The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kosovo recently hosted the 4th annual Germia Hill conference, entitled, “South East European Security in the Light of Wider Regional Challenges,” in Prishtina, from 2-3 February, which we attended. Germia Hill is an annual event aimed at providing the Kosovar government with a platform for discussing foreign policy and transnational issues with officials and independent representatives alike. The event – co-sponsored by the Aspen Institute in Germany – was originally scheduled for autumn 2015, but was postponed due to the broader European focus on the refugee crisis. The conference was attended by scores of officials, think-tankers, activists and academics. Here are some of our reflections on the event:
First, it was regrettable that there were no officials from Bosnia and Herzegovina or Serbia in attendance, likely a result of domestic political imperatives and distractions in both countries. A human rights activist from Serbia was present, which did ensure that country’s perspective from the civic angle, but there were no BiH citizen civic participants – a missed opportunity. These absences were unfortunate, as it resulted in a regional policy conference with two gaping holes.
Second, geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the West was palpable. One speaker stated that Russia has “pragmatic inconsistencies” in its approach to conflicts (suggesting the same is the case with other countries). He then proceeded to draw tenuous parallels between Kosovo and eastern Ukraine, ending on a paean to overcome “tactical conflict” with the West for the common goal of fighting ISIS and Islamism. Other speakers pushed back at these ideas – in real time and on other panels. One of the most forceful speakers was Albanian Deputy Defense Minister Mimi Kodheli, who stated that, “NATO will always be there to protect values by all means.” This statement was conspicuous in its clarity. Former Portuguese Deputy Foreign Minister Bruno Macaes – who observed that events in eastern Ukraine were “Russian military intervention” and not separatism – and Russian independent commentator Konstantin von Eggert – who stated that Russian foreign policy was primarily about Putin’s maintenance of power and appearing indispensable – were notably impressive and straightforward in their assessments.
Third, migration and the broad impact of the refugee crisis on Europe was front and center, though there were no specific proposals or solutions offered and the conversation focused more on the broader European challenges than on the particular role of western Balkan states. There were some subtle and some not-so-subtle links made between the refugee crisis and terrorism, which, although unsubstantiated, did add to the easily exploitable fear factor. Again, Deputy Minister Kodheli made stark and refreshing statements on the subject, noting that “this shouldn’t be a challenge to the EU – there is enough money and space,” and referencing the Kosovar Albanian refugee crisis of the late 1990s. A suggestion from one participant that the crisis has revealed unexpected fault lines between old and new Europe (in particular among the Visegrad states) was roundly dismissed with examples of the emergence of anti-immigrant policies in Denmark and Germany, foregoing an opportunity to discuss the rise of a real socio-political phenomenon.
Fourth, countering violent extremism was another hot topic, and in some cases was linked to point three above. Again, as the majority of speakers were officials representing their governments, their comments were heavy on action plans and light on facts or drivers. A legitimate question from a noteworthy local journalist about the substantial Turkish investment in mosques and the broader foreign involvement in the promotion of new religious identities was defensively and peremptorily rebuffed by Kosovo government officials, suggesting a defensive vulnerability on the subject. Again, a candid discussion would have been productive.
One of the most interesting elements of the conference was how the breadth of topics allowed Balkan political actors to interact with Western policy actors to pursue their own domestic agendas – effectively amounting to “support us against our opposition and let us in the EU ASAP” – without being challenged about the internal impediments to their integration: democratic crises unfolding throughout the region demonstrate the shallow nature of democratic consolidation over the past two decades. While the geopolitical context has a direct impact on the region, perhaps its greatest impact has been to let local elites off the hook and to allow the EU in particular to deviate from its own values to address the crises du jour. There were exceptions; two speakers from Germany on the final panel chaired by Aspen’s Rudiger Lentz spoke eloquently of democratic values. But most of the official government representatives opted to focus on status without substance. Officials spoke freely from on-message talking points calibrated to demonstrate commitment to reform and EU membership but noticeably failed to delineate the existence of any concrete reforms in place. In the absence of actual change – including in fighting corruption and abuse of office, standard practices among elites throughout the region – it is understandable that citizens are feeling more and more disconnected from the “democratic process.”
Overall, the conference provided a chance for networking and information exchange among journalists, policymakers, scholars and analysts. Two smaller sessions held in parallel provided more intimate fora for additional in-depth discussions which were useful. The most engaging and enlightening panels were those with active moderators and a mix of officials and independent actors; this provided the real value-added of the conference.