Interview with Tomáš Zdechovský: Integration of Western Balkan countries

  • Monika Tesařová
  • 30.3.2017 12:59

Recently, the issue of the integration of Western Balkan countries into the European Union is being more frequently discussed in connection with many problems these countries are facing. Criticism targets democratic shortfalls or the bad security situation - many foreign fighters were radicalised in the Balkans. The questions regarding integration and the security situation of the Western Balkans were answered by Tomáš Zdechovský, KDÚ-ČSL deputy, who was elected to the European Parliament in 2014 and studies religious issues on a long-term basis.

From 2014, you have been a member of the European Parliament where the integration of the Western Balkan countries was discussed many times. What is your stance on it?

In general, I support the accession of the Western Balkan countries to the EU, the Balkans have always been and always will be a part of Europe. Unfortunately, this is not the key issue at the moment. Montenegro is closest to it, maybe Serbia, but as for the other states, it will take time before they can proceed to the next steps. However, it is necessary to deal with them head-on, without evasion.


"The next expansion of the EU will not happen before 2019... Serbia and Montenegro could [then] join the EU together."


Is it appropriate for the Union to accept new members considering the challenges it faces, like Brexit, growing popularity of nationalist parties and euro-scepticism within member states? Wouldn't these countries be a burden for the EU in the current situation?

The next expansion of the EU will not happen before 2019. However, in the future it would be rather unfair to these states if the Union should stop accepting eastern countries only because one country decided to leave the EU. For me, this rhetoric is unacceptable. Take Montenegro, for instance, that established a department for the fight against corruption this year, tries to implement structural reforms and is a relatively prosperous country - it would be a pity if it didn't have a chance to enhance the EU by its membership. The European Union must focus on internal communication, has to be able to explain advantages the new member countries bring and, on the other hand, cannot stop accepting new countries.

You've already mentioned that Montenegro and Serbia have EU membership within reach. Which country of the Western Balkans do you think will join the EU first and why?

This cannot be predicted because there are a lot of criteria that states must meet. I think that Serbia and Montenegro could join the EU together, but it is necessary to continue the dialogue between the opposition and coalition, to continue the implementation of reforms and to maintain freedoms and principles that the EU requires. This is essential for us to be able to tell whether these countries are ready to join the Union. 

The Czech Republic and the V4 countries in general support integration of the Western Balkans into the EU. What is the Czech Republic's stance on the integration of the Western Balkans based on?

The Czech Republic has historically, since the First Republic, had special relations e.g. with Serbia, Croatia. Already in the 18th century some of our fellow countrymen were settling in the region of Banat [in western Serbia, Ed.], and then we cooperated very closely during the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Also, in the time of communism a number of Czechs left the Soviet-bloc countries through Yugoslavia. For these reasons, the Balkans is our natural ally and our cooperation is long-term. For example, when Serbia was facing international sanctions, the Czech Republic was its key partner on the path between the East and the West".

What do you see as the biggest obstacle to the entry of these countries into the European Union?

Definitely corruption which is unbearable in many states - Kosovo, formerly Albania where, however, many things have changed. It is necessary to fight against this.

There is an escalation of tension in Bosnia and Herzegovina due to the Serb referendum on a national holiday and elections in October. Do you see Bosnia as a destabilising element in the region? Or is it another Balkan state and why?

I rather think it is necessary to reform governance in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The way things work in Bosnia now was established by the Dayton peace treaty after a long war, and at that time it was the only possible solution, but today it is necessary to build a government on something different, rather than on division between Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks. It is now necessary to focus on mutual integration, as it was before the Bosnian war. Many locals do not care who belongs to which ethnic group, they want to live in peace and they want a functioning government leading the state that would assume control of the territory. In order for the country to function normally, it is necessary to demilitarise some areas and remove guns from the hands of citizens. If this will not change, the country will become a jihadist hotbed.


"The same financial flows that go to the Islamic State, also go to Bosnia and Herzegovina."


How would you assess the security situation in the Balkans? In the past you've said that in the Balkans, especially in Kosovo and Bosnia, there is a radicalisation of Muslims, who subsequently join the ISIS, taking place. Why are the numbers of so-called foreign fighters coming from the Balkans so high, despite the fact that the local Islam is relatively moderate? So what motivates the people of the Balkans to go fight, even though it is punishable by several years in jail?

