Can Germany Reconcile the Western Balkans?

Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik

Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik

Aston University (UK)

Dr. Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik was a Harry & Helen Gray/AICGS Reconciliation Fellow in 2014. While at AICGS, she explored Germany’s role in reconciling the Western Balkans. The project focused on Germany’s foreign policy, economic development, aid, and German political foundations in Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo.

Germany has been a key player and one of the largest bilateral donors in the reconstruction and redevelopment of post-conflict Western Balkans. Its strategy for the region has included a number of economic aid and redevelopment packages, peacekeeping, and donations for community projects. This project explores the extent to which Germany’s involvement is aimed at reconciliation in this region. It is argued that Germany’s prioritization of economic redevelopment is a part of an implicit reconciliation strategy, aimed at stabilizing the region but without explicitly being seen to do so. The project will explore Germany’s recent historical and political links with the Western Balkans, noting the importance and symbolism of Bosnia and Kosovo for its foreign policy. The project pays particular attention to Germany’s economic and aid initiatives, and the involvement of German political foundations as some of the key donors for reconciliation projects in this region. Overall, this project explores how Germany’s reconciliation policies for the Balkans are operationalized at two levels—the macro level of foreign policy and engagement with national governments, and the micro level of civil society.

Dr. Obradovic-Wochnik is a lecturer in Politics at Aston University, Birmingham, United Kingdom. Her work focuses on transitional justice, reconciliation, and post-conflict transitions in Serbia and Kosovo. She has held visiting research fellowships at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, Paris; the University of Helsinki; and the Center for European Studies at Harvard University.

In April 2013, Serbia and Kosovo signed an agreement that enabled a rapprochement between the two sides, including an understanding that they will not block each other’s bid for European Union (EU) membership. Relations between the two states had been deadlocked for years, so this was not an insignificant achievement. The agreement was mediated by EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, and was largely seen as a success of EU diplomacy. However, a surprising number of observers suggests that the realization of the agreement is largely due to German involvement: in 2011, Angela Merkel “read the riot act” to then Serbian president Boris Tadic, warning that Serbia would jeopardize its EU membership prospects unless relations with Kosovo were normalized. Serbia had been dragging its feet on the Kosovo issue for years and, despite EU pressure, the situation seemed impassable as no Serbian government wanted to be seen as the one that capitulated on Kosovo.

Why was Merkel’s intervention so successful in spurring the agreement that paves the way for a Serbia-Kosovo reconciliation? This article suggests that Merkel’s effectiveness is largely due to Germany’s growing importance for the region, both as a key partner for the Western Balkan states and as a driver of EU integration.  Reconciliation in this analysis is understood in its broadest sense—as a normalization of relations between states and societies, in a way that would enable them to operate basic diplomatic, political, and social exchanges. This functional view of reconciliation does not focus on a moral dimension. Such a focus is chosen mainly as a result of German involvement in the Balkans: it is most visible at the state level, where Germany has played a key role in bringing together Western Balkan states, and urging regional cooperation which will eventually result in EU integration.

Germany and the Balkans

Since the 1990s, Germany has been the most active international actor committed to pursuing political solutions for the stabilization of the Western Balkans. The 1991-1999 conflicts in the former Yugoslavia left strongly felt legacies and serious challenges at all levels: those responsible had to be prosecuted for war crimes, while societies had to deal with reintegrating victims, refugees, former prisoners, and veterans. The region had to undergo a “double transition,” from war to peace, as well as from socialism to democracy and a free market economy. Former Yugoslav states, spurred on by the framework of European integration, had to (re)learn how to cooperate at the most basic level and reach agreements on issues such as border disputes and trade agreements; and to operate new, post-war states through power-sharing mechanisms. Throughout this recent history, comparisons were often drawn between Germany and the former Yugoslavia, with Germany often held up as a model for reconciliation and reconstruction. However, not only are these comparisons misleading, but they also obscure the real intersections of German involvement and post-conflict Western Balkan reconstruction and reconciliation.

