Ensuring stability on the Western Balkans

Austrian Institute of International Affairs

The stabilisation of the Western Balkans and its integration into the European project in the middle and long run has been one of the priorities of the Austrian foreign strategy. Generally speaking, comments, be it from the side of politicians or the media, have been rather benign in regard to the Western Balkan countries, whereas Austria is known to be one of the greatest opponents of a possible Turkish EU membership.
 
Whereas Austria’s official foreign strategy aims to keep up a European perspective for Balkan countries, the Austrian public shows rather low support for further enlargements. And this trend seems to gain further momentum with the increasing feeling of insecurity in light of media reports on increased crime and the fear for the maintenance of the welfare state. Only Croatia’s accession is generally supported by the Austrian public. Even members of the FPÖ have expressed their support for Croatia’s accession.
 
In reaction to the Commission’s criticism of the slow progress of political reforms in most of the Western Balkan countries, Austrian commentators have stated that the grace period would be over. The Balkan states should take the warnings seriously was the consensus in most of the comments. Minister Plassnik emphasised that the bestowment of a candidate status was not a favour, but that it is linked with the fulfilment of certain standards.
 
With regard to Bosnia, the Austrian media has tended to side in the tensions between the Republica Srpska and the federal government with the Bosnian federation. However, commentators as Detlef Kleiner in Die Presse have blamed the Dayton Treaty for the existing stalemate. He has called for Dayton II in order to create a functioning Bosnian state.[1]
 
There has been comparably intensive media reporting on Turkey. In December 2007, Chancellor Gusenbauer reiterated his claim to reconsider Turkey’s membership. He added that no one in the EU assumed that the negotiations can be completed within the next ten years. He further added that there has been a consensus in Austria that the country will hold a referendum in case of a Turkish accession; a political decision which would only affect Turkey’s accession but not the Western Balkan countries’.
 
With regard to Serbia, the government, but also the opposition have emphasised the importance of keeping up a European perspective. However, the chancellor’s declarations with regard to the independence of Kosovo caused diplomatic reactions from Belgrade.
 
The status of Kosovo and the future of EU-Serbia relations
 
Chancellor Gusenbauer had early stated that Austria would support a quick recognition of the Kosovo. The chancellor had affirmed that Austria had a lot of expertise and a high reputation in the Balkans region, therefore many others would peer at Austria. “Austria cannot and will not be one of those who lean backwards”, he said and added that Austria will take a clear position in this issue.
 
The chancellor’s statement caused criticism from Serbia. The Serbian ministry for foreign affairs declared that such statements would harm the bilateral relations between the two countries and that a solution to the issue should be found in the context of the UN Security Council.
 
Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of the oppositional right wing FPÖ, criticised the chancellor for the vagueness of his statements and warned against a possible domino effect in Europe. He compared the Ahtisaari Plan with the “dictate of Versailles” where European powers split Europe. But the newly constructed states were then left alone without any political or economic support. Strache also mentioned that the Kosovo was genuinely Serbian and that it was only “artificial settlement” which made it into Albanian. Theoretically, the independence of the Kosovo would be something like if Czechs would settle down in the province of Niederösterreich and then claim independence for this province. He then added that looking at Ex-Yugoslavia one gains the impression that the US is pursuing a policy of Islamization. [2]
His party colleague Andreas Mölzer stated that Serbia’s way to Europe must happen without any repressions. With regard to the Kosovo any solution to the problem should also take Serbia’s legitimate historical interests into consideration.[3]
 
Ulrike Lunacek from the Green Party said that any unilateral declaration of independence by the Albanians should not lead to a hasty acknowledgement by the EU states, including Austria.
 
As a consequence of the Brussels summit, where the EU states agreed on a mission for the building up of administration and justice in Kosovo, Austria is planning to contribute to the planned “rule of law mission” to Kosovo with around 30 people, comprising policemen, prosecutors, finance experts and judges.
 
Meanwhile the Austrian cabinet has voted for the recognition of the Kosovo. The cabinet’s decision will be approved by the President of the Republic. President Heinz Fischer has already authorised Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik (ÖVP) to establish diplomatic relations with the new Kosovar state.
 
The Austrian government’s decsision has met the criticism of the Serbian community living in Austria. A demonstration of around 8000 Serbs in Vienna, on February 23, ended in a clash between demonstrators and Albanians. This was also the reason why the organisers cancelled the demonstration planned a week later.
 
With regard to Serbia, Foreign Minister Plassnik (ÖVP) stated that Austria would support the signing of an association agreement with Serbia. Plassnik declared that the question of the status of Kosovo cannot be put on the shelf. She said: “We have to resolve this last status problem in order to ensure enduring stability on the Balkans which is essential for the region to look forward into a European future”. Plassnik also said that Austria would support Martti Ahtisaari’s proposal to grant the Kosovo an internationally monitored independence which encompasses the protection and the rights of the Serbian population and of other ethnic groups living in the territory.
 
In an interview for the Kleine Zeitung, Plassnik stated that the Kosovo was the graduation test for European foreign policy. She added that it was not at all easy to achieve a common ground for further procedures in this question, but that the EU has displayed its will to take on responsibilities.[4]


[1] Detlef Kleinert: Europa, der Balkan und die Ignoranz, in: Die Presse, 6.11.2007, available at: http://diepresse.com/home/meinung/gastkommentar/341194/index.do (last access: 05.03.2008).

[2] Adelheid Wölfl: Strache: "Urhistorisch serbisches Land", Der Standard 18.2.2008, available at: http://derstandard.at/?url=/?id=3228747 (last access: 05.03.2008).

[3] Mölzer: Kosovo - Österreich sollte Anerkennung einer einseitigen Unabhängigkeitserklärung verweigern, available at: http://www.ots.at/presseaussendung.php?schluessel=OTS_20080215_OTS0110 (last access: 05.03.2008).

[4] Kleine Zeitung: Plassnik: Österreich wird Kosovo anerkennen, 18.02.2008, available at: http://www.kleinezeitung.at/nachrichten/politik/812320/index.do (last access: 05.03.2008).