International Commission on the Balkans

By Michele Flom Post date: Mar 28, 2014


The Third International Commission on the Balkans was established in the early 2000s when several educational mission teams were sent to the region to acquire data and talk to local citizens about their thoughts and attitudes of the post-war era. These teams, along with prominent political figures and activists from across the Europe, the Balkans, and the US, took the acquired information from these missions to create policy recommendations directed to the EU, the US, and the Balkan countries themselves for creating a plan of EU accession. This idea of EU succession is a beacon of hope in the region to the citizens and their governments alike, and most understand that membership will be the defining factor for long-standing peace. Although there are some that believe “status quo” is the best plan in the Balkan region because they have been able to remain peaceful for this long, nevertheless, the commission urges the necessity of action because the region still rests on “weak feet”. The report says that, “reform processes are hindered by the legacy of the past: immense structural challenges, constitutional problems, open status issues, a dire economic situation, and political instability” (ICoB report 3).

This report, published in April 2005, was necessary to continue the work of the previous two commissions that attempted to create peace in the region between the years of 1913 all the way to 1996. Both of these first two commissions had to deal with issues of war, ethnic cleansing, and political turmoil. The third commission, headed by Giuliano Amato of Italy, is able to finally look into the future because they did not have to deal with the direct issues of war, with a relatively stable atmosphere persisting in the region. The recommendations focus on creating a plan to incorporate all Balkans states eventually into the EU. Even though the commission acknowledges that the EU has been experiencing “enlargement fatigue” in the sense that the EU is reluctant to take on many new member states, the commission nevertheless argues the merging of the two entities would be mutually beneficial for all. In 2003, the EU made an explicit commitment to include the entire region, although never stated exactly when or how. The expression of the sentiment, however, is hopeful.

The Commission warns the EU that if they do not incorporate the Balkan countries into their union soon, then the people of the region will begin to see the EU and European efforts in general as a neo-colonial force that desires to reap benefit from the region without providing any real assistance, and therefore create mistrust between the two entities, which would obviously have a negative impact on the stability of the region. There is a fine line of international influence in any region of the world that has to incorporate benefits to both entities. The commission notes that the Balkans need to have policies that address both the economic and societal aspect as well as the status issue, and that the EU has to come to terms with reconciling their evaluation methods both on an individual level as well as on a regional level, even though this goes against their traditional methods. The commission says that the lesson was, “only real incentives can bring real informs” (ICoB report 15). This goes along with the evaluation of a third party narrative that states, “Regardless of the pathway in which the external incentives model works, the main premise of the model states that ‘a government adopts EU rules if the benefits of EU rewards exceed the domestic adoption costs’ (Schimmelfennig and Sedelmeier 2005 a,12).

The commission therefore recommends the following things in summary. They advocate for a regional approach in the Balkans because each individual economy is so small that interdependence on one another is necessary. They then recommend for the EU to hold a Summit in which they would present each country with a road map to succession, which means that the EU should decide when to start direct negotiations. The ultimate goal of membership should be around 2014 or 2015, giving the Balkans ten years to institute changes and be able to see real results. A second strategy would be to provide these countries with NATO membership first as a reward for good progress in order to provide them with the security needed and also bring them into a well-established Europeanized institution. And thirdly, there is the issue of weak constitutions in many of these countries that needs to be addressed.

The existing constitutions are cited as an “issue” for various reasons. Many of the Balkan constitutions were created in the post-war era by a number of societal elite and therefore are outdated, unrepresentative of the entire population, and largely ineffective. One of the major problems is that the power is divided by “group affiliation”, which is a term the constitutions use to mean identification with an ethnic group in society. This type of policy drives the ethnic divides deeper and deeper into the fabric of society, and creates tensions and sectarianism, which is especially dangerous for this region considering their recent wars that included ethnic purging, racial tensions, and minority suppression. These scars have not yet fully healed. Policies should be trying to overcome the scars of the past, not further ingraining them into a society that is already on the precipice of ethno nationalism break down. And furthermore, the constitutions created weak states with decentralized powers that have made any successful reforms hard to implement and sustain.

