A new war in the Balkans?

A new war in the Balkans?

On the one hand, violence is re-erupting in Bosnia. On the other hand, Albania and Serbia seem to be at odds. And Serbia still doesn’t accept Kosovo’s independence.

What is happening in the Balkans? Are we on the brink of a new war in Bosnia and Kosovo?

I asked these questions to Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama who I recently had the chance to have a tête–à–tête with. 

Rama is “one of a kind,” with his extraordinary leadership profile. For many years, he played basketball on the national team of Albania. He is also a painter, having lectured as professor at the Academy of Fine Arts, and an author, having written many books on politics and arts.

Rama entered politics at a grassroots level. During his years at the Art Academy, he was leading demonstrations against the communist regime in Albania. After the fall of communism in 1990, with the first wave of democratization in the country, he became more involved in politics. In 1998 he became the Minister of Culture, and between 2000 and 2011 he served as the mayor of the capital Tirana.

In 2005, Rama took over the leadership of the Socialist Party and was already prime minister by 2013. Yet he didn’t even accept that he was a politician until he became prime minister.

Rama is still first and foremost a painter - as he makes politics through colors. He believes that colors make change possible, and he made this true when he multi-colored many public and residential buildings in Tirana. Green is the color that he has used most since he has generated many new green spaces in the city

Rama is still so imbedded with art and civil society that he is opening the first floor of the government building to these activities, enabling demonstrations against the government to take place in the space right below his office. This also says a lot about his perception of democracy.

He was in Istanbul as a guest speaker during the brainstorming sessions called “Table of Ideas.” I started our conversation by asking, “is a new war in Balkans on the horizon?”

“In the Balkans, it is the best time ever because for the first time in our history, we meet and sit at the same table all together,” Rama replied, recounting that last year, upon the invitation of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the “Western Balkan Countries Summit” took place in Berlin, where for the first time after 100 years of conflict, they talked not about the past but about the future. 

Last fall he visited Serbia in the first official meeting between the two countries in 68 years. Rama’s Serbian counterpart is coming to Tirana at the end of May, which will be the first such visit in 102 years.

He also drew attention to vulnerabilities in the region and emphasized the importance of Europe: “People in the Balkans are still dreaming about being part of Europe. And Europe is the only dream for Balkans. If this dream were to fade away, what remains? Problems would start again. Integration into Europe is the only chance to have lasting peace in the Balkans.” 

“But this dream cannot last forever. The role that Europe will play and how Europe will approach the Balkan process of integration is very important,” he added.

Rama sees non-integration also as a risk with regard to radical Islam: “We have the most pro-European and pro-Euro-Atlantic Muslims in the world. This is connected with the European dream. As long as this dream is vivid, the Balkans will have no trouble. But if this dream fades away, trouble will come.”

Albania recognizes Kosovo’s independence, whereas Serbia argues that Kosovo is part of Serbia. How does this affect their bilateral relations? He said that Serbia needs to face and recognize the reality and “not continue to live with a myth that no longer exists anymore.” Yet he also stressed that “this does not impede us working together, creating partnership, and trying to do what Germany and France did after World War II.”

Rama strongly believes that all Balkan countries should become part of Europe, which would then pave the way for the erosion of borders. “In the end, European integration will make barriers invisible for freedom of movement, work force, communication and information,” he said.

Why is it so difficult to sustain peace in Bosnia? “Because it’s a very complex project. Many things have happened. And many challenges are in front of them. Overcoming what has happened and facing the challenges by acting like one united country is not easy,” he replied.

Last but not least, Rama thinks that the challenges for Albania are very similar to the ones Turkey went through in its past. Turkey is an outstanding example of how a country can change in a generation,” he said, adding that he is closely following Turkey’s reforms.

The Albanian prime minister approaches the Kurdish question and the ongoing peace process in Turkey through the Balkan prism. “When I see the prime ministers of Serbia and Kosovo sitting together and agreeing on the peace process after what has happened between them, I see that anything can happen where there is the will."