Efforts to come to terms with the conflicts of the 1990s and achieve genuine reconciliation are progressing extremely slowly in the Western Balkans. Compared to other post-conflict situations – such as the post-WWII period – the record is, frankly, disappointing. At the same time, however, relations among the Western Balkan countries have become considerably more normal on the economic, cultural and societal levels. This also represents an important part of the healing process. Progress towards EU enlargement can not only be a powerful force for promoting this normalization, but also for resolving the political issues that still stand in the way of reconciliation.
Recent years have yielded a number of conciliatory gestures on the part of the leaderships of most Western Balkan countries. The impact of such initiatives remains limited, however, as long as they are not anchored in broad support at the societal level,; and for a number of reasons this support is not present thus far.
First and foremost, not enough time has passed. The memories of injustice and violence are still fresh. Divisive issues persist, such as the more than 12,000 missing persons, in addition to the 420,000 refugees and IDPs who have not returned to their homes. At this late stage, few are likely to return. Nonetheless, their situation needs to be credibly addressed on a regional level.
The outcomes of the Balkan conflicts, unlike those of WWII, were ambiguous. Milosevic was still a star at the Dayton Conference, and even managed to present Resolution 1244 on Kosovo as a Serbian victory. The lack of a clear result, obviously, makes it more difficult to come to terms with the past. The various narratives concerning the conflicts of the 1990s remain highly divisive. Essentially, all parties agree that terrible crimes have been committed. Nevertheless, they tend to see themselves, primarily, as the victims and the others as the perpetrators. This level of mistrust and mutual recrimination remains high.
Additionally, there are still many ethno-nationalist politicians in the region, who thrive on maintaining the old divisions. Genuine reconciliation would undercut their influence, prompting them to resist it as much as they can.
A crucial element of reconciliation is bringing war criminals to justice. While the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia certainly deserves praise for successfully prosecuting war criminals, it is unclear whether it has made any positive contribution to regional reconciliation. The Tribunal has always been perceived as being externally imposed, and never found universal acceptance in the region. One lesson of the past two decades in the Balkans is that local war crimes trials are a better way of fostering reconciliation.
By far, the most positive part of the story is the progress achieved in terms of economic, societal, and cultural normalization. Economic exchanges between Western Balkan countries have increased significantly. A number of successful businesses have built up a presence throughout the region, sometimes based on brands still known from the Yugoslav period. The long-neglected infrastructure is slowly being reconstructed, facilitating not only commercial relations but also people-to-people contacts. Serbs have returned to the beaches of Croatia, and Belgrade receives many visitors from the entire region. Progress is particularly visible in the area of culture. The Exit festival in Belgrade brings together bands from all over the Western Balkans, and at the Eurovision Song Contest Balkan countries tend to do well as they consistently vote for each other. While all this does not amount to reconciliation, it represents part of a healing process and probably has greater impact than isolated gestures at the top level.
This incremental normalization certainly does not mean, however, that reconciliation can be taken off the agenda. We should not forget that the region experienced horrific inter-ethnic killings in World War II followed by several decades of stability, only to descend again into conflict once the glue of Yugoslav socialism had dissolved.
All this highlights the relevance of EU enlargement to reconciliation; just as the integration project played a key role in forging a new relationship between France and Germany, it can help transform relations in the Western Balkans. The Copenhagen criteria for accession involves a number of elements that are directly relevant to reconciliation: the prosecution of war crimes, respect for minority rights, the return of refugees, the development of neighborly relations and of regional cooperation. As a consequence, progress towards the EU is intrinsically linked with coming to terms with the past and improving relationships with neighbors. The enlargement process is thus a powerful force, both for promoting regional normalization, as well as resolving the political obstacles to reconciliation.
If the peoples of the region are confident that they will eventually join the European mainstream, they have a good chance at settling their differences. If they lose faith in a better future in the EU, they are likely to preserve their grudges and divisions. The recent Kosovo-Serbia agreement is impressive proof of this. Only the prospect of coming closer to the EU convinced the two prime ministers to sit down together, and to overcome their differences. Reconciliation cannot be imposed. It has to have local ownership. That being said, the pulling power of the prospect of EU membership, combined with clever diplomacy, can provide a framework in which such steps are much easier to take. This is why it is so crucial that the EU, despite the current crisis, keeps its promise and shows the determination, and staying power, necessary to bring this process to a successful conclusion.