The commission advocates that the “status issue” needs to be addressed immediately to create any sentiment of order in the accession process. They specifically outline the transition process for each individual government in the Balkans from the international support “props” and makeshift transitional governments to full-fledged independent governments. They have a different plan for each state because each one is so different in their stage of independence. They believe that time is running out in Kosovo specifically, and that a final status of their sovereignty needs to be determined with a clear outlined plan. In Serbia and Montenegro, on the other hand, the commission advocates that the people of the countries themselves decide whether they want to form a functional federation or a separation because neither side will be happy if it is determined by international actors. However, they specifically advocate that the Albanian people should NOT be allowed to entertain the idea of a “Greater Albania” country because this ethnic divergence would destabilize the region, especially between the countries of Kosovo, Albania, and Serbia. This is something that needs to be backed by the US specifically, because they look to America with the hope of support.

Macedonia is the one beacon of success in the region that is surprising because everyone expected it to fail due to its multiethnic demographics. They have managed to dodge many crises and even incorporate minority rule into their government. The commission believes this is a perfect example of how a clear constitutional arrangement and the institutionalization of European perspectives are “the two instruments that can work apparent miracles in the Balkans” (ICoB report 28). Even after the death of the president who was in control of the reform process, the state was able to manage to stay together and flourish with their institutions and society just as strong as before. Although there are still some obvious challenges that face this country, like the need for a stronger economy and halting the criminalization of political parties, nevertheless, this country shows success in the face of multiethnic issues that surround the other Balkan states. Lessons can be learned from this example

The commission suggests three things in terms of member-state building. They think it is necessary to develop functioning state administrations using the accession process, to create a common economic space in the region, and lastly to improve the quality of political representation and ‘smart visa’ policies. This advice, the commission concedes, is given under the objective of seeking to establish a state that the EU will accept without a question, but not necessarily focusing on strengthening the state itself in a way that the citizens are actively involved and willing to participate.

Therefore, political mobilization and revitalization of the political process to start common and popular activity in the government from the citizenry needs to be addressed separately. This will only happen if they focus on democratization and political representation so that the people feel political agency. The reality of the multiethnic issue in politics is that after many of the wars and redistribution of the demographics, many of these countries no longer have strong ethnic divisions because most have 80% or higher of one homogenous ethnic group. Although this does not mean it is appropriate to completely discount the other 10% to 20% that still reside in these countries. The commission recommends creating a policy that will “reconcile local self-governance with the principles of multi-ethnicity” (ICoB report 33). This basically means that the minority ethnic groups should have regional authority that is also recognized at municipal and national levels, because local governments need to be held accountable to the same international pressures as national governments to insure their compliance with human rights and other standards.

The last major thing that the commission proposes is the ‘smart visas’ policy. This would open borders between the Balkans and Europe for the youth and businessmen because it would help mobilize support for the EU member-building states. It is necessary to engage the youth and the businessmen that are actively involved and invested in this EU integration process by providing student visas and business visas through a program that has certain conditionality of standards attached to the participating countries.

The last recommendation from the commission is that they want the society of the Balkans to start trusting and investing in the work of the ICTY, which is the justice commission that is responsible for bringing some of the major war criminals to justice and monitors justice in the former Yugoslavia. Because compliance with them is one of the major tenets of EU membership, it seems only logical that the governments and societies should also be involved with examining the consequences of their troubled past to help further ICTY initiatives.

Looking back on these recommendations ten years later, have the reforms been effective? Have real changes and progress been made after the recommendations of the International Commission on the Balkans?

In present day 2014, the only country that has been able to successfully join the EU is Croatia. This makes the international commission’s success rate look rather bleak, if one were to evaluate the commission’s effectiveness solely on member status. However, there is more to the story of the changes, efforts, progressions, and successes in the last ten years in the Balkans. Looking at the countries themselves, there is a mixture of successes and failures.

