The inaugural Sarajevo Security Conference (SCC) is set to take place from 15 to 17 October. The event will bring together high-level speakers, including domestic and international government officials, business executives, leading academics, and notable journalists. Over this two-day conference, a comprehensive examination of the most pressing security challenges facing the region will be conducted.
About the geopolitical dynamics in the Western Balkans, the influence of the war in Ukraine on the EU’s perspective of the region, and the state of civic freedoms in BiH, we spoke with Harun Cero, Regional Project Manager at Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.
European Western Balkans: How would you assess the current geopolitical and security situation in the region during the time of holding the first Sarajevo Security Conference?
Harun Cero: The security situation in the region, or better to say in some parts of the region, is currently volatile, challenging and indeed complicated. These are not new developments, but a product of frozen conflicts in the region and autocratic political needs – meaning that we see an escalation of conflicts in respective countries when there is political need for it from the side of the respective rulers in those countries.
Russia’s war in Ukraine tremendously affected those developments and has additionally polarized the international community, if not divided her completely. It is now more than ever clear that the world will not be the same as before. We are witnessing the creation of a new world order, but also a new security architecture in Europe and globally. Southeast Europe more generally finds itself at the crossroads of these new challenges.
These range from traditional security challenges to new forms of instability. From separatist politics to corruption to migration flows to cyber-security, the region is facing daunting tasks in its post-socialist and post-war transitions. Yet, we are unsure how long the mentioned restructuring will take and what will be the outcome and the price to pay in the long term.
Geopolitically, when we look at the amount, scale, duration, and complexity of regional conflicts we see globally, ranging from China to the Middle East and Europe, the Western Balkans is not first on the list in terms of priorities of great powers, although after Russia invaded Ukraine, it did get more attention.
As I mentioned in one of the previous interviews, future political alliances and priorities of world and regional powers, both in the East and in the West, will significantly influence the geopolitical picture of the world. The Western Balkans region is not excluded from these processes, but, on the contrary, it is, unfortunately, an integral part of this turmoil.
The Western Balkans has always been fertile ground for malign foreign influences, be it direct or proxy-based, and the political actors in power do not contribute to excluding the region from these flows or at least to separate it from them partially, but, on the contrary, they are for personal and party interest fuelling national tensions and trying to position themselves and their political ideologies in a changing world.
All of these will be topics at the Sarajevo Security Conference, and hopefully, we will contribute to raising awareness about the implications of a potential big-scale security crisis in the Western Balkans region for Europe and globally.
EWB: At the conference, experts from various fields will have the opportunity to share experiences and knowledge on security issues. What role can such events play in fostering collaboration and finding solutions to regional security and political challenges?
HC: As you noted, the 1st Sarajevo Security Conference will take place on the 15-17 October 2023, featuring the highest calibre of speakers, including domestic and international government officials, business executives, leading academics, and noted journalists.
Apart from bringing the discussions and expertise from the world and the region to BiH’s capital, Sarajevo, in times when the country itself is witnessing significant challenges in terms of stability and its future, we, as the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, value the opportunity to work with the Sarajevo Security Conference and other institutional partners to offer a platform for the exchange of views and ideas on the current challenges the region is facing and potential areas of cooperation.
The broader aim of this conference is to build trust and contribute to the peaceful resolution of conflicts in the region by sustaining a continuous, curated, and informal dialogue within the global and regional security community. The SSC is conceived as a type of “marketplace of ideas” where initiatives and solutions are developed and opinions are exchanged. It aims to provide a venue for official and non-official diplomatic initiatives and ideas to address the Balkan region’s most pressing security concerns. We also hope that the first SSC will produce concrete policy solutions for current and future security problems the region could face.
That being said, we believe that the exchange of ideas and perspectives on current threats will allow us to understand the critical challenges to the stability of the region and identify potential remedial actions that can be undertaken to increase the security of its members. Against this backdrop, the 2023 conference will focus on how the war in Ukraine has redefined security challenges facing Europe, focusing on Southeast Europe.
