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By Conor Gallagher
The news media is suddenly awash with stories of ethnic tensions and Russian “meddling” in the Balkans. Nearly all make the same argument that more NATO and EU support is required to prevent a return to 1990s-style violence.
The problem is this is a misreading of history. First off, the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s were in part driven by a NATO desire for expansion. Second, in the decades since the conclusion of the conflicts, NATO and the EU haven’t been able to deliver a sustainable, prosperous peace to the region.
Now the West’s confrontation with Russia is only making life more difficult in the Balkans. Economic challenges will be exacerbated due to energy and commodity prices, which could worsen ethnic tensions. Kosovo is already struggling to keep the lights on.
“Prospects are really worrisome,” said Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama who predicted that the coming winter will be the worst since World War II. He added that the energy crisis will put a severe strain on the budgets of Balkan countries which will need additional EU support to purchase energy.
On top of the economic challenges posed by energy shortages is the fact the Balkan countries –and Bosnia Herzegovina in particular – are caught in between NATO-EU and Russia.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg recently cited a perceived threat to European security from Russia and said, “NATO is developing a set of measures especially tailored for Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
The Russian Embassy in Bosnia complained that the United States and Britain were “preparing the ground for the creeping NATOization of Bosnia.”
The most recent member states to join NATO were Montenegro in 2017 and North Macedonia in 2020.
That leaves Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo as the Balkan entities yet to join the Washington-led alliance. Serbia has strong ties with Russia and seems unlikely and Kosovo isn’t recognized by all NATO members; that leaves Bosnia as the most likely target, an outcome Moscow would prefer to prevent.
Several mass protests have broken out in Sarajevo in the past month after the Office of the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina Christian Schmidt (a German) released plans to impose changes to the nation’s constitution that could amount to a de facto ban on minorities holding political office, while also risk giving power to secessionist-leaning parties. Criticism has come from all sides in Bosnia, but on the outside the proposal has support from the UK and the US.
Serbia and Kosovo are dealing with their own tensions over refusal to recognize each other’s identity documents and vehicle license plates. Of course Serbia – as well as Russia, China, Spain, Greece, and others – still don’t recognize Kosovo’s independence from Serbia.
The question is will economic pain and meddling by outside forces once again ignite “Europe’s powder keg?” Those two ingredients were what helped fuel the 1990s conflict, and when you see hawkish think tanks like the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggesting that Russia will stoke tensions in the Balkans because its “flawed” campaign in Ukraine, it causes one to wonder.
It also brings up bad memories of the past. Phillip Corwin, former UN Civilian Affairs Coordinator in Bosnia during the 1990s, wrote:
Today, one can only imagine what might have happened in the Balkans if diplomacy had been given a better chance, if NATO had not had the ambition it had to push eastward, up to the borders of the former Soviet Union, to annex what was then being called the “new Europe.” It is possible—not certain, but possible—that in due time there might have been a peaceful breakup of the former Yugoslavia, probably along different international borders.
But the decisions to fracture the former Yugoslavia were taken precipitously, by minority communities within Yugoslavia, and were driven by powerful forces outside Yugoslavia—namely, those of NATO.
At a Crossroads
Whether or not violence returns to the Balkans, the status quo in the region which has existed since the conclusion of the 1990s conflict is likely coming to an end.
For the past quarter century the West’s hope to solving the region’s conflicts lay in the incentive that resolution of their disputes would result in their eventual admission to the European Union, and its economic benefits.
This hasn’t happened; instead the Balkan nations are strung along year after year, lectured on meeting benchmarks, and the power of the promise of distant benefits of EU accession is beginning to wane.
The euro area financial crisis hit the Balkans particularly hard through trade and banking links and a decline in remittances, and the EU member states once considered role models for the Balkans, such as Greece, turned into cautionary tales. The inflow of European capital to the Balkans slowed, and other financing alternatives were sought out, especially Russia and China.
According to Balkan Insight, from 2009 to 2021 China started an estimated 135 projects in the region worth approximately 32 billion Euros.
Russian investment in the region is largely related to energy, and the war in Ukraine has weakened the Western Balkans’ already fragile energy security. With the exception of Albania, which relies mainly on hydropower, Western Balkans states source much of their energy from fossil fuels. Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and North Macedonia are largely dependent on Russia for natural gas.
All Western Balkans countries except Bosnia and Serbia have joined EU sanctions on Russia.
North Macedonia and Bosnia & Herzegovina rely exclusively on Russian gas, and dependence is 89% in Serbia and 77% in Bulgaria, according to data from the European Union Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators.
Bulgaria, which stopped purchasing Russian gas in April, is quickly backing down.
The move comes after Bulgaria’s Western-oriented government was replaced in June. Albania, Montenegro, and Kosovo have no domestic gas connections, but the high prices for imported electricity mean they’re likely to get hit hard this winter.
25 Years and Not Much to Show for It
Anticipating food and energy shortages due to the war in Ukraine Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama recently called on the EU not to repeat its “shameful behavior” during the coronavirus pandemic that he said forced Balkan nations to turn to China, Russia and Turkey to acquire vaccines.
The incident was a prime example of Washington and Brussels’ disregard for the Balkans – a story 25 years in the making. The Western Balkans’ destination used to be clear: its states would join the European Union and then NATO as the best way of cementing long-term peace and prosperity.
But western state-building efforts and the prospect of EU membership have failed to deliver western-prescribed reforms or resolved the region’s lingering disputes.
Part of the problem is that the EU remains uncertain about taking in new members or other steps toward more integration. In many cases Balkan states have completed requested steps only to be denied what they were promised.
Three years after Kosovo checked off every box on the EU’s wish list for visa-free travel, it remains the only Balkan country without that privilege. North Macedonia changed its name to satisfy Greek demands, but it now faces Bulgarian hurdles.
