Securing Southeastern Europe: A New Model for Progress in the Balkans?
Damon Wilson,
Executive Vice President,
Atlantic Council

Marcie B. Ries,
Former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe;
Former U.S. Ambassador to Bulgaria;
Former U.S. Ambassador to Albania

Davor Ivo Stier,
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign and European Affairs,
Republic of Croatia
Srdjan Darmanović,
Minister of Foreign Affairs,
Republic of Montenegro

Ditmir Bushati,
Minister of Foreign Affairs,
Republic of Albania

Emily Tamkin,
Staff Writer,
Foreign Policy

Location:  Atlantic Council, Washington, D.C.

Time:  4:00 p.m. EDT
Date:  Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Transcript By
Superior Transcriptions LLC

DAMON WILSON:  Good afternoon, everyone.  Why don’t we go ahead and get started?

My name is Damon Wilson.  I’m executive vice president here at the Atlantic Council, and I’m just delighted to welcome all of you who are here in the room and all of you who are joining us online for this discussion and event on “Securing Southeast Europe:  A New Model for Progress in the Western Balkans.”

I’m going to turn the floor fairly shortly to my good friend and colleague Ambassador Marcie Ries to do the formal introductions of the ministers that we have with us today, but I just wanted to say just a brief word about why we’re here and what we’re working on here at the Atlantic Council.  Part of our work on the Western Balkans, and indeed a renewed effort, a Balkans Initiative here at the Atlantic Council, in which Sarah Bedenbaugh is playing one of our leading roles on that – thank you, Sarah – it’s premised on this concept that the Western Balkans is a region in which the United States has invested so much.  And it’s our argument that today, with just a bit of sustained engagement, there are great dividends to be had in terms of prosperity and security.  But, conversely, ambivalence or inattention from Washington at a time of uncertainty across the Atlantic is a recipe for creating problems for ourselves that will require greater fixes in the future.  And that’s what we’re working towards here at the Atlantic Council:  a rationale, a new premise for U.S. sustained engagement in the region.

I couldn’t be more delighted to be welcoming the ministers of three key countries with us today.  They’re here in part because they formed a trilateral effort among themselves that we’re looking to hear a little bit more about.  I’ll have – I’ll invite Marcie to introduce them, but for me to have Foreign Minister Stier, who I served over a decade ago with on a panel on European security with; to have Foreign Minister Darmanović back, a good friend who I’ve had the chance to spend much time with in his country; Foreign Minister Bushati, who’s been a regular – a regular guest at Atlantic Council events both here and within Europe, it’s a real pleasure.

To introduce and set the scene for our program today, Ambassador Marcie Ries has been one of America’s stalwart figures in the region, having served as a chief of mission three times, including in Pristina, then serving as ambassador to Albania, ambassador to Bulgaria, a 37-year veteran diplomat of the U.S. Foreign Service.  I had the opportunity to watch her in action, both in Washington as a principal deputy assistant secretary for Europe, and for me personally to see her in action in Baghdad when we served together in Iraq.

It’s a real pleasure to welcome you back to the Council, Marcie, someone who’s been helping to drive forward our own work on the Western Balkans.  Please.

MARCIE B. RIES:  Well, thank you, Damon, for that extremely generous introduction, and it is delightful to be among friends today.  And thanks for the opportunity to participate in this endeavor, which I think is really quite important.

It’s kind of become a cliché that we neglect what happens in the Balkans at our – at our peril, but I think it actually is – it is true.  Certainly, it is a part of our transatlantic space.  It’s a lesson that we have learned.

We were talking a little bit before this event about how it was 25 years ago that there was war in the Balkans.  The U.S. has certainly been deeply engaged there on a number of occasions.  And so now it’s time, I think, to think more intensively about the Balkans once again.

We have Montenegro proceeding towards NATO membership.  We have the recent launch of this trilateral cooperation in the Adriatic.  We also have some developments of concern – for example, some concerns about terrorism, about radicalization of youth.  We have concerns about continuing tensions among some of the countries in the region.  And so – and then we have some suspicions that there is some interference from the outside.  So there is certainly plenty for you all to talk about today, and I’m among those looking forward to hearing what you will have to say.

It really is quite an honor to be introducing three ministers at once.  I will start with His Excellency Minister Stier, who is deputy prime minister and minister of foreign and – of foreign and European affairs.  The minister’s distinguished career includes being one of the first Croatian members of the European Parliament, a diplomat in the U.S. and at the mission to NATO, and as special envoy for the European-Atlantic partnership and integration, so someone who has had a long commitment to Euro-Atlantic integration.

I would also like to introduce to you His Excellency Srdjan Darmanović, who is the minister of foreign affairs of Montenegro.  He also has been a diplomat in the United States, ambassador here.  He has an academic background.  He was the founder and first dean of the faculty of political science.  And he’s also a civil society leader.  He was the president of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights.  He was a member of parliament in the former Yugoslavia.  And something which is dear to my heart, he was a member of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe.

And finally, His Excellency Ditmir Bushati, who is the minister of foreign affairs of Albania.  And he also has a long history of commitment to Euro-Atlantic integration.  He is a distinguished member of the Albanian parliament, chairman of the Committee on European Integration.  He was previously a civil society leader.  He was founder of European Movement.  He has a law degree and a Master’s in public and international law, and was also one of the negotiators of the Stability and Association Agreement.

And finally, I would like to mention Emily, who is – Emily Tamkin, who is a staff writer at Foreign Policy.  She has a long background as a journalist, and I’m sure that she will lead a very lively conversation.  So welcome, Ministers, and Emily.

EMILY TAMKIN:  All right.  Hello, everyone.  Thank you so much for joining us today for what will be a very lively discussion about the trilateral agreement between Montenegro, Croatia and Albania.

Before I begin, as was mentioned, I’m Emily.  I’m a staff writer at Foreign Policy.  And I should also mention that whether you are here and on your cellphone using wireless or watching along with the livestream, you can tweet this event using the hashtag #StrongerWithAllies.  Get that trending.

