German chancellor to head to the Balkans | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 06.07.2015
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German chancellor to head to the Balkans

As the Greece crisis unfolds, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will travel to the western Balkans. The region currently resembles something of a club of EU aspirants - with economic and political issues aplenty.

High unemployment, widespread corruption and authoritarian political elites: these are things that Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Albania share.

According to recent surveys, the European Union is losing its appeal in these countries. This comes after an announcement from Brussels that the 28-nation bloc wouldn't be fulfilling any plans of aggrandizement over the next five years.

For hundreds of years, the Balkans have been seen as Europe's little tinderbox. This metaphor is perhaps now more apt than ever, given the ongoing tensions between Moscow and the West over Ukraine.

"Merkel's visit shows how important the Balkans is for Germany and the rest of the EU right now," said Dusan Reljic, Brussels bureau chief of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. The chancellor is delivering a message to the "big players" - above all Russia, China and Turkey - that the EU wants to remain the anchor in this region.

In addition, Merkel's visit can work to prevent the impression that all of southeast Europe isn't fit for foreign investment, given the dramatic developments in Greece, Reljic argued.

Grafitti in Serbia (AP Photo/Marko Drobnjakovic)

'Kosovo is Serbian' - the sovereignty issue toughes a raw nerve in Belgrade

The long leash

Over the past few weeks in Belgrade, public discussions have delved into whether Merkel will finally give the green light for Serbia's EU accession negotiations to begin.

For three years, Serbia has been an official candidate, but the Kosovo question remains a stumbling block with regard to any real talks with Brussels. In 2008, the republic declared its independence; Belgrade continues to reject it. In 2013, consensus was reached between the two parties on "normalizing relations" under the auspices of the EU's 2013 Brussels Agreement.

In exchange for limited autonomous powers for the Serb north, Serbia agreed to give Kosovo judicial and administrative freedoms - a concession Kosovo hailed as recognition of its sovereignty. The agreement has yet to implemented, however.

"We're waiting for results," said Gunther Krichbaum, who chairs the EU committee in the lower house of the German parliament. "We don't want a second Cyprus," he said, referring to the Mediterranean EU nation that has been fighting with Turkey over the northern portion of its island for decades.

Greater Albania flag (Photo: REUTERS/Marko Djurica)

Some Albanians have called for a Greater Albania comprising the areas where they are a majority

Problems new and old

With Serbia's neighbor Bosnia, as well, convergence with the EU has progressed slower than some may have originally thought. In March, the EU implemented the Stabilization and Association Agreement, a framework for closer political and economic ties between Brussels and Sarajevo. A central condition for the agreement, however, namely comprehensive constitutional reform, has yet to take place.

"The reality of the situation hasn't been very encouraging," said Krichbaum. Bosnian politics is still based heavily on the Dayton Accords that were formed at the end of the wars in Yugoslavia two decades ago. These stipulate that every important decision must be made by representatives of the three main ethnic groups in Bosnia (Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats). This often leads to snags.

Observers are in agreement that Chancellor Merkel will have less problems in Tirana, the Albanian capital, than in the two other stops on her visit. From the perspective of the West, according to Dusan Reljic, "Albania is a stability factor." He expects Merkel to ask "in discrete fashion" that the Albanian Prime Minister, Edi Rama, refrain from speaking about Greater Albania, a highly disputed nationalist vision that incorporates into the Albanian nation not only Kosovo, but also parts of Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Greece.

"Berlin will also be interested to hear about the increasing number of refugees in Albania," Reljic said. Merkel's conservative Bavarian alliance, the CSU, has long demanded that Albania be classified a "safe country of origin," so that asylum applicants from there can be deported quicker.

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