Budva, Montenegro. 8 May. A cliché rolls out before me. An assuredly azure Adriatic Sea as still as a millpond murmurs peacefully in its Sunday slumber cupped in a palm of firs on fingers of aged rock. Budva is like much of the rest of Montenegro, a small, beautiful place as breath-taking as it is peaceful. And yet that is not the whole story or even part of it. Yesterday, I saw the best and perhaps the not-so-best of Montenegro. Privileged to enjoy the luxuries of the splendidly-appropriate Splendid Hotel at someone else’s expense, last night I was ripped off royally by a Budva taxi driver. Perhaps it was only fair and I saw it as such. However, my experience brought home to me the reality of this beautiful country and the Western Balkan region in which it resides; so much progress made, so much more to be done.
First, the good news. My reason for enjoying the warm hospitality of Montenegro was to attend the outstanding 2BS (to be secure) conference. 2BS is the vision of my friend Dr Savo Kentera, the brilliant president of the Atlantic Council of Montenegro. Ten years after little Montenegro’s independence 2BS is a jewel in the crown of conferences precisely because it takes place where security really matters. Indeed, viewed from this cradle of Alexander the twin integrations of the Euro-Atlantic and of Europe make absolute and compelling sense.
Three conversations stood out for me on this visit. The first conversation was with President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, President of Croatia. The second conversation was with Professor Milica Pejanovic-Durisic, the Minister of Defence of Montenegro, and the third was with a senior Serb involved in EU accession negotiations. All three conversations conveyed both hope and fear.
President Grabar-Kitarovic was blunt: the Western Balkans, a term she actually dislikes, affords Europe and the wider West two great potentials; the potential for great progress and the potential for dangerous instability. Indeed, President Grabar-Kitarovic was firm in her conviction that regional co-operation within the framework of Europe’s institutions was vital if peace and stability are to be affirmed. Minister Pejanovic-Durisic was rightly proud of the fact that Montenegro is soon to become NATO’s twenty-ninth member. However, she was also firm in her belief that Montenegro must maintain progress towards EU membership. However, my Serb friend was frustrated that there seems little appetite in Brussels or other national capitals for the political effort needed to bring Serbia fully into the European family.
So, why the underlying concerns? It is something I picked-up on in one of my ‘can we please face reality’ questions at the conference. For some time now I have noticed the Western Balkans slipping from the agendas of security policy meetings where such meetings matter. Rather, there seems to be a tick-box view of the region with the Western Balkans now filed either under yesterday’s problem, or problem solved. This retreat from political engagement has been compounded by the threat posed by IS/Daesh and the twin fatigues; with further consolidation and with further reform. My Serbian friend said quite clearly that the key to regional stability was the establishment of rule of law across the region and the rooting out of the corruption that prevents it. Sadly, support for such a vital effort beyond the region is at best soft.
There has also been a profound loss of strategic vision about the need to integrate the Western Balkans and quickly if unfinished business is not to turn into tragic missed opportunity. To my mind this is most apparent in the ridiculous stalling of Macedonia’s (and I use that name deliberately) relationship with NATO, and the urgent need to implement to the full its Membership Action Plan.
So, on one hand I leave this beautiful place firm in my concern that we in the rest of the West can take nothing for granted about the Western Balkans, not least because President Putin’s Russia is again trying to make it yet another contested space. Moreover, two critical futures must be resolved; Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. On the other hand, each time I have the honour of attending 2BS I see the progress and the massive change for good that has taken place in this region since it was shattered by war in the 1990s.
They will not thank me for writing this because rightly they both want to be seen first and foremost as effective leaders. However, for me the greatest proof of progress is the fact that both President Grabar-Kitarovic and Minister Pejanovic-Durisic are women. This is because the greatest comparative advantage Europe and the wider West has over illiberal challengers is that society and indeed power is and must be open to all the talents.
Thank you, Montenegro. Thank you, Savo. To be secure!