OK, let’s just get right to it, right?  Oh, and I should also say that we are, left to right, Foreign Minister Bushati, Foreign Minister Darmanović, and Foreign Minister Stier.

So my first question goes to all of you.  At this joint declaration following the trilateral agreement – trilateral meeting of the ministers of foreign affairs of Albania, Croatia and Montenegro in Split, point three says:  “We agree that the trilateral cooperation provides a valuable platform for deepening and strengthening our cooperation in the fields of foreign and regional policy, security, and other fields of common interest.”  Now, rather than we reading point four, which breaks down what those are, I was wondering if you could elaborate a bit as to specifically what challenges you believe this agreement will address, and why now.


MS. TAMKIN:  Please.

MIN. BUSHATI:  OK.  Thank you.  Thank you, everyone.

And first of all I would like thank you, Damon, Marcie, and you, Emily, for hosting this event.  And I hope this will mark the second round of our trilateral because we gathered in Split in February and we decided that we would have the second round in Durrës in Albania, but I see that the Atlantic Council, it’s faster than we are.  (Laughter.)

Secondly, I would like to thank you because it seems that security issues and challenges that we are facing in Adriatic Europe are still issues of interest also for Atlantic Council here.  And in these turbulent times that we are – that we are facing, sometimes it’s quite difficult to find friends that could discuss about these topics.

Very briefly, I would say that we are countries that do share more or less the same interest in the Adriatic area, that do have a record of full alignment with EU’s foreign policy, especially Albania and Montenegro because Croatia is already an EU member state.  And we do have – we do have demonstrated our political will in the – in the past years, which is our distinctiveness in comparison with other countries in the region.

We support very much the accession process of Montenegro in NATO, and we have considered this process as an example also for other countries in the region.  And we have agreed to expand our cooperation also in other areas related to security.  Namely, energy security would be one example, since we are working for the Ionian Adriatic Pipeline that could connect with Trans Adriatic Pipeline, and we would like to develop further this cooperation.

And we have experienced some positive aspects of this cooperation, and I think this is a byproduct of three countries because it’s for the very first time.  Damon and Marcie were highlighting a little bit the U.S. engagement in our region, especially after the fall of communist regime.  We have been – we have been working a lot with several U.S. administrations, with European Union.  But this is for the first time that we come up with a regional initiative that is not being urged by the U.S. or EU.

MS. TAMKIN:  And, Foreign Minister Darmanović, if you could speak a bit to, you know, why this was the first time that you three were able to come together and then put together this initiative.

MINISTER SRDJAN DARMANOVIĆ:  I may say the three countries forming this joint initiative in Split in February this year demonstrated the kind of flexible way of thinking, I think, position-wise of these three countries.  For example, Croatia is a(n) EU member and NATO member.  Albania is NATO member, and Montenegro is soon NATO member and still not EU member.  So three countries did not think too much about where we are now, but where – what we can do now and where we are going to be.

We actually emphasized our role in the security of our region.  We are – we are considering that the Western Balkans are facing some challenges that may be – that are – that have not been so visible maybe a few years ago, that we are facing new challenges that are a product of different forces and influences and currency in our region, and that countries that are very close to the – to values they share, to future they see for the region, should cooperate, and also open some avenues and hope for our – for our neighbors.

We know, for example, that some other of our neighbors are also – they also want to be members of these both – both clubs, or at least one of them.  And we are ready to act, for example, as Croatia did in our case, by providing the whole possible support in our EU drive and NATO drive.  Not only Croatia, of course; it was Slovenia, it was – there were other countries.  But when I – when I talk about these three countries, we are ready to act – to act this way in the future.

Then we share some interests that are not only related to security.  One is the Adriatic.  We need to – we need to take care about the environment in the – about the Adriatic Sea, and we also believe that connectivity between our countries can be – can be better shaped.  For example, Adriatic Ionic Highway and then pipelines, and the other projects that we can – that we can do together.

So there are many field of interest, but there is a – there is a common philosophy behind it.  These countries share the same values.  We are going the same way.  And we are ready to cooperate in the NATO and out of NATO in the – in the common project.

MS. TAMKIN:  And, Minister, as your counterparts have mentioned, Croatia is an EU and NATO member.  So why did you nevertheless think it was important that you join this trilateral agreement?

MINISTER DAVOR IVO STIER:  Well, thank you, Emily for that question.  And let me thank also Damon and the Atlantic Council for convening this meeting.  It’s really great to be here.

For us it was an evident, a natural step to, after joining NATO and EU, to foster stability and to support all those countries in Southeast Europe that are also willing to join the Euro-Atlantic institutions.  This Adriatic trilateral that we launched in Split on the 10th of February, if I have to sum it up with one concept, is that we want the Adriatic not to be an area for some geopolitical competition, but rather an area – an Adriatic area of cooperation among NATO allies.

And I think that this is bringing more security to the entire European continent and to our alliance, and that’s why we are so much supportive of finalizing the ratification process of Montenegro’s accession to NATO.  We have been working together, all the three ministers but also our ambassadors, in addressing and encouraging allies to support Montenegro in that path towards NATO.  We, of course, are supportive of both Albania and Montenegro in their path towards the European Union in a very pragmatic way, but also with political support at the Council, where we do believe that the enlargement process continues to be one of the most effective tools for fostering stability that both NATO and EU have, and we want to make use of that.

Of course, as both Ditmir and Srdjan explained, this Adriatic trilateral has other possibilities and dimensions for cooperation:  energy, infrastructure, and the environmental protection of the Adriatic that we are sharing.  So this is something that we would like to develop further, and we’re looking forward to the next meeting that will be in Albania.  Will that – that will be the second or third, that trilateral?  But I think that, you know, coming here to the Atlantic Council here in D.C. on this occasion is already sending a very good signal.

