Presenting research findings at the Belgrade Security Forum in front of political officials, international representatives, and researchers from across the region may be the first step in the right direction – shedding light on what needs to be done for the political decisions between the leaders in Belgrade, Zagreb, Prishtina, Ljubljana to have a lasting effect on regional stability.
2013 was a good year for regional cooperation in Southeast Europe. As expected, Croatia joined the EU in July, having previously resolved its outstanding issues relating to the status of Ljubljanska Banka and the maritime border with neighbouring Slovenia. Less expected but perhaps more impactful was the singing of the agreement for normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo in June. After ten rounds of negotiations, the leaders in Belgrade and Prishtina signed an agreement that unblocked their EU integration prospects – starting accession negotiations for Serbia and launching feasibility study for Stabilisation and Association agreement for Kosovo. The compromises in both cases demonstrated that long-standing can be resolved, when both sides agree to talk and commit to finding mutually beneficial solution.
That commitment to dialogue and designing win-win solutions is key to good regional relations is a no-brainer, but putting this into practice is often more difficult than it seems. Regular meetings of political leaders, whether initiated by external actors such as the EU or the result of intra-regional dynamics, are the obvious answer to addressing this need. The better political leaders communicate and know each other, the easier it would be to sit around the negotiating table if necessary and discuss problematic issues in a rational manner. And while such high-level political meetings are very important and get most media attention, on their own they are insufficient to deliver the change at societal level necessary for harnessing popular preconceptions, often prejudices, about regional politics and relations. Especially here in Southeast Europe, where narratives of history and national identity often stand in the way of more pragmatic views of regional politics.
Widening regional interactions to other social groups such as academics and students, researchers and civil society, but also professional groups, such as policemen, doctors, firemen, entrepreneurs is necessary in order to build a more sustainable foundation for regional cooperation. Without this wider social grounding, regional meetings of high-level politicians are at risk of becoming isolated attempts to bolster regional trust and cooperation – good for winning the praise from international officials and boosting domestic political support, but unlikely to lead to lasting change in regional dynamics. Politicians’ terms in office are short, often less than four years, and the links they establish with regional peers do not always last beyond the end of their tenure. Among professionals such links can last throughout their careers and shape the way the see themselves as policemen or doctors in the regional context.
That regional cooperation among professionals is lagging behind high-level political interactions is confirmed in the findings of the research conducted by a regional consortium of seven think tanks and research institutes from the region. Focusing on professional groups in the security sector, police and the army, as well as diplomats, the researchers found that despite political commitment to regional cooperation as part of the drive to join the EU and NATO among the rank and file security professionals, everyday practices and attitudes tend not to reflect the values readily embraced by political elites. The penetration of politics in these professional services and the overall politicisation of public institutions in the region appear to have adversely affected cross-bored interactions on professional grounds. More closed and often conservative approach to regional cooperation among these groups suggests that more efforts are needed before the political rhetoric becomes practice. Presenting these findings at the Belgrade Security Forum in front of political officials, international representatives, and researchers from across the region may be the first step in the right direction – shedding light on what needs to be done for the political decisions between the leaders in Belgrade, Zagreb, Prishtina, Ljubljana to have a lasting effect on regional stability.