Managing Conflict in Europe and Its Neighborhood

News | October 15, 2014

 Lessons Learnt and Future Prospects

The EastWest Institute’s Brussels Center hosted a roundtable discussion “Managing Conflict in Europe and its Neighborhood: Lessons Learnt and Future Prospects” on September 25, 2014. Selected policy makers, academic experts and NGO-representatives reflected on previous cases of conflict management in Europe, specifically the Balkans, with a focus on the ongoing crisis in Eastern Ukraine.

The first panel, “Ethnic and National Conflict in Europe: the Case of the Western Balkans,”,was chaired by Jonas Jonsson, Head of Division for Western Balkans, European External Action Service. The panelists focused on how ethnic and national tensions have been fueled over the years, what the status quo is today, and which conflict management tools have been used – or have remained unused - in the region and by the European Union.

The power of nationalism was a key aspect of the discussion. Because nationalism and populism continue to have the potential to lead to violent extremism, the need for working up joint approaches to historical accuracy on an educational and youth level was emphasized. While guns are silent and will hopefully remain silent in the western Balkans, there is no genuine peace and reconciliation between ethnic and national groups, which prevents movement beyond the conflict management phase.

The panelists also discussed the role the European Union plays in managing conflict through its Enlargement Policy and the prospect of European Union membership for several Balkan candidate countries.  As one participant put it, “The EU dangles the carrot of membership in front of accession candidates in the Balkans, and if they behave, they can become a member.” The obstacles placed by individual European member states were also mentioned; the absence of a common European position, on issues such as the independence of Kosovo, contributes to a merely managed status quo, without prospects for an ultimate conclusion. The Kosovo issue remains central to tensions in the Balkans, considered by Serbia as an integral part of its territory, and considered by Albanians as part of a the “greater Albania.”  Asking either side to relinquish the claim on Kosovo is synonymous to asking them to give up a part of their identity. Attendees emphasized that a successful integration of the Western Balkans into the European Union is also a matter of credibility; unless the EU can achieve a sustainable peace in the Western Balkans, the EU will hardly be successful in any other processes of stabilization in its neighborhood.

The second panel, “Prospects for Managing and Overcoming the Ukraine Crisis,” was chaired by Georgi Pirinski, Member of the European Parliament, Former Foreign Minister of the Republic of Bulgaria. The panel addressed three major aspects of the crisis in and around Ukraine and the prospects for eventually managing the conflict: the internal Ukrainian problems, the complex Ukraine-Russia relationship and the strategic dimension relating to Russia’s concerns towards an extension of the European Union and NATO.

The common perception that there are ‘two’ Ukraines divided by different loyalties towards Europe/”the West” and Russia/”the East”, respectively, was challenged. It was noted that only two provinces in Ukraine actually rebelled against Kiev, and it was argued that they could not have done so without significant external support. Different scenarios addressed how the situation with the two regions of Luhansk and Donezk could evolve, including: a federalization model;, a neutralization of Ukraine according to a Finland/Austria model; and a frozen conflict scenario as is the case with Georgia and the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia, and Abkhazia, and with Moldova and Transnistria. While the latter scenario was discussed the most intensively, there were different views on whether Russia bears an interest in a frozen conflict scenario; the lack of clear borders to Donezk and Luhansk as opposed to Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia was also mentioned. .

The role of the European Union was discussed at length, with a specific focus on the European Eastern Partnership initiative. While the Eastern Partnership initiative has provided much needed assistance to Ukraine in many areas, such as trade relations, tariffs, and economic strategy, it has failed to address existing “hard-core” security issues of concern to Ukraine, and was consequently unprepared to deal with the unfolding security situation in the wake of the current crisis. The first step to building a stable state with a functioning economy is to ensure the security and territorial integrity of that state by securing a functioning police force, army, and independent intelligence service. Consequently, it was recommended to introduce a security and defense dimension to the Eastern Partnership framework.

The panel noted that the European Commission, represented by the newly established Support Group for Ukraine, is committed to assist Ukraine in implementing much needed reforms domestically; however, the Support Group will only be effective if the Ukrainian leadership makes a positive choice towards harmonization and integration, and sets up a credible strategy towards that aim instead of using the fighting in the east as an excuse to stall the reform process.

With regards to the Ukraine-Russia dimension, the heated debate illustrated how there is a complete lack of trust and confidence between the involved actors. The Russian strategy, in its western neighborhood and specifically with regards to Ukraine, was subject to different analyses. Russia sees the association agreement between the European Union and Ukraine as a threat to its existing trade relationship with Ukraine; the opposing argument is that Ukraine can have a free trade zone with both Russia and the European Union, as is the case with Serbia, without diminishing the existing Russian-Ukrainian trade relationship.

The session concluded with the prevalent view that, although the crisis in Ukraine is not yet at the conflict management stage, no time should be lost in preparing for reconciliation and trust- building efforts on all possible channels through constant dialogue and contact with all involved parties.

In the concluding session, the conference chairman Ambassador Martin Fleischer, EWI’s Vice President and Director of Regional Security, elaborated a number of conclusions and “lessons learnt”:

  1. Building trust is often perceived as a challenge of post-conflict, peace-building; however, trust is also a main pre-condition for managing a conflict. Trust-building must be done through complementary channels. While these obviously include governments, international and regional organizations and civil society, too little use is made of parliamentary channels.
  2. Extreme nationalism, fueled by its typically one-sided interpretations of history, remains a challenge for every peace settlement. But there are encouraging examples of joint initiatives by historians and also on an educational level to overcome national-centric and ethnocentric standpoints and work towards long-term reconciliation.
  3. National governments continue to bear the major responsibility. They must actively take matters of reconciliation and trust-building into their own hands and not be allowed to rely on civil society and outside actors such as the European Union. 
  4. Within the European Union, differing national interests of member states still impede a genuine common foreign and security policy and jeopardize the efficiency of the EU’s strongest instrument for conflict-settlement, i.e. its neighborhood policy and the membership perspective. The case of Cyprus exemplifies failure in this regard.
  5. The Eastern Partnership initiative has thus far failed to address the defense and security needs of the Eastern Partnership states. Strengthening the defense and security dimension in the Eastern Partnership initiative would give the European Union added leverage in its goal to support the institutional development of target states.
  6. In spite of these shortcomings, the EU must and can play a more result-oriented role in conflict management and conflict prevention.
  •  For insurmountable border issues in the Balkans, there is no alternative to step-by-step integration into a unified Europe in which borders lose their importance.
  • The case of Ukraine is different, as EU-membership is no immediate perspective, and westernization is probably no cure-all. History teaches us that lasting conflict solutions must respect the interests and at least be honorable and “face-saving” to all major stakeholders