MS. TAMKIN:  Great.  That was a lot, and I’d like to sort of unpack some of it now.  So, first to Montenegro – to Minister Darmanović – I believe it was in The Wall Street Journal in February that you said you expected Montenegro to be able to join NATO in May.  You’re now here in the States.  You’re taking meetings.  Do you still – is the timetable still that, do you think?  What is your sense?

MIN. DARMANOVIĆ:  I believe so, of course.  We are witnessing here a rather complicating process of the ratification, but we don’t have any doubt about the outcome.  Simply, it is how democracy works, how democracy works in the United States.  There are regular procedure – there is regular procedure.  The Senate – the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate voted twice about our protocol for ratification, both times by the unanimous consent.  And when Senate tried to finalize it by the so-called hotline procedure and the unanimous consent, one of the senators, Senator Paul, had a problem with it.  He made an objection.  In a democracy, it’s not easy to get a hundred out of a hundred people to vote for anything.  We respect that anybody can have its own understanding or philosophy of how NATO should work, how it should enlarge, and even what is the role of the United States in the alliance.  And we actually now have a fact that Senator Paul objected for the unanimous consent.

Maybe it is not the end of these efforts, but probably the whole stuff is going to end up by at some point sending it to a vote in the floor.  Voting in the – in the plenary is normal in democracies.  We are quite confident that once it comes to a vote it will be 98 or 99 votes in favor, as it – as it has always been, because NATO enlargement has always had strong and huge bipartisan support in the United States Senate, and we don’t have any doubts it is going to be the same way this time.  But we have to be a little bit patient because NATO summit is in May and it is very difficult for me to imagine that the leading country of NATO and the kind of leader of the free world is not going to finalize its procedure before the NATO summit.  I do believe everything is going to work quite OK.

MS. TAMKIN:  As a quick follow-up to that, in a Time article in February, your prime minister, I believe, was giving an interview, and the interviewer said, you know, you have no air force, you have no military academy, you have no coast guard, you have 2,000 active personnel; why should you be a part of NATO?  And the response was, you know, we’re in the Adriatic and we have the port of Bar, which are two important points.  But to those who are increasingly skeptical in the United States today about the role of NATO and NATO enlargement and defense spending in the U.S. and so on and so forth, what is the argument that you make?  I’m sure it’s familiar to all here, but just in case it’s not to some watching on the live stream or tweeting along – #StrongerWithAllies – what is the argument that you make as to why NATO should include Montenegro?

MIN. DARMANOVIĆ:  If world would consist only of huge countries, probably it would be a different world.  There are also small countries, as we are, or maybe all of us that also can contribute.

For example, all three of our countries are very devoted members of antiterrorist coalition in Afghanistan, now anti-ISIS coalition.  We share the same values.  We have never strived to be members of EU and NATO just because to become a member of two privileged clubs.  For us, both alliances are also a community of democracies, community of values we share and we want to share.  And particularly in our history, it is for the first time that becoming a member of NATO and subsequently a member of EU, Montenegro is going to take its definite departure to the West, not only geographically, but in the terms of values.

So our citizens have been quite aware about that when they voted for independence in 2006, because those who voted in favor of Montenegro to become independent knew very well that the world for independence is the world for EU and NATO membership.  So it was not a sudden decision.  It was not a decision from yesterday.  It was a decision from 11 years ago.

We contributed, as I told you, in different coalitions.  We are a very multiethnic society that brings a multiethnicities as if it was a way of life with a strong protection of minorities.  We have very good relations with our neighbors.  We contribute to the stability of the region that way.

And we should not forget geography completely.  Montenegrin shore is the last piece of shore in the Adriatic that is not under NATO shield.  When we are in, the gap will be filled.  So it should not be taken completely out of the consideration.

MIN. STIER:  Srdjan, if I may add something to this, I mean, this very clear Euro-Atlantic vocation of the government of Montenegro was also one of the reasons why at the very same day of the parliamentary elections in Montenegro there was an attempted coup d’état, which wanted to derail actually this Euro-Atlantic path of the country.  And I think that it’s also our responsibility in the alliance to say we will support Montenegro, we will accept the will of the Montenegrin people, and that will has been expressed in such a way that they want to see Montenegro accede in NATO.  And I think that we need to give our answer to them in a positive way.

Of course, I mean, look, when it comes to our relations, Srdjan has been minister now for three months?

MIN. DARMANOVIĆ:  Three-and-a-half months.

MIN. STIER:  And you have been in Croatia already four times.

MIN. DARMANOVIĆ:  Four times.

MIN. STIER:  So you see how much we have increased our cooperation.  With Ditmir as well; we are regularly meeting.  And this is an added value that really gives strength to the alliance.  Just remember that 25 years ago, actually, for example, in December 2016, this is something that we mentioned several times, the city of Dubrovnik was bombed.  It was the biggest, actually, bombing on the 6th of December.


MIN. STIER:  In 1991.  And it’s also Veterans Day in the city of Dubrovnik in Croatia, and we are very proud of our veterans.  But we are also very proud of the process of reconciliation that we have developed with Montenegro afterwards.  And now, to have these two countries as allies, I think this is sending also a very strong message, and we need to build on that.

MIN. BUSHATI:  Can I add something?

MS. TAMKIN:  I was going to ask, yes.  So –

MIN. BUSHATI:  I just need to add something.  Defense spending is very important and nobody is questioning that, and also military capabilities, but we need to take into consideration also the political aspects and the rule of law related to reforms through this accession process.  And Montenegro is a case in point.

Last two, three years, we have seen with some Balkans, which is bigger than our three respective countries, acting as security providers for the European security architecture.  We were confronted with the massive refugee crisis, and the way how we coordinated with each other our efforts, but also with EU member states, proved to be rather successful.

