BELGRADE - The landslide victory of Ivo Josipović in the January 10 presidential elections in Croatia bodes well, not just for the country, but also for the Western Balkans as a whole—not least for the region’s hopes for membership in the European Union. The 52-year-old Social Democrat, a tenured professor of international criminal law and renowned composer, won with a 20-point margin in the second round of the election, which had more than 50% turnout.
In the campaign, Josipović came across as a voice of reason and moderation. In a region where charisma has often been coupled with other, more unpleasant personality traits, this uncharismatic leader’s appeal lies in his determination to grapple with endemic corruption and organized crime and his standing for a renewed sense of justice. His call for dialogue and cooperation in the region also appealed to voters tired of petty divisions. As a candidate of the opposition Social-Democratic Party of Croatia, he rallied the support of both opposition and incumbent parties—the Croatian People’s Party and the Independent Democratic Serb Party—in the second round. A yearning for normalcy and a weariness with populist voices carried the day. His opponent Milan Bandic, the incumbent Mayor of Zagreb, simply did not stand a chance to out-flank Josipović with his populist rhetoric.
In Brussels, the same week saw the members of the new EU Commission being grilled by the European Parliament—with special attention to enlargement. Catherine Ashton, the new EU foreign and security policy High Representative, said that the future of the Western Balkans, and the region’s move toward EU membership, will be one of her priorities. Stefan Füle, the designated EU Commissioner for enlargement, also promised to work toward membership for the Balkans. For the Western Balkan countries, that was a very important message.
For, while Croatia is expected to become the EU’s 28th member state in 2012 (unless Iceland makes it in before), many of the other countries in this region torn by war only a decade ago have been disturbed by talk of enlargement fatigue and by harsh criticism of the accession of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007.
Nonetheless, the Western Balkans have already gained a remarkable amount of momentum on their way toward Euroatlantic integration. The end of 2009 saw several important milestones: visa-free travel for Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia; Serbia put forward its formal request for EU candidate status; Montenegro made a determined step toward achieving candidacy by handing in the answers to the European Commission’s questionnaire , and it was approved for a Membership Action Plan by NATO; Albania moved a notch further in the candidacy process by receiving the Commission’s questionnaire; and Bosnia and Herzegovina put in a request for its own Membership Action Plan at NATO.
Which is not to say that all is smooth. On the contrary, all of these countries still have serious problems. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, recent U.S. and EU efforts to help create a more self-sustaining political system (the “Butmir process”) have stalled. The country hopes to get a visa-free regime by July; but since this is an election year, there is little hope of any other breakthroughs. The name dispute between Greece and Macedonia remains intractable. And Kosovo looks likely to need NATO soldiers and EU administrators for a long time.
The Croatian president-elect Josipović, on the other hand, has shown his determination to move forward by saying that he wants to improve bilateral relations significantly with Serbia. In Belgrade, President Tadić took him up immediately, saying that he would come to his new colleague’s inauguration on February 18 or meet him soon after. The two countries would, in a first step, drop the cases for genocide against each other in front of the International Court of Justice in the Hague.
All the governments in the region have clearly stated their commitment to an EU future and to a peaceful, negotiated resolution of all outstanding bilateral and regional disputes. That is why the forward, if sometimes frustratingly slow, movement toward the EU must continue. It is what reinforces the motivation of the majority of democratically minded citizens and officials to pursue the hard work of reform and change. Public opinion polls have systematically shown clear majorities over the past ten years for EU integration in all countries, except, paradoxically in Croatia, which seems to follow the adage that the closer you get, the more qualms you have. But again Josipovic’s victory seems to adamantly negate those qualms.
The countries of the Western Balkans are fully aware that there will be no leniency on the way to Brussels. The experiences of Bulgaria and Romania have taught them that judicial reform and the twin scourges of organized crime and corruption must be dealt with swiftly. Rule of law, transparency, and good governance—these are conditions for accession, not projects to be taken up (or not) after entering the EU gates. Regional cooperation efforts will help because they demonstrate that the Balkans have truly chosen the European way.