The Budapest-Vilnius segment and the Kyiv-Tirana-Prishtina triangle

From the Budapest Memorandum to the situation in Western Balkan. By Genc Pollo, Former Minister and Member of Parliament (Albania), president of Paneuropa Albania.

28 years ago in Budapest, on December 5, 1994, I participated as a member of the Albanian delegation in the summit of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). It is recalled that this summit decided to turn the Conference into an Organization (OSCE) with permanent institutions. But the most important event with historic consequences at this summit was the signing of the Budapest Memorandum by Ukrainian President Kuchma, Russian President Yeltsin, British Prime Minister Major and US President Clinton. The latter two signed as guarantors of compliance with the agreement (France and China also offered guarantees in separate documents). The essence of the memorandum was that Ukraine would hand over to Russia the nuclear weapons that were in bulk on its territory since the Soviet period while Russia guaranteed that it would „respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence within its current borders“ and that it would never use force and weapons, or economic pressure against Ukraine (Articles 1, 2 and 3, respectively). In light of today ’s events, when Russian missiles are hitting apartments and killing civilians in Kyiv, these quotes may seem like an exercise in sarcasm. But in post-communist Europe of the 1990s, interstate principles such as sovereignty, the avoidance of violence and the freedom to choose alliances were not only written into successive statements by the CSCE and the Council of Europe but were also seriously believed, with the tragic exclusion of Milosevic from the former Yugoslavia. But a decade and a half after Budapest, these principles began to be violated not by a bloody dictator in the Balkans but by a large, nuclear-armed state. Pacta sunt servanda (agreements must be respected) as a cornerstone of international law was violated along with others.

The principle of force in Vilnius

On November 28, 2013, the European Union summit convened in the Lithuanian capital failed miserably when Ukrainian President Yanukovych declared to European leaders that he refused to sign the association agreement with the EU. The agreement, which had been negotiated for six years, was scheduled to be solemnly signed that day. „Russia has been pushing my life for three years while you left me in the mud,“ Yanukovych told 28 presidents and prime ministers, according to witnesses present. Armenia in September of that year also suspended negotiations on an association agreement with the EU after being openly threatened with armed violence by Moscow. The Armenian and Ukrainian presidents were forced to promise to join the Eurasian Customs Union established by Russia in 2010 (currently called the Eurasian Economic Union). Although the European agreement was for them more profitable.

The surprise for those disappointed by Yanukovych came from the Ukrainian people. The rejection of Brussels sparked major protests and what is known as the Maidan Revolution. Yanukovych fled to Russia and parliament and president were elected by democratic vote. But Putin reacted by invading Donbas and annexing Crimea. Only after this trauma did NATO membership become a real priority for Kyiv.

Two or three thoughts on the principles of force

If it were not for courageous personalities like Vitali Klitschko and if there were not thousands of citizens, who on Maidan challenged the frost for weeks, Ukraine would have remained in the category of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. It was the inner will of society, strong and unyielding, that determined the major orientation of the state. This is a valuable lesson for the peoples of the Balkans who are currently enduring their Lukashenkos.

 Not only the Brussels bureaucrats, who are said to often dream with open eyes, but almost the entire political elite of Western Europe did not understand the real danger of a revanchist Russia: not even when Putin invaded two Georgian provinces in 2008; not even when he was left without opening bottles of champagne in Vilnius in 2013; nor when a year later he invaded Donbas and annexed Crimea. Appeals by leaders and intellectuals from Eastern Europe about the Putinist threat were ignored. The views conceived in a long period of peace and prosperity and influenced by problematic ideologies long prevailed over those of the people who suffered double communist-Russian rule. The aggression of February 2022, thankfully did not leave sleeping beauties without waking up. Even the most pacifist and neutral states are doing what was unimaginable until three days ago: they are supplying Ukraine with lethal weapons.

There are people in Europe but also in Tirana who philosophize that NATO is to blame for the fact that it expanded to the east, inadvertently introducing a threat to Russia. And that made the latter as aggressive as a cat pushed into the corner. In fact, none of the new NATO members were under Moscow’s traditional influence until before the end of World War II. And Ukraine, as we noted above, tried seriously (but to no avail) for NATO membership only after losing the Donbas and Crimea. A Ukraine close to Europe could maintain good neighborly relations with Russia. In the spirit of the Budapest Memorandum; as in the example of Finland or Austria. This was possible until 2013 but failed through Putin’s fault. Today it is out of place to discuss this topic. With „kismet“ when someone else comes to the Kremlin.

Tirana and Prishtina: chances and opportunities

Tirana is showing diplomatic unity with the West through resolutions it is proposing alongside the US to the United Nations Security Council. This is positive but not very effective as resolutions condemning Russia are routinely blocked by Russia’s veto. The effect is mainly political signaling. Ironically, like many things that Edi Rama does, we could dare to say.

Unfortunately, Tirana did not follow the example of the Baltic states and Poland, which for weeks have been supplying Ukraine with weapons, ammunition, bulletproof vests, etc. The Kyiv government has prayed daily for such assistance. Not that our shipments would turn the situation around but at least they would show us as serious and determined. The announcement of aid on February 27 by the government when even the most pacifist and Russophile have handed over the anti-tank missile to the Ukrainian army seems simply to wash its mouth.

Likewise, when Poland, Romania and Slovenia announced on the same day the blockade of airspace for Russian aircraft, Tirana could have done the same. The government’s statement only after this initiative was formalized by the EU sounds like a slow catch up measure.

Unfortunately, Prime Minister Rama still does not have the will to remove Albania from the Mini-Schengen / Open Balkans initiative. Now that its main sponsor, Serbian President Alexandar Vucic, refuses to side with Europe against Putin, this initiative appears much more ominous than before.

A new debate is needed on the protection of national security, which now faces the most obvious threats. The argument that NATO protects us in any case, as we hear mostly from the government, is good but not enough. Undoubtedly NATO membership in 2009 was a historic achievement; but the US is focusing on China and the North Atlantic Alliance prefers to have security contributing members rather than just security „consumers.“  The biggest investment in the Armed Forces was the purchase by the Berisha government of 6 helicopters with dual civil-military use. The current government with corrupt motivations has fragmented the bases of the Navy, seriously undermining its defense capabilities. This trend must be reversed.

Prishtina has a great chance: Vucic refused to condemn Putin’s aggression and apply EU and Western sanctions. If Brussels and others had so far closed one or two eyes to Belgrade’s attacks on Europe’s unfriendly rivals since February 24 we live in a different time. Conflict is open, violent and the dominant rule is „with us or against us.“ Therefore, at this moment when the paradigm is changing, the most useful and realistic objective for Pristina is to receive diplomatic recognition from the five EU (or four NATO) countries which are still hesitant. From nearby Greece to seemingly stubborn Spain; of course through working with the big ones of the EU and of NATO.