The Conference of Rome, what Italy can do in the Western Balkans

by Gaetano Massara

Tomorrow Italy’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr. Antonio Tajani will host a conference with his homologues of the six Western Balkan nations who are not yet members of the EU (the so called WB6): Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia. The gathering is part of a process that began last November with the mission of Mr. Tajani and Italy’s Defense Minister Mr. Guido Crosetto to Belgrade and Pristina to defuse the “license plate crisis” between Serbia and Kosovo and whose last stage was the Italy-Serbia Business & Science Forum held in Belgrade last week. Italy’s new activism in the region responds to a strategic interest as political instability, economic crisis and democratic deficit are inevitably doomed to spill over into Italy.

The disintegration of Yugoslavia, strongly pursued by its old rivals Germany and Austria, gave birth to seven small republics, politically dependent on foreign sponsors, economically fragile and often ethnically heterogeneous. Only Slovenia and Croatia entered the EU. Of the other ex-Yugoslav republics and Albania, only the latter and Serbia are stable state entities. If one overlays the region’s ethnic map on the political one, s/he will discover that there are at least three Albanias (the Republic of Tirana, a large part of Kosovo, and Western Macedonia), at least three Serbias (the Republic of Belgrade, North Kosovo, and Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Republika Srpska) and two Croatias (the Republic of Zagreb and Herzegovina). Ethno-national ties remain stronger than constitutional principles. Latent ethnic conflicts risk degenerating into open clashes. The European perspective – and the construction of pluri-national societies associated to it – is still a distant goal, which has caused the disaffection of local populations towards Europe. Add to this a widespread corruption, high unemployment and demographic decline caused by emigration of younger generations, and you will have a gloomy overall picture.

The evidence that the process of reorganization of the ex-Yugoslav space is not over is getting clearer and clearer. In order for it to not result in new tragedies, it must be prevented and guided. Italy can and must play a leading role, operating as an honest broker who has an interest in creating an area of peace and prosperity. In the region Rome boasts a capital of historical, cultural, economic, sentimental and military ties (Italy’s peacekeepers in Kosovo and Bosnia).

There are four things Italy can do. Firstly, to continue to promote the immediate entry of the Western Balkans States into the EU. Before Russia, China and Turkey tighten their grip further. Then to support them in adapting their internal systems to EU standards. Not viceversa – reforms first, EU entry later – as Northern European States and France suggest.

Secondly, while waiting that the EU’s lengthy procedures lead all six countries to the port of Brussels, to support the Berlin Process and the Open Balkan initiative. These are parallel and complementary processes to EU enlargement aimed at improving regional economic cooperation and the construction of a free trade area.

Thirdly, Italy should upgrade its role from dialogue facilitator to proponent of solutions. Two issues are the most pressing: Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina. As the solution to either of them will inevitably affect the solution to the other one, they need to be addressed in parallel. Long-lasting solutions capable to bring peace and stability can only be the result of a compromise between the principles of territorial integrity of States, self-determination of peoples, and history. Specifically, in Kosovo it is necessary to consider the feeling of national identity that unites Kosovan Albanians with Tirana’s Albanians, the same feeling that binds Kosovan Serbs with their motherland as well as the non-integrability of the four Serb-majority municipalities of the North with the rest of Kosovo and their willingness to return with Belgrade. A referendum should be held to let Kosovans choose whether to keep the status quo or split up peacefully, letting the North return with Serbia if they decide to do so while the rest of the Country decides whether to join Albania or remain independent. To this end, the Italy-Albania-Serbia Trilateral meetings should be relaunched to facilitate an agreement between Albanians and Serbs.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the institutional paralysis is exacerbated by Serbs’ secessionist thrusts, Croats’ autonomist aspirations and Muslims’ centralist demands. A compromise could be found in a (con)federal arrangement similar to the ones of Switzerland or Germany, with the creation of a Croatian entity and the adherence to the principle of civic state, where political representation is based on constitutional guarantees rather than on ethnic criteria.

Fourthly, together with the leaders of the region, Italy should explain to its European partners (Americans are more open to innovative solutions) that the ethnopolitical reality on the ground imposes realism and the entry into the EU does not dilute the feelings of national belonging. An international conference with the participation of the WB6, the Quint (France, Germany, Italy, UK, USA), the EU, Croatia and Turkey should sanction the new territorial and institutional architecture and commit all parties to its respect.

Gaetano Massara is a strategic and financial adviser. Currently he is a Member of the Board of Directors of Ansaldo Energia, and works as a consultant and editorialist. He is an expert in energy, geopolitics and business transformation.

He has worked at GE Lighting-Tungsram for two years, where he was CEO for South Europe. Prior to that, he worked at General Electric (GE) for 11 years, where he covered the roles of CEO for South-East Europe, Sales Executive of GE Power for Central & Eastern Europe and Marketing & Business Development Director for South Europe. Previously, he worked at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), where he was Associate Banker in the Municipal & Environmental Infrastructure team and Analyst at the Transport team. He also worked at the European Commission. Having lived and worked for 20 years in South-East Europe – a region encompassing ex-Yugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Malta and Romania – he became an expert of the region and its dynamics.

He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Economics & Business Administration from the University of Rome, an MSc in International Relations funded by Italy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a Diploma in Macroeconomics from the Yale University, USA. He also undertook part of his studies in France and Spain. Gaetano is fluent in English, French and Spanish and is Italian mother tongue. He can communicate in Bosnian/Croatian/Montenegrin/Serbian. As an athlete, he has been Triathlon “Ironman”-distance five times finisher, Italian champion of rowing and competitor in sailing regattas. He currently lives between Belgrade (Serbia), Rome (Italy) and Zagreb (Croatia).

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