Postwar Germany and the former Yugoslavia were closely linked: not only did Germany receive large numbers of Gastarbeiter workers from the former Yugoslavia, but its former leader, Josip Broz Tito, cultivated strong ties to Germany as a part of his foreign policy. The cultivation of strong bilateral relations with Germany continued in foreign policies of almost all Yugoslav successor states, especially Croatia and Serbia under Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic (but not, notably, under Slobodan Milosevic).  German involvement in the region reached a critical juncture with Germany’s 1992 recognition of Croatia and Slovenia, a decision that caused rifts between its international partners, but one which was made in the spirit of conflict resolution. Germany’s view was that Croatia and Slovenia ought to be recognized: the rationale was reinforced by the post-reunification mood, where Germany felt unable to deny others’ bid for self-determination. This same rationale underscored Germany’s support for Kosovo independence later in the 1990s, but was additionally reinforced by the former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic’s persecution campaign against Kosovo Albanians.

Since then, Germany has been involved in all major decisions and processes designed to calm the former Yugoslav conflict zones. Many such initiatives were envisaged as mechanisms of reconciliation, even if this did not always turn out to be the case in practice, for example, in the case of the Dayton Agreement, which ended the war in Bosnia, but is generally thought of as a political failure since it reinforced the ethnic divisions at elite levels. Germany was a member of the Contact Group (also including the U.S., UK, France, Italy, and Russia), which monitored the conflicts in Yugoslavia, and in 1999 took part in the NATO campaign against Serbia and Milosevic in Kosovo.

External Actors and Reconciliation

Germany has been one of a number of international actors helping the Yugoslav successor states end the conflicts and subsequently rebuild and reconcile. This is not unusual: almost all contemporary conflicts involve a degree of international or external involvement, whether through peacekeeping, or subsequent peacebuilding. External involvement has often been crucial in various conflicts, particularly those in the Western Balkans, in which the domestic political elites had lost legitimacy once they had dragged their countries into warfare. International actors have often been essential in helping negotiate peace treaties between parties, usually by taking key elites out of the conflict zones to “third countries,” so that they may be less susceptible to various domestic attempts at influence or media pressure.

In this context, Germany is a very particular external actor for the Western Balkans: no other international actor has been viewed so positively with such consistency. The view from the Yugoslav successor states is that most international actors come with “baggage” or prefer to take sides: the U.S. is seen as “pro-Kosovo” while France is seen as “pro-Serbia,” and the perception of the UK is still tainted with the Blair-Iraq legacy. Surprisingly, Germany’s involvement in the NATO air strikes against Serbia in 1999 does not diminish its popularity as a partner, since the air strikes are often seen as an American initiative. Germany thus stands uniquely positioned as an actor able to apply leverage: not only is it seen as a non-biased partner, but it has manifested the strongest foreign policy interest in the region, compared to other EU members and the U.S. For instance, the UK has slowly decreased its foreign aid in the Balkans; the U.S. maintains a strong interest and presence in Kosovo, but has been decreasing its interest in the region as a whole.

Germany’s continuing interest in the region can partly be attributed first, to a domestic policy concern over migration and refugees, and second, to foreign policy considerations.  Even though there is no real threat of war today, Germany is still concerned with potential large-scale migration, partly as a result of the precarious economic conditions in the region, the still-unstable Bosnia and Macedonia, and the fragile Kosovo-Serbia peace process, which is seen  by German diplomats as successful, but holding the potential for disintegration at the slightest provocation.[1]

Germany’s involvement in the Balkans extends beyond the two factors mentioned above. Its pre-occupation in stabilizing the region also results from its own historical experience, since “varieties and complexities of Germany’s grappling with the past are reflected in its foreign policy.”[2] One view is that Germany has struggled with huge reforms and postwar changes, and that it now has the experience and opportunity to help other states through similar challenges. This is complementary to its interest in the broader EU integration project. Germany has long been one of the key drivers of EU integration (albeit, famously, “leading from behind”), and the current view is that until the Western Balkans, particularly Serbia as the largest country in the region, are stabilized and integrated, “there is no Europe whole and free.”[3] Indeed, Germany’s weight in the EU is recognized by the Western Balkan states, and it is understood that a country’s integration prospects largely depend on Germany. So much so that all states have cultivated strong links with Germany, including Kosovo. In the words of one former U.S. diplomat, “we may be the favorite foreigners in town, but the reality is, the EU is the future, and Germany is the key player.”

