At a time when hundreds of thousands of refugees are fleeing war-torn Syria to seek a better life elsewhere, masses of people are flooding borders to reach Europe. This creates challenges for the countries along the way that are providing food, temporary shelter, and meeting basic needs. As these migrants pass through the Balkans with a determination to reach Germany, Austria and Scandinavian countries, cooperation between Balkan leaders has become an essential element in continuing regional stability. Unity among Balkan states, as well as a consensus in regard to strategic matters of security, is a key factor in garnering favor with the European Union - something that the Western Balkans are actively seeking.
Slovenia and Croatia are attempting to resolve issues on their borders as this current wave of mass migration passes through. While they are already members of the European Union, the remaining countries of the Western Balkans are involved in integration. Therefore, they are highly motivated to meet all qualifications necessary for acceptance. The migration issue has become a kind of litmus test, as European leaders seek assistance from the Western Balkans for solutions in managing the refugee crisis.
Integration into the European Union involves achieving certain standards of development, a process that can take years. There is a benchmark policy that involves proving a high quality of life exists for citizens. Integration is not dependent on political challenges. The process of integration continues despite statehood status or problems between states.
EU officials have not been limited in their determination to integrate all Western Balkans states, according to the Thessaloniki declaration of the EU-Balkans Summit. In June 2003, European leaders agreed on a strategic decision in Thessaloniki that the Balkan states should be an integral part of the European Union.
Tamara Mugosa who serves as Montenegro’s Ambassador to Israel (non-resident) has recently taken on additional responsibilities. She is now Director of MARRI RC. Her responsibilities include oversight of both legal and illegal migration, asylum, refugees, and related regional initiatives for six Western Balkan participants – Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Serbia.
Mugosa commented to this writer about the current mass refugee problem. “We are facing a migration crisis, but I like to call it a migration phenomenon”. Mugosa explains this is a movement of large numbers of people from one place to another that will have a significant impact on the face of the modern world. While the Balkans are currently a pass-through region for this wave of migration coming from the Middle East, Balkan societies are still developing and considered socially vulnerable. Many people are struggling financially. So, Balkan leaders need to manage the challenges arising from this arrival of large numbers of refugees. Mugosa admits the migration crisis came as a surprise. “Nobody expected this to the extent that it is happening. And, now we are dealing with this phenomenon mostly with crisis management. But, we are, at the same time, developing common plans and strategy.”
Mugosa does not believe there will be significant pressure from the European Union at this time, to accept an influx of refugees to live in the Western Balkans, especially those countries that are not yet EU members. “What they expect is that the Western Balkan countries will be in-line with the elementary principles of the EU – humanity and solidarity. We are committed to international law and standards to protect basic human rights for all people in need. The European Union expects, from future members, that they treat the people well that come, and enable them temporary shelter, until the time they are transferred to the border of the EU. This is what we do. This is happening.”
Today, the most affected Balkan countries of this mass migration are Macedonia and Serbia, because the Balkan route goes from Syria and Lebanon through Turkey and Greece. The refugees then arrive to the Macedonia border and travel from there to the Serbian border, arriving at the first border of the EU... Croatia. They tend to pass through Croatia to Slovenia. “Their ambition is not to live in countries with a lower quality of life; but, in countries that have a good legal framework to accept migrants, and a high quality of life. And, the highest quality of life is in Germany and the Scandinavian countries. This is the main ambition of the migrants coming from Syria,” according to Mugosa.
She brings to the table a unique diplomatic and political perspective. Part of her experience relates to Montenegro’s past acceptance of refugees, which has occurred at least three or four times in the country’s history. Mugosa describes how Montenegro accepted thousands of war migrants fleeing from these conflicts. At one point, in the 1990’s, 25% of Montenegro’s population of 600,000 citizens was comprised of refugees. Mugosa’s new position has been established in Skopje, Macedonia, (the seat of MARRI RC). MARRI, itself, has three main bodies of cooperation. There is a forum of ministers of interior affairs that get together once a year; a committee of deputy foreign ministers meeting once or twice a year; and, the permanent regional center where Mugosa is the director. She understands what it means to have multiple responsibilities. “Multi-Tasking is needed in diplomacy, especially when you are a diplomat of a small country.” Mugosa admits this new position is a positive development for her country. “It is an achievement for Montenegrin diplomacy. Montenegro is recognized as a leader of integration in the region because we are at the highest level of negotiations with the European Union for candidate status. We are at the door of NATO membership. And, maybe the most important thing is that we are recognized as constructive partners that are enhancing regional cooperation.”
