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Interview with Amer Kapetanović

"Internal political disputes, open bilateral issues and a lack of progress in the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue slow down regional cooperation in the Western Balkans, while the European Union contributes to an ever-growing geopolitical crack through its accession indecisiveness and strategic misconception. Both have to take bold and concrete steps to offer the region more than just a European perspective"
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On 28 July 2021, the conference "Black Sea and Balkan Perspectives: A Strategic Region" took place in Rome. We had the opportunity to interview Amer Kapetanović, Head of the Political Department at Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), who spoke on the first panel of the conference. We talked to him afterwards about how RCC supports security cooperation in the Western Balkans, whether external influences impact regional cooperation, how geopolitical cracks can be closed and what he thinks of the new 'Open Balkan' initiative.  

Most Europa: RCC is best known for its achievements in the field of economic cooperation in the Western Balkans, most notably with the flagship project of the Common Regional Market, and the roaming agreement that has just come into force. But you are also very much concerned with security cooperation. What role does RCC play in establishing and maintaining security in the Western Balkans?

Amer Kapetanović: Yes, RCC has been working on mobility, digital and circular economy and employment. But, it can hardly be sustainable without a secure environment that can only be established through regional security cooperation. That is why we are re-grouping our security portfolio to support the action plan for a Common Regional Market in the Western Balkans with assistance from the European Union and some EU governments, such are Italy and France. We use the political mandate given to us by the governments in the Western Balkans to establish a coherent approach to security. We tackle this issue by taking over the Integrative Internal Security Governance (IISG), collaborating with the South Eastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SEESAC). Under our umbrella, they deal with countering terrorism, combatting organised crime, maintaining border security, eliminating the surplus of small arms and light weapons, and combatting the illicit trade of firearms. The Disaster Preparedness and Prevention Initiative (DPPI) is also part of our framework, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. Apocalyptic events - like wildfires, floods and earthquakes that plague the region only reconfirm the necessity for regional collaboration and cooperation in mitigating the detrimental risks stemming from natural disasters. Together with DPPI, we are reaching out to get additional political support to ensure a coherent approach and we shall continue looking for a common denominator because there are challenges that no single economy can cope with alone. We have also established strategic cooperation with the Migration Asylum Refugee Regional Initiative (MARRI) in Skopje. Considering the magnitude of security challenges and all these different organisations we have decided to establish the so-called Jumbo Security Platform that gathers all security stakeholders in the region. We meet every year to discuss joint actions. This year, in Paris under the auspices of the French Government and next year in Rome in close partnership with the Government of Italy. 

In addition, we conduct along with the Balkan Barometer the SecuriMeter, the first-ever public survey done in the field of security in the region to understand the security perception, fears and expectations of the general public. That is why the SecuriMeter is a good tool for security practitioners and decision-makers, think tanks, civil society organisations and the media. 

Most Europa: Talking about the SecuriMeter, recent data shows that, even though numbers increased since last year, only 38% of citizens surveyed are satisfied with the overall security situation in the Western Balkans. Does the competition of different powers over having more influence in the Western Balkans impact the perception of general security in the region, and if yes, how? 

Amer Kapetanović: I would not go that far as to connect this with so-called external influences. I think the reason is that people are losing trust in the concept of liberal democracy, democratic institutions, and, to an extent, the capability of such an institutional framework to create a secure environment. And this also reflects in the data of the recent BalkanBarometer. More than 70 per cent of the respondents deem political parties to be corrupted organisations. People do not even trust the judiciary, the parliaments, their governments. So, I think it is more linked with the notion that while the overall security framework is good, people perceive that they are not provided with an adequate security environment due to corruption.

In the context of different influences coming from ‘third-party countries’ exerting influence over the region politically or financially by poorly executed privatisation, for instance, that could generate new ways of corruption, which further deteriorates the security environment and the image. That certainly widens the crack for possible maligning influence coming from all those who have no good intentions.

Most Europa: In the political arena, the economic and political influence of third parties are perceived as more problematic than by the general public, often perpetuated through media. How are, in your opinion, external actors, such as Russia, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the EU, perceived in the region?

