The Balkans: Bad news rising

Ethnic rivalries are resurfacing, but the problems are essentially political, not territorial.

Not so long ago, I asked a Tirana colleague why the Balkans were no longer in the news. He said, “We are not doing anything well enough to attract attention. On the other hand, we are not doing anything bad enough either.” In 2017, however, bad news appears to be back. Some even say renewed conflict is in the air.

The ethnic bloodletting of the 1990s is thankfully behind us, but the situation today is nonetheless tense. Governmental crisis and economic stagnation is the norm in many states, and much-needed regional cooperation has been suppressed by renewed nationalism. Youth face a choice between unemployment or emigration. Wars on corruption have proved to be largely rhetorical. The international community no longer seems ready to step up to the plate, and the United States, by far the most influential player, has hardly mentioned the region since Trump came to power.

The European Union, which has driven the reform process until now, has challenges far bigger than the 18 million people of the non-EU Balkans – Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. But while the carrot and stick process of EU accession has failed to fundamentally change the region, losing hopes of a European future would invite a return to a nasty past.

The local political elite are often hopeless, almost always corrupt, sometimes lazy and decidedly predatory. They have run roughshod over populations that have been in transition for more than 25 years, and destroyed or co-opted challengers to their rule. Add to that Putin’s Russia, now a player in an emerging zone of instability. Having successfully helped to force the EU and the US to turn inward to a degree by promoting all manner of anti-establishment forces, Russia is now active in the Balkans. They offer cheap oil and gas, nuclear power plants, fake news, and the promise of ‘traditional values’ – a vision of the future based on an imagined past. To get there they are happy to encourage ethnic rivalries.

Many youth in the region have already given up. Imagine being 18 in 1989 when communism collapsed and everything seemed possible. 25 plus years later you are living through a nightmarish form of groundhog day. Turn on the television and you are likely to see some of the same political leaders who have always preferred power to reform. They had no qualms about stealing your future. Now you fret about your kids’ future. Unlike the post-communist changes in Central Europe, the Balkans never really got a decisive break with the past.

A country by country snapshot of the region says it all.

Albania, which some liken to a narco-state because of its outsized role in supplying Europe with marijuana, has its main opposition Democratic Party staging an ongoing street protest demanding the government step down to ensure free and fair elections in June. They also want the many politicians openly associated with criminal activity tossed out. Some argue that Albania again needs international mediation to solve a 25-year old political crisis between its two main parties. The population, meanwhile, can either yawn, leave, or get in the drug business.

Bosnia has largely passed its street protest days, but its complex federation has proved incapable of delivering on its EU dreams. The Serb minority calls for independence, which might be welcomed by the Croats, while the Bosniak Muslims struggle to keep the state together.

Kosovo is not even 10 years old but is caught in a perpetual struggle for effective rule of law and good governance, while facing renewed tensions with Serbia. Its former Prime Minister and liberation war hero, Ramush Haradinaj, is stuck in France facing extradition to Serbia on charges of war crimes. Haradinaj, long a source of stability in Kosovo (and Macedonia too), has already been tried twice (and acquitted) at The Hague for war crimes, but if he ends up in Serbia turmoil will be just the start.

Macedonia, probably the most unstable state in the region, faces a governmental crisis, a newly restive and empowered Albanian minority and a mind-boggling 25-year old dispute with Greece over its name. Macedonia’s EU and NATO ambitions have long been on hold until Athens says otherwise.

Montenegro, the smallest and easiest state to manage, is asking for help to rid the place of Russian influence after accusing them of trying to organize the assassination of then Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic in hopes of derailing its EU and NATO ambitions. With roughly 650,000 people and an admired degree of national consensus, Montenegro is just about to enter NATO.

Serbia, the biggest, most populous and potentially the key to the region, has its own on and off again affair with Russia and has started re-playing the nationalist card. Yet a decisively pro-European Serbia, one that both reconciled with its past and accepted Kosovo’s independence as a fact, could act as a regional catalyst for change.