The 2013 Western Balkan Six Initiative is one of the most important features of Montenegro’s current foreign policy. It has been recognized by the European Commission as a good idea that should produce additional development and stability in the Balkans region, accelerating the accession process into the EU for the Western Balkans. This initiative shares the same principles as the most important political process for the Western Balkans; that is, the Berlin Process of 2014 created by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. This year, the second summit met in Vienna.
The significant element of this forum is regional cooperation of EU candidates and potential candidates. All six Western Balkan states discuss priorities, come to a consensus, and can potentially receive assistance from the European Union in order to implement common goals. Mugosa explains, “This is what brings, to a higher level of legitimacy, the needs and requests of the Western Balkans. It enhances dialogue and decision-making, friendship and cooperation. This approach also multiplies the effects of all efforts invested by the participants in this process.” The results are increased regional stability, which Mugosa says is very important after all the history of wars, clashes, and national animosity.
This year in Vienna, Balkan leaders agreed that in terms of infrastructure, the priority is the building of the Adriatic-Ionian highway. According to Mugosa, “This is why the European Union decided to allocate 600 million Euros to assist countries to construct it. This is a huge project that was designed to connect Italy with Greece through the Western Balkan countries. This highway will enable penetration and traffic, as well as development of the region, connecting the southern part of the Western Balkans with the Middle East or East, and with the continental part of Europe. So, strategically it is very important for the development of the region.”
The regional prime ministers, knowing that individual Balkans countries do not have the means to finance such a large undertaking, have sought the help of the European Commission and donor countries. “This is how the decision in Vienna was made. This is the formula. Development and stability reached through dialogue and cooperation is the future of the Western Balkans,” says Mugosa. She shares that the new approach doesn’t take away from the individuality and integrity of each nation. “We will maintain all our sovereignty and our statehood, but we need to talk and cooperate about the common problems that we cannot resolve alone. We see that with this synergy, we have results that will be multiplied if we do it together.”
Mugosa states that there is a large administrative infrastructure that backs decision-makers. Officials exchange ideas and information, regularly. There is excellent cooperation on a daily basis regarding shared challenges; and consultations continue regardless of what is happening in the region. “What I discovered by my experience is that, in spite of all differences and all wars that happened, normal life is going on without problems. This is human capital and energy that you have in the Western Balkans, an asset that is valuable for the creation of future perspectives, in spite of the recent history and its consequences.” Meanwhile, Mugosa strives for common policies, security cooperation, and coordination at the diplomatic level - people-to-people. She says this is part of the MAARI mission. “We involve all of them in training, in workshops, with common documents, common databases, to make them communicate efficiently on an everyday basis.”
Mugosa says that when you encourage development and stability, you always encourage openness among the people. This is the main advantage of EU integration where the process becomes as important as the actual membership, “because it is not membership in itself that is the ambition. Membership is the consequence of the process that you are growing; that you are developing; that you are opening; and, when you are open, you can communicate, you can cooperate. And, this is where the integration comes – inside the Western Balkans, and the Western Balkans towards the European Union.” Ultimately, it sets a standard that brings unity. Neighbors are involved in similar tasks, so they exchange experiences and help one another. They adapt the best practices for regional cooperation. In the meantime, politicians from the Western Balkans are talking about stability first and European integration next.
So, is this the end of wars in the Balkans region? Mugosa is circumspect in her answer to that question. “We had conflict a long time ago. Governments have changed in all countries. A lot of people that are now decision-makers in the region are very aware of the fact that conflicts were created sometimes on an artificial basis; and, that we need to reconsider how important it is to live together, with mutual respect of identity, integrity and interests. Now we are witnessing one of the best periods in the history of the Balkans where all states tend to preserve the stability of the region. It is a priority of all foreign policies and all home affairs of all countries.”
In her three year post as Director of MAARI, Mugosa hopes that her office will see tangible results in regional cooperation. Her goal is to see Balkan states work together on issues of border control, security, and consular and administrative services, especially within the context of migration, asylum, and refugees. It is a daily challenge for Mugosa and her team, but she is determined in her efforts to meet the challenge, and contribute to the development and stability of the Western Balkan communities.