. So, there was nothing like that in Catalonia, fortunately.

Second, it would be maybe more intelligent for Belgrade to use another argument – due to a fragile regional situation, with some secession projects the support for Catalonia’s independence does not help to keep the stability of Serbia, and on the other hand keep Republika Srpska at a bay.

EWB: The target of Serbian criticism was mostly directed at this comment that they are different because Spain is a member of the EU, whereas Serbia is not. Is this actually a key argument or it has much more to do with the war and ethnic cleansing, and so forth?

MN: It has a lot to do with Serbia losing its international credibility because of the 1990s. It also has to do something with Kosovo gaining more than hundred recognitions and there was also the ICJ case initiated by Serbia, which made some ruling. Let us see what will happen to Catalonia. Every issue and every secession is a special case.


Publication of this article has been supported by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States