Challenges to Peace in the Balkans Remain, Practitioners Say at SPP, DISC Roundtable

May 14, 2013

There is indeed peace in the Western Balkans, 20 years since the Dayton Peace Agreement ended armed conflict, and five years since Kosovo’s independence. While this represents major progress, there is evidence that this peace remains fragile. At a roundtable hosted by CEU’s School of Public Policy (SPP) and the Center for the Study of Imperfections in Democracies (DISC) May 9, practitioners discussed the current state of affairs, urging an honest confrontation with the past and a vision for a better future for Kosovo. The roundtable was moderated by CEU President and Rector John Shattuck, who, as U.S. assistant secretary of state for human rights, participated in the negotiation of the Dayton Peace Agreement and played a key role in the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

“One of the challenges when emerging from warfare and atrocities is what to do with this past,” said Mark Freeman, executive director of the Institute for Integrated Transitions, an NGO based in Barcelona. “There remain divisions, myths and stereotypes that could be the seeds of the undoing of peace or destabilizing violence. The top priority needs to be creating new positive collective narratives.”

Freeman cited the examples of post-apartheid South Africa, where the new “rainbow nation” concept brought citizens together, and postwar Germany, where efforts were made to focus on the righteous among the living, those who put their lives at risk to oppose the fascist regime. This helped shift the focus away from the victims vs. perpetrators dichotomy, which, while important, keeps a society divided and perpetually reminded of violence, Freeman said.

Gerald Knaus, chairman of the European Stability Initiative, urged the audience to recognize the enormous progress in the region and examine its success.

“The transformation is miraculous,” he said. “For more than a decade, we’ve seen no war, a few isolated riots, and more importantly, everyone has disarmed. This is the fastest disarmament of any conflict region. Bosnia had 400,000 men under arms, today less than 10,000... Life expectancy and crime rates are like those in Western Europe.”

“How is this possible?” he asked, and offered a few ideas. First, the Dayton agreement was more of a truce, he said. “Peace broke out in the Balkans in 2000,” after President Franjo Tudjman died and Slobodan Milosevic was overthrown in Belgrade, he said. The new Croatian leaders stopped interfering in Bosnian politics and showed a clear commitment to bringing Croatia into a community of “civilized nations,” with a vision to become a member of NATO and the European Union. The EU, in turn, declared its openness to a broader expansion, inviting Romania and Bulgaria to start accession talks, and indicating that Croatia and other war-affected countries would follow. This was a bold move that aimed to further peace in the region by including this broad array of nations in the “club” of prosperous nations, Knaus said.

The other important factor was the strength of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Knaus said. The tribunal had indicted 161 people by 2000, eliminating the political elite of the 1990s from power. This was a “momentous statement” that declared the nationalist projects of the 1990s criminal. An additional significant factor was the unprecedented implementation of the right to return. In Bosnia alone, 220,000 pieces of property were returned to their rightful owners, Knaus said, reinforcing the principle that ethnic cleansing is a crime.

In the region, Kosovo remains a challenge in terms of building a sustainable peace, the panelists agreed. Besa Shahini, senior analyst at ESI, left Kosovo with her family as a refugee during the conflict, returning in 2003 to start her own thinktank and later join ESI. Kosovo is an example of how international intervention can work to end conflict, she said. The intervention was early, following only a few thousand casualties, a small number compared to Bosnia and Rwanda. The scale was enormous, with 40,000 troops in a country of 1.8 million. This made for a swift and efficient intervention.

The UN peacebuilding mission that followed was not as successful. Homes were built, a police force was set up, institutions and elections were established. But economically, Kosovo struggles under an unemployment rate of 45 percent. The EU rule of law mission that replaced the UN mission has not been effective in prosecuting war crime and war-related cases.

The biggest barrier to peace and prosperity is that there is no possibility for Kosovo to join the EU in the near future. Although the new agreement between Kosovo and Serbia, brokered by the EU, states that neither party will obstruct the other’s efforts to join the EU, the point is “useless from the Kosovo side,” Shahin said because five EU countries have yet to recognize Kosovo’s independence.

“In the last five years, the EU has more and more influence, but that comes with responsibility,” Shahini said. “The EU must offer Kosovo a better perspective to move it forward and bring it into the European family.”

The event was part of SPP's Public Policy Debate Series and was opened by Bernhard Knoll, head of the executive education unit.