The conference will explore the means and methods of warfare used in Ukraine and what implications they have for military spending, the development of new weapons, and the role of information warfare and cyber-security. The conference will also explore the effects of the war on the global multilateral system and regional dynamics, as well as on old and new nuclear risks. Finally, the conference will assess the issue of transatlantic security architecture and its resilience in the multipolar world.
EWB: How has the war in Ukraine changed the way the EU and NATO perceive the Western Balkans region?
HC: We can see that the war in Ukraine brought the Western Balkans into the spotlight of Euro-Atlantic structures.
Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the EU increased its efforts to reform internally to be, among others, able to enlarge and absorb new member states. It gave the candidate status to BiH, Moldova, and Ukraine, and there are indications that it could open negotiations with the mentioned countries by the end of the year.
In the speech by President von der Leyden at the GLOBSEC 2023 Bratislava Forum, she presented a new growth plan for the Western Balkans. The growth plan is built on four pillars. The first is to bring the Western Balkans closer to the EU Single Market. Second, to deepen regional economic integration. Third, to accelerate fundamental reforms. And fourth, to increase pre-accession funds. As von der Leyen put it, the plan was developed to “not only ask our partners to take new steps towards us, but we also take a big step towards them.”
Besides the above-mentioned developments, we can also see that the visits from high-ranking EU and US officials to respective countries of the region have increased and that the Western Balkans and the importance of its EU path is highlighted in almost every big speech related to the future of the European Union, this especially being pushed by Germany and its Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
Still, there is room for improvement on both sides, the Western Balkans and the EU.
The EU has still to concretize its offer to the region and make the EU enlargement process more tangible for ordinary citizens. Also, the EU and the respective member states still have to improve when it comes to ways of coping with regional bilateral and multilateral issues that are getting in the way of reforms and tangible progress in the respective countries of the region. In Montenegro, we see a standstill regarding government formation and reform processes; in North Macedonia, the constitutional reforms are still on hold, and the Bulgarian veto is, in these terms, still blocking the country.
There is a chance that Greece will block the opening of the first cluster with Albania; BiH is coping with internal problems such as constant separatist threats coming from the ruling elites in the entity Republika Srpska and the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue collapsed.
On the other hand, the countries in the region and their leaders need to help things move and develop. There needs to be a clear will to reform and to be part of the EU, which is currently not seen in every WB country.
When it comes to NATO, we can also see movements. NATO scaled up its help in terms of funding and assistance and helping the countries of the region to be more equipped for the challenges that lie ahead, also in terms of cybersecurity. The region’s non-member states are increasingly getting a seat at the table in NATO meetings and summits. The latest news is that BiH will host a meeting of NAC (North Atlantic Council) officials at the end of the year with the presence of Jens Stoltenberg’s deputy, Mircea Geoan, or maybe even Stoltenberg himself.
EWB: There are some who are optimistic that BiH could open negotiations with the EU by the end of the year. Do you consider this realistic, and how would the start of negotiations for full EU membership potentially stabilize the political and security situation in BiH?
HC: There are currently seven member states, Austria, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Greece, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, who have called for the European Commission to recommend a start of accession talks with BiH in December because, as they put it, the new state-level government implemented reforms, and because not starting negotiations would encourage anti-EU forces. Yet, there is still great skepticism in other EU countries in terms of what the added value of giving the green light to BiH in December is, and if the country or better to stay the ruling coalition really deserves it.
Although, when the negotiations start, be it in December or June next year, it will be difficult for BiH to open and close clusters/chapters because of the so-called ‘coordination mechanism’, established in 2016 as a system of coordination in the process of European integration, in my opinion every kind of advancement towards a full EU-membership, politically, but also in terms of access to funds, is welcome and could potentially contribute to stabilizing the political/security situation.
