Refocusing back on Western Balkan

For a majority of Czech politicians, the military conflict in Georgia provided a rationale for further deepening of the ENP and NATO enlargement. Especially the ruling Civic Democrats saw Russia as a clear culprit of the conflict. The Civic Democrats stated that they “with concern observe the true aims of Russia’s aggression, which were the violation of the territorial integrity of Georgia, the definite secession of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and a substitution of Saakashvili’s West oriented government with a pro-Russian regime”.[1] In the wake of the conflict, the Civic Democrats called upon an acceleration of talks about Georgia’s NATO membership.

Even though the opposition Social Democrats were more modest in their assessment of the conflict, they still treated Russia’s actions as problematic. Key Social Democrats even echoed the governmental position and expressed their support for Georgia’s NATO membership.[2] President Klaus put the blame for the conflict on Georgia and her president. But he did not give his opinion on a possible Georgian NATO membership.

The conflict in Georgia also boosted ties between the EU and the six countries of the former Soviet Union. The “Eastern partnership”, a new initiative within ENP to be launched in May 2009, is strongly supported by the Czech Republic. Closer ties between the EU and Eastern European countries, including Georgia, are supported by most political actors in the country. On the other side, the discussion about a full-fledged EU membership for these countries (in the foreseeable future) is rather limited and concentrates only on Ukraine and Moldova. Thus, even though the war in Georgia led to an upgrade in the ENP, no proposal for a full-fledged EU membership for these countries (including Georgia) has been made.

During and right after the conflict in Georgia, the option of Eastern European countries joining NATO and deepening their relations with the EU was seriously and intensely debated in the Czech Republic. Nevertheless, the issue lost its salience later on for multiple reasons. Firstly, the conflict ended relatively quickly and the political discussions and newspaper headlines gradually turned their focus toward other “hot” topics: the global financial and economic crisis, the gas crisis (the abruption of gas supplies from Russia to Europe) and the Gaza crisis. Secondly, the ’2008 gas crisis’ unveiled the complexity of the relationship between Russia and its neighbours.

The government and the majority of the media interpreted the past crises and conflicts between Russia and its neighbours (the gas row with Ukraine in 2006, the armed conflict with Georgia in 2008, etc.) wholly as Russia’s attempts to rebuild its ’sphere of influence’ through blackmailing, hidden inference, use of the ’gas and oil weapon’ and even overt use of military power. Subsequently, the strengthening of ties between the EU and NATO on one side and Russia’s neighbours (especially Georgia and Ukraine) on the other was perceived as a way to counterbalance Russia’s geopolitical ambitions. In contrast to this discourse, the official reaction to the ’2008 gas crisis’ did not follow an anti-Russian pattern. The government refrained from laying all the blame for the crisis on Russia. The anti-Russian sentiments from late summer faded away and the main rationale for deepening ties with Georgia and Ukraine (’balancing Russia’s geopolitical expansion’) was somehow weakened.

Thirdly, by the end of the year the attention of the Czech Republic shifted back to the Western Balkan’s integration into the EU. The unexpected escalation of the Slovenia-Croatia border dispute demonstrated that the Czech Republic’s goal of the integration of the Western Balkan into the EU is far from secured. The EU enlargement in the Balkans has always been a key and immediate priority of the Czech Republic. At the beginning of the border crisis, the Czech Republic refused to get involved.[3] But one month later, Czech Prime Minister Topolánek declared that he would like to make his own personal contribution towards solving the problems between Slovenia and Croatia.[4] Later on, Topolánek withdrew his offer for mediation, proclaiming that the Slovenia-Croatia dispute is purely bilateral and not a matter for the EU to get involved in.

During the second half of the year 2008, the Czech Republic had to deal with other obstacles on the road of the Western Balkan to the EU. The Czech Republic still did not ratify the Lisbon Treaty, and the officials were quite busy rejecting (mainly French) claims that should the ratification fail, there would be no further EU enlargement.[5] The Czech government also tries to help Serbia in her effort to join the European Union. According to Deputy Prime Minister Vondra, “Serbia’s EU membership is the key to the stability in the Western Balkans.”[6] Foreign Minister, Schwarzenberg, declared that the aim of the Czech EU Presidency is to see Serbia enter the procedure for receiving candidate status. He even proclaimed this goal to be his personal “dream”.[7] But the prospect for Serbia’s EU membership is currently blocked by some EU member states. To sum up, it is clear that the European integration of the Balkans will consume much of the Czech Republic’s diplomatic capital and energy.

 

 

[1] ODS chce urychlené jednání o členství Gruzie v NATO (Civic Democrats want accelerated talks about Georgia’s NATO membership), Czech News Agency, 25 August 2008.
[2] Prezident a vláda se neshodli v pohledu na situaci Gruzie (The president and the government differ in their view on the Georgian situation), Czech News Agency, 26 August 2008.
[3] Slovinsko-chorvatský spor asi ovlivní i české předsednictví unie (The Slovenia-Croatia dispute will probably affect even the Czech EU presidency), Czech News Agency, 19 December 2008.
[4] EU presidency to mediate in Slovenia-Croatia row, Reuters, 14 January 2009.
[5] Vondra: EU lze rozšiřovat i bez „Lisabonu“, Sarkozy nemá pravdu (Vondra: EU can enlarge even without “Lisbon”, Sarkozy is wrong), Czech News Agency, 9 July 2008; Topolánek: Croatia can be admitted to EU on Nice Treaty basis, Czech News Agency, 21 July 2008; Vondra: V EU je únava z rozšíření, Balkán ale nesmí být opomenut (Vondra: There is enlargement fatigue in the EU, the Balkan must not be neglected), Czech News Agency, 4 November 2008.
[6] Serbia to apply for EU membership by July, Czech News Agency, 23 January 2009.
[7] Czech FM “dreaming” of European Serbia, Večernje novosti, 19 December 2008, available at: http://www.b92.net/eng/news/politics-article.php?yyyy=2008&mm=12&dd=19&nav_id=55851 (last access: 7 February 2009).