Outside of these pressing short-term issues, there are some larger structural problems in the states that live under internationally designed and imposed peace treaties. Dreams of stable and integrated multi-ethnic countries have been replaced by fear, suspicion and parallel societies.

Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia are post-communist and post-conflict. This has led some to suggest that the key to future stability is new territorial arrangements, given that the treaties that ended the conflicts have failed to deliver stability. However, the idea of a new map wrongly implies that the problem in the Balkans is primarily ethnic. It is not. It is primarily political.

The Bosnian War (1992-1995), made largely in Belgrade and implemented by paramilitaries, was fought for ethnic purity via ethnic cleansing and genocide. With a frontline that hardly moved, it was all about moving people. Bosnia got saddled with the made-in-America Dayton Peace Agreement which ended the war but created possibly the most complex federal structure in the world.

The Bosniak-Croat Federation is one part, with the Serbs forming another entity in a mind-boggling power-sharing agreement overseen by the EU and the US. With the Serb leadership in Bosnia rejecting Bosnia as a federal state, and the unwillingness of the international community to force a solution, Bosnia sits in a perpetual crisis leading many to say it’s time to end the state altogether.

Macedonia, which has a brief war in the summer of 2001 between the Macedonian majority and Albanian minority, got the Ohrid Framework Agreement (OFA) in 2001. It rejected the federalization of Bosnia, which the Macedonians rightly saw as merely a stepping stone for Albanian secession, and made Macedonia a model of de-centralization. It empowered the marginalized Albanians through affirmative action in state structures along with sweeping changes to the Macedonian constitution and increased language and schooling rights.

The OFA, however, is fraying and distrust is in the air. The name dispute with Greece makes the Albanians victims to an ethnic Macedonia issue as NATO and EU membership are off the table. Facing what it considered an existential crisis over the name, the Macedonians engaged in an aggressive nation-building campaign, which was surely not aimed at the Albanians. At the moment, sensing weakness, the Albanian minority there, egged on by the Prime Minister of Albania who should have other things to do, have ramped up their demands for even more language rights than those obtained in the OFA. Even Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, hardly a model leader, urged the Macedonians to do more. The Macedonians, not surprisingly, felt the obvious hint of interference and even bullying.

Kosovo lives under the Ahtisaari Plan of 2007 and achieved its contested independence in 2008. The Plan, drafted largely under the supervision of the EU, was negotiated seriously by the Albanian majority and less seriously by the then government of Serbia. With the Serbs unwilling to offer the Albanians anything more than maximum autonomy in a redesigned but still Serb-run state, the Albanians won the day by offering an asymmetrical plan that gave the small Serb minority far more rights than their population numbers warranted.

Yet despite these guarantees – and even more offered to the Serbs later – Kosovo is not functioning. Provocations from both Kosovo and Serbia continue. More worryingly, successive Kosovo governments have failed to deliver to their own people. Youth unemployment is over 60 per cent. Corruption prevails. Why should the minority Serbs engage with a failing or even criminal state?

Renewed fragmentation and the violence that could accompany it is a very real possibility, especially given a disinterested United States and a distracted EU. Until now, no matter how remote or distant, the belief that a European future was possible forced the elite to at least play by some of the rules. Big sacrifices for EU membership may no longer be possible without more EU engagement.

Does this political instability, which is often related to ethnic rivalries, mean that the region needs new territorial solutions? Or does it mean that the problem is political, in that brain drain and demographic decline has simply left these countries in the hands of opportunists, fools or criminals unwilling and incapable of delivering a European future. It is the latter: new borders leave the same people calling the shots.

The EU is still the only game in town; Russia has nothing substantive on the table. Despite the current dilemmas, a European future, which means NATO membership too, is the best guarantee of prosperity and stability. With elections this year in Albania and Serbia, let’s hope the millennials can get out and vote.

Robert Austin teaches the history and politics of Central Europe and the Balkans at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.

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


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