European Western Balkans spoke with Nikolaos Tzifakis, Associate professor of the University of the Peloponnese and a member of Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group – BiEPAG on relations between Greece and Western Balkan countries.

European Western Balkans: Before the crisis, Greece used to be quite active in the process of EU accession of the WB countries. It has been 14 years since the Summit in Thessaloniki. Do you see Greece getting more involved in the process anytime soon and contributing to the accession of its neighbours?

Nikolaos Tzifakis: Greece has recently manifested a renewed interest in the EU accession of the Western Balkans. It strives to improve relations and resolve all controversial issues with its northern neighbours; and it has actively participated in the quadrilateral meetings with Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia. According to media reports, it has proposed itself the EU-Western Balkans Sofia Summit. Overall, it seems that Greece has been trying lately to communicate its intention to reclaim the role it once played in the region.

EWB: There’s been a slight thaw in the relations between Greece and FYROM ever since Mr Zaev came to power and we have listened about the possible solution of the long-standing name dispute being anticipated in the following year. Do you see that coming and how do you see the current development of bilateral relations?

NT: The climate has evidently improved a lot and the ice has melted in the Athens-Skopje relations. Both sides acknowledge mistakes committed in the not so distant past and argue that they are determined to resolve the name dispute. As a result, the conditions seem ripe for a compromise and much hope has been vested in this new round of negotiations. It is hard to tell whether domestic hurdles in either country may seriously complicate conflict resolution. Decision-makers in Athens and Skopje should reach out to their people and argue for the need of a new start. Importantly, the improvement of relations should be lasting and extend beyond any imminent dates and processes in the Euro-Atlantic integration of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).

EWB: What do you see as other most significant challenges on the FYR Macedonian road to the EU?

NT: FYROM should carry out its entire reform agenda, especially in the rule of law sector. Much of what should be immediately done has been well elaborated in the Priebe Reports. Another challenge, though not directly linked to its EU accession, is the thorough investigation of the wiretapping scandal and the events related to the rampage in the country’s Parliament earlier this year. The way justice deals with these cases will have a defining effect on the country’s political system and on state-society relations.

EWB: Following the announcement of the President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker, an action plan will be drawn up soon according to which Serbia and Montenegro would become members of the EU by 2025, thus excluding the hopes for a potential WB “big bang”. Will it have and if, to what extent, a demotivating effect on other WB countries, primarily Albania and FYR Macedonia being already candidate states?

NT: I do not agree that Juncker’s statement demotivates any Western Balkan state from carrying out reforms. Quite the contrary. It sends out a clear message that whoever makes progress will see its efforts rewarded irrespectively of what happens elsewhere in the region. In the case of the Western Balkans, the “Big Bang” scenario carries non-negligible risks. It would signify a reward to the most laggards and, thus, it would create disincentives to break the region-wide cycle of stagnation in the implementation of liberal democratic reforms.

EWB: There is a widespread assumption that the EU is “turning a blind eye” on the democratic backsliding in Serbia and some other WB countries for the sake of stability and thus supporting so-called “stabilitocracies”. How do you explain such an attitude of the EU towards the Western Balkans and Serbia in particular and could stability and the real politics put the insistence on the values on the sidelines in WB6 accession processes?

NT: The stability-first inclination of Brussels in the Western Balkans has been sufficiently documented in recent years. It symbolizes a privilege of short-term considerations over medium-term priorities. An EU which is overwhelmingly preoccupied with more pressing issues (be it internal such as Brexit, the economic crisis and the migration/refugee crisis, or external such as Russian revisionism, and Islamic terrorism) seems content with the semblance of stability provided by Western Balkan leaders. Still, as the recent crisis in FYROM demonstrated, autocrats condition the preservation of stability on their own hold on power. And the price the EU pays for the tolerance of Western Balkan stabilitocrats is its increased alienation from the pro-European forces in the region that press for reforms and accountability.