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Commentary On This Year’s Bled Strategic Forum: Overplaying The Balkans, Neglecting Other Key Allies

“The first thing that catches the eye is that virtually all of the invited high-level foreign representatives are from the Balkan countries. This, in itself, is not a bad thing, but the Bled Strategic Forum (BSF) is, in my opinion, intended for a broader discussion,” said international law expert Miha Pogačnik about the BSF. “This year, the BSF should have also addressed the transatlantic, EU-US partnership and alliance in the security, political and economic-technological fields in a more focused way,” believes former ambassador to the US, Tone Kajzer.

This year’s 18th Bled Strategic Forum, which took place on the 28th and 29th of August 2023 in Bled, was focused on “solidarity for global security,” and, due to the recent natural disaster in Slovenia, the conference was also to have a humanitarian dimension. The talks also focused on the enlargement of the European Union to the Western Balkan countries by 2030. According to media reports, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, said that the EU must be prepared for the enlargement by then, and so must all of the future members. He was clear that both sides must do their homework. Representatives of the Balkan countries welcomed the announcement but made no secret of their frustration at the slow pace of the process. The round table brought together political representatives from Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania and Bulgaria.

Despite a number of outstanding issues, the participants agreed on the need to accelerate the approximation process. “We know what we want, but I am not sure that the EU leadership knows what they want,” said the Montenegrin Prime Minister, Dritan Abazović, among other things. He also questioned why their people are welcome in the EU, but not their countries. The event was also attended by Moldovan President Maia Sandu and Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou. Representatives from Central Europe and non-European countries also attended the Forum.

Bled Strategic Forum should be a forum for a broader debate

International law expert Miha Pogačnik commented on the content of the talks, the topics, and the invited guests: The first thing that catches the eye is that virtually all of the invited high-level foreign representatives are from the Balkan countries. This, in itself, is not a bad thing, but the Bled Strategic Forum is, in my opinion, intended for a broader discussion. It is important to remember that the so-called Western Balkans are not something new.”

“This is not something that the Foreign Ministry or the current government remembers, but these issues have been dragging on for almost more than 20 years.” When Pogačnik was the Secretary of State at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2000 (which was 23 years ago), this area was already on the agenda. At that time, Slovenia profiled itself as the country closest to the EU and therefore led the way. “It is good to keep this part in one part, because Slovenia has been in the EU the longest among these countries and knows it best, but on the other hand, this is not something new.” The question of who will join the EU, he said, does not depend in the least on Slovenia or on anyone else among those invited, but on the member states, which will each have their own requirements, and on the fulfilment of certain objective conditions, which certain countries do not yet fulfil. And even if they do, this does not mean that they will become part of the EU, because the Member States have the right of veto, which is a political decision. A country may perfectly fulfil the conditions for joining the EU, but a Member State can still decide not to allow it to join the alliance.

None of the senior representatives of Poland, which is becoming a regional military superpower, were present at the BSF!

This does not mean small countries like Slovenia or Croatia, but more powerful countries like France, Italy or Germany, which can afford to do so. The 2030 timeline is therefore, in Pogačnik’s view, quite realistic. It would be good for the EU (given the instability in the East) to have a complete entity as soon as possible, but realistically speaking, certain countries clearly do not yet meet the (objective) conditions for EU accession. But there may be the political will to admit some of them early, even if they do not yet meet the conditions for accession. The decision on who is admitted and who is not is purely political. Pogačnik also touched on global security, an area where he felt that this year’s edition of the Bled Strategic Forum was severely lacking. He cannot see how any of the members present can contribute to global security without the regional superpowers. It is right to discuss this topic, but we should not be under the impression that Bled “contributed in any significant way to global security”.

The countries attending the Forum already have problems in their own region, which makes it all the more difficult to imagine them contributing to global security. “We need to be realistic,” Pogačnik stressed. Solidarity, on the other hand, is something new at the BSF, he said. On the one hand, it is a “brilliant concept” that has also “proved its worth,” especially in terms of countries that helped Slovenia during the floods. But in general, it is a very broad concept, which is also legal and political in nature. For this very reason, it remains unclear what exactly is meant by the word “solidarity”. There are fears that the current ruling politics uses it so often just because it sounds nice. Finally, Pogačnik returned to security. He believes that it would be useful to invite more senior Polish representatives to the conference, as Poland is key to the defence of Europe’s eastern flank. “Poland is becoming a regional power. And in a year or two, Poland will have the strongest army in Europe. Poland knows what it is doing, it is very skilful, very smart. It knows how to combine national interest with security interest and with strategic interests.”

Overplaying the Western Balkans, neglecting pressing global issues

Tone Kajzer, former Ambassador of the Republic of Slovenia to the USA, also commented on this year’s BSF: “Personally, I am very supportive of the BSF platform, which is successfully developing and is taking place for the 18th time this year, for which I, of course, commend the organisers, and especially the Secretary-General, my colleague Peter Grk. Our common goal has always been, at the very beginning of the BSF, to use the BSF platform to inclusively profile Slovenia as a member of the EU, NATO and a developed Central European country, and its credible foreign policy based on Western values, which we voted for in the plebiscite on Slovenia’s independence.” He also said that we have always been committed to the BSF being an inclusive forum, including with regard to key Slovenian foreign policy actors. The latter was missing at this year’s BSF. In recent years, the BSF has been gaining in importance both in terms of the relevance of the topics discussed and the participants themselves. And thus, Slovenia’s credibility has also been enhanced.

The diplomat recalled that Bled had dealt with extremely relevant topics, which had attracted many Heads of State and Government and Foreign Ministers, not only from Europe, but also from the transatlantic and global area, due to the credibility of the Slovenian hosts, the topics, and the invited guests. “I understand to some extent that the current government, in addition to the Western Balkans, wanted to give more importance to multilateralism at this year’s BSF, which is in crisis due to the challenges facing the post-World War II world order and the weakness of the United Nations system, in light of the non-permanent membership of the UN’s Security Council. At the same time, I miss the increased focus of the debate on values and international cooperation based on democracy and human rights.” In this context, Kajzer would have preferred the substantive focus of this year’s BSF, Solidarity for Global Security, to be more on the importance of respect for the UN Charter and the fundamental principles of international law, including the principle of sovereignty, which is a prerequisite for a functioning world order.

Neglecting our neighbours, Central Europe and the EU-US transatlantic alliance

At this year’s BSF, Kajzer also wanted to see an even stronger focus on the challenges facing the European security architecture in the face of Russian aggression, as well as support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression. Kajzer would have liked to see more participants from neighbouring countries, or the C5 (Central Five) format that was created when Anže Logar was in charge of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “At the same time, I would like to point out that this year’s BSF should, in my opinion, also address the transatlantic, EU-US partnership and alliance in the security, political and economic-technological fields, in a more focused way,” he believes. The latter, in his view, is of the utmost importance for the preservation and strengthening of democratic principles and values at the global level, and also in terms of the importance of the bilateral partnership and alliance between Slovenia and the US, where we also entered into a strategic partnership with the US under the previous government. While he is aware that the US counterparts are very busy, he would personally, of course, like to see the US Secretary of State, or at least high-level guests from the State Department, and a delegation of Senators and Congressmen who have regularly attended the BSF in the past, to have been invited to the BSF this year as well.

Domen Mezeg

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