This doesn’t mean that the internal problems and separatist threats the country faces would be erased as if by a magic wand, but it indicates hope that with every new step towards a full membership, political tensions could be scaled down and a more constructive environment for reforms created.
What is also of highest importance is that the reforms that are made, and laws that are created are in line with the acquis communautaire, reflecting European values, and not just adjustments that don’t mean anything in practice, but are made just in order to do something. The most crucial thing is that the ordinary people really feel the results of these efforts and processes, and that the state level reforms have impact on the system itself. To be frank, I still don’t see that.
EWB: We have seen ongoing threats to peace and security, particularly in BiH and Kosovo. How successful have the EU and NATO been in calming tensions in this part of Europe?
HC: As mentioned above, after the 24th of February and the start of the Russian war in Ukraine, NATO rightly scaled up its presence in the region when it comes to deepening partnerships with the mentioned countries and increasing assistance.
The EU increased its efforts internally and in the region. Yet, there is still room for improvement when it comes to dealing with regional conflicts, identifying the troublemakers, and containing them. The saying is “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” meaning that the option of increasing NATO presence on the ground in countries like BiH and Kosovo should be and is on the table.
EWB: One of the topics to be discussed at the Sarajevo Security Conference is cyber security. How would you describe a situation in the region when it comes to countries’ resilience to this type of threat?
HC: In the latest volume of Friedrich Ebert Stiftung’s quarterly political trends and dynamics, which will be published in October with the topic of cyber security in South-East Europe, experts in this field assessed that the Western Balkans region is grappling with an increasing threat from cyberattacks that are impacting critical infrastructure and government entities.
A significant challenge here is the absence of a unified governance framework for cybersecurity, making cross-border defense difficult. There have been a number of high-profile attacks on critical infrastructures, government agencies, and businesses in the region, from Albania to Montenegro and BiH. Another challenge is the proliferation of cybercrimes in the region.
Through NATO, funding for cybersecurity has increased, especially after the Russian war in Ukraine, but there is still a need for additional funding. So, coping with this kind of challenge is expensive. We could see past examples where even more developed countries in South-East Europe were exposed to cyberattacks. A good example of this is the attack on the German Bundestag in 2021.
In addition to funding, there is also a lack of resources when it comes to expertise in many countries. This also makes it very difficult to defend against cyber threats, but this is also an area where NATO and EU assistance comes into play. Basically, all of these things need to be scaled up in order to have a more effective cybersecurity defense in all respective countries of the region.
EWB: Recently, the global civil society group CIVICUS added BiH to the list of countries experiencing a rapid decline in civic freedoms. How do you assess the state of civic freedoms in BiH today, and what are the biggest challenges for the development of media and civil society?
HC: Recent events in the country have caused alarm over the ability of journalists and media outlets to operate without fear of retribution. What we could see recently are amendments to the Republika Srpska criminal code, which introduces defamation into the criminal system. The President of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, constantly publicly harassed journalists who were writing about him and the authorities critically and called them liars.
We had several attacks on journalists. The most recent one, which was highlighted in the media, is the attack on journalist Nikola Morača and editor Aleksandar Trifunović (Buka). They were targeted in an act of intimidation when their vehicles were damaged in a settlement near Banja Luka.
In addition, the so-called foreign agents law, formally known as a law on the Special register and publicity of the work of non-governmental organizations, was passed on 28 September in the National Assembly of Republika Srpska. The law would require that non-profit organizations funded from abroad that act in Republika Srpska register and report on their work. If this gets the final approval and is implemented, that would be a disaster.
So, these laws and changes in the criminal code are alarming indications and the reason why CIVICUS added BiH to the list. It is an alarming indication of the dangerous environment in which journalists in BiH work. Verbal and physical attacks can not only endanger journalists’ safety but also risk press freedom and reporting on important issues. In some cases, that is the goal: to silence the media and civil society sector and not give them space to report on important things and to scare them.