The Journalists and Writers Foundation (JWF) and Peace Islands Institute held the second panel of the Ambassadors Series in JWF’s New York office on February 26, 2014. The theme of the panel was intergovernmental relations among Balkan nations and the European Union (EU).
We believe that Balkan nations should form regional cooperation in order to promote democracy, the rule of law, human rights, socio-economic development, and trade patterns.
Mehmet Kilic, JWF’s Representative to the UN
JWF hosted four panel members: Stephan Tafrov, Permanent Representative of Bulgaria to the UN; Ferit Hoxha, Permanent Representative of Albania to the UN; Goce Karajanov, Consul General of Macedonia in New York; and Bekim Sejdiu, Consul General of Kosovo in New York. The panel was moderated by Dr. Aras Konjhodzic, President and CEO of the Federation of Balkan American Associations (FEBA). The panelists addressed the issues of integration with the EU, economic development, and the importance of the negotiation process in terms of building sustainable peace and growth in the region.
Opening remarks were given by Mehmet Kilic, JWF’s Representative to the UN. He said that Croatia became the 28th member of the EU in July 2013, and five nations are known as official candidates for EU membership: Macedonia, Montenegro, Turkey, Iceland, and Serbia. The Western Balkan states of Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo are considered to be potential EU candidates. “We believe that Balkan nations should form regional cooperation in order to promote democracy, the rule of law, human rights, socio-economic development, and trade patterns, including private sectors,” said Kilic. He also noted the importance of civil society’s role in the Balkans’ development: “The governments make agreements and policies and follow up on implementation – this is a top-down approach. However, civil society can work with a bottom-up approach by building economic, educational, and cultural and business relations to meet the gap among the Balkan nations.”
Additional remarks were then made by panel moderator Konjhodzic. He had a distinguished reputation in the Bosnian social and scientific community in the United States. However, three years ago, Konjhodzic replaced his career as a scientist and university professor with active social work in his position as president of FEBA, an organization that gathers thousands of Balkan people in America to work together. He said that their goal is to create “new Obamas” within the younger generations under the auspices of FEBA, encouraging young people not to forget their roots and the cultural and spiritual values of their homeland. He started his speech by referring to the speakers of the panel as an “impressive team of people from the Balkans” and remarked that any interaction among neighbors would start at the borders. “When it comes to the Balkans, these are not only borders that separate countries from each other, but also the borders of civilizations,” he said, referring to the Balkans as “sub-level countries” in terms of population and size. Konjhodzic also mentioned how difficult it was to cross borders and get from one country to another. He argued that there was intensive interaction on the borders from all sources of cultures, which contributed to the welcoming diversity of the Balkans. He also raised the question of how the Balkans could compete with the rest of a world that is becoming more and more globalized.
The discussion then moved on to the first panelist. Tafrov described the EU as “one of the best things that has happened in Europe’s history” and mentioned its transformative power for building bilateral conciliations. He mentioned the bloody history of Europe, and he highlighted how it turned into such a unique Union. Then, while discussing the persecution of Turkish minorities in Bulgaria in the 1980s, Tafrov pointed out that relations between the two countries are now on track, despite the fact that those communist regime implementations can be described as one of the worst issues in Bulgarian history. He said that Bulgarians were already distinguished by extreme nationalism at the beginning of the 1990s and joined NATO and turned to EU integration, which eventually led countries like Turkey and Greece to become allies with Bulgaria. He described improving relations with neighbors as Bulgaria’s basis for foreign policy and added that Balkan countries need to fight against negative stereotypes. He also indicated that there was too much misinformation, lack of interest, and prejudice going on, and he attached great importance to initiatives such as JWF’s Ambassadors Series panel. “It is very important that our nations and governments work against prejudices which still exist,” he said, adding that relations have to be normalized. He also noted that the fact that not all countries have recognized Kosovo is an impediment for EU integration. “How history is being taught has to be changed,” he said. He concluded by saying that ir ia in Bulgaria’s national interest to see the whole region as members of the EU.
The second panelist, Hoxha, started his speech by highlighting JWF’s role in providing a good platform for addressing critical issues in the Balkan region. He talked about the importance attached to integration with the EU, saying, “There was no other way than joining the EU.” Building on Tafrov’s remarks about the EU, Hoxha described the EU as “the brightest project” Europe ever had and he mentioned the role the EU plays in terms of creating an area of peace and prosperity. He added that it was natural for all countries to try hard to join the Union. He talked about his country’s progress on the EU path, and he described Albania’s target as becoming closer to the EU and becoming closer to democracy as well. “There is no other powerful driving force than the EU perspective,” he said, and he indicated that the negotiation process was actually serving the development of his country. Regarding the economic crisis the EU has undergone in the last five years, Hoxha talked about the reluctance of the bigger member states in terms of enlargement, which unfortunately slowed the accession process. “Despite the mood of the EU, we will not back off,” he said. He added that Albania wasn’t carrying out the negotiation process for the sake of the EU, but for its own nation. He reminded the audience that Albania is surrounded by EU countries, which have invested heavily in the country, and he underlined the fact that EU accession is a win-win situation both for Albania and for the EU.
Karajanov, the third panelist, talked about the fundamental shifts that have taken place in the region in the last two decades and described the EU as a “catalyst for modernization.” He pointed out the fact that rule of law and the improvement of human rights and infrastructure were being implemented throughout the region, and he added that many bilateral agreements were signed and specific initiatives were taken through the development of political and economic cooperation among neighbors. He admitted to the challenges they had, which sometimes turned out to be real obstacles. He added that the Balkan people shared the same fate historically and it was also the case for EU accession. “First and foremost we should have dialogue,” he said, and he indicated that Macedonia was encouraged by the progress Croatia and Montenegro have made in terms of negotiations with the EU. He described economic development and cooperation as a very important component of the process and ascribed great importance to interconnectivity on infrastructure. He mentioned the issue of unemployment and argued that EU funds would help lower unemployment rates in line with the development goals of the EU’s Europe 2020 growth strategy. Karajanov also mentioned EIPA II and the European Investment Bank, which would be beneficial for the region’s growth, and he concluded his speech by recommending that neighboring states should help each other focus on EU accession.
The fourth and final panelist, Sejdiu, started his speech by expressing his pleasure to be on the panel and thanking JWF for holding such an event. “The Balkans have gradually slipped from the international political agenda and it is becoming more and more a regional, namely an EU issue,” he said. He added that the Balkans had come a long way, from the time of terrible wars, genocides, and ethnic cleansing, to a point where the major issue on the political agenda was meeting standards for the EU membership process. “We all have undergone or are passing through a transition,” he said, arguing that the common ground of all countries’ transformations was the transition from a monist political system to a pluralist democracy and from a state-controlled to a marked-based economy. He described Kosovo’s current progress as “taking its full place in the family of sovereign nations” and pointed out that Euro-Atlantic integration for Kosovo was a national aspiration and a paramount political objective, which also primarily entailed integration into the EU and NATO. He argued that Kosovo belonged to Europe geographically and socioculturally and that the Euro-Atlantic umbrella was the strongest guarantor of peace and stability in the region. He indicated that meeting EU standards for aspirant countries required significant political and economic reforms, which improved governance, strengthened democratic standards, and advanced economic well-being. Sejdiu concluded his speech by highlighting the fact that good neighborly relations and regional cooperation were the backbone of the political and economic Europeanization of the region, and that it was only the EU which would make the region truly European.