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Throughout the most of its modern history, Western Balkans was known as a ''powder keg''. The aforementioned notion was coined to colloquially explain reoccurring insurgencies and conflicts in the region. However, it was not until 1990's that the ''powder keg'' depiction became so dominant at time of Civil War in the former Yugoslavia (also known as the Third Balkan War or just Yugoslav Wars).
However, whilst bearing in mind, that the last conflict in the region, occurred in 2003 with the insurgency in the Western Macedonia, question can be raised - What has changed in the regional context to make us think more about can Western Balkans still be considered as a ''power keg'' ?
First of all, although in the end of the 1990's ex-Yugoslavia countries diverged on most of the issues, they had to converge on one particular - European integration path. The joint goal was initially determined at the 2001 Zagreb Summit, where all the Western Balkans countries (apart from Slovenia, who was yet to become a EU Member State in 2004) pledged their allegiance with the EU. The former allegiance was additionally reinforced at the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit, where concrete ''carrots'' instead of regular ''sticks'' where given in a form of concisely outlined further steps to be taken so as for the Western Balkans to accede to the EU. Therefore, congruent goals made Western Balkans countries think more about how to converge, than to diverge on the matter. Moreover, they were now not let alone, but rather became subject of the continuous nurture of the EU itself, which still, at that time, had a sense of guilty for acting inappropriately in the time of Yugoslav wars and failing to provide a concrete solution for the ''Yugoslav question''.
However, due to the country specifics, not all countries were able to follow the same trajectory at the same pace (although that was initial idea of the EU itself). Therefore, Croatia was first to lead the way by entering Euro-Atlantic structures in 2009 (NATO) and 2013 (EU). From that moment, absence of Croatia in the Western Balkans concept required some (re)coining to take place. Therefore, Western Balkans is now to be known ''Restern'' Balkans, but for how long ?
That is actually a good question to ask. Especially, if we take into account, the current regional setting, where all ''restern'' countries are on the different trajectory, hence leading us to believe, that divergence is still present. However, it is not a radical one at all. On the contrary, it is even, to some extent desirable, bearing in mind different specifics of each of the ''restern'' countries. And where the ''restern'' countries stand as we speak ? Montenegro has advance the most in the overall Euro-Atlantic integration and is about to join NATO in approximately year and a half whilst at the same time picking up the pace of the accession negotiations with the EU. On the other hand, the laggards of the process are to be found in the case of Albania, BiH and Kosovo*. And what about Serbia ? Is it still special, as it used to be ?
Well, that can still be the case. However, at the moment Serbia is still facing its own demons, that were able to hinder its European integration path for quite a while. However, priority of the former gradually changed throughout the last couple of years. Unfortunately, there are still hurdles to meet, like burning social and economic issues, that have hindered Serbia in its aim to claim the title of emerging democracy. However, progress has been made. Unimplementable policy ''both Kosovo and Europe'' evaporated since the advent of the current government, although negotiations with the authorities in Pristina are still regularly taking place in Brussels. Furthermore, on the internal plan, Serbia still needs to build its institutions of representative democracy and grasp the political culture so as to finally start flourishing. Consequently, crisis of the constitutional democracy and democratic deficit are present at large in Serbia mostly due to the mass media spinning. The former largely contributes to the massive misinformation, that is, so to say, a regular feature of the overall Serbian society. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise, that almost 50% of the general population in Serbia does not want Serbia to join EU, mostly out of the fear of unknown to which lack of accurate information regarding the European integration process contributes.
However, although Serbia is faced with great challenges in the state building process, positive trends can be perceived. The most interesting fact is that they are not that old - they can be found in the media coverage of the ongoing refugee crisis, where Serbia still plays a big role. Basically, in a blink of an eye, the image of Serbia as a country inhabited by hillbillies shifted to the image of Serbia as an open country willing to help people, who have suffered a lot on their way to the bright future. Images of politicians, civil servants and even ordinary people taken whilst providing assistance to the refugees crossed the world. Serbs, as good hosts as they are, out of the blue, helped their country improve its own image. Therefore, we can now say that image of Serbia has changed. It is still far from positive indeed, but at least the negative facet has blurred a bit.
However, the former actions and willingness of the Serbian governing coalition to rather be a part of solution, than a problem, which did not use to be the case in the recent history, were rewarded. Serbia is about to finally open first chapters in its accession negotiations with the EU. In less than a ten days, chapter 32 (Financial control) and 35 (Miscellaneous; read - Kosovo) are going to be open at the intergovernmental conference in Brussels. However, opening of the negotiations is not a lone example of brighter future for Serbia. Mostly due to the refugee crisis, Serbia was able to achieve growth for the first time since 2008. When I say mostly, I take into account latest appraisals, which clearly show that each refugee who passes through Serbia leaves at least 5 euros per her/his day of stay in the country. Therefore, Serbia did not only improved its image, but also its economy.
However, the aforementioned success would not be crowned without big words in the opening speech of the Prime Minister of Serbia, Mr. Aleksandar Vucic at the last week's meeting of the OSCE Foreign Ministers in Belgrade. Namely, the Prime Minister acknowledged that Serbia is dedicated to the peace, which clearly showed its discourse in the years to come.
Therefore, I believe there is no better way to conclude this long story followed by the heyday quotation, than to get back to the basics. The spirit of European integration is most certainly reinvigorated in Serbia and is about to be built up. However, Serbia cannot do that on its own. It needs help of the EU in the first place. Namely, EU itself needs to start advocating for Serbia in the EU right away so as to help it achieve support among the general population. The EU cannot allow itself to miss this open window of opportunity to embrace Serbia now and forever, as by getting Serbia as the new, hopefully 29th Member State, spirit of the European integration will be reignited for good with a new, fresh blood striving to make the EU better and greater for the sake of all European nations.