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The Riddle of the Western Balkans

According to common wisdom, the future of Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina,

Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Serbia lies in Europe. But the burdens of the

refugee crisis put the seeds of doubt in more and more people in Western Balkans.

Text: Rainer Himmelfreundpointner

Official final picture of all members at the Western Balkans

Conference in Vienna, end of August 2015.

Each time an educated discussion on a future

enlargement of the European Union ends up

at the the vision of integrating the Western

Balkans, some folks of the cynical fraction of life

start to mock around about the real big question of

this region. Which in their view is: Are the times

changing there or not? After having rhetorically

asked so, one of them will immediately recall Otto

von Bismarck, who in 1888 truly predicted: ”One day

a great European War will come out of some damned

foolish thing in the Balkans.“ And another one will

quickly draw an analogy to a further Bismark statement

– „The Balkans aren‘t worth the life of a single

Pomeranian grenadier” – meaning that nothing has

changed in the Western Balkans, its countries Albania,

Bosnia & Herzegovina, Mecedonia, Montenegro,

Kosovo and Serbia would not be worth a single

EU cent and should stay on their own.

So far to the most extreme, most critical approach

in debating the geopolitical future of what mainly

used to be the former Yugoslavia. A position far beyond

mainstream EU politics, by the way, which in

general is strongly in favour of paving the way for the

Western Balkans towards membership, or at least a

stronger integration into a common Europe. Maybe

the most outspoken promoter of closing the gap between

the EU and the Western Balkans is Austria‘s

Minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs,

Sebastian Kurz, who recently finished an extensive

roundtrip throughout the region. ”Austria is deeply

tied together with these states on a humanistic, economic,

cultural and historic base“, says Kurz. „Therefore

Austria remains a clear advocate for EU membership

of all countries of the Western Balkans.“

Basically this perspective is rooted in the first

Western Balkans Summit 2003 in Porto Carras in

Greece which promised an ”unconditional support

for these states in their European orientation“. Nevertheless,

for the next ten years the region was partly

tied up in painful first time experiences of nation

building, partly in unsolved bilateral conflicts going

back to historic or nationalistic differences. Up until

now Serbia and Kosovo haven‘t figured out their generations

old hostility. Bosnia & Herzegovina still

seem to be politically paralysed by internal fractionism.

And Mazedonia‘s ambitions to join the EU

have yet to overcome Greece‘s resistance because of

its disputed name. So, all in all, Western Balkans remained

at square one.

But in 2013, with the first Western Balkan Conference,

chaired by EU Border Security Agency ”Frontex“,

things began to move. It was the dawn of the

European refugee crisis, immigration from the

Middle East and Africa began to focus more and

more on Greece, and as early as that experts warned

that without any counter measures, masses of asylum

seekers could soon be moving forward via the Western

Balkans right into heartland Europe. 2014 saw

two conferences on the Western Balkans, one in June

in Vienna, at which Albania gained EU candidate

status, and one in August in Berlin, where former

Commission President José Manuel Barroso pointed

out that ”the future of the Balkans lies in Europe“

and sweetened this outlook with a 12 billion Euros

subsidy promise. A lot of big infrastructure projects

– mainly transnational railroads, streets and powerplants

– have thus been kickstarted, and politicians

were eager to put wood behind the arrow in their


Bosnia &


The country proclaimed independence

on 6 April 1992 but nearly

immediately became the battlefield

of the Bosnian War, lasting until 1993

with a still disputed number of war

crime victims.

Official name:

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Capital: Sarajevo

Population: 3,871,643

Government: Federal

parliamentary republic

Ethnic groups: 48.4% Bosniaks,

32.7% Serbs, 14.6% Croats,

4.3% other

Area: 51,197 sq km

GDP: 38.08 billion US-$ (PPP)

GDP per capita: 9,800 US-$ (PPP)

Official name: Montenegro

Capital: Podgorica

Population: 620.000

Government: Parliamentary republic

Ethnic groups: 45% Montenegrins, 28.7%

Serbs, 8.6% Bosniaks,

4.9% Albanians

Area: 13,812 sq km

GDP: 3.985 billion US-$ (PPP)

GDP per capita: 6.373 US-$ (PPP)


The largest of the Western Balkans states is an

independent republic since 2006 when its union with

Montenegro broke apart. Having left the years of the

Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s behind, Serbia today is an

upper-middle income economy with a dominant service

sector, followed by industry and agriculture, an economically

moderately free country and EU membership candidate.

