I recently returned to the Western Balkans after an absence of over a year to attend a conference that brought together Parliamentary Defence and Security Committees from several countries of the region, as well as Turkey. The venue was Rakitje, the headquarters of RACVIAC, an organisation originally set up to supervise disarmament arrangements among the former Yugoslav republics, but now focuses on promoting regional dialogue and cooperation more generally.
This was a homecoming of sorts for me. I had spent a good part of the previous decade working with people of this area in my former capacity as Senior Fellow of a Swiss organisation called the Geneva Centre for Democratic Control of the Armed Forces, better known as DCAF.
I came away from the conference with an overwhelmingly positive impression, and this is for mainly three reasons.
First, little over a decade after the worst conflict that Europe has known since World War II, the elites of the region are working together again. This is anything but self-evident. The Former Yugoslavia, a multi-ethnic republic of some 23 million souls, was a development darling of Western donors through most of the Cold War. Notwithstanding this, it disintegrated into a horrifically cruel internecine conflict when the larger East-West system of which it was a part crumbled. Some 140,000 people died in the violence, many of them the victims of unspeakable ethnic retribution. Almost four million were displaced, many of them remain so. And the repercussions of Yugoslavia’s fracturing still resonate in people’s everyday lives. In contrast, what I witnessed in Rakitje was an impressive display of regional openness and preparedness to work together for the common good. This is reminiscent of the new relationship that Adenauer and de Gaullle signalled for their countries when signing the Elysée Treaty 50 years ago this month.
Second, I was struck by the extent of the transformation that has taken place in the life of the parliamentary committees. The debate at the conference underscored that both parliamentarians and their staffers were well-versed in the responsibilities of their committees towards their parliaments and their electorates, and were prepared to defend them against an overbearing executive. These committees are no longer the hand-maidens of the communist system whereby parliament and its committees were used more or less exclusively as conveyor belts for the party’s message. This was somewhat less the case in Yugoslavia than elsewhere in the communist east but it was nonetheless a defining part of the parliamentary landscape. While it remains difficult for Western Balkan parliaments to act independently of their governments, as indeed is the case of most countries around the world, in the region inroads are clearly being made.
The third thing that impressed me was the expertise exhibited by the parliamentarians and their staffers. During more than a decade, local parliaments have been bombarded by western donors’ exhortations to do this, that, or the other thing, to bring the oversight role of their committees up to scratch. They have done this and more. Now, in a development that is reminiscent of the impact of the cellphone in many African societies, regional defence and security committees may be in the process of surpassing their Western counterparts in terms of best practices in the support of their oversight function.
The Bosnian-Herzegovinian draft law on oversight of the security sector is a case in point. This law breaks new ground. It conceptualises the oversight role over the security sector broadly. It not only gives parliament a central oversight responsibility but it accepts as no less important the oversight roles of other actors such as civil society, the media, regional and international organisations. Effective oversight, as this law implies, is a complex system of multiple, autonomous actors, mutually independent but relying on one another’s effective action and interaction to make oversight work.
But what of the bigger picture? Of course, the Western Balkans have enjoyed a great advantage that has been denied other post-Cold War conflict countries. Not only have they been able to call upon NATO firepower to help terminate local war and foster regional stability, but the prospect of integration into the EU has provided them with an overriding objective that has concentrated leadership minds.
That said, the inter-community, political, economic and social situation in the region remains problematic. For example, the pending membership of Croatia in the European Union (EU), scheduled for mid-2013, and an undeniably a huge step forward – is accompanied by concern in Bosnia-Herzegovina that Croatia’s inclusion could complicate inter-communal relations in Bosnia-Herzegovina’s tripartite Bosniak, Croatian and Serb mini-states. Economically, the situation is grim as the region has seen its economies contract as the EU downturn has worsened. No less than two-third of Western Balkan trade is with the EU. A double-dip scenario in the region threatens. There is a crying need for an overhaul of labour markets, educational institutions, as well as pension and welfare systems.
Against this background, we would do well to reflect on the following questions: What will be the medium and longer-term impact on the region of the economic and financial crisis in the European Union and the United States? Will the transatlantic solidarity that has proved so effective in the Western Balkans continue to radiate stability across the region? For the time being, there are few signs that the progress of recent years may prove a casualty of Western weakness and disarray. It seems clear, however, that regional elites will increasingly need to rely on their own efforts to secure their populations’ future well-being and prosperity. It seems likely that ever closer and more effective regional cooperation will be a vital precondition for meeting this challenge.