Regional relations of Serbia in the light of the annual report of the European Commission

Numerous multilateral initiatives, few resolved bilateral disputes

The principle of good neighbourly has been one of the central components of the European Union’s (EU) policy towards the region. This has been the case ever since the concept of the Western Balkans was introduced and the Stabilisation and Association Process launched in 1999. The latter should ultimately lead to the membership of all countries of the region in the EU. The European Commission emphasised once again in its latest annual report that the dynamics of Serbia’s path to the EU will depend on regional cooperation and good relations with its neighbours. Regional cooperation and the principle of good neighbourly are considered to be the essential elements that contribute to stability and reconciliation in the region towards European integration. The Commission, in fact, recognised positively Serbia’s participation in many regional initiatives, as well as the efforts Belgrade is making to improve bilateral relations with its neighbours. Despite this, the Commission also pointed out a few open issues that still jeopardise regional relations, many of which have their roots in the disintegration of the common state. Therefore, this analysis will not only review key multilateral initiatives in which Serbia participates, but the subject of this analysis will also be the most important contentious issues in its bilateral relations with its neighbours. The latter, in fact, were particularly emphasised in this year’s report, but also some that were omitted to be explicitly mentioned.

Serbia is active in multilateral forms of regional cooperation

Already in the introductory part of its report, the Commission emphasised Serbia’s active role in various regional initiatives. Serbia’s engagement has been positively evaluated in initiatives of regional cooperation such as the Council for Regional Cooperation and CEFTA. Moreover, Serbia’s engagement has been positively evaluated in green initiatives as well, such as the Energy and Transport Community, to newer initiatives, such as the Green Agenda, as well as the Common Regional Market (CRM). The Commission recognised the CRM, an initiative launched at the Summit of the Berlin Process in Sofia in 2020, as a key instrument to improve competitiveness and to attract foreign investors in the region. The CRM is the most ambitious regional economic initiative that includes all six Western Balkans actors, also supported by the optimistic Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans. The latter has a value of up to EUR 30 billion, which could be provided in the form of aid, loans and credit guarantees. In this regard, the Commission particularly emphasised the importance that Serbia, as the largest economy in the region, can have in the development of the CRM.

On the other hand, the Commission also mentioned the “Open Balkan”, an initiative launched by Serbia, Albania, and North Macedonia in 2019. under the colloquial name “Mini Schengen”. Ever since the “Mini Schengen” was initiated in Novi Sad in 2019, the leaders of the three countries have repeatedly emphasised the compatibility of this project with the European path of the Western Balkans (WB). With its evolution into “Open Balkan” at the Forum for Regional Economic Cooperation in Skopje two years later, this attitude has not changed. Moreover, the three leaders expressed their support for the initiatives launched within the Berlin Process, emphasising that the “Open Balkan” is built on the same foundations as the CRM. They also took the occasion to invite other partners from the region to join the “Open Balkan”. The Commission also stated that Serbia, Albania, and North Macedonia through this initiative de facto implemented certain elements of the CRM. The Commission welcomed the fact that the last summit of the “Open Balkan” in Belgrade was attended by the Prime Minister of Montenegro and the Chairman of the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, fostering the inclusiveness of this initiative.

Altogether, the deepening of economic integration through which the WB would implement the four freedoms of the EU even before membership itself is important for several outputs. On the one hand, it would prepare them to participate in the EU single market. On the other hand, it would also be a good stimulus for the economic development of the countries in the region. Having in mind that Serbia occupies a central geographical position in the Balkans, that some of the most important pan-European transport corridors pass through its territory (Corridor X and Corridor VII), and because Serbia is one of the most important trade partners of its neighbours, any form of successful economic connection in the region would have to include Serbia. Hence, recognising Serbia’s geo-economic importance, its involvement in all important regional initiatives, as well as its proactive role is particularly noticeable in the example of the “Open Balkan”.

However, it is obvious that this initiative is not strongly supported by the EU and its main member states, at least not in the same way that they support the CRM. Still, the analysis of the action plans and declarations adopted under the auspices of these two economic projects shows that both aim to make the WB an area of ​​free movement of people, goods, services and capital, and thus to deepen the existing CEFTA arrangements. Considering the complementarity and compatibility of the “Open Balkan” and the CRM with European integration, it is to be expected that the EU recognizes this as well. The latter shall also seek to connect these two initiatives and make them a unique project that will ultimately have for the purpose of joining all the countries of the WB to the EU.

