In Balkans, a fragile order grows brittle, threatening stability

Yugoslavia's breakup a quarter-century ago unleashed wars that killed about 140,000 people and unleashed deep ethnic hostilities. Today, the region’s carefully calibrated path to recovery hangs in the balance.

Bida Smajlovic prays near the plaque that displays the names of those killed in the Srebrenica massacre in 1995.
A man in Gracanica, Kosovo, casts his vote in the Serbian presidential election on April 2. The victor, Aleksandar Vucic, is playing a delicate balancing act between East and West.
Members of the Kosovo Security Force attend a ceremony in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, in March. Kosovo’s president is trying to form a national army dominated by ethnic Albanians, despite opposition from minority Serbs.

Zeljko Tomasevic, a local farmer, stands in the early morning sunshine beside a cascading woodland stream as a simple water-driven grindstone transforms his wheat into flour.

“There is far too much politics in these parts,” he snorts. “That’s why I don’t care to follow them too closely. All that matters to me is being able to make a living.”

In this bucolic corner of northwestern Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mr. Tomasevic can still afford to be indifferent to international affairs. But perhaps not for much longer. Almost two decades after the guns of war fell silent in the Balkans, marking the end of Yugoslavia’s breakup, renewed tensions are bubbling up, threatening a carefully calibrated order that has yielded an increasingly brittle stability.

“The Balkans are boiling again,” as Muslim, Croatian, and Serbian nationalist politicians stir a bitter soup of ethnic resentment and social grievances, warns Srecko Latal, founder of Social Overview Service (SOS), a think tank based in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital. 

The region’s future, he adds, hangs in the balance. Will Europe and the United States notice in time?

The Trump administration has not yet shown any particular interest in the region where US-led diplomacy ended the war in Bosnia and US-led airstrikes won the war in Kosovo at the end of the 20th century. But after several years of neglecting the region, the European Union now seems ready to try harder to bring countries like Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo, and Montenegro into its relatively prosperous and peaceful bosom.

Not least because while Europe’s back was turned, outside powers such as Russia and Turkey began making political and business inroads, playing on their respective cultural and historical ties with Orthodox Slavs and Muslims.

The stakes are high for the EU. The western Balkans have become a geopolitical chessboard on which Europe is struggling to firmly establish its democratic political style and substance in the face of autocratic strongman models patterned on Moscow and Ankara, which have found ready adherents in the region.

The EU is increasingly alert to Russia’s moves to expand its sphere of influence. “Geopolitical issues are pulling the Balkans back into Europe’s focus,” says Dimitar Bechev, a Balkans expert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “The tide is turning and more attention is being paid.”

A quarter century after collapse

It’s about time, too. Trouble is breaking out all over.

A quarter-century ago, Yugoslavia broke apart in a violent spasm of civil wars that claimed about 140,000 lives and stoked ethnic hatreds that Europe thought it had left behind in 1945. Massacres and the threat of massacres sparked waves of ethnic cleansing that chased minorities from their homes.

Western diplomacy and military action put an end to the conflicts, and the EU then pledged to help the new nations born of war become members of the Union. Getting in shape for that status, the thinking went, would deepen democracy, ease ethnic tensions, and boost economic prosperity as governments swung into a Western orbit.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

But it has not worked out like that.

In tiny Montenegro, due to join NATO this year, prosecutors say they have mounting evidence that Russian agents were behind a failed coup attempt last October against the Western-leaning government.

In Macedonia, President Gjorge Ivanov is refusing to let the opposition form a government, though it is the only party with enough parliamentary votes to do so, because it has promised to improve the language rights of the Albanian minority. His refusal is stoking ethnic tensions.

In Kosovo, President Hashim Thaçi is trying an end run around the Constitution in a bid to form a national army dominated by ethnic Albanians, despite opposition from minority Serbs. Kosovo belonged to neighboring Serbia until the 1998-99 war.

In Bosnia, Muslim leaders are trying to get the International Court of Justice to revisit its 2007 ruling that cleared Serbia of genocide during the war. The president of the autonomous Bosnian-Serbian entity, meanwhile, is threatening to hold a referendum on independence, a step toward the breakup of the country created by the 1995 Dayton Agreement.

Tensions are rising as hopes fade that Western incentives, especially from the EU, would induce Balkan leaders to cooperate across ethnic lines, carry out economic reforms, and turn their countries into modern, democratic, functioning states.

