In a fractious region, the European Union must offer a credible alternative to the darker forces that threaten the stability of the Balkans
It wasn’t quite a storm in a teacup but neither was it a fresh descent into chaos. At least not this time.
When members of Kosovo’s ethnic Serb minority parked heavy machinery and trucks filled with gravel on roads leading to the northern border with Serbia, fired shots in the air and set off air raid sirens on the last day of July, a frisson of fear rippled across the Western Balkans.
The protesters, who are backed by Serbia and do not recognise the authority of Kosovo’s state institutions, were angered by a new rule requiring them to replace their Serb licence plates with Kosovan ones and use new travel documents when crossing the border.
In Kosovo’s capital Pristina, rumours swirled of Serb families fleeing across the frontier, people from the ethnic Albanian majority being attacked, and shots being fired at Kosovo police. But within a day the incident was over and NATO peacekeepers, known as KFOR, were moving in to clear the trucks and reopen roads.
The incident perfectly illustrates why the Western Balkans is so often referred to as a tinderbox. It also shows why prophecies of doom are sometimes overblown. This is not the first time protests have erupted over this issue and it probably won’t be the last. Kosovo is unlikely to slip into war over licence plates but it is that word “unlikely” that explains the somewhat frenzied international reaction to this latest incident in a country still regarded by many Serbs as the cradle of their civilization.
Disinformation also played a part in inflaming tensions, with Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti pointing the finger at Serbia and Russia, which views the Western Balkans as falling within its sphere of influence. “Despotic President Putin is a man of war and he would have interest in spreading war because he wants to normalise war,” Kurti told Reuters after the protests in the north, where around 50,000 ethnic Serbs live. Many analysts agree that Putin is keen to foster divisions that might distract Europe from what he’s doing in Ukraine.
The rollout of the new licence plates was postponed until October and tensions eased somewhat after officials from Serbia and Kosovo met in Brussels for talks. These were part of a years-old EU-sponsored dialogue, meant to guide the two states towards a less fractious form of co-existence. Disaster was averted. For now.
The problem for Kosovo, and for the wider Western Balkans, is that behind the rhetoric of belligerent leaders playing to their bases and jostling for influence are entrenched grievances. These date back to the violent decade that followed the collapse of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Alongside the friction in northern Kosovo, tensions are rising in Bosnia where the country’s Serb leader has threatened to pull his Republika Srpska from some state institutions, fuelling fears of eventual secession.
In a report published in July, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said Western state-building efforts and the carrot of EU membership had failed to deliver reforms or resolve lingering disputes in the region. Brussels and Washington should, the report argued, work together to defuse the Bosnian crisis, improve Serbia-Kosovo relations and promote Kosovo’s international ties. The EU should also explore ways to encourage integration, even before membership.
“As Russia’s assault on Ukraine wreaks fresh havoc in Europe’s east, war wounds that the Western Balkans suffered more than two decades ago continue to fester,” the report stated. “The Dayton peace accord that has held Bosnia and Herzegovina together is unravelling. Efforts to resolve Kosovo’s dispute with Serbia over its independence are frozen… Bad governance, sluggish economies, corruption and European ambivalence have stalled the EU process,” the report’s authors wrote.
Of the countries that emerged from the break-up of Yugoslavia, Slovenia joined the EU in 2004 and Croatia in 2013. North Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro are in lengthy accession talks while Bosnia and Kosovo are recognised as potential candidates. But the process seems to have stalled and time is definitely on the side of those who would counter the EU’s influence. This includes both Russia and China, which has serious investments across the region, particularly in energy and infrastructure in Serbia and Montenegro.
Officials in several Balkan states have also been disillusioned by the EU’s decision in June to grant candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova. The application process for Balkan states may also have fallen foul of recent EU spats with populist leaders in Hungary and Poland. These have highlighted the real risk of destabilisation of the bloc from within — a greater Balkan presence within the EU could increase that risk.
Ramadan Ilazi, head of research at the Kosovo Center for Security Studies, says the longer that tensions are allowed to fester in Kosovo, the more danger there is that events might spiral out of control. That is particularly the case now, as there is such deep distrust between Kosovo’s Kurti and Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić, a pro-Kremlin nationalist with a penchant for provocation.
