Geopolitics Returns To The Balkans: EU Instability And Russian Involvement Threaten The Region’s Fragile Peace


While the European Union has been hit by one existential crisis after another – from Brexit to Greek debt to the refugee crisis to the rise of far-right to Eurosceptic xenophobic political parties – nationalist and inter-ethnic tensions have been steadily rumbling in the western Balkans. More than twenty years after the Dayton Peace Agreement, a delicate compromise that ended the vicious Bosnian War in 1995, the wounds of the conflict have not yet fully healed.  The former Yugoslavia remains divided by frozen conflicts and requires the presence of thousands of international peacekeepers to prevent relapse into violence. Belgzim Kamberi, an ethnic Albanian human rights campaigner and senior member of Kosovo’s radical Vetëvendosje party, told the Guardian, “Nearly two decades after war, this isn’t peace. The Albanian and Serb question is not closed in the Balkans; it’s Israel and Palestine in Europe.”

While Kamberi’s analogy may be hyperbolic, it would be a mistake to overlook the heightening of ethnic tension in the Balkans. The post-Yugoslav settlement in the 1990s was guided by the belief that nationalism was the source of instability in Europe and that multi-ethnicity was the desirable solution. Multi-ethnicity is a worthy aim, but to succeed, it requires careful and sustained policies. In practice, it is causing tension and dysfunctionality in the Balkans. Minority groups feel they lack adequate security, rights, and opportunities and they feel they are condemned to second-class status in another peoples’ state. Issues of governance and the economy are side-lined as political institutions are forced to devote their energy to questions of territory, identity, and security. As Timothy Less wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine, “the debate on the Balkans has been dominated for far too long by Western diplomats and academics who deny what is obvious to almost everyone on the ground: that multi-ethnicity in the region is a beautiful idea and a miserable reality”.

As a result, disaffected minority groups have been pushing for greater independence and political separation because it is viewed as the only guarantee of security and rights. Unsurprisingly, states are reluctant to divide their territory and risk greater instability. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but Serbia refuses to recognize the split and attempts to maintain influence in northern Kosovo, where most of the country’s ethnic Serbian minority lives. Relations between the two countries are very poor: in January 2017 a train painted in Serbian colours and the slogan “Kosovo is Serbia” in 21 languages was sent from Belgrade to Mitrovica, Kosovo. The train was halted before reaching Kosovo, but resulted in the worst crisis in the region for years. Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic escalated the dispute to threats of military aggression by declaring that “if need be I will go to war, as well as my sons.” Tensions were already running high after Kosovo’s Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj was arrested in January 2017 in France on a Serbian warrant accusing him of war crimes committed during the Kosovo war (1998–1999). He has been cleared twice by the United Nations, but Serbia continues to press for his extradition as he remains in France awaiting a court decision.

Meanwhile, in Bosnia, Serbs and Croats still strive for their goal of separation. While the country is still struggling to recover from the bitter civil war in the 1990s, Milorad Dodik, the nationalist President of Republika Srpska, is calling for a referendum on independence for Republika Srpska, Bosnia’s Serbian “entity,” in 2018. There are also threats of Bosnian Serbs boycotting central government institutions over Sarajevo’s decision to challenge an International Court of Justice ruling that acquitted Serbia of genocide in the 1992-1995 war.

Increasingly bitter political instability has also unsettled Macedonia. The country’s restive Albanian minority resents its leaders for supporting its former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who has been accused of spying on the population, corruption and electoral fraud. In response, there have been calls for the federalisation of the state. A congressman close to Donald Trump further provoked the situation after suggesting that Macedonia’s territory should be divided between its neighbours: “Macedonia is not a country. I’m sorry, it’s not a country.”

Such comments serve as an example of how this region, already bubbling with internal tensions, is simultaneously exposed to destabilizing external influences. In the words of David McAllister, a German Member of the European Parliament and head of its Foreign Affairs Committee, “geopolitics has returned to the Balkans.”

In the two decades since the bloodshed of the Balkan conflicts, the post-Yugoslav settlement has been delicately upheld under two assumptions. Firstly, there is an implicit understanding that the US might intervene via deployment of NATO troops if tension bubbled over into conflict. Secondly, the prospect of EU membership has been envisaged as an incentive for reform. The likely drawback of US involvement in the region following the election of Donald Trump and the wave of Euroscepticism now sweeping across Europe suggest that these pillars of stability are crumbling. The decline of the West’s influence in the Balkans has also created an opportunity for Russia to project its power across the region. Russia exploits historic links with Christian Orthodox and Slavic populations to incite tensions, and challenge EU and US influence. In recent years, Russia has encouraged Bosnian Serbs’ demands for separatism, supported Republika Srpska’s President Dodik, protected Bosnian Serbs from accusations of genocide and organized anti-western and anti-EU propaganda, especially in Serbian-language media. Even more seriously, Russia is suspected of involvement in an attempted coup and plot to assassinate the Prime Minister of Montenegro during the October 2016 elections.

The post-Yugoslav settlement is incomplete and its shortcomings risk the possibility of renewed ethnic conflict in the Balkans. EU leaders discussed the growing tension at the Brussels Summit in March 2017, but their renewed promises of EU accession are likely to be viewed with skepticism: EU enlargement appears to be unlikely, given the EU’s internal issues and fears about visa liberalization after the refugee crisis and international terrorist threats. Some in the western Balkans already take the view that the EU and the US have neglected the region, contenting themselves with superficial commitments to stability and preparations for EU membership. Jasmin Mujanovic, a Bosnian political scientist told the Financial Times, “Brussels and Washington nurtured relationships with local ‘big men’ who they believed could deliver key political goods; namely, keeping the peace. So long as they delivered on those fronts, the EU and US looked the other way on lack of substantive democratic and economic reforms.” A recent poll showed that more Serbians believe Russia, not the EU, is the country’s biggest aid donor, although the estimated €3 billion received from Brussels since 2000 is much higher than sums from Moscow.

The non-EU Balkan states are suspended in an ominous limbo that needs to be addressed urgently. Whatever the future of the European Union, if fragile peace in the Balkans is to be upheld – without the risky and complex process of land swaps and boundary redrawing suggested by Timothy Less – efforts need to be concentrated on promoting economic and democratic reforms, combating corruption, and limiting the negative influence of the Kremlin in the region. Additional borders will not necessarily dispel tensions and the risk of conflict. Instead, as the region’s biggest trade partner, the EU should strive for the economic development of the Balkan states and press for reforms that would make peaceful, equal, multi-ethnic cohabitation more feasible.