Amer Kapetanović: We should shy away from putting all external actors in one basket or under one label. Some of them have only economic interests, and no interest in diverging the region from its EU or Euro-Atlantic part or perhaps engage in some sort of geopolitical proxy. If they have money to invest in the region, this should be encouraged, but only according to European standards and values. In addition, the projects need to be assessed as economically feasible to avoid situations like the one in Montenegro where the current government has indebted the whole country for generations over the construction of a highway

Many discussions and analyses are addressing the competition of great powers in the region. But there are only very few approaches to why the Western Balkans are so susceptible to that influence. What makes them the ‘soft belly’ of the European Union rather than a ‘six-pack’ that can counter any potential malign influence coming from abroad? I see several reasons for this: the fragile socio-economic situation in the Western Balkans, distrust in the liberal democracy and its institutions, the dissemination of disinformation and the EU accession fatigue. 

Since RCC has initiated the Balkan Barometer in 2015 to analyse how people perceive their life in the Western Balkans, the majority of respondents says that they have no trust in their government, the political system and democracy. 

As for the narratives about the European Union, yes, the EU gives, in total, more grants to the Western Balkans than all other foreign actors, like China, Russia and the Gulf countries together. The same applies to the trade volume with the European Union. But when you ask the people what they think, they see China, Russia or Turkey as the largest donors.

I think the European Union needs to be bolder and better communicate what it is doing for the Western Balkan, and the governments in the region need to emphasise the magnitude coming from the EU. And most importantly, the EU integration must be driven forward. The people in the Western Balkans realise this accession fatigue, especially after starting the accession negotiations with North Macedonia was postponed twice. People start thinking “They do not want us”. But the Balkan Barometer data show that two-thirds of the people in the Western Balkans are for EU values and want to be part of the European Union. But when being asked, when they think their country will join the EU, 25% are convinced that this is never going to happen. And this contributes to that misperception of the EU not supporting the region enough, which does not correspond to reality. 

So, you can see that there are several cracks, and they are not only generated by the Western Balkans but also through mismanagement and strategic misconception of the European Union. The EU and the governments in the region should take bold and concrete steps to bind the Western Balkans closer to the EU and offer more than just a European perspective. 

Most Europa: The Western Balkans states exhibit a considerable variety in their relations toward external Great Powers, such as Russia, China, the EU and Middle Eastern Countries who seem to maintain rather bilateral relations with the WB6 countries. Considering this heterogeneity, what are the main challenges of regional cooperation and how does RCC address them?

Amer Kapetanović: The influence from third countries does not directly aim at spoiling regional cooperation. What slows down regional cooperation in the Western Balkans are internal political disputes, open bilateral issues or lack of progress in the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue. We cannot move forward with regional cooperation as long as we do not reach the point of epiphany of understanding that we either fail or we succeed together and that there is no such thing as partial success at the expense of others’ failure. And this has nothing to do with influence from China, Turkey or the Gulf countries investing in Serbia or Montenegro via bilateral agreements. On the contrary, from an economic perspective, investors are interested in a single economic space and a larger market. 

However, that external influence should be deconstructed and analysed from different perspectives. There is data available on the cumulative investment in the region in terms of numbers. But what is missing, are studies on the extent to which investments from China and the Gulf countries in the Western Balkans affect the anti-corruption efforts to date so that we can set benchmarks and red lines that should not be crossed. That requires more communication and transparency, and we have to give up prejudices to which media have a great responsibility, too. Disinformation in the region can spoil all the efforts done much quicker and more severely than investments from abroad. And the Western Balkans are not ready to fight disinformation, so RCC will keep working on finding common ground in the region to combat it.

Most Europa: You have just mentioned that you see external influences as hampering regional cooperation less than certain dynamics within the region. How do you assess the Open Balkan initiative, formerly know as Mini Schengen, that was just adopted by the heads of state of Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia?

Amer Kapetanović: RCC wants to believe that the Open Balkan initiative is complementary to what we are trying to do. At the moment, we do not want to see it as competition. Looking at it from the outside, the Open Balkan initiative and all major principles of it have been already integrated into the Common Regional Market (CRM). And all governments in the Western Balkans including the three pushing for the Open Balkan were on board when the Common Regional Market was adopted. That Common Regional Market has a competitive preference. The EU has pledged 9 billion EUR of IPA Money (Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance) plus 20 billion EUR as soft loans coming from financial institutions. So, around 30 billion EUR will be invested in the action plan for the Common Regional Market, including the digital agenda, green agenda for circular economy and the four freedoms. All the six Western Balkans economies are RCC board members who have voted for the Common Regional Market and support it. We still believe that the Open Balkan initiative can be streamlined into the Common Regional Market, and we are more than ready to assist such an effort. But any scenario going in the direction of a competition would not be desirable for the region because it could divide the Western Balkans resulting in losing the principle of commonality, which is one of the core values of the European Union.