Western Balkans and EU News
28.07.20 | Opinions

[Opinion] Geopolitics in the Western Balkans

By Daniel Serwer

 You will hear from many people who live in the Western Balkans, especially in Bosnia and Serbia, that nothing has changed (since the end of Balkans wars). This reflects their disappointment in what has happened in the last 25 years. I share that disappointment. I would like to have seen far more progress.

 But it is not objectively true that things haven’t changed. Per capita GDP is on average at least twice as high as it was before the 1990s wars. Apart from Covid-19, it is safe to travel throughout former Yugoslavia, regardless of ethnic identity or national origins. You can say pretty much whatever you want in all the former Yugoslav republics and in Albania, even if organizing politically and publishing are still not entirely free in several countries. Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Muslims worship freely, often in renovated churches and mosques.

 The question is how this progress was achieved, and why does it appear to have come to a halt sometime in the middle of the first decade of this millennium.

 The 1990s, we know now, were truly the unipolar moment, when the US had no rivals and together with Europe could do what it wanted in the Balkans and much of the rest of the world.

 With a lot of help from Croatia, NATO used force to end the Bosnian war and compel Serbia’s withdrawal from Kosovo in 1999. The US and EU also negotiated the end of an Albanian rebellion in (North) Macedonia in 2001, with NATO backing.

 Washington and Brussels then together invested massive financial and personnel resources in Bosnia and Kosovo. The former was eventually run by a European with US support and the latter became a UN protectorate run by Europeans with American deputies. Their mandate in Bosnia was to install a sovereign, democratic government.

 In Kosovo, it was to build self-governing democratic institutions, with a view to eventually solving the sovereignty question.

 (North) Macedonia remained self-governing, but with European and American monitoring and sometimes financing of its 2001 Ohrid agreement.

 The unipolar moment began to end with the attack on the WorldTradeCenter in 2001 and the US responses in Afghanistan and Iraq, which the Balkan successes encouraged.

 But the joint US/EU state-building processes in Bosnia and Kosovo had significant momentum and continued. So too did the peace implementation in (North) Macedonia.

 The process stalled in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2006, when the parliament failed to approve by the required two-thirds constitutional changes the Americans and Europeans wanted.

In Kosovo, the UN first imposed a program of “standards before status” and “later standards with status,” leading eventually to supervised independence in 2007, after which progress slowed.

 In (North) Macedonia, political and economic reform lasted a bit longer, perhaps through 2008, but the financial crisis that hit Europe and the US hard in that year made the going much slower.

 The Balkans have not had an easy time of it since. All the Balkan states are heavily dependent on EU economic growth. The Greek financial crisis and economic collapse, the flood of immigrants after 2011 from the greater Middle East, and the Brexit referendum in 2016 gave Europe more urgent and higher priority problems than the Balkans.

 These developments also made Europe more cautious about the prospects for enlargement.

Brussels began to slow roll accession, which in turn slowed the necessary economic and political reforms. Would-be autocrats faced much less challenge than they would have in the 1990s.

 In Bosnia, some politicians returned to the virulent ethnic nationalist rhetoric of wartime, with little constraint imposed by Washington or Brussels. The country is now stalled in its own constitutional contradictions, imposed by Washington and Brussels.

 In Kosovo, the economy has done relatively well, after an initial spurt the authorities managed to limit Islamist radicalization, the courts began to prosecute some high-level corruption cases, interethnic crime dropped dramatically, the army is now getting support from NATO, and there have been several peaceful, if sometimes turbulent, transfers of power.

 Kosovo now faces its greatest post-independence challenge: the pending indictment at the Specialist Chambers in The Hague, a nominally Kosovo court run by the Americans and Europeans, of the President, the head of the political party he founded, and eight other still unnamed Kosovo Liberation Army fighters.

In (North) Macedonia, a one-time economic reformer unable to deliver reform after 2008 or so gave the country a political nightmare that was finally dispelled with help from U.S. and European muscle, leading eventually to an agreement with Greece to change its name to North (North) Macedonia and allow it to become a candidate for EU accession as well as a member of NATO.

 In the meanwhile, Croatia, became a member of the EU, Serbia began to normalize its relations with Kosovo, and Montenegro managed to get into NATO and put itself in pole position for EU membership.

 In short, things are a lot better in the Balkans than they were in the 1990s, even if progress is slow and serious trouble spots remain.

 Today’s world is however dramatically different from the one that existed in the 1990s.

While still globally dominant, the US faces regional challenges from China, Russia, Iran and even North Korea that take priority in Washington over the Balkans.

 The Balkans in general, and Bosnia and Kosovo in particular, were the objects of top-tier attention in the 1990s. They now get much lower priority.

 That is true in Europe as well, where Brexit, Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and illegal immigration are issues that, each in its own way, cast a shadow over Balkan aspirations to join Europe.

At the same time, Moscow and Beijing are paying more attention than ever before to the Balkans.

The Russians are interfering blatantly by both violent and nonviolent means in the region: assassination, media manipulation, renting crowds, and financing political parties are all being used to slow if not halt Balkan progress towards NATO and the EU.

 The Chinese are using their financial strength to loan, build and buy. Caveat emptor of course, though Beijing’s behavior is a lot more salubrious than Moscow’s and likely to produce some positive results for those Balkan countries and companies that know how to do business.

 It comes however with political strings attached: the Chinese will expect those who get their money to toe the line on Taiwan, Hong Kong, Uighurs, and Covid-19.

 Turkey—also a strong force in the Balkans for historical, geographic, and cultural reasons—has taken a dramatic turn in a more Islamist and autocratic direction.

 The secular Turkey that contributed well-trained forces to NATO interventions in the 1990s has all but vanished. Erdogan’s Turkey is building mosques, capturing Gulenists, and encouraging political Islam while still trying to maintain its previous good relations with non-Muslim countries in the Balkans.

 How does all this affect the Balkan countries?

 The Turkish influence is direct and palpable. In Bosnia, it is exercised mainly through Bakir Izetbegovic, now head of the leading Islamist political party.

 Though still largely secular in orientation, Kosovo is far more Islamic than it once was and has cooperated with the capture and rendering of Gulenists. President Thaci treasures his relationship with President Erdogan.

China has focused its attention mainly on Serbia and Montenegro, the former by buying assets and the latter by building an important highway.

 Most Kosovars might welcome more interest in investment from Beijing. I wouldn’t fault them for that but only urge caution about the financial and political conditions, which can be onerous.

 But Beijing doesn’t like break-away provinces. Perhaps because of that, Japan is showing some interest in Kosovo and should be able to provide far better deals.

 Russia is still far more politically important to Serbia than China, because it holds the veto in the Security Council over Kosovo membership in the UN. Belgrade has tried to continue its non-aligned hedging between the West and East, even though it claims the ambition of joining the EU. It buys arms from Moscow but trains more with NATO.



(Daniel Serwer is professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and director of its Conflict Management and American Foreign Policy Programs, as well as a Scholar at the Middle East Institute.  This opinion of his was first published at his blog: peacefare.net)


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of dtt-net.com.

28.07.20 | Opinions