The way how we were cooperating with each other in terms of law enforcement agencies, intelligence services and on countering violent extremism, radicalization, ISIL, all have effect also about the notion of European security architecture.  So one needs to take into consideration also these aspects and not count how many ports and how many aircraft we do have.  Because at the end of the day, we are speaking about a political organization. 

And if we see these three countries that are sitting here today, we have seen that the trajectory of the reforms have been quite successful when we were in the process of approaching NATO or EU.  And we need to consolidate this trend.

I remember two years ago where I was more or less in the same panel where we were discussing about the consolidation of the European project.  So Montenegro’s succession into NATO is part of the consolidation of this European project, I believe.

MS. TAMKIN:  Thank you. 

Going off on that, a criticism that is made, not just of the Balkans, not just of Eastern Europe, but of Europe – indeed, I think America, too, has gotten this criticism – is that changes are made at the elite level that have very expensive ramifications for people on the ground who don’t necessarily understand what is happening or why, so – and there’s efforts to counteract this, certainly.  I know I was watching today the European Parliament was – like brought Europeans in to replace the parliament members for two hours.  But that’s two hours, right?  How do you in your countries, as you’re going through European – accession to the European Union or to NATO and you’re putting reforms in place ‒ I know you are all foreign ministers, but can you speak a little bit to the efforts that are made on the ground to make the Croatians and Albanians and Montenegrins are part of the reform process?

MIN. STIER:  Well, let me say this.  I think that communication with the citizens is an essential part, of course, of our agenda.  And explaining in a democracy our priorities to our citizens is, of course, something that we need to do constantly and in a permanent way.

When we were acceding both NATO and the EU, of course, that we had the suffrage.  But it’s something that we need even after the accession to continue, because you need democratic populist support for also the actions and the different endeavors that you are embarked upon as a NATO and EU member.  And it’s not always easy, but I think that here we also ask political leaders to lead and to explain why is this in the best interests of our countries, of our alliance or, in the case of the European Union, of the Union.

I do believe that ‒ and we had, for example, on ratification of the accession protocol of Montenegro in the Croatian parliament, three hours of debate, and it was a huge number – actually, you know, a very large majority across the board voting for the ratification.  And it was in the understanding that this is a way to foster stability and security in our neighborhood, which, of course, is in our national interests as well.

I think that supporting the EU path of both Albania and Montenegro, having our experts working with your experts is actually indicating that these reforms have an added value in itself.  And it’s changing interests, forming and making better the societies, we went through that, but of course, even after accession it’s a process that needs to be sustained and constantly explained and in a communication with the citizens, not just a communication in a one-way street, but also getting the feedback from the citizens and trying to have our institutions open and inclusive.  That is the challenge, of course, that we all have.

MS. TAMKIN:  Sure.

Would either of you like to add to that?

MIN. BUSHATI:  I would like to add something which is quite particular in the case of Albania where the support for NATO membership was 90 percent and now also the support for EU accession process is, like, 85 percent.  So if you see the figures, the European Union nowadays it’s more appealing and more attractive outside European Union, so in those countries that are European, like Montenegro and Albania, but not yet part of European Union, because in our case, this process is seen as an incentive to transform ourselves, to develop our economy and to modernize our institutions and the way how we are working.  So we need to take into consideration these aspects on this process.

We spoke a little bit about the security environment in our region.  And now we see the return of geopolitics and the role of the third actors that is trying to have a disruptive effective for our societies.  And then we see countries that are more immune and countries that are less immune.  And we are speaking about those third actors that are quite vertical in conveying their messages and trying to gain media space and trying to work closely with media outlets on the ground, especially in a situation where, unfortunately, the U.S. is seen as in a retreat mode and EU is quite busy and quite absorbed with its own crisis.

So we need to have a coherent approach on tackling these phenomenons.  And this communication strategy, it is not only homework that can be conducted by us.  I’m sure we need to have a concerted action in confronting these phenomenons.

MS. TAMKIN:  So to speak more specifically about that, something, as I’m sure you know here, that we’ve spoken a great deal about from the American side is increased Russian influence in domestic politics.  You already referenced what happened in Montenegro.  I’m curious as to if you’ve seen an attempt at increased Russian influence, what forms that’s taken, and what is being done to sort of counter it?

MIN. STIER:  Well, it’s everything that in the last years you see an increased presence of the Russian Federation, although we have to say it has always been in the Balkans and, in a broader sense, in Southeast Europe.  But what I would say is that that has been also increased, not only from the Russian Federation, some others, non-European actors have been more active in the last years.  And that is, in my view, because there is no vacuum in international politics.  And the answer to that is that we need to make better use of the best tool that we have, for example in the EU, and that is the enlargement process and the enlargement policy.

If we dilute that too much, if we water-down that process, of course we will be opening up room for others to fill in the gaps.  And that’s why we are strong supporters, of course, that criteria should be met, of course that we should not be obsessed with dates, that we should focus on the quality of the reforms, but also the process should be credible.  And that is a process that then is fostering stability, and it’s bringing all the countries that are willing to go to the European Union, and those willing as well to NATO.  And I think that that is the best answer.

MIN. BUSHATI:  We should not be obsessed with dates.  But on the other hand, we should not make brakes in processes which are very important for our region.  And here, I refer to the enlargement brakes that have been introduced by the current commission because, as I mentioned earlier, this process has a direct impact on the transformation of our societies.

Second, we need to take into account the fact that the so-called third actors, and not only Russia, do not have a key, do not have ratification procedures, they have objectives.  And in order to achieve those objectives, they could use the right instruments.  And nobody is questioning here the presence of the so-called actors.  Here, we are talking about security threats that could come from certain actors or disruptive moments on these processes that have started since the fall of communist regime in our societies.  So we do not perceive third actors as a threat per se, but would like to see them complementary with our own trajectory, which is not always the case.

So when Albania and Croatia joined NATO in 2009, just to give you one example, the Russian Federation was not particularly amused by this fact.  And they followed these diplomatic procedures through verbal notes and démarches expressing their discontent about this decision. 