War legacy is still an important topic in regional relations

Apart from the regional economic cooperation, the multilateral cooperation on resolving the issue of refugees or internally displaced people was positively evaluated. This took place under the Sarajevo Declaration process initiated in 2005. In this process, Serbia cooperates with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Montenegro, with the aim of finding a long-term sustainable solution for refugees and internally displaced persons. In this regard, under the auspices of the Regional Housing Care Program, an integral part of this process, over 6,300 housing units in Serbia have been built, purchased or renovated so far, in which around 19,000 people have been taken care of. Nevertheless, despite the positive developments, the Commission pointed out that there are still serious challenges in terms of the economic and social integration of these persons, which should ensure the sustainability of their return.

On the other hand, the unresolved fate of persons who disappeared during the wars in the territory of former Yugoslavia continues to jeopardise regional relations. According to the data of the International Committee of the Red Cross, there are still 9,876 missing persons. Investing additional efforts in finding and identifying the remaining missing persons is important not only from the point of view of good neighbourly relations, but it also represents a matter of respect for the human rights of family members of the missing to know the fate of their loved ones. In this regard, the authorities in Serbia conducted two exhumations in 2021 in which the remains of ten people were identified, of which one person was from Croatia, seven from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and four from Kosovo and Metohija. However, it was also pointed out that in the period between the two reports of the Commission, there was no meeting of competent bodies from Serbia and Croatia working on solving this issue.

If one analyses the Commission’s previous annual reports, it can be stated that post-conflict legacy is an indispensable part of regional relations, which will certainly be the case in the years ahead. The integration of refugees and internally displaced persons is a process that cannot be implemented overnight, but it can be significantly determined by the state of relations at the political level, especially concerning citizens who are members of minority communities. Concerning missing persons, although the number of unsolved cases is decreasing year by year, it is still quite high, and with time, it is becoming increasingly difficult to precisely locate the places of potential mass graves. Although state representatives formally express their will for this problem to be fully resolved, in practice, there is often no exchange of documents that could facilitate the search for the missing people. Altogether, sincere political will followed by the investment of intensive practical efforts represents a model for the resolution of all disputed issues with neighbours, both those arising from the wars of the 90s and those arising from other circumstances.

Serbia’s bilateral relations with its neighbours – old disputes and new problems

Despite the Commission’s assessment that Serbia is generally committed to improve bilateral relations with its neighbours, unwillingness to make sufficient efforts to resolve previously open issues was recorded as a key problem. This is particularly noticeable in terms of relations with Croatia. Apart from the abovementioned issue on refugees and misplaced people, the unfulfilled delimitation of the border remains the most important open issue between Serbia and Croatia. Both countries agree with the Badinter Commission opinion, meaning that the disputed part of the Danube’s border should be solved so that the interstate border corresponds to the former interrepublic border. Despite this, there is no agreement on how to define the border from the SFRY era.[1] The issue lies in the fact that the Danube has changed its course and that strict adherence to the international legal principle that the border follows the middle course of the river would partially damage the Croatian side. Although border negotiations have been going on for two decades, the two sides are still nowhere near an agreement. Considering that the resolution of all border disputes is necessary in order for Serbia to become a member of the EU, there is an unequivocal interest in ending the dispute on the Danube and disburdening relations with Croatia.

Despite the importance that old unresolved issues can have on current relations, this is probably not the key reason why the Commission assessed the relations between Serbia and Croatia as “under strain”In fact, in May 2022, the Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor in Serbia brought charges against Croatian pilots for firing rockets at a column of Serbian refugees during Operation “Storm”, which caused very fierce reactions from the Croatian leadership.[2] In addition to this case, the strain on Serbian-Croatian relations was also influenced by the Croatian authorities’ ban on the President of Serbia visiting the Jasenovac camp.[3] The tensions that have risen within the public further increased because of the often inappropriate statements of the officials of the two countries, among whom the Serbian Minister of the Interior took the lead, calling the Croatian government “Ustasha” on several occasions. The European Commission failed to explicitly emphasise some of these aspects of Serbian-Croatian relations. The fact that it now characterises them as “strained”, from the neutral wording of “volatile” which it used in three previous reports, shows that the Commission also observes an obvious deterioration in relations between Zagreb and Belgrade.

