How is current migrant crisis showing Western Balkans relations and what damage does it cause there? Read the text by Marko Stojić.
When on Thursday Croatia decided ban the entry of holders of Serbian passports and vehicles to its territory, the crisis between two former Yugoslav countries reached a point unseen since the end of the 1990s wars. However, unlike many previous crises, the newest one was triggered by external events out of the control of these countries – the influx of more than 200,000 migrants from the Middle East. Until recently, the flow of migrants was relatively unobstructed, but the building of a fence on Serbian-Hungarian border prevented migrants from entering Hungary and diverted them towards Croatia, which saw more than 85,000 people entering the country over the last two weeks. In an attempt to slow down entry of migrants, the Croatian government closed its border with Serbia for all trucks, claiming that Serbia, in cooperation with Hungary, directed all migrants towards Croatia in an organized way. This was denied by both countries, with the Serbian PM Aleksandar Vučić, arguing that the Croatian decision was ‘like something out of the twilight zone: send half to Hungary, half to us and we’ll open the border’. As a consequence, Serbia introduced countermeasures blocking imports of Croatian goods, followed by a Croatian ban on the entry of Serbian citizens and vehicles to its territory.
The region thus proved to be completely unprepared for the mass influx of migrants, while at the same time many unsolved disputes re-emerged. Serbian media showed a high degree of sensationalism, comparing the Croatian position with the behaviour of the Croatian fascist regime during World War Two. In Croatia, the election campaign is in full swing and both nationalist opposition and moderate ruling parties want to present themselves as staunch defenders of national interests. Faced with the probable electoral defeat as well as fierce criticism for handling of the crisis, PM Zoran Milanović even accused his Serbian counterpart of holding secret talks with Budapest and the Croatian opposition. That prompted the Hungarian foreign affairs minister Péter Szijjártó to send a message to Milanović ‘to leave Serbs and Hungarians alone and conduct his election campaign inside Croatia.’
Moreover, instead of taking an active approach toward the dramatic events taking place on its borders, the EU kept silent for days until the closure of borders and increased rhetoric began to affect their ailing regional economies and fragile political stability. What was needed was a rapid reaction and strong pressure from the EU to abate belligerent rhetoric and open the border. The Commission, somewhat unwillingly, asked Zagreb on Friday to provide ‘an urgent explanation’ of its decision. That ultimately led to a decision to open the border and at least temporarily solve the problem.
The crisis showed that a common, systematic and long-term sustainable agreement on dealing with the unprecedented migration crisis in the region is urgently needed, given that there are no signs that the flow of migrants over the Balkans will halt. The first opportunity to take a resolute and joint action will occur at a meeting of ministers of foreign and interior affairs of the EU and Western Balkan countries on October 8 in Luxembourg. Any deal on this issue must include the sharing of burden on the crisis between these countries to avoid either of them becoming a ‘migrant hotspot’ as well as an organized approach to facilitating migrants’ movements through the region. It seems necessary to redirect a certain number of migrants from Serbia to Hungary in order to ease the pressure on Croatia.
This crisis also highlighted the still fragile and unstable interstate relations in the Western Balkans and the lack of basic communication between regional political elites. Therefore, there is a need for a new mechanism of permanent and close communication between these states that are obviously unable to cope individually with the complex global challenges that will continue to affect them in the future. What also remains to be seen is whether the serious economic consequences of playing the card of patriotism and national feelings – the Serbian economy suffered losses of around EUR 7 million due to the closing of borders – will pressure regional political elites to change their mindset and adopt a more pragmatic and consensus-oriented approach to politics. Finally, such ‘highly political’ tensions inevitably affect tens of thousands of those unfortunates in need of help. They mustn’t remain unprotected in a ‘no man's land’, while states accuse one another of being ‘accidental and disorganized,’ unable to cope with such growing challenges.
Text has been originally published at blog.HNed.cz (in Czech language).
Expertise: European integration, EU enlargement, political parties in the Western Balkans, party-based Euroscepticism.