But a few years later, we have seen an assertive Russian Federation in the case of Montenegro.  It has been very much vocal.  We have engaging with certain actors, with religious leaders, with political parties, with media outlets, and now there is much more talk about third actors.

We have seen also other initiatives, 16+1, we have seen GCC countries trying to be more present in the Western Balkans.  Turkey has been traditionally there.  So there are all these actors and we need to be clear and we need to be also sober.  But we need also instruments from all our friends.

MIN. STIER:  I think, Ditmir, another issue that we need to stress here, and Albania has been doing a very good job there, of course, it’s the issue of the cooperation that we have, and we will discuss it also tomorrow, on the question of foreign fighters and the influence of them.  You know, it’s been an issue.  It’s not just a large number of foreign fighters from some of the countries from the Balkans, and those also are returning, and this is something that we also need to pay attention.

We, of course, as a first neighbor to Bosnia and Herzegovina pay a lot of attention to this work very closely with the institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  We do believe that there we also need to foster civility and promote civility.  And working together with our ‒ (audio break).

MIN. DARMANOVIĆ:  (In progress following audio break) ‒ pro-NATO majority, and it will be demonstrated once we are going to a vote in the ratification of the protocol in our parliament.  So we hope that once we become NATO member, because of the fact that becoming a NATO member we don’t want to threaten anybody, we even cannot even if we wanted, Russia will just adjust to the situation and accept that it is not the end of the world in the Balkans to have one small country being a member of the North Atlantic alliance, and we can build our relations on a different base.  It has been connected with all very, very unpleasant events around our October elections.

MS. TAMKIN:  Thank you, all, for that answer.

There’s another external pressure on the world right now, but on your region specifically, and that’s the refugee crisis, right?  The Balkan route was a major route through which refugees came to Europe.  Obviously, that’s been closed off.  But the problem is not going away, right, and warmer months are coming.  So, one, what steps are your countries taking to deal with the refugee crisis?  But then, two, what support do you feel need and are perhaps not getting from either the European Union or from the United States or from the broader?  Because this is not a Balkan problem, right, this is an international issue, do you feel that you’re getting sufficient support from the wider world?  And if not, what do you need?

MIN. STIER:  Well, as you have said, the so-called Balkan route has been closed.  And two major issues were very important to achieve that, and that is the better coordination and cooperation among the countries around that route all the way to Austria, and that has been achieved and that needs to be preserved and developed further.  And we have a good cooperation regardless whether a country is in the EU or is in the process or is an aspirant or a candidate.  But we have that cooperation and we need to preserve it.

And the other major, of course, event is the EU-Turkey statement.  And in this regard, we need to pay attention to the new developments.  We do believe that we need to keep a channel of communication with Turkey.  That’s our position.  We were always opposed to those saying that we need to just close the doors for the accession negotiations, but we think that we need to keep that channel of communication open.  Of course, there are many implications for that, but we need to pay a lot of attention.

The key issue, of course, is the security of and managing the border, especially between Greece and Turkey, in order to avoid, you know, the smugglers, et cetera, doing this unfortunate business of taking advantage to a very difficult situation, which is unacceptable from any point of view. 

And unfortunately, we also need to say here that there is another route, the Central Mediterranean, that continues to be very, very active.  And for that reason, we need to pay far more attention to the situation in Libya, working with other regional actors.  We’ve been meeting with, for example, the Egyptian foreign minister and having increasing cooperation with Egypt which can play definitely a very positive role there.

So that’s what I think is describing the framework of the activities in order to avoid any future crisis.

MS. TAMKIN:  I see you’ve written a note.

MIN. BUSHATI:  Yes.  First, I think it’s fair to note that Western Balkan countries act in more European ways and stick more to European values than some EU member states.  So you haven’t heard any discussion about using religious as a filter to accept or not accept refugees.  You haven’t heard discussions about walls or expulsions in the Western Balkans.  So there has been a level of understanding that helped to stabilize the phenomenon.  This is first.

My second point is about the relations between Western Balkans and European Union.  Here, Croatia could serve as a bridge.  The last two years, I could describe this relationship as being to a crisis management mode where we discuss only about crises and how do we respond to those crises.  So there is no clear initiative on how to anticipate crisis first and then how to build a compelling narrative that looks towards the future and towards development.  So we don’t see that.

Third, it is not, in my view, a question of financial resources.  If one looks at the figures, we’d realize that the third bailout in the case of Greece is eight times bigger than the whole seven-years’ financial budget dedicated for Western Balkans.  So when we discuss about European Union, we see that the gap between East and West, South and North is still there.  And this is one of the sources of the current crisis.

So now we are, in a few days, EU leaders will gather in Rome and they will celebrate the 60th anniversary of European Union.  It is very difficult to explain to our citizens why candidate countries were not invited.  When EU was celebrating 50 years of its existence, we were all around the table.  So those are simple political gestures and messages that do have a certain impact on our societies, that do have a certain impact about the future and about the sense of belonging.  And I’m afraid that we have to go back to the basics and we have to make these discussions once again.

MIN. DARMANOVIĆ:  Montenegro has had a lot of experience with the refugees from the time of Yugoslav calamities in the ’90s.  At one point, 25 percent of our total population were refugees, what was not easy to handle at the time.  And based on this experience, we were ready for this wave had it gone throughout our territory.  But as it happened, we were not on their way, and Montenegro did not experience anything to what other neighbors or European countries experienced with the wave of migrants.

We stay ready for any possible situation about it.  But this is the – this is the issue much broader, much more politically important with many humanitarian aspects, tackling the issue of the common borders, of human rights – much broader than it is a position of one country.  But as for Montenegro, we were not part of the – of this problem, at least so far.

MS. TASKIN:  Can you speak to whether or not – as whether or not you’ve experienced the same sort of confusing signals from – or your citizens have from the EU, as Minister Bushati just spoke to?

