Secessionism, irredentism and EU enlargement to the Western Balkans. Squaring the circle?

Rafael Biermann


The Balkans remains the prime arena of an ideational struggle between those elites opting for Europeanization, i.e. the transformation of the region along the norms which brought peace and welfare to Western Europe after two World Wars, and those nationalist forces who continue to cling to those ideas that dominated Balkan politics since at least the Congress of Berlin in 1878. This chapter analyzes how the simultaneousness of old and new thinking, of ethno-nationalism and reform-mindedness, continues to challenge the transformative power of Europe in the Western Balkans.

The norm competition (Checkel 1999; Cortell and Davis 2000; Finnemore and Sikkink 1998) we confront in the Balkans reflects opposing views on classic attributes of state sovereignty: borders, territory and citizenship. It thus reveals the struggle between two opposing models: the traditional Westphalian model of governance based on the principles of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and Realpolitik; and the emerging post-Westphalian model based on ideas of pooled sovereignty, interdependence and open borders (Sperling 2009; Wallace 1999). Although it is often assumed that the post-Westphalian model will eventually prevail in the Balkans, regional progress towards the model is still slow, fragile and uneven. In some countries, such as Bosnia, soccer clubs and schools remain strictly segregated along ethnic lines. In others, such as Kosovo, there are no-go areas inaccessible to other ethnicities. Even more problematically, 70.5 per cent of Albanians, 74.2 per cent of Kosovars and 13.6 per cent of Macedonians support ‘the formation of a greater Albania’, while 47.3 per cent of Kosovars and 44.5 per cent of Macedonians expect this to happen ‘in the near future’ (Gallup Balkan Monitor 2009). How strong are these exclusionary ethnic sentiments and tendencies? Can they still drive political agendas, especially if mobilized by populist and unreformed leaders? How do they interact with the transformative power of European Union (EU) enlargement? Regional experts, scholars and politicians disagree fundamentally on the magnitude of the challenge.

It is within this frame of uncertainty about the degree and role of ethnic-based divisions that we discuss the problem of secessionism — the major driver of the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. The phenomenon is less overt and apt to violence than in the early 1990s, but it is still virulent in many places across the Western Balkans and poses probably the most serious challenge to the Europeanization project today. Secessionism is the embodiment of exclusionary thinking, and thus essentially incompatible with the integrationist norms the EU is trying to diffuse to the Balkans. The EU’s enlargement policy, based upon conditionality, is designed to delegitimize this logic of segregation, empower the reformists and thus tip the balance in favour of change; but is the membership perspective, and the benefits it entails for domestic elites, strong enough to do so?

As Elbasani points out in the introduction to this volume, the domestic scope conditions are much less favourable in the Western Balkans than in Central and Eastern Europe (see also Epstein and Sedelmeier 2008: 796, 799; Schimmelfennig 2007). This can be attributed to the factor of weak stateness, both in terms of contested sovereignty and weak institutional capacity. We argue that secessionism is a primary cause of weak stateness, especially contested sovereignty. Although secessionist ambitions have also been present in other cases, the challenge posed by the countries covered by the Stabilitation and Association Access (SAP) is structurally different: borders are disputed, state capacity is weak, ethnic identities are still strong, regional cooperation is underdeveloped and minority rights mean little (Van Evera 1997: 55). Moreover, secession has occurred in different waves, most recently by Montenegro (2006) and Kosovo (2008). Other attempts at secession, such as the Bosnian Republica Srpska (1991—5) or Western Macedonia (2001), have failed. In still other cases, secessionist ambition continues to linger, particularly in Southern Serbia and Kosovo’s Mitrovica.

This contribution is among the first to discuss the conflict between Europeanization and secessionism. It investigates forms and degrees of secessionism as a component of the contested statehood argument advanced in the introduction to this volume.

Due to the poor state of research on secessionism, the chapter first lays some groundwork by conceptualizing secessionism and irredentism. Subsequently, the chapter identifies the specific profile of secessionist conflict in the Western Balkans. Having explored the specificity of the region, we then analyze how seces- sionism affects Europeanization, and assess the EU’s policy to overcome the problem thus far.

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