Unfinished Work in the Balkans

March 15, 2010

After two devastating world wars on the European continent, the United States and its trans-Atlantic allies made a difficult but strong commitment to build a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace. This historic endeavor has not been easy, and it has come with extraordinary effort, time, and cost. Although the U.S. has made tremendous progress over the past 60 years, the job is not yet finished.

The Western Balkans remains the missing piece of the puzzle in Europe, and its integration into trans-Atlantic institutions remains a critical and elusive goal. Based on our meetings with leaders in the region last month, when we visited Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Serbia, we believe it is vital that the U.S. and Europe renew their commitment to this joint vision of a united Europe.

It is only 15 years now since Bosnia was delivered from war, and only 10 years since NATO bombs stopped falling on Belgrade. In that short time, the region has taken momentous steps away from its troubled history. Most countries have now charted a realistic path for future membership in NATO and the EU. But while the U.S. and Europe are on the cusp of realizing their vision and reaping the benefits of their significant investments in this region, this is an extremely sensitive time in the Western Balkans. None of the backers of this project can let their attention drift or their commitment fade.

The situation in Bosnia remains a serious concern. To rise above its recent past, Bosnia needs to undertake some significant political and constitutional reforms. But politicians continue to use fear and division as a tool for consolidating political power-no matter the cost to their country. In Sarajevo, we sat down with a group of university students, and it was clear that the next generation of Bosnians have little confidence in their political leaders to meet the country's considerable challenges. It was disheartening to hear their unanimous distrust of Bosnia's politicians and their pessimism about the leadership's ability to move beyond the petty differences of the past.

With an upcoming election in the fall, Bosnia's current political situation does not bode well for real change in the near future. However, we believe that a well-timed expression of support from the Euro-Atlantic community could push the debate in the right direction in the months before the election. A commitment to bring Bosnia into the Euro-Atlantic sphere through the NATO Membership Action Plan process, along with a European Union visa-liberalization agreement, could undermine those political leaders exploiting fear and uncertainty and who would poison the well of European integration. A strong signal now could remind the people of Bosnia that their future is in Europe, and that they should choose leaders willing to bring them there.

Aside from Bosnia, the situation between Kosovo and Serbia remains a possible flash-point for the region. There is little doubt that the dream of a united Europe will not be realized without Serbia playing a leading role in the neighborhood. To its great credit, the Serbian leadership has demonstrated its commitment to European institutions. However, differences over Kosovo remain a stumbling block for continued advancement. Though Belgrade and Pristina have mutual disagreements, it's hardly unrealistic to hope for a creative, pragmatic, and sustainable solution that best protects and improves the lives of all ethnicities throughout the region.

One key contribution the trans-Atlantic alliance has made is to the region's ongoing security. Since 1999, NATO troops in Kosovo have played an integral role in establishing a secure environment there. We heard from leaders across the Western Balkans, without exception, that the situation remains too uncertain for the force to be withdrawn or reduced. Although we understand the need for additional peacekeeping forces around the world, now is not the time to risk hard-earned gains in southeastern Europe.

Outside the region, Brussels will play an integral role in the coming months and years. The perception of so-called "enlargement fatigue" from the EU is a real danger. The worry that there will be no viable EU membership path for the Western Balkan countries could undermine their reform agenda, and stop the positive momentum we have seen in recent years. If the U.S. is to help keep these countries moving towards European integration, we will need high level support from Brussels and our European allies.

It is incumbent upon all of the countries in southeastern Europe to play a constructive role in helping the region as a whole move forward. All of these countries need to recognize that they are all connected. None of them will find success and progress if any one of them are left behind. They have a shared history, and they all will have a shared future tied to Europe.

The countries comprising southeastern Europe are a vibrant kaleidoscope of histories, cultures, and religions, a mosaic of differences that has in the past been hijacked by political leaders and exploited to bring about division and war. The people of this region have an opportunity to turn the page on a difficult past and embark on a new chapter in their shared history. America and Europe have a chance to help them realize these dreams, but more importantly to realize our own mutual vision of a united, peaceful Europe. We have invested so much in this effort. Now is not the time to lose sight of that vision.

Ms. Shaheen, a Democratic U.S. senator from New Hampshire, chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs. Mr. Voinovich, a Republican senator from Ohio, serves on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations.

By:  Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and George Voinovich
Source: Wall Street Journal