MIN. DARMANOVIĆ:  It was a crisis that affected countries in many ways.  But it was not – it was not so top priority issue in the – in our internal political debates, maybe due to the fact that other disputes dominated at the time.


Rather than going into those other disputes, let’s open it up for questions.  One point of clarification – I know this is often confusing in Washington, D.C. – the question should be a query, right?  So not a three-point explanation of your area of expertise.  We will take the questions in threes and then turn it over to the three to answer.

There are people walking around with microphones.  You can show yourselves.  There is one and two.  OK, so we have one right there, and then we’ll take two and three.  Great.

You first, sir.

Q:  Hello.  Meto Koloski with the United Macedonian Diaspora.  And good to see all the ministers here again.  And I’m glad Atlantic Council is hosting this important event.

First question is how does this kind of translate in terms of the U.S. Adriatic Charter, which includes Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and hope for Kosovo?  And then the second question is in regards to Albania’s policy on Macedonia in the domestic affairs.  We were very impressed that the prime minister of Albania had, you know, worked on improving relations with Macedonia in the first part of his term in 2013 and called for I guess their own government, your own government to do more with the Macedonian minority in Albania and expressing such I guess great pleasure with how things have been progressing in Macedonia in terms of the Albanian minority.  Recently the Albanian prime minister two days after Macedonia’s elections called for the Albanian parties to come to Tirana, and they proposed this platform, which for the most part is an excellent platform, minus some calls for debate of a change of constitution of Macedonia, its flag, its anthem and its coat of arms, which really is stuff that we should’ve handled in the ’90s and before that.  So if you could probably explain your government’s position on this.

MS. TASKIN:  OK, so that’s one.  Then we’ll go up here to the front for the second.

Q:  Fran Burwell, Atlantic Council.

I would also like to hear how – first off, congratulations on the trilateral declaration.  How do you intend to use it to push forward some of the countries, some of your neighbors, who are lagging – and Bosnia in particular, which has been just – stood still for a while?

Also, I’d like to ask you – you mentioned about Turkey and refugees, and we’ve spoken quite a bit about Russian influence in your countries.  But what about Turkish influence?  And how has that changed with the growing escalation of tensions between Fethullah Gulen and the government in Turkey?  Thank you.

MS. TASKIN:  OK.  And then for the last question of this round, if we could go to this gentleman back here in the blue shirt with the – yes, you, sir.  Just wait for the microphone.

MIN. BUSHATI:  And the tie.

MS. TASKIN:  And the tie, yes.

Q:  Hi.  Bob Ichord from the Global Energy Center at the Atlantic Council.

You mentioned energy security as one of the areas that you want to work together on, and you’re all members or have been involved since the beginning of the energy community.  So I wanted to say, as both a pre-accession as well as for energy security broadly, has it been effective?  Do you support it going ahead?  And with the important development of the TAP pipeline in Albania, does that open up more realistic prospects for the Ionian Adriatic Pipeline that has been proposed to link your three countries and reduce dependence on Russian gas?  Thank you.

MS. TASKIN:  Thank you.

OK.  We will start with Minister Bushati and then work our way to the – well, to my left, but –

MIN. BUSHATI:  I believe I explained the position of my country as far as this trilateral is being concerned.  So this is not a substitute to other forms of regional cooperation.  It is not being directed against any country in the region.  It’s not an alliance pro certain countries and against others.  We tried to explain the reasons why we are together.  Of course, if one hears about Adriatic area would immediately think also about including Italy and Slovenia as part of this – of this – of this group.  But I believe we were quite clear in explaining why we are together.  So we will continue to be members of U.S. Adriatic Charter, and we would continue also to promote inclusiveness in this – in this organization.  So our respective countries have been quite clear on extending an invitation to Serbia and Kosovo becoming part of U.S. Adriatic Charter because we are investing on stability of our – of our – of our neighborhood.

The second question in relation to our position in Macedonia:  I hope it was an error coming from – coming from Macedonian when you called Albanians living in Macedonia a minority.  Here I strongly disagree with you, as the entire international community is disagreeing – is disagreeing with you, if you would consider Albanians living in Macedonia as minority.  Albanians living in Macedonia are one of the two main constituent ethnic group together with Macedonians.

And we have always invested about stability and territorial integrity of Macedonia as we have been working with Albanian political factor for strengthening their cohesion and for the appropriate implementation of Ohrid Agreement.  So if one fails to realize that Albanians are a factor of stability in Macedonia, if one fails to implement Ohrid Agreement, if one fails to implement commitments undertaken in the EU accession and Euro-Atlantic path, if one seeks to create tensions and antagonization projects and to create problems with neighbors, I think it makes a big mistake for the regional stability in our neighborhood.

I did not want to make comparisons between countries in the region.  But I always believed that by having Macedonia part of NATO, by having Macedonia part of NATO accession process, all friends of Macedonia, including Albania, could have had more leverage in the internal developments in Macedonia.  There is no Albanian platform.  There is no meddling of Albania in domestic affairs in Macedonia.  This is something that has been staged by third actors who came up also with statements accusing Albania, U.S., NATO and EU on meddling into internal affairs.

And all we had demanded from Albanian political leaders in Macedonia is to act in a responsible manner.  If you refer to the so-called platform, there are clear references also about deblocking Macedonia’s path towards NATO because for Albanians, this is the most important thing; deblocking Macedonian path towards EU; stabilizing relations with Greece, with Bulgaria and, of course, also with Albania and Kosovo as neighbors of Macedonia.  So I haven’t read anything about changing the flag, changing the language of Macedonians.  I don’t know where you have read all these elements.  But this is the position – this is the position of Albanian government.