Accession has always been the primary tool used by the US and the EU to integrate the Balkans, but those efforts are, at best, on life support.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz recently floated the idea of switching to EU majority voting, which would theoretically allow for easier expansion. Scholz mentioned the Balkan countries as future members, but so far the idea hasn’t gained traction.
In the meantime Bosnia and Herzegovina is slowly disintegrating. Its Serb-majority entity, Republika Srpska, is separating itself from the central government’s oversight, including the joint armed forces, border police, judiciary and internal revenue system.
At the same time the Bosniak majority is divided and disagrees with the Croats – the country’s third main ethnic group – over electoral reform. The Croats are threatening to block government functions after the October national elections if an agreement to their liking isn’t reached.
The Office of the High Representative, effectively Bosnia-Herzegovina’s kingmaker, was created in 1995 after the signing of the Dayton Agreement and oversees the civilian implementation of the Dayton agreement. Its proposals for election law reform look like they are only going to make the situation worse and cause further splintering.
NATO and Russia jockeying for influence in the country threaten to add fuel to the fire.
Republika Srpska and Russia have announced plans to jointly build two gas-fired power plants in the Serb-dominated entity through investments worth a combined €1.5bn, said Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the country’s tripartite presidency. But to carry out the project Republika Srpska needs the sign off of Bosnia’s Muslim-Croat Federation.
Meanwhile, Republika Srpska’s Gas-res has signed an agreement with Serbian Srbija Gas on the construction of a pipeline that would supply Republika Srpska with Russian natural gas via Serbia.
On the flip side, Dodik has been sanctioned by the US, 100 million Euros of infrastructure spending has been suspended, and Germany is pushing for EU sanctions against Dodik.
There are currently 1,100 EU peacekeeping troops in Bosnia, but the mandate for their stay expires in November and would need to be extended by the UN Security Council, which includes Russia.
If Moscow vetoes the extension, NATO (which has an office in Sarajevo for training and coordination purposes but no forces on the ground) may consider deploying forces.
Kosovo and Serbia have mostly put their disagreements over Kosovo’s independence aside, although politicians bring it up when seeking to score political points. Promising steps toward a comprehensive agreement fell through in the summer of 2020 in what looked like a case of infighting and sabotage on the part of Americans and Europeans.
Kosovan President Hashim Thaci was meant to be in Washington for talks with Serbian leaders on a new era of economic cooperation between the former warring parties in the Balkans, hosted by U.S. President Donald Trump’s special envoy. Instead as he was enroute to Washington he was indicted on war crimes charges.
Thaci’s checkered past (to put it mildly) was widely known even before a 2010 report by Swiss politician and prosecutor Dick Marty for the Council of Europe alleged Thaci was the head of an organized crime gang known as the Drenica Group that allegedly murdered Serbs for their kidneys, which were sold on the black market. Marty’s report drew on information from various Western intelligence agencies which raised suspicions about the timing of the indictment.
The accusation of murder and organ trafficking against Thaci was first made in 2008 by Carla Del Ponte, the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. She later explained she was was prevented from charging Thaci and his co-defendants by the non-cooperation of NATO and the UN Mission in Kosovo.
James Ker-Lindsay, a visiting professor with a focus on Southeastern Europe at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said were three theories as to why Thacic was indicted at that time:
- That Europeans were behind it because they were unhappy at the U.S. “stealing their thunder” in the normalization process and objected to the substance of the deal that Washington presumably hoped would emerge from its mediation efforts.
- That Americans were behind it because they wanted to increase their leverage to encourage Thaci to commit to a deal with Vucic, whose party just won a landslide election victory in Serbia.
- And that some individuals within the Special Prosecutors Office in The Hague fear that a deal struck this week in Washington might include some elements of amnesty for war crimes.
Regardless, it extinguished an opportunity at improving relations, and Serbia and Kosovo are once again at each other’s’ throats with the EU holding mediation efforts.
EU envoys are once again devoting considerable time and energy in the region providing instructions on how to reform political systems and follow the European path, but the suggestions are increasingly falling on deaf ears.
The 2021 EU-Western Balkans summit showed just how futile any dreams of accession are at the moment. The summit concluded with another pledge for an investment plan for the region, but only one mention of enlargement. All accession timelines were dropped from the summit conclusions.
A Perilous Opportunity
Anticipating a tough winter in light of the war in Ukraine, three Balkan states (Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania) agreed to help each other with potential food or energy shortages as part of the so-called Open Balkan initiative aimed at strengthening regional economic ties.
The initiative launched by those three countries in 2019 is meant to create a smaller, local version of the EU’s Schengen zone, in which people and goods move freely among its member states.
It is one of very few locally owned proposals in the region. Some commentators argue the scheme is meant to spread Belgrade’s influence across the region while neglecting or ignoring EU standards; Bosnia, Kosovo and Montenegro have declined to join because they see it as too Serb-driven, though Montenegro is reconsidering.
Despite some Balkan nations’ reservations it is likely the best path forward for the Balkan states, but it requires putting aside ethnic differences as well as preventing meddling from outside actors who would benefit from upheaval.
David B. Kanin, an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former CIA analyst, writes:
EU- and US-driven reconciliation and development processes should be replaced by initiatives that build on and improve the Open Balkans Initiative and other home-grown ideas. Vucic and other leaders should welcome and take seriously critiques of their programs that focus on substantive shortcomings rather than on ideological objections from the West and local Civil Society mavens. It may be true that Open Balkans and other initiatives are, at best, long shots when it comes to enabling regional security and economic progress. But a long shot at least has a shot at success. Whatever it is that the West keeps trying to impose on the Balkans does not.