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W. Fasslabend: Address to Peace Summit 2023, Session VI-A: Europe and the Middle East

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen: It's a great pleasure for me to have the opportunity to talk about a subject that has been occupying me not only for years but for decades. And I want to try to explain why.

I became defense minister in December 1990, and before I swore my oath, I gave a short paper with a few words to my future chief of cabinet, in order that they would prepare the first week’s presentations on the preparations of my ministry. And at the top of the list was preparations in Austria for a crisis in Yugoslavia.

I did that before I had any information from the intelligence of my country, just due to my personal experience, as so often I had vacationed in Yugoslavia. I went through Slovenia and Croatia and Bosnia and Serbia. I talked to people, and when I came back, I had a strong feeling that something was going on, that a crisis would come. Of course, I could not define it, but you could feel that a crisis would come.

The lesson I learned was that although many people think that I have a very logically thinking mind, it is not enough just to make an analysis with your logical mind, but also to try to sense a situation.

Why? Because in politics it's not only interests that are the motor of developments. Very often it is sentiments, it is hopes and fears, it is dreams, it is visions, and when you try to go to the solution of a problem, you always have to try not only to make a logical analysis but also try to go into the depth, into the sentiments.

If you look now to the situation in the Western Balkans, you could say the situation is practically absolutely clear. The six Western Balkan countries are surrounded only by the European Union. It is Croatia. You also could say Slovenia. It is Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece. But still it is not possible to speed up this process in order to reunite or to unite the Western Balkans with the EU.

Why? My friend Hon. [Mladen] Ivanić [a former president of Bosnia & Herzegovina] said we should speak out very clearly and openly without any reserves, and I do it.

The biggest problem we have now certainly is the question between Serbia and Kosovo. The recognition of Kosovo on the one hand. On the other hand, this lasting challenge of Bosnia, which is more or less a country divided, really heavily damaged by the civil war and where three ethnicities are living together – or rather, let me say, next to each other within one country, where you even have two political entities: Republika Srpska and, on the other hand, this combination of Croats and Bosniaks.

If you just look to the statistics, I have to say everybody should have a strong interest in the Western Balkans joining the EU, because around 90 percent of all the exports of the region go into the EU and 90 percent of all the imports are coming from the EU.

And the same is with direct investment insofar from the economy; the situation is absolutely clear. No other country—whether Russia or China or Turkey—really has a similar position, although the decision should be clear. But still it is extremely difficult to find solutions, as you heard. I mean, there are ongoing processes in Brussels between Serbia and Kosovo, but extremely hard.

Why? We cannot only look at the rational side, but also we have to look to the emotional side. And if I look to the emotional side, of course there is quite some hesitance, especially in Serbia or in Serbian-speaking populations versus the EU, the Western world. There are many links also to Russia.

Why? There are historic reasons. Russia used to be the big protector in history. Of course, no question, because the biggest part did belong to the Ottoman Empire. There are strong cultural links. They have the same Orthodox religion, more or less the same script, the same writing and many other things. But this is not everything. There's also, of course, the experience not so long ago, during the situation in Kosovo, when there was a bombardment of Belgrade in order to bring [Slobodan] Milošević [then the president of Serbia] to the point that he would stop the war. This was the Western side.

And of course, people have this experience and therefore do not trust. And this intervention that went on, that NATO troops tried to protect the population in Kosovo, of course was regarded not only as a humanitarian intervention, as it was seen, but from the other side also as an incorrect intervention against international law. So you can, of course, discuss many things, but this is not everything.

There's a fourth factor that I see: that there is still quite some influence from the Russian side in order to make Serbians hesitant against full integration with the EU. I do not talk about NATO at all.

And this is a point where I think we have to work. We cannot work on history, but we can talk about it, we can try to explain it, but this is probably also just the rational level. We can talk about cultural differences, but it certainly will be necessary to have an open dialogue about what happened in the ’90s, what happened when there was a humanitarian intervention, when there was the bombardment and so on. And there also has to be an open discussion and dialogue about the situation that there are still not only prominent leaders but also media that do not try to go in the right direction but just follow, in this case, Russian interests.

I just want to mention one thing: When the war in Ukraine started, there was a big media in Serbia that opened with “Ukraine starts aggression against Russia.” And many people obviously are believing such things. And this is the point where we have to speak openly, not only with the politicians but also have public discussions with the civil society. And this could be the reason, in order to go a step further.

Why is it so important? Because now, after the war between Ukraine and Russia, let me say it this way: The situation will be even more difficult for the Western Balkan countries in their relationship with Russia. Of course, because there will be sanctions for the next decade, maybe 15 years. And there will be even more links between Western Balkan countries. And the EU will be even more important for their development. Why? Clearly because this is a question of surviving.

Very often I have said you also have to look in this conflict to the nationalisms that do exist: strong Serbian nationalism, strong Albanian nationalism. I do not want to go into detail, but you have to be aware that this is existing. But you also have to be aware that you only can live together in the bigger union. Then you can unite your nation, also the minorities in the other entities.

This is the only reason that you can do. Otherwise you never will be able. On the contrary, both sides will lose their strength. What do I mean? Serbia is confronted with a bigger loss of population than any other state has had in over Europe.

It will lose the historic strength it had in the Balkans, and a similar situation we can see also on the Albanian side. There will be no other solution than to sit together, have not only a dialogue but really go into the depths of the problem, speak it out openly, clearly and try to find a solution between the Western Balkans and the European Union. Thank you very much.

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