A country that would be considered more on the failure side is Bosnia. Bosnia is not yet in NATO, has failed to implement a human rights verdict in 2009 from the European Court of Human Rights concerning minorities, and protests have taken over the country because of the weak economy and high unemployment and political corruption. They have stagnated, in the opinion of many politicians, while the rest of the region is inching forward. Vessela Tcherneva, an integral member of the International Commission of the Balkans, said that she does not find this surprising necessarily, because “Bosnia was going to be difficult and they all knew that”. Although on the positive side, it has the status of “potential candidate” with the EU, like every other state in the Balkan region.

Montenegro on the other hand, is more of a mixed bag of successes and failures. It has successfully ended the union with Serbia, deciding to be their own independent country. The economy is transitioning to a market system and there are many reform efforts active in the country, after the recommendations by the European Council. It is a stable country in the region with glowing reviews from NATO prime minister, commenting on their successful implementation of reform and stating, “Continuing this hard work is the best way to bring Montenegro into NATO and the European Union”. In 2013 it was accepted as an EU candidate country. Although it must be noted that even in this case of success, Montenegro is neither in NATO or the EU in 2014. Although Tcherneva claims that this country’s transition is happening “by the books” so perhaps it was expected to be a slower transition.

Serbia is probably the closest out of the Balkan countries to EU accession, but is also not quite there yet. They are on negotiating status presently with the EU after it was accepted as a candidate country in 2013. The EU seems to like the direction that Serbia is taking in terms of political freedoms, but there are still some issues that need to be resolved, such as Kosovo. The EU will not allow Serbia into their organization until they have recognized the independence of Kosovo and have furthered to normalize relations between the two bordering countries. There are also still some human rights issues and the EU has expressed their concerns of the freedom of sexual expression. Also, organized crime is still a pressing concern that will need to be fixed before EU contemplates membership. Overall, many think they are better off than Croatia when they started their negotiations, although even that process took six years, so their membership might still be a ways in the future. Since the time of the commission’s report, Serbia has made large strides because they have gone from denying Kosovo’s legitimacy as a country, to recently signing a pact in 2013 that will normalize relations between the two, as a gateway to EU membership. And they even both agreed to not block one another’s efforts towards EU membership.

Kosovo has a longer way to go than Serbia because they are still becoming a fully acknowledged independent country. They have entered into a Stabalization and Association Agreement with the EU, and have also attained the status of “potential candidate”, which is definitely a step in the right direction towards accession.

Macedonia was accepted as an EU candidate country in 2005, and in 2009 accession negotiations were opened, although “ethnic tensions flared” in the Albanain community over political representation (

Albania has the status of potential candidate since 2003 and submitted their application to membership in 2009. There have entered into the Stabilization and Association Agreement, which laid out the terms of their membership. They are also a part of a visa agreement, which has made it easier to stay in European countries and have a flow of business and tourists and students.

Why has it been so hard for the western Balkans to become integrated and why has it taken so long? The EU has changed their conditions of enlargement throughout the years. They have now decided to include other issues, such as LGBT rights and rights for Roma people. Many suspect, cynically, that the new enlargement criteria has specifically come from issues that the EU determines many of their prospective membership countries currently do not meet, which means they are specifically going out of their way to make the process harder and more complicated to attain membership. Although this is just skepticism, the concern is real that the added restrictions to membership have deterred and delayed many of the “roadmap” plans for accession. This is a problem because it adds a bleak perspective and many Balkan people think that these changes are going to keep coming and indefinitely push back their accession date. There are also some other issues that added years to the timeline, such as the general economic recession that affected all of Europe and also stalled the required economic reforms in the Balkans. It was impossible for their GDPs to be on the rise, when even Europe itself was on the decline and therefore created a domino effect. In addition to the financial crisis, the Balkan countries did not implement the proposed reforms as fast as they could because many did not have faith that their consideration for membership would hold. And politicians were able to quickly realize that settling for short-term and mid-term goals was easier and more popular with the public rather than following the plans for long-term goals.

