The heads of state in Southeast Europe said in Sarajevo on Saturday that they saw the future of the region in the European Union, but that this was a long term goal for whose achievement it was necessary to work on improving relations in the region and strengthening reconciliation and trust.
Ahead of a summit as part of the Brdo-Brijuni Process to be held tomorrow, the presidents of Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania, and the three members of Bosnia and Herzegovina's Presidency took part in a panel as part of Summit 100, a meeting of business people from the region. Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic was also to have attended but was late in arriving in Sarajevo.
Slovenian President Borut Pahor told entrepreneurs that the region's most important goal was its EU and NATO integration for those countries that wanted to join. He said the integration process should not be too long and that the EU should have the strength to keep up the enlargement process. If it does not, the cooperation among the countries in the region can only gain in importance in the strengthening of peace and security, he added.
"Therefore the Brdo-Brijuni Process is now even more important," Pahor said, calling on the states in the region to invest as much energy as possible in the strengthening of cooperation. "In my opinion, reconciliation is task number one," he said, recalling that the Brdo-Brijuni Process was launched so that Slovenia and Croatia could solve their outstanding issues.
Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic said he was for the EU's survival and membership in it. He said "everyone should pray for the European Union to survive" because its current crisis had a negative impact on Southeast Europe. He warned about the danger of ultra-nationalism not only in the EU, but also in Serbia, which he said was trying to lead Serbia towards Russia. He added that he saw ultra-nationalism in Croatia too.
Nikolic said he did not want Serbia in NATO because he did not want his country "to ever go to war again," and that he honestly wanted all western Balkan countries to join the EU.
"Of course, we'll have problems with Chapter 23 (Judiciary and Fundamental Rights)," he said, indirectly accusing Croatia, which has not greenlighted the opening of that chapter in Serbia's EU entry talks. He called for not setting obstacles to one another so that it could be easier for everyone, adding that Serbia would not be a problem to anyone but that, if wronged, it would defend itself.
Nikolic raised the issue of Kosovo, whose independence Serbia does not recognise, but Kosovo President Hashim Thaci avoided an argument, underlining the need to improve cooperation in the region.
"The most important thing is that we began to talk and entered infrastructure projects," Thaci said, adding that Kosovo worked hard to have better relations with all neighbours. He said Kosovo's independence had made the region more stable, resulting in "normal and fair" communication between Kosovo and Serbia.
Bosnian Presidency Chairman Bakir Izetbegovic said the process of reconciliation and normalisation of relations was going in the right direction, albeit not fast enough and with occasional stalemates. He said there were many reasons for frustrations and mistrust, and that the only way out was establishing a "positive spiral" based on reconciliation, intensive contacts and meeting of commitments.
Everyone in the Balkans has made mistakes and the only solution is to admit it and do what can be done for life in the region to improve, Izetbegovic said, adding that he would pay his respects to the Serbs killed in Sarajevo during the 1992-95 war.
Bosnian Presidency member Mladen Ivanic said the situation in the region was not at all rosy, that there were problems in the relations between the countries, and that the situation could be improved with less hypocrisy and more honesty.
Montenegrin President Filip Vujanovic said a sort of alliance and cooperation on the Nordic model could only be a long term project from today's perspective, but that this was not an obstacle to bilaterally solving outstanding issues so that people could live better. "The Balkan Six" could, nonetheless, be a good cooperation model, he added.
Albanian President Bujar Nishani said building trust was of the utmost significance. "Now there is good will in the region but that's not enough. Aside from the will, we should build real mechanisms to consolidate the trust," he said, adding that his country wished to build good relations with all neighbours and improve the relations with Serbia, as well as complete the European integration process.
Nishani called for strongly focusing on the implementation of regional projects such as the Adriatic-Ionian Corridor and the Trans-Adriatic Gas Pipeline.
Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov said the current crises should not discourage the region but prompt it to more actively seek solutions to the problems it was facing.
He said Macedonia was a textbook example of how the EU and NATO should not treat a country because Macedonia, despite numerous positive assessments, had not made progress in Euro-Atlantic integration. "We have neighbours with whom neither we nor the EU can reach an agreement," he said, referring to Macedonia's years-long problems with Greece.
The presidents will continue the discussion on the situation in Southeast Europe tomorrow. Italian President Sergia Mattarella will join them. They will also discuss the implementation of conclusions reached at the last summit, held in Zagreb last year, which ended with the adoption of a declaration underlining a commitment to strengthening trans-European partnership, support for EU and NATO enlargement, strengthening regional and bilateral cooperation, and jointly dealing with challenges such as the migrant crisis and terrorism.