Then whether leaders of political parties, of Albanian political parties in Macedonia, would form a coalition with one or another government, this is entirely up to them.  I’m worried about the recent situations in Macedonia.  I have never seen extremists in the streets chanting against NATO, U.S., Albania, chanting against U.S. embassy.  I think we should appear united in making more goals and appealing to the current U.S. administration to be more present in Albania, in Macedonia, in Montenegro, even in Serbia because this is very good for the future of our – of our – of our region.  And I hope – and I hope all political forces in Macedonia will respect the constitution of Macedonia because I haven’t seen any country in a democratic world that minority is ruling majority.  So rules of the game are quite clear in this respect.  And Albania is one of the countries, one of the friendly neighbors of Macedonia that would like to see a vibrant democracy display also in Macedonia.

Questions related to energy security and energy treaty:  I think it proved to be rather instrumental for removing some of the barriers in the – in the energy market.  You probably know that under the framework of Berlin process, we are in the process of creation energy regional market that would allow companies to be more present in our – in our – in our neighborhood.  And we are also in the process of working with European Union on having these connections between Trans Adriatic Pipeline and Ionian Adriatic Pipeline.  You know that there are some technical requirements.  It should be qualified as a project of a community interest.  We are not yet there.  But we believe that we need to join forces in this – in this area because this would have an immense effect not only on security but also on the economy of our region.

These were the questions I think about –

MS. TASKIN:  Yeah.  So then Ministers Darmanović and Stier, if you could speak to how this agreement can help bring neighboring countries – and namely, Bosnia – along, and to speak to Turkish influence in your region as well.

MIN. DARMANOVIĆ:  I’ll be very brief.  I will not take all these questions, just a few of them.

MS. TASKIN:  Sure.

MIN. DARMANOVIĆ:  So we have never understood the Adriatic trilateral to put in question U.S.-Adriatic Charter.  It is completely different way of how doing – how we are doing things.  This is the initiative among three de facto NATO members, two current members and one would-be member, in the – in the Adriatic rim.  And we stay completely faithful to the U.S. Adriatic Charter and very open to the – to the new members when it comes to the – to the decision-making.

As for the Turkish influence, we are not speaking in Montenegro about Turkish influence.  We have excellent relations with Turkey, economically and politically.  Turkey is one of the big investors in Montenegro.  We have a very good political understanding.  We have cultural ties.  We should not forget that part of our cultural heritage comes from the Ottoman Empire.  We have 19 percent of the religiously Muslim population consisting mostly of the Bosniaks Muslims and part of the Albanian population Muslims by their religion.  We have a great cultural heritage of that – of the past.  And we always insist on the multiethnicity of our society.  So as for the Turkish influence, we can just – we can only talk about very, very good cooperation between our countries.

MIN. STIER:  First of all, both Ditmir and Srdjan explained Adriatic trilateral is not something that will substitute the U.S. Adriatic Charter.  It’s very clear.  I’m a very good friend of Nikola Poposki, the foreign minister of Macedonia.  He absolutely supports this trilateral initiative, which has a security dimension and political dimension but also, as we said before, an economic infrastructure dimension and the dimension of the environmental protection of the Adriatic, you know.  So this is quite clear.

Of course, as we are very interested in supporting also the stability of Macedonia, Croatia has – our embassy in Skopje is a NATO point of contact embassy there.  So we are very much interested in seeing now stability and trying to work with our NATO allies.  Of course, as a EU member, trying to see how the EU can, you know, help in getting the whole situation back into an institutional path.  You know, that Commissioner Hahn is today in Skopje.

Let me say briefly about Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country that is shared by the Bosniak Muslim community, by the Serb Orthodox, by the Croat Catholic, and of course, all the citizens who are not or do not identify themselves in these three national groups – but all these three nations share in Bosnia-Herzegovina.  It’s clear that – and we do believe that it’s for Bosnia-Herzegovina natural that it will have good relations with the Russian Federation and good relations with Turkey.  It’s a known fact that the Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina will naturally – they – usually their instinct is to look at Moscow as the Bosniak Muslim community look at Turkey while the Croatian population tend to look to the West.

So what we want to say is that while having good relations with the Russian Federation and with Turkey, the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina is within the European Union and NATO.  And this is what we want to support.  This is the path that we want to support.  And this is actually what even the polls in Bosnia-Herzegovina are indicating is the will of the three nations – or course, there are different levels, but overall, this is the path that I think should be encouraged.

When it comes to energy cooperation, I could, you know, echo what it has been said about the importance of the Ionian Adriatic Pipeline and to work – this is one of the issues we want to work together.  We have, of course, the common interest in diversification.  That’s why, for example, Croatia is building the LNG terminal in the northern part of the Adriatic.  That could help to this diversification.  So I do believe that our Adriatic trilateral in this sense can be an added value also when it comes to energy security.

MS. TASKIN:  OK.  We will now turn to this side for questions.  So if you – do we have – may I see your watch?  May I see your watch, please?  I don’t have one.

Oh, gosh.  OK, we have very little time left.  So if you have a question from this side, please raise your hand.


Q:  Thank you very much.  I congratulate to organizer for putting together three very impressive persons to talk about extremely important problem.  Personally, I was privileged to work or communicate with all three of them in different capacity.  Currently I am a senior international affairs advisor at Squire Patton Boggs.

And let me say two things that I very deeply believe.  Number one, Montenegro should be admitted to NATO immediately, urgently.  Why?  Not only because of Montenegro.  If you want, not primarily because of Montenegro.  But that is to secure one part of the world that can be secured.  And we, the rest of the region, cannot be so easily secure, unfortunately.

Let me go a little bit step further.  I’m afraid that we are – anyone who would exclude a future war in the region is rather naïve.  When I look back in the ’90s, there were less element to predict the war than now.  And the players were not the same.  The two big countries that we are mentioning right now and that the ministers were mentioning played constructive role, both Turkey and – particularly Turkey – even Russia.  They both support Dayton peace accords.  Right now we have a bigger interest – and when – one of the ministers said that what we have in Bosnia-Herzegovina is inactivity.  Yes, we do have inactivity of European Union, or they are trying to pretend status quo. There is no status quo.  United States, as you know, doesn’t have new policy on that.  And meanwhile, two other big powers are using entire Balkan, but particularly Bosnia-Herzegovina, to establish their position in the new world order.

