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Balkan Regional Cooperation Crucial, Streamlining Needed, Panel Hears

Lesce, 2 September - A Bled Strategic Forum panel on regional cooperation in the Balkans heard appeals for a strengthening of cooperation, but several speakers noted the modes of cooperation needed to be rejigged to improve efficiency and effectiveness, and to achieve breakthrough on the most stubborn issues.

Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić said the lesson he learned from the Belgrade-Prishtina talks was that "political will [at the highest level] is necessary to make a step forward," noting that the negotiations had gone nowhere when they were conducted at the level of working groups.

Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pusić noted that lack of trust, though often perceive as problematic in the region, was not a major issue to be overcome in fostering regional cooperation. Instead, what appears as lack of trust is the "failure to understand and articulate one's country's own political interests".

"Most misunderstandings stem from not being sure whether we understand what our political interests are...In that that sense the EU project is a great thing, it is an easy platform to cooperate on and it's not seen as terribly controversial. therefore, it's easier to start tangible cooperation on."

Cooperation in EU accession was highlighted as excellent by several speakers as a welcome boost to regional cooperation, with Aleksandar Andrija Pejović, Montenegrin secretary of state for European integration and chief negotiator saying that his country is making ample use of expert exchanges with both Slovenia and Croatia.

He also noted that there were many regional cooperation initiatives and forums, over 40 in total, with new ones being added, such as the Brdo-Brijuni process led by Slovenia and Croatia, and the recent conference in Berlin.

However, Hoyt Yee, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs at the US Department of State, noted that this profusion of initiatives might be a problem in itself. "There is nothing wrong with having too many initiatives...but there is considerable opportunity cost in trying to follow and support all these organisations."

He suggested regional initiatives should be more "result-focused": in Macedonia's case on resolving the name dispute with Greece, and in the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina helping to create a "functioning state".

Bosnia as perhaps the most problematic country in the region came up in several of the contributions by the panelists and Ana Trišić Babić, deputy minister of foreign affairs, said it needed to be offered "something" if things are to start moving along.

"Bosnia is the only country in the region that has nothing...The solution is to give politicians something, perhaps [EU] candidate status with a special approach to negotiations, otherwise nothing will change...The status quo is dangerous," she warned.

The panel on Western Balkans, a mainstay of the Bled Strategic Forum, wrapped up the ninth edition of what is the biggest annual foreign policy event in Slovenia.

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© STA, 2014