The prospective prize for such behavior has always been membership in the EU. But the western Balkan nations’ chances of joining the EU now seem increasingly remote, and the attractions of the crisis-ridden Union less obvious. Its influence and credibility have suffered.

For the past several years, Europe has been distracted by its own internal problems – the euro currency crisis, the flood of refugees and migrants that poured into EU member states, and Britain’s pending departure from the Union.

Brussels has sometimes appeared to neglect its neighbors’ aspirations, and those neighbors are only too aware that public opinion within the EU has turned against the idea of letting new members join.

“Our goal to join the EU is not in question,” says retired Serbian diplomat Zoran Milivojevic, sipping a small cup of black coffee thick enough to stand a spoon in, as it is drunk in Belgrade, Serbia. “It’s the only way we can establish the rule of law and human rights. But it doesn’t depend on Serbia anymore; we’ll have to see how the EU’s enlargement policy develops.”

EU entry terms

Only Serbia and Montenegro have even begun negotiating their EU entry terms, and those talks could well continue for as long as 10 years, European diplomats say privately. Forty-one percent of Serbs don’t believe their country will ever join the Union, according to a recent opinion poll.

Critics claim that the EU sets bureaucratic and technical conditions on candidate countries, but ignores the state of their democracies. “Expectations that stable democracies would emerge from the EU accession process have not panned out,” says Florian Bieber, who teaches politics at the University of Graz in Austria.

That’s because Europe prizes stability above all else, according to the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group, an association of international experts on the region. “The result has been the rise of a regional ‘stabilitocracy,’ weak democracies with autocratically minded leaders, who govern through informal patronage networks,” argues a just-published report by the group. “The status of democracy is weak and declining.”

Though the region’s leaders pay lip service to EU membership as a goal, that is as far as it goes, suggests Predrag Kojovic, head of a reformist multiethnic party in Bosnia and a member of the Sarajevo regional council, a local government body. “If the rule of law applied, these guys would go to jail” for corruption, he says. “The leaders of the big, ethnically based parties have no incentive to get too close to the EU.”

Europe’s focus on stability explains why the West welcomed Aleksandar Vučić’s convincing victory in Serbia’s presidential polls in April without complaining about his role in stifling a free press or hampering civil society.

But the risk is that if any of the region’s autocrats found themselves in danger of losing power, “they would not hesitate to create instability by stoking ethnic tensions,” warns Dejan Anastasijevic, a veteran Serbian political observer.

That is just what is happening in Macedonia, where the constitutional crisis has an extra edge to it because Russia and the West have taken opposite sides. That sort of geopolitical standoff is complicating the region’s domestic politics more and more as Moscow seeks to stall Balkan countries’ tentative moves toward Western institutions such as the EU and NATO.

Russia is building its most visible ties with Serbia, playing up their cultural and religious affinities, giving Belgrade MIG fighter jets and tanks, and buying control of Serbia’s energy monopoly through Gazprom. The Russian oil and gas giant is active on the soft power front, too, sponsoring soccer team Red Star, for example, and paying for the religious mosaics that will decorate the dome of Belgrade’s long-unfinished Orthodox cathedral.

So warm is Russia’s embrace that 25 percent of Serbs believe Moscow is their country’s biggest aid donor, according to a recent poll, though in fact the EU’s donations of €2.7 billion ($2.86 million) over the past 15 years dwarf Russian gifts. But the EU enjoys little public popularity, and only 21 percent of respondents were aware of its generosity.

Balancing act

Mr. Vučić of Serbia, following in the footsteps of former Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito, is playing a delicate balancing act between East and West. Serbia refused to join Western sanctions against Moscow over its annexation of Crimea, but its Army last year conducted more than 10 times as many training maneuvers with Western forces as with Russian troops, according to the Defense Ministry.

Vučić told cheering supporters on election night that his election success “demonstrated that a large majority of Serbian citizens favors the continuation of the European path while maintaining close ties with China and Russia.”

Russia is also giving very public support to Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, the autonomous Serbian entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed him to Moscow shortly before the US put him on a sanctions blacklist for posing a threat to the Dayton Agreement and to the existence of the country.

