The American Interest: IRI Expert Warns of Rising Russian Influence in Balkans

Are the Western Balkans Being Re-Balkanized?

The American Interest 

By Paul McCarthy 

The West must fight for this pivotal region—or risk ceding influence to the Kremlin and radical Islamism.

Not long ago, the conventional wisdom held that the NATO-led intervention to end the Bosnian war was one of the crowning successes of the post-Cold War era. Slobodan Milosevic was defeated and tried for war crimes; Kosovars gained their independence; and today, three Western Balkan states are members of NATO. Yet almost two decades since the Ohrid Agreement bookended hostilities in the former Yugoslavia, the region is still a mess, torn apart by interethnic tensions and democratic backsliding.

What went wrong?

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Western-led intervention in the Balkans and subsequent foreign aid surge gave way to a pattern of benign neglect by both the United States and the European Union. Believing that the Western Balkans’ democratic future lay in EU membership, the United States essentially ceded responsibility for the region’s political, institutional and economic development to the European Union.

Unfortunately, Europe has not fully picked up the slack.  After accepting the accession of Croatia and Slovenia, the EU lost its appetite for expansion and has kept the rest of the region (Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, and Macedonia) waiting at its doorstep. Brexit, the migrant crisis, and the rise of anti-EU sentiment in recent years have shaken the very foundations of the EU and further delayed the accession process for new member states. At the same time, the region’s internecine tensions and lack of development only festered, leaving a swathe of poor and unstable states on Europe’s periphery, and a vacuum which decidedly less constructive actors have stepped in to fill.

Revanchist Russia has reasserted its traditional role as the protector of Orthodox Christian populations, using the Balkans as a buffer to forestall further European expansion and reassert their sphere of influence. Russia has influenced public opinion among Serbs, Montenegrins and Macedonians to dampen enthusiasm for EU and NATO membership, and has further bolstered its power through military aid and disinformation that exacerbates interethnic divisions. According to a recent poll by the International Republican Institute (IRI), Macedonian support for NATO membership is at its lowest level since 2008. In Bosnia, IRI polling shows that only 18 percent of ethnic Serbs strongly favor joining the EU.

Turkey and the Gulf states have responded by stepping up their support for Muslims in the Balkans—and the help they provide isn’t always benign. Saudi Arabia has built mosques and brought imams from the Balkans to the Gulf for religious instruction. Some have returned espousing the strictly conservative Wahhabi code, in sharp contrast to the moderate Islam that has been practiced in the Balkans for centuries. This has led to a rise in Islamist fundamentalism among local Muslim populations.

Given this environment, it’s no surprise that identity politics centered on ethno-religious nationalism is enjoying a resurgence. The leader of the Serb-dominated half of Bosnia, Milorad Dodik, has called for an independence referendum to split from the multiethnic Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Dodik has travelled frequently to Moscow to pay his respects to Putin. In Bosnia, the leader of the main Muslim political party, Bekir Izetbegovic, travels regularly to Istanbul for photo ops with the increasingly authoritarian Turkish President Erdogan.

In another sign of escalating tensions, despite the continued presence of 5,000 NATO troops and strong opposition from the Western alliance, as well as neighbors like Serbia and Macedonia, Kosovo’s nationalist President Hashim Thaci has called for the establishment of a national army. Meanwhile, Serbian nationalists recently attempted to direct a train emblazoned with the slogan “Kosovo is Serbia” over the border in a deliberate act of provocation. Albanian president Edi Rama often speaks of a need for increased cooperation between his country and Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia, prompting critics to accuse him of seeking to establish a “Greater Albania.”

With the Middle East imploding and North Korea threatening nuclear war, why should the Balkans matter to the West? To begin with, the proximity of the region to Europe means that destabilization in the Balkans can quickly become a problem for Europe. In 2015, the region was a main route for more than a million migrants fleeing to Germany and Sweden, and the crisis could have been far worse if local leaders had not managed to put aside their differences and work together. If regional tensions continue to escalate, this kind of cooperation may not be forthcoming for the next crisis. This poses both a humanitarian and security risk, as ISIS fighters continue to take advantage of chaotic or lax political situations to enter to Europe.

Russia has long stoked divisions in this region in order to shore up its strategic advantage over Europe, and increased indifference or antipathy toward Western institutions is making light work for the Kremlin. Without anchors to Western institutions, illiberal democracies and rising religious fundamentalism are likely to become the norm in the region.

Some observers argue that the redrawing of national boundaries is the only way to address these perennial ethnic divisions—apparently forgetting the havoc wreaked by this approach in the 1990s. The fact is, there is no way to redraw boundaries without one ethnic group or another losing out. Despite the ethnic cleansing and displacements that took place during the Bosnia war, there are still many areas (Sarajevo being the most obvious example) where Serbs, Croats and Muslims live side by side.

Moreover, simple exchanges of land based on ethnic majority is a recipe for chaos in the tossed salad that is the Balkans. In Kosovo, a Serb enclave in Mitrovica is resisting rule by the Albanian majority and wants to join Serbia. As there are Albanian communities in the Presevo Valley in south of Serbia, on paper one might assume that the two territories should just swap populations. Yet a Presevo-Mitrovica exchange would spark a nasty fight over territory, as not all enclaves are geographically contiguous. For the same reason, it is highly unlikely that Serbia would agree to hand over the majority Muslim Sandzak region to Bosnia.

A better way forward would be to establish and strengthen regional institutions to facilitate economic and political coordination and conflict resolution. A Western Balkans customs union—a single economic area of the region’s countries recently discussed by the leaders of Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Albania—could be a step in the right direction. However, such an initiative must not be viewed as a substitute for the substantial guarantees that would be provided by closer integration with NATO and the EU.

Sadly, the EU has all but abandoned its enlargement strategy for the region—constrained by persistent opposition by member governments who fear cheap labor flooding their markets and inspiring a popular backlash. But a serious road map for EU accession would provide countries in the region with concrete incentives for political and economic reform. This could lead to increased regional cooperation, thereby diminishing interethnic tensions and creating an overall stabilizing effect for the region and continent as a whole.

NATO integration is equally important and perhaps more easily achievable for the Western Balkans. Montenegro’s impending NATO accession opens the door for Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia, and even Kosovo. Joining this vital alliance would send an important signal that the Balkans see themselves as part of the West and would help countries resist Russian infiltration.

The guarantees that come with NATO membership could also help in the fight against terrorism. IRI’s most recent poll of Bosnian citizens indicates that, while Bosnians remain divided along ethnic lines over a number of issues, including NATO membership, they are united in their opposition to the Islamic State. Overcoming the aversion of the mostly pro-Russian ethnic Serbs to NATO membership would be easier if it were pitched as part of a greater effort to defeat transnational terrorism and foster regional stability.

The West faces a stark choice: treat the Balkans as a key strategic asset, or risk losing the region to Russian influence and infiltration by Islamist extremism. Last September, Bosnia submitted its formal application to join the European Union.  Brussels should give serious consideration to this request, and NATO should follow up Montenegro’s entry into the alliance by giving strong consideration to Serbia and Bosnia as future members. With the EU in turmoil, integration with countries seeking a European path to growth and stability is, somewhat paradoxically, more important today than ever before.

Paul McCarthy is the Deputy Director for Europe at the International Republican Institute
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