Ethnic violence belies Balkans peace

Peace agreements brought the last Balkan conflict to an end more than two decades ago, but they didn't resolve ethnic tensions, which are rising to the surface again.

Darko Vojinovic/AP
People argue next to a new monument to the victims of the 1990s Balkan wars, in Belgrade, Serbia, on March 24.

More than a decade after the conflict in the Balkans was brought to an end, a spate of violent incidents in the southern Balkans show that the ethnic and national tensions that erupted so disastrously in the 1990s are not a thing of the past.

Buses and public parks have been attacked, injuring children. Mosques and churches have been vandalized. Flags have been burned and racist slogans chanted in Macedonia, Albania, and Kosovo. On March 16, a Molotov cocktail was hurled at the Macedonian embassy in Pristina, the Kosovan capital. 

Meanwhile, Bosnia remains hopelessly divided along ethnic lines -- it took 16 months to install a new government following elections. Strong centrifugal forces within Bosnia have prevented the move toward the closer union championed by the international community.

This year will mark 17 years since the end of the Bosnian War, 13 since Kosovo and 11 since the brief Macedonian conflict between the central government and Albanian insurgents. Peace has been restored, but it is an unsettled one. Agreements have not done away with tensions between ethnic groups, and they have left large populations unhappy with the new status quo.

A standard explanation for this situation is the “ancient hatreds” line taken by then-British Prime Minister John Major in the early 1990s, one that Mr. Major used to justify Britain's lack of active intervention in the wars of Yugoslav succession.

But Balkan experts say that while historical conflicts, or at least the most recent ones, are an important factor in the current situation in the Balkans, the machinations of local politicians and, to a lesser extent, the misguided, albeit well-meaning, interventions of the international community, are more immediate factors.

The Balkan wars were, to a great extent, lengthened by local politicians stoking nationalist sentiment and the reluctance of the international community to get involved. Outside powers eventually helped broker peace agreements, which were the least-worst options at the time. But they did not present a long-term solution to ethnic divisions in the region – particularly since politicians continue to exploit them for their own gain.

A shallow peace

The trigger for the recent outbreak in Macedonia, divided between Slavic-speaking Macedonians and Albanian Muslims, was a traditional festival kukeri festival in an ethnic-Macedonian village in which some participants appeared to be mocking Muslims.

The winter kukeri festival involves men dressing up in frightening masks or outlandish costumes to scare evil spirits away. Political incorrectness is common at such events – similar festivals in Bulgaria regularly feature people in black face. But this year, the appearance of revelers dressed as burqa-clad Muslim women has triggered substantial demonstrations, as well as at least one arson attack on a church and the stoning of a bus bound for the festival village.

There have been apparent reprisals, including the beating of ethnic-Albanian children with baseball bats on a bus and the daubing of xenophobic slogans on a mosque. A Macedonian policeman shot dead two Albanians. Some of the incidents have been blamed on provocateurs.

Was this an outpouring of rage bottled up since 2001, when a peace agreement brought an end to Macedonia's conflict? Chris Deliso, Skopje-based director of, says recent events – particularly a demonstration held some days after the festival – look more orchestrated than spontaneous. He suggests that politicians are jockeying for position ahead of local elections in 2013. By identifying with and organizing protests, politicians can rally support and demonstrate their clout.

The 2001 Ohrid Agreement guaranteed ethnic-Albanian parties a substantial share of power in the Macedonian central government. Theoretically, this gives Albanians, who make up about 25 percent of the population, a stake in the country. But the formalization of ethnic divisions in politics has made the formation of broadly national political movements more difficult and hardened voting choices based on ethnic background. Analysts say this has undermined long-term unity and made appealing to ethnic sentiments a rewarding vote-getting tactic.

In a recent article for Balkan Insight, Xhabir Deralla, the ethnic-Albanian president of Skopje-based NGO CIVIL – Center for Freedom, accused the two main governing parties – the ethnic-Macedonian party of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and its Albanian coalition partner – of perpetuating ethnic divisions and singled out the former for pursuing an authoritarian and nationalistic agenda.

Can lure of the EU reform Bosnia?

Bosnia, another relatively poor part of the former Yugoslavia, was the bloodiest of the Balkan conflicts of the past two decades. The 1995 Dayton Agreement created two distinct “entities” – the predominantly Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) and Croat Federation, and the mainly Serb Republika Srpska (RS, “Serb Republic”).

This settlement has kept the peace effectively, and some state-building has taken place, but the country remains divided along ethnic lines. Despite international encouragement, there has been little progress toward unity in recent years.

Some Croat politicians have been agitating for a third entity for their own people, while Republika Srpska’s maverick leader, Milorad Dodik, has been consolidating his party’s power and running the republic as a near-independent statelet, frequently threatening to secede.

But there are some similarities with Macedonia, not least the suspicion that politicians and their business associates on all sides benefit from the status quo.

“In essence, in Bosnia the beneficiaries of the system have no basic interest in changing it – at least not in ways that promote greater accountability, transparency, or better service delivery for citizens,” says Kurt Bassuener, a Sarajevo-based policy analyst. “It's a great place to be a politician and a lousy one to be a citizen.”

In recent years, the international community has eased pressure on Bosnia’s political elite, confident that as Bosnia moves towards EU membership, the need to make the requisite pre-accession reforms – which will bring Bosnia more into line with European Union members – will have the effect of focusing politician’s minds. The influence of the Office of the High Representative, a UN body tasked with overseeing implementation of the peace agreement, has diminished.

Brussels and most EU member states want to see [the Office of the High Representative] eliminated altogether, in the fervent belief that the enlargement process can remediate all the fundamental problems,” says Mr. Bassuener. “I see scant evidence to support that.”

A number of moderate politicians, particularly on the Serb side, suggest that Bosnia can join the EU in its current divided state, still broadly operating under Dayton – but this is certainly not the view currently taken in Brussels, or by most Bosniak leaders.

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