Mr. Dodik has threatened to hold a referendum on independence for his Serb-dominated territory – a breakaway that observers say would almost inevitably lead to war. Whether he means it, though, is uncertain. He and Mr. Putin can throw a wrench in Bosnia’s complicated political works and render the state ineffectual more easily from inside Bosnia than from outside.

The limits of an ethnic lens

Edib introduces himself simply to a visitor to his small cheese shop in the mountains of central Bosnia – with just his first name and a beefy handshake.

Edib is a Bosnian Muslim who spent his working life as a mechanic, with a sideline in repairing the clocks on Croatian Roman Catholic church towers. Retired now, he has bought a flock of sheep that in summer graze on the Alpine pastures outside his window. In winter, when snow covers the grass, he trucks his animals to low-lying land in Republika Srpska, where he entrusts them to an Orthodox Serbian herder.

If Bosnia’s political leaders were as broad-minded, ethnically tolerant, and ecumenical as Edib, the country would be in a great deal better shape.

But they are not. Viewing every issue through an ethnic lens and seeking ethnic advantage from every decision, the Muslim, Croatian, and Serbian nationalist parties that share power in Bosnia have led the country into almost permanent deadlock.

Parliament passed only a handful of laws last year; the tripartite presidency has not met for two months; the nation has no national anthem because nobody can agree on the words. The three communities cannot agree, either, on how many people live in Bosnia and Herzegovina, so they could not validate a census. And the government cannot agree to enact economic reforms on which the International Monetary Fund is insisting in return for loans.

For the past 10 years, “there has been no progress, no new institutions, and some rollback,” laments Valentin Inzko, the high representative for Bosnia, whose job it is to oversee implementation of the Dayton Agreement. “Local leaders have failed,” he sighs, looking out over the steep and narrow valley in which Sarajevo sits.

Some contend that the Dayton framework, which froze but did not resolve ethnic disputes and used ethnic identity as an organizing principle, was bound to lead to this. “It would have taken political leaders with the qualities of Gandhi and Mandela to make it work,” says Valery Perry, an analyst with the Democratization Policy Council, an international group promoting liberal democracy.

In any event, says Mr. Latal of SOS, “nobody speaks on behalf of the nation. We see an increasing focus on Bosniak [Muslim], Croat, and Serb national interests.”

Similar trends are clear beyond Bosnia’s borders, says Milos Popovic, a researcher for the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy. “Nationalism and ethnic scapegoating is a cheap way to maintain your popularity,” he says. “And memories of war are very fresh.”

Only firm action can halt the slide, argues Mr. Inzko. “The international community should be more prescriptive and more robust,” he says.

Latal agrees, calling for a “stronger outside political presence and stronger diplomacy. The EU could change its policies relatively quickly,” he says. “I just hope they do not wait for fighting to break out to do so.”

A different time

But this is not 1914, or even 1991, the year that civil war tore Yugoslavia apart.

True, Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, warned in a recent interview with the Financial Times, “If we leave them alone ... all those countries, we will have war again.”

And the commissioner in charge of enlarging the Union, Johannes Hahn, told western Balkan leaders in March that “either the region as a whole picks up momentum and we generate a genuinely positive narrative, or we end up ... with a stream of bad news slamming the window [to EU membership] firmly shut.”

It is also true, as Mr. Milivojevic, the former Serbian diplomat, worries, that “ethnic questions are still open, and their mixture with economic and social problems is explosive.” Thirty-eight percent of Serbs fear war will break out in the Balkans in the next five years, according to a February poll.

At the same time, 74 percent of them said Serbia should not go to war to recover Kosovo, however dear to their hearts the province is. And only 6 percent said they would take up arms to defend fellow Serbs if they were suffering from an armed conflict in a neighboring country.

“War is not in the cards,” says Dr. Bechev, in North Carolina. “The status quo is fragile, but likely belligerents do not have the means to wage war, nor the international support, nor the finance, nor the armaments, nor the mental attitude.”

Even from Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska and a hotbed of resentment against Bosnian Muslims, the view is the same. The town is just getting by – a nondescript provincial center whose largest city-center building is the 19th-century headquarters of the Austro-Hungarian imperial governor. But poverty and the lack of prospects are driving thousands of young people abroad every year, and exhaustion and apathy prevail among those who stay, says local teacher Mladen Bubonjic. 

“People are too fed up with everything to want to fight,” he explains. “Maybe they’ll bark. But they won’t bite.” 

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