“Both governments have become more unpredictable… We have two leaders who really do not trust each other and they do not like each other. The rhetoric is not constructive,” Ilazi said, referring particularly to Kurti’s recent statements that a future attack by Serbia on Kosovo was possible.
Baroness Arminka Helić, who fled Bosnia during the war and is now a Conservative peer and former Foreign Office special adviser to William Hague, says the EU has been operating on autopilot in the Balkans for over a decade.
“It lacks vision, it hasn’t got a comprehensive strategy for making sure that it really speaks to the region’s citizens. The citizens in the Balkans don’t want another conflict but the leaders might need it, either to stay in power and cover up their own mismanagement or in order to realise their nationalist and ideological ideas of how the region ought to be,” she said.
After the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 90s, a series of conflicts erupted, including a brutal inter-ethnic war in Bosnia, the worst in Europe since World War Two. Around 100,000 people were killed between 1992-1995, including thousands of Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys, executed in cold blood by Bosnian Serb forces. Others were crammed into camps to starve, their skeletal frames and huge, despairing eyes reminding the world that never again doesn’t always mean never again.
Then, in 1998, Kosovo Albanian insurgents took up arms against their Serb masters, who were engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. The war was ended by NATO air strikes on Serbia in 1999 and Kosovo declared independence in 2008. Serbia has never recognised this declaration and with Russia’s backing has blocked Kosovo from membership in many international institutions.
Three decades on, many of those animosities simmer, bursting forth at regular intervals to reignite fears of a new descent into violence. This instability, as well as issues surrounding corruption, freedom of expression and rule of law in the post-Yugoslav states, are major obstacles to eventual EU membership.
Alongside Kosovo, Bosnia is the most worrisome flashpoint. Made up of two semi-autonomous regions – the Republika Srpska, and the mainly Croat-Bosniak Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina – it is governed by a three-person presidency. Late last year Milorad Dodik, the head of the Serb republic, threatened to pull his territory out of state institutions, including the judiciary and army.
London and Washington slapped sanctions on Dodik while the international community’s main envoy to the country – the UN-mandated High Representative Christian Schmidt – said Dodik’s plans, which were at least tacitly backed by Moscow, represented an “existential threat” and made the prospects for conflict very real. The ICG said Dodik’s plans represented the most serious challenge to the Bosnian state since the Dayton peace accord that ended the war.
Helić says some politicians from the entity of Republika Srpska want to discredit Bosnia-Herzegovina by questioning its ability to exist as a valid sovereign state, in the same way that Putin questions the independent status of Ukraine. She describes it as a steady, relentless campaign – backed by Russian disinformation.
“It is a serious threat. It could be one of those slow-burning crises that has been in front of our eyes for such a long time that we have basically lost sight of how serious it is.”
In February, the European Union said it would nearly double the size of its EUFOR peacekeeping force in Bosnia to 1,100 troops as a precautionary measure after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The move also reflected international uneasiness about Dodik’s secessionist agenda.
Then in June, Dodik rowed back, saying the war in Ukraine had forced him to delay his secessionist plans. But his actions, plus the tensions in Kosovo and the fact that Serbia’s Vučić is also cozying up to Putin concern international observers.
Vučić has condemned the invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations but has not adopted the EU sanctions against Russia. In May, even as EU leaders were meeting to try to agree on ratcheting up sanctions, Vučić clinched a new three-year gas supply contract in a telephone call with Putin. Russia has also offered Serbia military advice and assistance, including selling it some used MiG fighter jets, while Gazprom controls most of the Serbian gas market and the Russian Sputnik news agency uses its base in the capital Belgrade to rail against the EU.
For Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform, Vučić is an opportunist above all else.
“There is a cynical calculation going on about how he can extract the maximum benefit from both sides. He is a Serb nationalist and it plays well with his voters if he can also be shown to be standing up for ethnic Serbs in Bosnia. Does he want to annex the Republika Srpska? I suspect not because that would actually bring down the wrath of the EU on his head in a way that would not suit his interests. But he’ll be quite happy to cause a certain amount of trouble.”
That seems to be Putin’s aim too. The Russian leader has been quick to exploit regional tensions by comparing his invasion of Ukraine to the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 – he has evoked the Kosovo precedent in the past, for example, to justify his annexation of Crimea.