Montenegro is another country that the Commission specifically highlighted in the context of Serbia’s  neighbourly relations. Despite two countries expressed will to improve mutual relations and to work on open issues, the Commission labelled these relations as “challenging”. Although the Montenegrin Prime Minister visited Belgrade on two occasions, in November 2021 and June 2022, ad hoc political conflicts were a frequent occurrence in this period. As one of the long-standing disputed issues that was particularly mentioned in the Commission’s report, it refers to Serbia’s refusal to extradite Svetozar Marović. The latter being former president of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, who was legally sentenced to prison for financial fraud and fled to Serbia after the sentencing in 2016. Despite multiple requests from the Montenegrin authorities for Marović to be extradited and the extradition agreement signed by the two countries in 2010, Serbia has not extradited Marović to this day. Although relations with Montenegro are improving, and the visit of the Prime Minister of Montenegro and his attendance at the “Open Balkan” summit in Belgrade send encouraging signals, respect for international obligations and refraining from inappropriate political statements remain a key issue for good neighbourly relations between the two countries.

It is of utmost importance for the Serbian-Montenegrin relations that the long-announced Fundamental Agreement between the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) and Montenegro was signed in August 2022. The issue of property rights over churches and monasteries on the territory of Montenegro was actualised since the controversial Law on Freedom of Religion has been adopted. The latter, in fact, caused several months of protests by members of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro and ultimately led to the overthrow of the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS).  Although the new authorities abolished disputed provisions of the aforementioned law, the signing of the Fundamental Agreement was awaited until the election of the next Government. However, given that this act led to the fall of the Government and renewed political instability in Montenegro, complex inter-ethnic relations and identity issues may lead to new frictions in Serbian-Montenegrin relations in the future. Therefore, it will be important for Belgrade to refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of Montenegro and protection of the rights and interests of Serbs in the region seeks through bilateral and multilateral cooperation with its neighbours.

Instead of a conclusion – Staged accession as a tool for resolving open issues

Since the initiation of European integration in the region, it was made clear that Serbia’s and WB’s processes of association and accession to the EU will be determined to a significant extent by regional cooperation and good neighborly relations. In the meantime, there was a (hyper)production of regional initiatives that, although launched with great ambition, most often did not result in tangible benefits. Outstanding issues, many of which came as a result of the breakup of the common state and/or represent a post-conflict legacy, nearly three decades later, continue to strain relations in the region. Therefore, the investment of additional political will so that all open issues are finally resolved is of great importance for the stability of relations in the WB, and consequently the accession of these countries to the European Union.

The transformative power that the EU enlargement policy possesses and has demonstrated on several occasions, can have a key importance in these processes. Therefore, a clearer and more tangible perspective of the membership is necessary in order for the political elites to be more determined in investing additional efforts to eliminate all disputed issues in the region. The Staged Accession Model can offer exactly that stronger perspective of membership, which can be a key generator of political will for reforms, but also for resolving open issues with neighbors. Citizens and the economy would enjoy the benefits during the accession process itself, and the decision-makers would consequently be additionally encouraged to engage more courageously and definitively solve all the issues that hinder the region on its way to the EU.

Photo: Informal EU-Western Balkans meeting. © EU

[1] While the Serbian side refers to the Federal Law on Delimitation from 1945 and the decisions of the Assembly of Vojvodina from 1946, the Croatian side considers these decisions to be temporary and takes cadastral books from the Austro-Hungarian era as relevant.

[2] Apart from denying that there are elements of war crimes in the murdering of Serbian civilians and considering the indictment as “politically motivated”, Zagreb also disputes the competence of judicial authorities from Serbia to judge war crimes that occurred outside its territory.

[3] Given that Serbia did not announce through official diplomatic channels what was considered a “private visit” of its president, the Croatian authorities saw this as a violation of procedures and prevented the planned visit.