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Tipping point in Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo: EU and NATO must finish the job

Despite progress, trouble looms in Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo. Better engagement now by NATO and the EU can prevent backsliding.

By Kurt Volker / April 22, 2010


Remember Bosnia? Kosovo? In the 1990s, we learned a new phrase – ethnic cleansing – and we embarked on the first of what have now been many interventions in regional crises. Yet 15 years after the Serbian massacre of more than 7,000 Muslims at Srebrenica, we have still not finished the job of making the Balkans peaceful and safe for all.

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This was the subject of a recent hearing held by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, Jim DeMint, and George Voinovich in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It’s also a subject likely to be discussed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at this week’s NATO meeting in Estonia.

To be sure, the region has seen some success. Slovenia and Croatia are vibrant democracies, increasingly prosperous, and members of NATO. Slovenia is also a member of the European Union, and Croatia is well on its way. Albania is a member of NATO. And Montenegro is making rapid progress.

But trouble looms. With nationalists pulling at the fabric of Bosnia, with Serbia and a handful of EU members refusing to recognize an independent Kosovo, with Serbia still not having found its place in the European family, with NATO and the EU fatigued on further enlargement, with crime and corruption rampant, the region risks sliding back into instability and worse.

This can be prevented – at far lower cost than it took to stop ethnic cleansing in the 1990s, or what it would cost to intervene again. Compared with Afghanistan, we have advantages in the Balkans: no active fighting; a literate population and skilled workforce; an advanced economy; and a surrounding region made up of EU and NATO members.

What’s more, we know what is needed for success: using the attractive power of NATO and the EU to drive through tough but needed reforms.

The challenge in the Balkans is the same challenge Europe has faced for centuries – overcoming history. It is no easy task. It takes strong incentives and disincentives for nations to let go of irredentism, the memories of territories lost, and the grievances of past warfare, and instead to invest in the future.

But as we saw in the 1990s, the real, near-term prospect of NATO and EU membership provides just that kind of incentive structure. It strengthens the hand of reformers in convincing publics that short-term pain and rejecting nationalist agendas will deliver greater benefits, and that the contrast – wallowing in these agendas – will separate a nation from a growing, integrated European family.