Europe must not neglect the Western Balkans

With the situation in the Western Balkans deteriorating, Europe needs a policy reset.

Last week’s international conference on the Balkans, convened by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has – as expected – gone largely unnoticed. The Berlin conference was aimed at sending a message of support for the Balkan countries’ European ambitions, meant to bolster the promises that the European Union made to the Balkans in more self-confident days. However, these promises now seem uncertain, against the backdrop of increasing enlargement fatigue, the anti-climactic statements of incoming European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and other EU leaders, and the harsh rhetoric of political forces which, in the current populist mood, associate enlargement with greater migration and insecurity.

Even in the midst of its own internal crisis and the worsening global crises from Ukraine to Iraq, Europe can ill afford to neglect the one region in which the EU has assumed full leadership as a foreign and security policy actor. It was the Balkans’ 1990s dramas that provided the catalyst for the idea of an EU with security responsibilities.

Negative developments in the Balkans could reverse gains in the region, increase instability in other countries on the EU’s immediate borders, and further weaken Europe’s credibility and cohesion. The situation both in Bosnia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYRoM) is deteriorating, with both countries facing challenges from atrophied power-sharing frameworks that elites use to block the path towards the EU. The modernisation process in the region is flagging, and a tarnished, divided EU is often powerless to make real changes to Balkan political dynamics of polarisation, zero-sum games, and toxic nationalism. And as Russia deftly continues to use its levers in the region, the crisis in Ukraine could have spill-over effects that could damage European interests where it hurts most.

European leaders only discuss Balkan problems when they become absolutely impossible to ignore.

The Berlin conference caused little media fanfare, a sign of the lower importance that Europe has now assigned to the region. Enlargement will not even be given a ministerial portfolio in the new European Commission. European leaders only discuss Balkan problems when they become absolutely impossible to ignore, as unresolved challenges come to the surface. This happened briefly in February, when popular protests broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and will sooner or later happen in FYRoM too. However, even then the usual EU response tends to be only more worn-out statements that have no impact, as it waits for the problems to again go off the radar when more pressing crises emerge to demand all of Europe’s attention – and its diminishing resources.

After the genocidal 1990s, it should be a positive thing that the Balkans are not news any more and are largely off the top of the European agenda – provided that it meant things were firmly on the right track. But the growing perception of international actors in the region is that there are real causes for concern.

The atrophy of peace frameworks based on power-sharing  

One serious concern is the deteriorating situation in both Bosnia and FYRoM, the two most intractable crises in the region. When simmering popular frustration in Bosnia led to violence and protests in February, EU foreign ministers briefly addressed the issue in successive Council meetings and senior EU leaders conducted the usual shuttle and outreach diplomacy.

The truth is that Bosnia, a potential EU candidate country, has been in free fall for roughly a decade. Yet unfortunately, as protests and popular plenums have fizzled out, so has the momentum for a badly needed change of course. Now, any movement will likely be delayed until after the elections in October, which could deepen the stalemate until some time in 2015.

Things are on a downward spiral in FYRoM too. Negotiations on the name issue are deadlocked. Ethnic tensions between Albanians and ethnic Macedonians still surface frequently. The main opposition refuses to recognise the outcome of April’s elections. And the public has doubts about a government that it perceives as authoritarian.

The power-sharing agreements enshrined in the Dayton and Ohrid Agreements were designed as transitory mechanisms, meant to arrest further conflict and encourage consensus politics. But the international momentum that led to their initial implementation is probably gone for good. The political environment now is one of continuous institutional boycotts, segregation, and bad governance by elites who recklessly inflame ethnic tensions in order to maintain their hold on power and on the perks that go with it. The EU and the international community in general go no further than constant diplomatic mediation to put out one fire after another. They act only as spectators – and, at times, as convenient tools for local elites – in the toxic politics in Sarajevo, Banja Luka, and Skopje.

