​Kuva: ​Candice Imbert / Euroopan neuvoston arkisto

Mr. President, dear colleagues,

Let me start by thanking Mr. Papandreou for this important and timely report on supporting a European perspective for the Western Balkans. Peace, stability and wellbeing in the Balkans is in the interest of all of Europe. However, as the European union is strengthening its ties with all the countries in the region, it should be careful not to create a sense of unfairness with regard to Ukraine and Moldova, that are beginning their EU-membership journey.

Despite the differences of the countries concerned it is evident that the challenges to democracy, human rights and the rule of law evolve around the same themes. The region’s delicate background situation as well as an increase in political polarization has led to political deadlocks that have hampered democratic development and institutional progress. Russia’s increasing influence in the region certainly has not helped on the path to European integration. The link to the rest of Europe should be strengthened for example by 1) supporting youth and student exchange and 2) by easing free movement of people.

In 2019 this Assembly awarded the Vaclav Havel prize to the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR), which brings together young people from across the Balkans to promote reconciliation. We should support such initiatives that aim to strengthen democracy and the activities of the civil society.

Reconciling with the past is of crucial importance when it comes to building a better future and I think that especially young people are very well placed to take forward such initiatives. I am very concerned about the increasing use of SLAPP’s (Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation) that have been initiated by powerful actors in for example Serbia to silence civil society organization and render their activities almost impossible. Instead of trying to hinder such activities I urge all Balkan states to support initiatives that bridge ethical divides and that allow citizens to take action towards greener and more just societies.

I would like to finish by commenting on Kosovo’s decision to seek membership in the Council of Europe. Membership in this organization requires respecting the common standards that we have jointly agreed on and I think that any European country that is willing to commit to our standards should be welcomed.