Official name: Republic of Serbia

Capital: Belgrade

Population: 7,041,599

Government: Unitary parliamentary

constitutional republic

Ethnic groups: 83% Serbs, 3.5% Hungarians,

2% Roma, 2% Bosniaks, 9% others

Area: 88,361 sq km

GDP: 99.899 billion US-$ (PPP)

GDP per capita: 13,944 US-$ (PPP)

Official name: Republic of Albania

Capital: Tirana

Population: 2,893,005

Government: Unitary parliamentary constitutional republic

Area: 28,748 sq km

GDP: 32.259 billion US-$ (PPP)

GDP per capita: 11,700 US-$ (PPP)


The former province of Serbia declared independence

on 17 February 2008. Serbia refuses to recognise Kosovo

as a state, although with the Brussels Agreement of 2013

it has accepted the legitimacy of Kosovo institutions.

Kosovo also lacks diplomatic recognition from 85 United

Nations member states, including five EU states, and is

not a member of the UN.

Official name: Republic of Kosovo

Capital: Pristina

Population: 1,859,203

Government: Parliamentary republic

Area: 10,908 sq km

GDP: 17.780 billion US-$ (PPP)

GDP per capita: 9,570 US-$ (PPP)

Official name: Republic of Macedonia

Capital: Skopje

Population: 2,069,162

Government: Parliamentary republic

Ethnic groups: 64.2% Macedonians,

25.2% Albanians, 3.9% Turks, 2.7% Romani,

1.8% Serbs, 2.2% other

Area: 25,713 sq km

GDP: 22.147 billion US-$ (PPP)

GDP per capita: 10,718 US-$ (PPP)




Western Balkans

Terminus technicus: In December

1998 the EU introduced the words

Westerns Balkans into its terminology,

identifying the remaining

southeast European countries –

Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina,

Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo and

Serbia – which after the joining of

Bulgaria and Romania would be part

of the next strategic step of EU


Geography: In case of experts in

geomorphology talking about the

Western Balkans, they deal with the

Western part of the Balkan

Mountains between Bulgaria and

Serbia, with 95 percents of its hills on

the side of Bulgaria.

History: Apart from the facts that

World War I started in Serbia and the

states of former Yugoslavia engaged

in a bloody war in the region between

1991 and 2001, the notion of

”balkanisation“ – meaning political

instability and economic backwardness

– is deeply rooted in Western

perception. Especially in Austria, and

more so in Vienna, where people

think to know where the Balkans

really start – at the Rennweg in

Vienna‘s third district.

Economy: The Western Balkans

states still have a long way to go

before reaching EU economic level.

Incomes per capita amount for only

27 percent of EU average. Trade

relations of the regions are heavily

dependent on the EU, accounting for

75 percent.


Meaning ”Black Mountain“, the

country was either ruled by local

aristocray, Venice or the Ottoman

Empire, until it became part of

Yugoslavia in 1918. Independent

since 3 June 2006.


The country first mentioned in 1190 became independent

after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and declared

independence in 1912. After a period of kingdom, Italian

and Nazi regimes, it returned to republic constitution with

the last having been introduced in 1998. Albania enjoys the

status of EU candidacy and is a member of the NATO.


The most southern successor state of former

Yugoslavia declared independence on 8 September

1991 and became a member of the United Nations in

1993. But, as a result of an ongoing dispute with Greece

over use of the name Macedonia, it was admitted under

the provisional description of „the former Yugoslav

Republic of Macedonia“.

46 Cercle Diplomatique 1/2016

Cercle Diplomatique 1/2016 47

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