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).