European Integration as Reconciliation

EU integration tends to be a much-overlooked process of reconciliation. In the Balkans, Germany operates within the framework of EU enlargement: overall, the aim is stabilization of the region, and EU integration is both a means and an end in this regard. When it comes to reconciling and facing history, academics and policymakers are too quick to look at the narrow, or explicit, aspects of this process, such as cooperation with war crimes tribunals or the establishment of truth commissions. In that sense, countries of the Western Balkans are generally deemed as having failed or failing to confront the past. Certainly, the fallout of several court cases (such as the Croatia v. Serbia and Bosnia v. Serbia genocide trials) and nationalist rhetoric of some domestic elites do not bode well for reconciliation, understood in its normative sense. However, viewed more implicitly, through the lens of European integration, countries of the Western Balkans have made huge steps forward, often as a result of external involvement. If reconciliation is understood in its broadest sense as normalization of relations or the establishment of functional, “normal” day to day diplomatic, social, and political contact between former “enemies” then the Western Balkans appear as a reconciliation success story (especially when compared to other similarly affected regions, where conflicts and diplomacy remain “frozen,” such as Chechnya). This is also the view from inside the Balkans: a former Serbian foreign minister commented that, compared to East Asia, the Western Balkans have made huge headway in reconciliation and cooperation.[4]

Within the EU integration framework, much stress (and conditionality) was placed on “regional cooperation” of the Yugoslav successor states.[5] In effect, some of these initiatives, such as the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe, and later the Regional Cooperation Council, replicated or imitated former Yugoslav links and spaces.[6] Regional cooperation has given way to some “big wins” in reconciliation. Two episodes stand out: first, the 2013 Belgrade-Pristina agreement, which “unfroze” diplomatic relations between the two countries, and the second, the 2014 Conference of Western Balkan States. In both cases, Germany played a crucial role.

Germany as a Catalyst for Western Balkan Reconciliation

The substance of the 2013 Belgrade-Pristina agreement was perhaps unremarkable, since it does not put forward any new, radical changes, but it was ground-breaking in the sense that it enabled a Kosovo-Serbia dialogue and Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo. The view from Serbia is that recognition of Kosovo is no longer a case of “if” but “when,” since much of the agreement implicitly recognized independence (for instance, by agreeing not to block Kosovo’s EU bid, Serbia is implicitly recognizing it as an independent state).

Merkel’s intervention finally put the right kind of pressure on Serbia because it came from the right kind of actor. Merkel is seen as someone who does not take unequivocal standpoints lightly; her stance on the Kosovo issue finally sent Serbia the unambiguous message that it needed. Up until that point, Serbia had claimed that the EU’s demands regarding Kosovo were not clear, as recognition was not a precondition for membership.[7] The EU’s lack of a common position on Kosovo independence weakened its pressure on Serbia. Thus, Merkel, representing a country universally seen as the engine of EU integration, could manage to do what the EU could not, and warn Serbia that unresolved neighborhood disputes are a real obstacle to membership. Merkel’s intervention also benefited from an opportune moment in domestic politics, since parties in power in Serbia and Kosovo wanted a chance at candidacy and reelection.

German efforts at Western Balkan reconciliation and integration continue, even as the EU gives off signs of enlargement fatigue. Recently, Merkel organized a conference of Western Balkan leaders to discuss integration prospects. Most observers had no hope for a tangible outcome. The conference certainly did not deliver any spectacular results, but it was symbolic, and it stimulated a number of smaller, but important, regional reconciliation initiatives. The conference encouraged regional cooperation and as a result Bosnia and Serbia presented a joint infrastructure project for EU funding. Albania announced that its prime minister, Edi Rama, will visit Belgrade—the first such visit since 1947. Nevertheless, we must be careful not to exaggerate these rapprochements, since a lot remains to be done; for instance, Serbia has so far issued only one formal apology, by former president Boris Tadic and not backed by parliament at the time, for its role in the Bosnian war.

The conference is a culmination of German efforts and continuing commitment to the region. Not only has it been the most active EU member in the Western Balkans, but it has also been the largest aid contributor, both through the EU and bilaterally. Since 2000, Germany’s bilateral aid to Serbia has amounted to €1.6 billion,[8] and €420 million to Kosovo since 1999.[9] Moreover, according to a German diplomat,[10] 30 percent of all EU aid to the Balkans comes from the German taxpayer. Much of this aid is directed at regional stabilization through economic growth. This is not to be underestimated. Unemployment in the region ranges from 20 percent in Serbia, to 35 percent in Kosovo (with 60 percent youth unemployment). In such cases, not only is growth through foreign investment and support for local industry crucial for the revival of local economies, but it is also an essential pre-requisite for any reconciliation process.