Specifically in Bosnia, there is high unemployment among the Muslim community and young people often see a journey to Syria, where they will fight for the Islamic State, as an adventure. We know of many cases of Austrians who were easily radicalised. It is important to lead a long-term dialogue in this society. In Bosnia and in Kosovo there were many Wahhabi imams who radicalised relatively peaceful communities of Muslims. Due to the weakness of the Bosnian government, there are no firm interventions against these groups. Also in terms of capitals and investment, there is a noticeable influence of certain countries, such as Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has long been known for its support of some radical groups, which is particularly reflected in Bosnia and Kosovo. 

For several years now, there have been Islamist training camps in the Balkans where terrorists were preparing the attacks in Madrid, London and Mumbai. Therefore, it is a long term problem. You mentioned the weak authority of the Bosnian government: can the local governments fight this problem at all? Are their measures sufficient?

The measures exist but more or less only on the monitoring level. Sometimes, it is also impossible to actively intervene because the people who run these training camps are affiliated with the government. It works like this: these people receive warnings and the camps are vacated in time. The solution is again to lead an open dialogue with local governments, they must be told that if they want our help, they have to fight this problem and if not, they shall not become members of the European Union and other areas will be affected as well - they will not be able to cooperate in other matters, such as economic matters.

This is actually the subject of my next question - the connection between Islamists and politicians. There has been a talk mainly about the Islamist Party of Democratic Action and Izetbegović. To what extent are politics and radical Islam interwoven in the Balkans?

This suspicion has existed for more than five years, certain financial flows have been documented, the same financial flows that go to the Islamic State, also go to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Specifically in this case, the state should act more effectively, it should confiscate the money going to support radical Islamists and it should penalise representatives involved in it.

How does the EU view the situation? Does the Union see the situation in the region as a security threat and implements measures to resolve it?

Yes, the European Union sees the situation in the region as a threat. Europol estimates the locals have at home hundreds of thousands of automatic weapons, but it is more likely tens of millions of weapons, from the time of the conflict. Unfortunately, the black market is still full of weapons that were supposed to be devalued or stored somewhere. People are finding weapons left by their predecessors, that they then offer and sell at the market and due to high unemployment, the weapons are therefore circulating. The European Union is prioritising to launch a weapon amnesty, as we know it in Europe, to get rid of weapons that circulate freely in the Balkans. Recently, several shipments of weapons were detained in the Balkans. There are still popular Kalashnikovs that are being found in rather large quantities during various operations. This has to change.

How does security cooperation function between European countries and the Balkans, including the information sharing?

Europol was recently sent a large quantity of information and I must say honestly that we have a lot of information concerning various radical Muslims precisely thanks to the Balkan secret services. This cooperation, that works very well, must continue in the future. People smuggling is very common in the Balkans and we are not able to intervene against it. The reason is that we do not have that many trained and reliable people who could take part in wiretapping and monitoring. We also do not have enough information regarding the way these groups operate - in this case it is important to receive key information from the Balkan secret services in time to be able to intervene. For example, the Kosovo mafia is impossible to destroy if you do not know the language, behaviour of its members, and especially its internal structure and functioning. To infiltrate these groups is very difficult for European and other intelligence agencies around the world, because they are based on tribal, family ties.


"Russian influence is twofold - first, there are giant investments (in Serbia and other countries) and then there are also attempts to influence government structures"


What way out do you see from this situation? Do you have any recommendations for local governments and the EU?

Educate, help people to see that there are alternatives to crime. Find enough money for quality education. When there was high unemployment in the Czech society, people started to do various crafts, began to employ themselves in some way. I think that awaits the Balkans. I expect that the time will come when the Balkans will rise again and will get at least to the level of the European Union, since they pass all requirements - excellent climatic conditions and its people are used to working quite well. When quality politicians take control of the Balkans, it might start to look there as in the current Croatia or Slovenia.

How do you see the future of the Western Balkans? Do you think that these countries will face increasing influence from Russia, which is being mentioned particularly in connection with Montenegro - the country most invested in by Russia? Or do you believe in a scenario of getting closer to Europe?

Russian influence is twofold - first, there are giant investments (in Serbia and other countries) and then there are also attempts to influence government structures - like recently revealed coup in Montenegro, where the clues point to Russia. On the other hand, there are many people who do not want to be associated with Russia. I think this is just a stage of development and that this trend will go down. In the Czech Republic there were huge Russian investments only a decade ago, whereas today they are considerably smaller. The same can be seen in Cyprus and other countries, this is a situation that will pass in the Balkans. The stability of the EU offers long-term development, long-term cooperation, and not only economically, therefore it is more appealing to Montenegro and Serbia than any other cooperation.

About author: Monika Tesařová


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