The positive, however, is that all the states are closer than they were before in becoming members and they even have some guiding light from the Croatia example. Many believe that other countries in the region should likewise aid and assist the Balkans wherever possible to mutually benefit everyone. For example, Poland should share their methods with Serbia on how they fought organized crime in their country, which is one of the concerns the EU has with Serbia, and Serbia is directly on one of the drug trafficking routes to Asia. In addition to that, helping Serbia with this problem would make is safer for Polish investments and trade.

Even though the success rates, in terms of EU membership, do not look positive for the International Commission of the Balkans in 2014, nevertheless, Tcherneva tells us that the “The project has been robust in terms of shelf life”. She states that even though the these countries will have to extend the previously predicted timeline to EU accession, the recommendations that the commission advocated are still nevertheless true and valid and can applicable regardless of the amount of years it runs over their stated end date. Out of the many proposals they advocated, most have been either attempted or fully implemented. There have been constitutional reforms, engagement and decisions made on “status” issues, and some changes to visa policies. However, there was little accomplished on the front of political mobility and participation of the citizens, and some countries are better than others in terms of political representation of all sects of society. The ethnic and minority issues still need some work.

Is there anything that the commission could have done better or should have considered?

One thing that could have been better addressed in the Commission, that has also resurfaced once again in enlargement efforts, is the issue of minorities and ethnic barriers. The main area of tension in the Balkans relates to the sectarianism and ethno nationalism that stems from the many years of violence, war, and tragic histories between many of these ethnicities. This is one of the major areas of tension, so I think it should have been addressed in the forefront of the recommendations, and as a number one priority item. The effects of this neglect can be seen in the present day actions of the states and the EU, attempting to reconcile over the gay and Roma people minorities and also the ever-present tensions between Serbs and Kosovo. Tchenvera offers her insight on this matter and says that many times the wrong goal is set when it comes to minority and ethnic issues. She says that “Bosnia is a perfect example of winning the war, but not winning the peace”. She is talking about the Dayton agreement that ceased the war and ethnic violence, but did not establish any sort of peaceful functioning state apparatus. It is important not to overlook the importance of a functional and representative state for the sole desire of attaining peace. This can be very applicable to other areas of the world, she tells us, and even Syrians have been consulting Bosnian representatives on how to deal with the ethnic and minority question.

Tchenvera also gives insight on things that could be changed administratively. She says that it is important, as it is in any big organization, that the members chosen are a good balance between carrying a lot of weight and influence, but also being active and engaged in the region. Some members could not carry through to advocate the proposed reforms after the commission created the report because they switched their region of speciality and began working on a new project, or were too old to carry through with changes in the region, or too busy to be truly invested. If another commission were to be formed, the membership would have to be planned carefully. Another recommendation to forming reports, according to Tchenvera, is that the report has to be radical enough to make actual change and show the time and effort is worth it, but it also has to be docile and moderate enough to be practical and pass through to actual institutions and laws without protest and popular discontent.

Overall, the International Commission on the Balkans created a very plausible plan for the Balkan states to earn their accession to the EU. There have been some setbacks in the implementation of their plan due to some unforeseen events, such as the financial crisis. But there have also been setbacks that could have been foreseen and addressed, such as the on-going ethnic and minority problem and the issue with long-term vs short-term goals. The region has made so much progress since the Balkan Wars, and in order for the states to continue their path to peace and stability, they need to continue and quicken reforms. The EU needs to stop changing the terms of potential states’ accession so the countries will keep faith that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and a point to all the conditions and reforms. Having a clear outlined “roadmap” to accession was one of the major points of the commission, and it has proven in 2014 as a continued popular sentiment.


International Commission on the Balkans, “The Balkans in Europe’s Future” 2005 PDF


And a special thanks to Vessela Tcherneva, Secretary of the International Commission on the Balkans from 2004 to 2006, for her valuable insight.