At the state level, therefore, relations are normalizing, and have been for some time—trade between most former Yugoslav countries is flourishing, for instance. This level of regional cooperation is one small, but important part of reconciliation; one step toward building a common vision and a shared space. However, a significant part of any reconciliation process happens below the state level. A huge number of civil society initiatives, often led by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), has operated in the Yugoslav successor states since the 1990s. German political foundations, in particular the Heinrich Böll Foundation and Friedrich Ebert Foundation, have played leading roles in supporting, often financially, domestic civil society in various reconciliation projects, such as the ongoing “Memory Lab,” a trans-European “remembrance platform” that brings together German, French, and Western Balkan reconciliation experiences.

Civil society initiatives are important, especially those organized by Friedrich Ebert Foundation to reach out to political leaders, because important aspects of reconciliation are still missing in the Western Balkans. Whereas civil society is active in promoting reconciliation and apology and acknowledgement of harm initiatives, political leadership across the region tends to ignore or disengage from questions about the past entirely. As is well discussed elsewhere, political leadership, which supports civil society, is important as it can help lead to “institutionalized transformation.”[11]

Germany as a Partner in Western Balkan Reconciliation

Germany’s view of its role in the Balkans and elsewhere is that Germany has become somewhat of a “fix it country,”[12] and that its influence has been over-rated. This is not a view shared by Germany’s partners, especially the United States, who would like to see a bigger and more explicit German role in the region, especially with regard to Bosnia. Germany certainly recognizes and accepts its responsibility for leadership as the biggest country in the EU and as the former “Sick Man of Europe” that has successfully achieved reforms. However, Germany strongly emphasizes that it cannot change the situation in the Western Balkans alone, and that it needs more support from EU partners. In other words, countries like Kosovo and Bosnia cannot sit back and wait for Germany to solve their problems, because Germany’s modus operandi has always been to offer financial and political support, while expecting reforms and positive inclination toward change. Likewise, EU partners—most of whom had decreased their policy interests in the region—cannot sit back and wait for Germany to single-handedly resolve the remaining tensions.

Germany is likely to have a continued influence in the region as the Western Balkans need Germany: Germany has been virtually the only champion of further integration in the midst of EU enlargement fatigue. It is often seen as “the reluctant hegemon”[13] and that reluctance to be seen taking the lead on issues plays well here. Germany’s influence in the region can be attributed to its treatment of these countries as equal partners. Therefore, Germany can help reconcile the Western Balkans; it is the only active EU member state whose commitment to stabilization and integration is matched by its financial and political support, making it the only actor with real leverage.

 Dr. Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik was a Harry & Helen Gray/AGI Reconciliation Fellow in August and September 2014.


[1] Confidential interview, 3 September 2014, Washington, DC.

[2] Lily Gardner Feldman, “The Principle and Practice of ‘Reconciliation’ in German Foreign Policy: Relations with France, Israel, Poland and the Czech Republic,” Foreign Affairs 75:2 (1999), p. 333-356.

[3] Confidential interview, 19 August 2014, Washington, DC.

[4] Confidential interview, 19 August 2014, Washington, DC.

[5] European Commission, Regional Cooperation in the Western Balkans: A Policy Priority for the European Union (Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of European Communities, 2006),

[6] Tim Judah, Yugoslavia is Dead, Long Live the Yugosphere, LSEE Papers on South Eastern Europe (London: London School of Economics, 2009), available at

[7] Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik and Alexander Wochnik, “Europeanising the Kosovo Question? Serbia’s Kosovo Policies in the Context of EU Integration” West European Politics vol. 35:5 (2012), p. 1158-1181.

[8] Federal Foreign Office, “Serbia,”

[9] Federal Foreign Office, “Kosovo,

[10] Confidential interview, 3 September 2014, Washington, DC.

[11] Lily Gardner Feldman, “The Principle and Practice of ‘Reconciliation’ in German Foreign Policy: Relations with France, Israel, Poland and the Czech Republic,” Foreign Affairs 75:2 (1999), p. 336.

[12] Confidential interview, 3 September 2014, Washington, DC.

[13] William E. Paterson, 2011, “The Reluctant Hegemon? Germany Moves Centre State in the European Union,” JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies Annual Review 49 (2011), p. 57-75.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.