It was supposed to be the biggest gathering of Balkan leaders in nearly two decades to show the world the Balkan states aren't, well, Balkanized. But the EU-Balkan summit in Slovenia didn't live up to the billing to highlight regional cooperation and ended with a whimper. The air was taken out of the meeting in Brdo pri Kranju when Serb President Boris Tadic refused to show up. He didn't like the fact Kosovo would be there not as a UN-run protectorate but rather as an independent state. The EU's new so-called president also skipped the meeting, sensing a fiasco was awaiting. Not all were disappointed. Kosovo was pleased to have their independence status at least winked at.
All was not gloom and doom in Slovenia. When bureaucrats get together they issue statements and documents about what they have done or hope to do.
It was no different this weekend in Slovenia.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele told reporters upon arrival: "This conference will be a step in the right direction that the countries understand it is for the benefit of them to work together."
The leaders of seven Balkan states expressed their desire to join the EU, Europe's 27-state economic monstrosity.
Only tiny Slovenia is now in the EU club, with Croatia on the doorstep.
The other former Yugoslav republics are far away from the economic and political reforms needed to join.
Serbia may be the most distant given its unwillingness to give up Kosovo, and lack of fervor in tracking down and handing over compatriots the war crimes tribunal at The Hague wants to put in the dock.
For now, the Balkans will settle for any scraps the EU tosses their way.
So meager are their demands, the Balkan leaders top priority is merely the 'right' to travel without a visa to EU countries.
Ironically, bad boy Serbia -- along with Macedonia and Montenegro -- got that 'right' last year, and, suddenly, Kosovo Albanians wanted back into Serbia... for a passport.
According to the Southeast European Times, many Kosovo Albanians have applied for biometric Serbian passports in order to benefit from visa free travel to EU member countries, local media reported recently.
So much for cherished statehood.
Anyway, back to the 'summit.'
As mentioned earlier, Herman Van Rompuy, the frumpy, professorial looking man filling the EU's newly minted post of president was no where to be found in Brdo.
Fuele was the only top-shelf EU pol to grace the meeting, not exactly a rousing endorsement of EU 'commitment' to the Balkans.
Slovene Prime Minister Borut Pahor tried to put as positive a credible spin as possible on proceedings.
"This was a courageous and useful decision that began a process which could help not only the regional leaders but also those who represent the interest of this region, who want to help the region be a peaceful and stabile one and resolve all open questions," Pahor said.
Pahor especially praised the participation of Bosnia whose representative Nikola Spiric sat with Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci "despite his country not recognizing Kosovo."
Possibly irritated by the EU's no-shows, Pahor also took at jab at Brussels, saying "We are dealing with an EU that underestimates the opportunity this region is giving to the continent as a whole and to the EU."
Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor said that her country "fulfilled its goals on the conference."
For Croatia, holding the meeting was success enough, hoping it will further convince EU bureaucrats in Brussels of Zagreb's 'worthiness' to join the not-so-exclusive EU club.
Former KLA guerrilla Thaci was perhaps the biggest winner, treated as a statesman.
And he relished the role, speaking like a true diplomat.
"Kosovo and Serbia share the will towards integration in the European Union and NATO but we should also have cooperation at the neighborly level and the regional level so we can help each other towards EU integration," Thaci said.
The press in Belgrade had a field day mocking the meeting.
"A real debacle at Kranj" and "Organizers' diplomatic fiasco" were the headlines of Belgrade press, a day after the meeting of regional leaders in a picturesque castle Brdo at Kranj in Slovenia.
"The participants could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Many European guests were missing, as well as the president of the biggest regional country - Serbia," daily Vecernji List said.
At the opposite end of the spectrum was the press reaction in Kosovo.
"The summit in Slovenia is a breakthrough and acceptance of Kosovo in regional forums," Pristina daily Express wrote, while daily Kosova Sot added that by not attending, Serbia decided to isolate itself because of Kosovo.
The Slovene confab was a more modest dry run before a bigger EU-Balkans summit planned for Bosnia in June.
Between now and then, EU officials will have their work cut out for them if they hope to avoid another fiasco.