The German Greens’ future foreign policy challenge in the Western Balkans

The German Greens’ positions on the Western Balkans check all the right boxes. The challenge will be to translate these positions into a bold policy on the region

Green Party politician Joschka Fischer, shortly after being hit by a paint capsule at a special meeting of his party on the Kosovo war
Image by Bernd Thissen

One of the most powerful speeches ever delivered by a German politician came at a congress of the Green party in Bielefeld in 1999. Joschka Fischer, then party chair and the newly appointed German foreign minister, faced a crowd dominated by Fundis, the pacifist left wing of the Green party, who booed his decision to support German participation in the NATO intervention in Kosovo. After an angry protester hit him in the face with a bag of red paint, Fischer spoke passionately in defence of the government’s decision to send German soldiers into combat for the first time since the second world war. He argued that Germany, as one of the biggest NATO member states, had a moral obligation to participate in the US-led military intervention to stop the campaign of ethnic cleansing, mass murder, and rape that the Milosevic regime was waging in Kosovo – not unlike the one it had perpetrated in Bosnia for three long years. The 1995 genocide in Srebrenica left Fischer with a firm belief that the use of military force was indispensable to end mass killings – a position for which Fundis condemned him as a ‘warmonger’.

Current poll ratings suggest that, following the general election this autumn, the Green party may form part of Germany’s next coalition government. And, while the main foreign policy challenge in the Western Balkans is no longer of a military nature, it involves some of the same considerations as in 1999: appease local politicians who undermine stability in the region and infringe on the democratic values the Green party holds dear, or take a bolder approach to demonstrate that such actions have political consequences. As with the German foreign policy in general, the bottom line is: can Germany defend its values without sanctioning those who violate them?

This question is critical given the weakened incentives of EU enlargement, the reappearance of ideas about border changes and further ethnic segregation in the Western Balkans, and the growing influence in the region of authoritarian states such as Russia, China, and Turkey.

On most of these questions, the current leaders of the Green party – Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck – have adopted a position informed by a deep knowledge of past and contemporary challenges in the Western Balkans. They are supported by several Green parliamentarians in the Bundestag and the European Parliament who have a solid understanding of the situation in the region, including Cem Özdemir, Manuel Sarrazin, and MEP Viola von Cramon. Like Fischer, contemporary Green politicians view ethnic politics in the region through the lens of the Srebrenica genocide – in which, within a matter of days, Serb paramilitaries killed 8,000 men and boys while Dutch UN peacekeepers and NATO satellites looked on. It was these memories that led Baerbock to categorically reject the idea of a land swap between Kosovo and Serbia (and border changes in the region) when she spoke at the conference marking the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide.

While the main foreign policy challenge in the Western Balkans is no longer of a military nature, it involves some of the same considerations as in 1999.

Similarly, it was the rejection of the destructive ethnic politics of the 1990s that led Green members of the Bundestag and the European Parliament to stand against the Croatia-supported gerrymandering strategy of Bosnian Croat nationalist party Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica (HDZ). The HDZ aims to create a mono-ethnic electoral unit that would guarantee them a victory for one of the party’s members in elections for the tripartite Bosnia and Herzegovina presidency. This could also lay the foundations of a bigger, ethnically homogenous administrative unit that could eventually seek to secede from the country.

On Russia, the divide between the two wings of the Green party seems to be narrowing. This is highly relevant to German policy on the Western Balkans, as kleptocracy and strategic corruption by Russian-supported politicians have proven detrimental to stability and democratic governance across the region. In the Bundestag, the Green party recently put forward a bill that calls for a new policy on Russia, involving tougher punitive measures for the Kremlin’s violations of international law and human rights, along with strengthened German and European capacities for combating money laundering and corruption by Russian oligarchs who operate in the European Union. Such strengthened capacities are also urgently needed to combat money laundering and other forms of illicit finance that originate or pass through the Western Balkans, reportedly often with a Russian connection.

It is in this policy realm that Germany and Europe will have a transatlantic partner to work with, given the Biden’s administrations’ incorporation of the fight against strategic corruption and money laundering into its foreign policy.

The Green party’s values-based approach is reflected in its efforts to protect journalists and to include civil society activists in policy discussions. Manuel Sarrazin, the Green spokesperson for eastern European affairs in the Bundestag, has acted as a political sponsor of Stefica Galic, a Bosnian Croat woman from a village near Mostar who saved the lives of hundreds of Bosniaks during the war. Now a target of Croat nationalists, she had to leave her village but remains subject to verbal attacks, including death threats.

The Green party’s fundamental policy positions on the Western Balkans check all the right boxes. However, they will only produce substantive results if the party both works with pro-reform forces and directly confronts and penalises political actors who create instability through the abuse of power, the instrumentalisation of identity politics, and the repression of civil society. The party has done much in these areas from the opposition benches – but, if it enters government, the task will become more demanding as it will often require actions that go against some aspects of mainstream German political culture. On certain issues, this will demand an effort to convince not the Green party’s left wing so much as its potential coalition partners. All other parties in the Bundestag voted against the Green bill on Russia (with the exception of the Free Democratic Party, which abstained). The current ruling coalition – comprising the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party – has been reluctant to implement, or even threaten to implement, punitive policies on kleptocrats in the Western Balkans such as sanctions, travel bans, and asset freezes, or even to publicly condemn violations of democratic norms, the rule of law, and environmental standards. This political culture partly relates to the fact that some of the culprits in the region are nationalist parties who are the CDU’s fellow members of the European People’s Party group in the European Parliament or affiliated parties. Nonetheless, a credible threat of such punitive measures remains the only instrument that could deter many actions and policies that destabilise the region. Appeasement will not work any more than it did during the wars of the 1990s.

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


Senior Policy Fellow

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