So my concrete question would be for all three of them:  If they are to recommend, I believe that they will do, to the host here United States, how to proceed and what to do in Bosnia-Herzegovina, what would be those recommendations?  Because just to remind, the war was stopped in the moment when United States was involved.  War can be prevented if United States is involved.  Thank you.

MS. TASKIN:  OK.  So your question is how would these three recommend United States proceed in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Q:  Yes.

MS. TASKIN:  OK.  All right.  I guess we will end with that.  I might broaden a bit.  So what –

MIN. DARMANOVIĆ:  (To Min. Stier.)  Maybe you could take both.

MS. TASKIN:  So what – we’ll start with you, Foreign Minister Stier, and then work this way.  So how to proceed in Bosnia, your recommendation to the United States.  If you would like to take it a step further and say how could you – what would your recommendation be to the United States right now more broadly, you’re welcome to do that.

MIN. STIER:  Well, I think that’s – when it comes to Bosnia-Herzegovina, it’s very important, as I said, that the United States working together with the – with the European Union supports what I would call a dual-track approach.  It’s good that so far we have been focusing on the social-economic reforms.  But this is not enough.  We saw recently in Bosnia-Herzegovina how this question of genocide case before the International Court of Justice created an institutional crisis, how easy it is to have destabilized a country.  And so we need to also address the political issues.  This is – and especially on those issues that are urgent.  So I think that we need to now proceed with a very focused approach, not to go for a big conference but rather to do precisely what is needed and is urgent in order to avoid future instabilities.

That’s why I mentioned a reform of the electoral law.  Why?  The Constitutional Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina in December last year said that this law, this electoral law is discriminating.  So there is – it’s not guaranteeing the legitimate representation of all the three national groups.  One group could be outvoted by the other, and that creates instability.  That is what they need to fix.  And they had a deadline by June 2017.  Next year is an electoral year.  And we need to address this issue, encourage – and I would really echo that without U.S. engagement, it would be far more difficult, if not impossible.  So we need to have this encouragement to the leaders in Bosnia-Herzegovina to really reform the electoral law before June in order to prevent future tensions.

This is not the only thing.  Of course there are many other issues that comes to the rule of law, to the judicial system, to how to make the decision-making process more effective.  But I would say this is what is urgent.  And in this sense, I think that supporting this reform is essential for moving the country forwards, also to the European Union and to the activation of the Membership Action Plan for NATO.  I do believe that this is also something essential.  We need to – so Bosnia-Herzegovina has been granted MAP, the Membership Action Plan, but has not been activated because of certain criteria.  I do believe that they will – the country will be better off but also the alliance if we can move forward with the activation of MAP.

But as I said, let’s focus on what is urgent now, what should be done immediately.  And that is a reform of the electoral law.  That will rebalance – of course, this cannot be compared, but it was the Washington Agreement in ’94 that actually started to rebalance the situation.  And that was conducive to the end of the war and then to what was the Dayton peace accord.  Today the situation need also a rebalancing act, and that can be done through the reform of the electoral law in order to have more stability, in order to have the equality and the legitimate representation but also with this, the functionality and the progress for the entire Bosnia-Herzegovina.

MS. TASKIN:  Minister Darmanović?

MIN. DARMANOVIĆ:  I have nothing to add to what Davor said about Bosnia.  I only want to thank to Mr. Žužul for the right message, and that is Montenegrin protocol should be ratified immediately.  (Laughter.)

MS. TASKIN:  Minister Bushati, you have the final word.

MIN. BUSHATI:  I would like to expound a little bit the picture.  I fully agree with Davor as far as Bosnia is being concerned.  But I see the role of U.S. – or concerted actions between U.S. and EU – in our part of Europe as very decisive.  And I’ll divide this in three different pots.

First, issues related strictly to security.  Let’s not forget – I’ll give the example of my country – the whole transformation process of security forces, police forces, army, intelligence service – they used to be very repressive during communist period – was done in close consultation with U.S.  Whether this is the case for all Western Balkan countries, I would say, clearly, no.  We have seen in the Western Balkans intelligence service being used by prime ministers and being used also for achieving political objectives.

Second, rule of law – second pot, rule of law-related reforms.  We are in a region, and we share more or less the same challenges as far as corruption, organized crime and justice is being concerned.  We were involved in a deep justice reform process the last two years in close consultation with U.S. administration and the European Commission services.  And we were not aware of the fact that we would face such political resistance as we are facing, not only resistance coming from the so-called syndicate of justice and prosecutors but also from certain political segments.

We like to talk about Croatia being a member of European Union, but we don’t like to talk about the price Croatia paid to join European Union.  And here I’m referring also to politicians who either went behind bars or were forced to leave politics, or people from the army, high-ranking officers or generals, who were removed from office or went behind bars, and judges and prosecutors and so on and so forth.  And we need to invest more on this second pot.

And then as a consequence of first and second pot comes the third pot, economic development and investments in the region, bridging the gap first between Western Balkans and Eastern Europe and transforming bit by bit Western Balkans in a true region because we are not yet a true region in political, economic and security terms.  And this is very much important if U.S. would be a little bit more present and EU would put at our disposal a few instruments that it used to put in the case of big (banner ?) of 2004.  I know that the atmosphere is not the same as the one we had in 2004 because the political soul seems not to be there, but these renewed engagement about Western Balkans need to be materialized also with instruments.

MS. TASKIN:  OK.  On that note – I don’t – I don’t work for the Atlantic Council, I work for, so I will hope that you would join me in thanking the Atlantic Council for having us today, for organizing this event, and even more so to thank our three distinguished panelists.  Best of luck with this trilateral agreement.  Thank you all for coming.  Give yourselves a round of applause.  (Applause.)


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