And although the tide seems to be turning against Putin in Ukraine, with his troops forced to withdraw from some occupied areas in the northeast and a panicked decision to enforce conscription at home, his interest in encouraging instability in the Western Balkans is unlikely to change. On September 20, Dodik met Putin at the Kremlin, and the Russian leader wished him success in upcoming elections.
As Majda Ruge, a senior policy fellow with the Wider Europe programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote this month, Russia “plays a spoiler role where it can do so at a low cost”.
Ilazi says Russia wants the situation in the Balkans to be unstable. “They invest heavily in that. They tried to overthrow the previous government in Montenegro when they were in the process of accession to NATO. They have a strong presence in Bosnia as well, and in North Macedonia.”
Baroness Helić says the EU and US have a contradictory attitude towards Russia’s “malign influence”: they have rightly pushed back hard in Ukraine but seem prepared to turn a blind eye in the Balkans. And people are becoming disillusioned about eventual EU membership.
“How do you explain to Bosnian citizens that Bosnia is not ready but Moldova, which has one third of its territory under occupation, is – or that Ukraine, which is going through an active military conflict, is? I know it is all symbolic but you need some symbolism in the Balkans as well if you are going to get people to look with both eyes at the EU, not just with one eye. “
Ian Bond agrees that the EU must show signs of real progress on membership, but candidate countries also need to work harder to meet the necessary criteria. He admits that in the case of Bosnia this is a tall order as the constitution that emerged from the Dayton peace deal is preventing the country from moving forward, and this stagnation plays into the hands of Dodik and others, like Dragan Čović, the leader of the largest Croat party in Bosnia, who also wants greater powers.
“There are plenty of bad actors in the Balkans and Dodik is certainly one of them. But if you have a realistic prospect that you are making progress towards becoming a ‘normal’ European state, if not a member of the EU or at any rate on the road to membership, then that provides at least a temporary incentive to good behaviour,” says Bond.
In July, Kosovo officials said the country would apply for EU membership by the end of the year. The application process is complex and it can take the better part of a decade or more. Complicating the issue is the fact that five EU states – Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia – do not recognise Kosovo’s independence.
Ilazi says Kosovo’s authorities need to act to integrate ethnic Serbs, for example by establishing a long-delayed semi-autonomous municipal association for the Serbian minority to administer education, health care and social welfare. But the EU also needs to step up a gear to become more active in seeking a comprehensive, legally-binding agreement that could at least see Serbia tacitly accept Kosovo’s independence.
“These tensions are going to come back and repeat themselves as long as Serbia denies the right of Kosovo to exist as an independent state,” he said. “The EU needs to change its approach from pacification to mediation or arbitration… it needs to be more tough, more resolved, not just to provide incentives to the parties but also to focus on the consequences of a lack of agreement, or continuation of the status quo.”
There are some positive signs. EU Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi said in late July that Russia’s war on Ukraine had changed the debate around enlargement. “Europe is not going to enjoy security, stability and prosperity without the Western Balkans being fully integrated,” he told EURACTIV. In her state of the union speech in September, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the Western Balkans – along with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia – were part of the family, “the future of our union”. And Western Balkan states are expected to be invited to the inaugural meeting of the European political community project in October.
Time is of the essence. Though EU membership is popular in the Western Balkans, there are growing signs of a decrease in support in Serbia. A June poll found that around 40% of the population favours dropping the pursuit of EU membership to ally with Moscow instead.
There is also potential for further instability in Bosnia: presidential and parliamentary elections are due to be held in October with proposed electoral reforms inflaming tensions between the rival ethnic leaders. Croat leader Čović has said the polls could pose a “direct threat to peace and political stability”. The EUFOR mandate is also up for renewal by the UN Security Council in November and there are some concerns that Russia might veto the move.
The EU’s own reputation and future global standing are on the line.
“If the EU is unable to come together and solve the Kosovo-Serbia problem the message you are sending to Russia is the wrong one,” Ilazi said. “We are not in the backyard or on the periphery of the EU. [Kosovo] is surrounded by member states of the EU. We are right there within the EU. If you cannot solve your own issues, within your own territory, the message you’re sending to Russia is that the EU is the kind of actor that can’t counter Russian influence in its own area.”
Source: The New European