In Serbia and Kosovo, the progress made in recent years is at risk of being reversed.

In Serbia and Kosovo, the progress made in recent years is at risk of being reversed. Last year’s EU-brokered “First Agreement of Principles Governing the Normalisation of Relations between Serbia and Kosovo” was at the time hailed as a success for the EU’s foreign policy. But now, its implementation is largely frozen. As the EU is distracted by its own transition, new elections are slated for Kosovo, which is in the midst of its biggest political crisis since independence. There is no guarantee that further progress will be made without sustained European involvement, of the kind that is not easily forthcoming these days. Many in Kosovo perceive the agreement’s core power-sharing provisions, such as the Association of Serbian Municipalities, as a potential tool for maintaining Belgrade’s influence in the country, raising the spectre of a sort of “Daytonisation” of Kosovo. These perceptions, as well as frustration with a corrupt leadership, work in favour of emerging forces such as the nationalist group, Vetevendosje, which is opposed to the agreement.

Much of the region is thus trapped in a sort of three-layered existential limbo. Atrophied power-sharing frameworks are not the onlysource of the problem, but they maximise incentives for Balkan-style confrontational politics and act as another stumbling block on the European path. Divided international institutions provide different levels of tutelage. But regardless of the merits of their work, they can never yield the sort of transformational democratic politics that these peoples badly need, even if they are still needed to maintain security, as is the case with KFOR in Kosovo. And a European process that seems ever more distant does not provide powerful enough incentives for changing the system.

Shallow Europeanisation

Europe could take comfort in the fact that at least the rest of the region seems intent on following an EU-bound path. But even in front-runner EU candidate countries such as Serbia, Montenegro, and Albania, there are reasons for disquiet. Beneath the surface, old legacies weigh heavily. EU enlargement criteria cannot easily alter a political culture that abhors compromise and favours the heavy-handed leadership of strongmen: čvrsta ruka, in Serbo-Croat. Progress on core European standards such as the rule of law, media freedom, and the fight against corruption is often superficial or simply non-existent. And independent monitors warn against rollbacks of the progress that has been made.

Euroscepticism is widespread, fanned by politicians’ association of Europe with unpopular reforms.

The lives of ordinary citizens in this largely rural region are made more difficult by struggling economies that have been hit hard by the eurozone crisis, by extreme social need, and by rampant unemployment. Euroscepticism is widespread, fanned by politicians’ association of Europe with unpopular reforms (including on normative standards such as gay rights), unwelcoming statements by EU politicians, and the reputational loss suffered by the EU in recent years.

The politics of enlargement is helping to foster two trends. One phenomenon that has emerged is a breed of Balkan populist reformists. These leaders deftly play on the European constituency in their countries and pass measures that please it. But they do so in ways that are reminiscent of the old ways (even if wrapped up in new ones), and at the same time, they slowly cement their grip on power and limit the scope for a plural space.

A second phenomenon is the profound entanglement of the European project with the region’s polarising, zero-sum domestic politics. EU-set benchmarks have become a central element of internal strife and an excuse for inaction. Unlike previous rounds of enlargement, far from furthering national compromises, the back-and-forth milestones of enlargement have arguably reinforced several negative dynamics in the Balkans. The EU is wasting its own levers, without really changing the old destructive politics that form the source of popular frustration.

The spill-over effects of the Ukrainian crisis

The Balkans are a crucial, if subtle, front for geopolitical tensions with Russia. Though the EU dislikes geopolitics, seeing the region only through the normative prism would be a mistake – as the EU should have learned from Ukraine.

Many echoes from the Ukraine crisis can be observed in the region. For a start, Russia has the edge over Western diplomacy when it comes to exploiting its many levers in frozen conflicts and other hotspots, seizing its openings to exert pressure and hinder European interests. Two cases in point are Kosovo and Bosnia, where Russia is a member of the Peace Implementation Council’s Steering Board. In the past, it occasionally acted as a constructive player in this kind of peace arrangement. But if it wanted to, Moscow could use such levers to sow instability and jeopardise the countries’ already difficult paths to Europe. For example, it may be trying to do so with its support for Republika Sprska’s Milorad Dodik, who has toyed with Crimean-style independence declarations.

