Perilous: European Crisis Looms in the Balkans

The Balkan wars of the 1990s seem like a distant memory today. In addition to the passage of time, other crises such as the Russian aggression against Ukraine and the terrible blood-letting in Syria have pushed the Balkans off the agenda. But the possibility of renewed crisis in the region is growing and may soon impose new demands on US policy at a time when Washington is preoccupied with a turbulent political transition and is more focused on internal matters than troubles abroad.

The emerging Balkan crisis is partly the result of the failure of the countries of the region to achieve meaningful democratic progress since the fall of communism. Political institutions remain weak, corruption is endemic, and ethnic nationalism is pervasive. Key media outlets have been captured by the state, and politics are dominated by populist strongmen who polarize their societies. Political tensions have spiked in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, which were the main centers of conflict in the earlier Balkan wars, and they are also escalating in Macedonia, Serbia, and even Croatia. These problems have given Russia an opportunity to expand its political influence across the Balkans by exploiting dysfunctional institutions, national divisions, and historic grievances. The situation is increasingly perilous, and there is a growing risk of radicalization that threatens both the security of the fragile Balkan states and the stability of Europe as a whole. 

The most immediate danger is in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Milorad Dodik, the leader of the Republika Srpska, the predominantly Serb part of the country, held a referendum on September 25 to establish a separate national day for the entity, in defiance of the state-level Constitutional Court that had ruled such a move illegal. Dodik also staged a lavish celebration of the illegal holiday and included some members of Bosnia’s joint armed forces in the separatist ceremonies, thereby flouting the unification of the military that was a rare success story in the country’s difficult post-war integration. Taken together, these events are seen as preparation for Republika Srpska’s eventual secession from Bosnia, a move that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had welcomed Dodik to Moscow three days before the September referendum, has been brazenly encouraging. Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic has ominously warned that the threat of a new war in Bosnia is so strong that “you can feel it in the air.”

There has also been an escalation of the war of words between Croatia and Serbia, centered mostly around conflicting nationalist interpretations of history. Serbia’s foreign minister, for example, accused Croatia of “rehabilitating fascism” after a Zagreb court annulled a 1946 verdict against a Catholic cardinal who had been charged with collaborating with the pro-Nazi Ustasha regime during World War II. The Croatian government responded by allowing a plaque that featured the regime’s fascist slogan “Za dom spremni” (For Homeland Ready) to be put up near the memorial site of the Jasenovac concentration camp, which is known as the “Auschwitz of the Balkans” because some 100,000 ethnic Serbs, Jews, and others were murdered there during the war.  Russia exacerbated the tensions by announcing recently that it would provide Serbia with six MiG-29 fighter jets, which has had the effect of fueling an incipient arms race between the two countries.

Serbia further contributed to the regional strains by sending to north Kosovo a promotional, Russian-made train adorned with the phrase “Kosovo is Serbia” in 21 languages (including Albanian), a provocation that almost derailed the EU-facilitated process of normalizing relations between the two countries. Kosovo stopped the train at its borders in what Serbia called an “act of war.” The episode is seen by many as yet another escalation of “a potential contest between Russia and the West over dominance in the region.”

Indeed, as Janusz Bugajski has argued in a recent policy report:

If the United States is going to face a geopolitical test on its strategic periphery, it is most likely to come where American power is weak, not strong. Recent efforts to shore up the Baltic states through US and NATO military deployments have increased America’s relative strength in that region. Less secure, though no less important, is the geopolitical theater of the Western Balkans. Here, a combination of historical legacies, post-conflict vulnerabilities and Russian interference should focus the attention of the new U.S. administration on an area of heightened strategic importance.

This attention, however, needs to go beyond the standard practice of encouraging “stability,” which for far too long has been the principal goal of Western policy in the Balkans. Lowering the bar on democratic progress has become the norm, with the EU not insisting on real reform as the condition for progress toward accession, but just settling for short-term cooperation to maintain stability. The lack of reform and the resulting institutional weaknesses now make the governments in the Western Balkans inert in the face of public frustration and vulnerable to Moscow’s malign influence. The Kremlin’s easiest targets are corrupt politicians, who remain only nominally committed to democratic reform that would make them accountable for their performance.  Western governments need to recognize the urgency of the situation and press for democratic progress as the key to regional security and long-term stability.

Most importantly, Europe and the US need to support the civil-society activists and independent journalists who are on the frontlines of promoting reform and defending democratic principles. Such brave people are increasingly under attack by nationalist governments, which accuse them of promoting instability with assistance from the West. In fact, those who are fighting for democracy are often alone and sometimes even harmed by the West’s inconstancy and neglect.

Just last month, nine young activists with the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR), one of the leading pro-democracy groups in the region, were assaulted at a ruling-party event in Serbia, where they were protesting against the featured speaker, Veselin Sljivancanin, a convicted war criminal. Not only did police refuse to provide the YIHR members with adequate protection, but local and national government officials, including Prime Minister Vucic and Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic, went so far as to accuse the YIHR activists of being responsible for the violence. Though Vucic is often seen as a reliable partner of the West, he and other officials have encouraged the government-controlled media to portray the YIHR as a foreign-funded group and to mount a smear campaign against the group and its leader, Anita Mitic. Not surprisingly, given the atmosphere of public hostility to critical voices, the YIHR was soon attacked again, this time by a band of six men who plastered the group’s offices with messages of hate, labeling the activists traitors and foreign mercenaries. At least two of the attackers were identified as being affiliated with a pro-Russian nationalist group and had fought in eastern Ukraine.

The reaction of the international community to these incidents was characteristically meek, with one Western embassy in Belgrade suggesting that the YIHR should tone down its activism, so as not jeopardize international support for important regional projects that require government cooperation.

In fact, Western silence and inaction only increase the possibility that the situation in the Western Balkans will continue to deteriorate. Given the growing crises and dangers that Western governments already face, the last thing they need is a new outbreak of conflict in the Balkans. To prevent that from happening will take more than complacency and wishful thinking.