Russia cannot compete with the EU in terms of trade presence and other incentives. However, it has skilfully spun a web of influence made up of energy (for example, the South Stream project), corporate presence, loans, and other resources that limit the foreign policy options of accession states. This causes problems for core countries such as Serbia, with whom Russia has a free trade treaty.

More geopolitical balancing will soon be on the horizon.

In the finest Yugoslav tradition, countries in the region try to pursue a course of tactical balancing between the EU and Russia, much like that tried by Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych prior to his fall. But this strategy will become more difficult to sustain as tensions heighten. This was evidenced in the recent spat over sanctions: a leaked EU aide memoire to Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić warned the leader against Belgrade’s efforts to maximise Moscow’s sanctions, on the grounds of “European solidarity”. More geopolitical balancing will soon be on the horizon, when Serbia assumes the chairmanship of an OSCE that will be focused on Ukraine.

This kind of geopolitical struggle retains some civilisational overtones. Moscow and its powerful allies in the region can leverage pan-Slavism as an alternative to an EU whose fractious politics damage its soft power.

If enlargement stagnates and the region’s economies continue to deteriorate, much of the Balkans could eventually opt to pivot to other powers that provide short-term lifelines with fewer normative strings attached. Therefore, as one European diplomat says, the EU should do its best to “snatch the region from the clutches of Moscow”.

The end of Pax Americana and the reconfiguration of “Pax Europeana”

As the United States disengages with European security, the 1990s Pax Americana in the Balkans is largely history. The “Pax Europeana”, which has pinned its hopes for success on soft power, long-term transformation, and integration, has undoubtedly triggered positive developments. But its results have not always been positive, and it is shakier than Europe will officially recognise.

There are no magic solutions, but more of the same muddling through is clearly not enough. A European policy reset in the Western Balkans is needed, with intertwined internal and external tracks. The internal track would see an honest debate (hopefully without more wise men committees) among and within member states on the future of the European political project and the options for its reinvention, as well as on the benefits of its extension to non-EU Europe.

Europe should undertake a thorough and candid reassessment of what works in the Balkans and what does not.

The external track would begin with an equally honest reassessment of current policies, beginning with Bosnia and FYRoM. With a new High Representative tasked to come up with a Global Strategy in 2015, Europe should undertake a thorough and candid reassessment of what works in the Balkans and what does not, even as it seeks ways to shape events elsewhere. This policy reset cannot wait – because, unfortunately, things in the Balkans hardly ever sort themselves out.

Counting on soft power to achieve foreign policy aims proved to be a (partly) flawed strategy in Ukraine. Rather than continuing business as usual, EU leaders need to come to terms with some inconvenient truths in the Balkans too. EU-style soft power tools may have worked to encourage the Eastern Partners’ transformation to full democracies (although Viktor Orban’s Hungary somewhat contradicts that assertion). But this model cannot be the only solution for the post-conflict, divided Balkans, particularly given European divisions over peace mechanisms and the ultimate prospects of enlargement.

Europe badly needs to assume a key global role if it is to retain its international leverage. But it cannot take on this role if it cannot achieve policy success in a European region that aims at EU membership. Nor can it let this region go adrift. It should be able to address all fronts in which its model, its prosperity, and its stability are challenged, whether in Asia, the Sahel, or the Balkans. And over the next few years, for all its need for home-grown processes, the Balkans will unfortunately require more, rather than less, European diplomacy and international statecraft. This engagement will need to be serious in order to tackle challenges such as real democratisation and reconciliation. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head of ECFR Madrid Office & Policy Fellow

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