political scientist and author
It was not that long ago, well into the late 2000s in fact, that the complex network of internationally brokered peace agreements that pacified the Western Balkans in the wake of the 1991-2001 Yugoslav wars were held up as hallmarks of post-Cold War diplomacy.
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Dayton peace accords, in particular, were regularly cited as blueprints for Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine. The broader post-Yugoslav peace was not without its flaws, of course, but considering how definitively the fighting had concluded, and how by 2013 two of the republics of the former South Slav federation, Slovenia and Croatia, were already European Union and NATO member states, it was still an enviable horizon for countries still in the grips of conflict, like Iraq.
Few policymakers in Brussels will admit to it explicitly, but this generous survey of the post-war history of the contemporary Western Balkans is already an artefact of the past. We can more or less pinpoint the day it went up in flames, literally: February 7, 2014. That was the day when Bosnia and Herzegovina, that paragon of international state-building, was rocked by the largest, and most violent, wave of anti-government protests in the country’s history. At the root of this insurrection was a profound sense of alienation and disillusionment on the part of the country’s citizens with the post-war status quo; a status quo which had left them with one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe, among the highest rates of corruption in the world, and ruled by an essentially criminal political class.
Yes, the “internationals” had ensured peace, but they had failed in their promise to genuinely give the country’s citizens an opportunity to transform the country. Post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina, like much of the region, remained in the clutches of war-time elites, whose villainy during the 1990s had been painted over by a veneer of Euro-Atlantic legitimation. For all intents and purposes though, leaders who were only yesterday war profiteers and, in some cases, war criminals were now rebranded, by the EU especially, as “local stakeholders.” And while the Europeans and Americans presented this transition as a necessity of realpolitik — the price of peace, as it were — it was a policy that left many in the region embittered.
A region in decline
The protests eventually petered out but they redefined the political framework of the entire international project in the Balkans. The region was no longer on an inevitable march towards the end of history as demarcated by entry into the EU. Genuine social politics had returned and the demands being articulated could not necessarily be neatly folded into the existing EU accession frameworks and their crushing technocratic myopia. Indeed, the essential problematique of the post-Yugoslav Balkans shifted towards a re-examination of the very notion of “peace” — whose peace, and peace to what end?
A broad survey of regional developments since 2014 illustrates precisely why this question resonates so deeply with so many ordinary citizens across the Balkans. Illiberal and authoritarian retrenchment is in full swing, press freedoms are in rapid decline, and violence, the prevention of which was once the alpha and omega of international policy in the Balkans, is increasingly returning to the fore.
Last year, Macedonia’s parliament in Skopje, the capital, was stormed by supporters of the outgoing VRMO-DPMNE government, who attempted to prevent the peaceful transfer of power after two years of political gridlock engineered by that regime. The incoming prime minister and minister of defence, Zoran Zaev and Radmila Šekerinska, were brutally assaulted during the incursion and had they been killed, as seemed entirely plausible at the time, Macedonia may well have been plunged into outright civil war. The country did receive its new government eventually, one which has ably proceeded to reanimate Skopje’s EU and NATO accession hopes, especially as concerns the longstanding “name dispute” with neighbouring Greece. Still, for all the optimism surrounding the new government, Zaev is himself on trial for corruption charges, although the proceedings have an air of political revanchism by the former government to them. And the broader regional security dynamic has only further deteriorated.
Since the beginning of 2018, a prominent Serb opposition figure has been assassinated in Kosovo, with the perpetrators still a mystery. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, there is credible evidence of Russian-trained paramilitaries coordinating with the government of Milorad Dodik, the secessionist leader of the country’s Serb-majority Republika Srpska entity, and that his government is in the throes of a major militarization push, in direct violation of the Dayton Peace Accords. Serbia and Croatia, the region’s two largest states, remain at odds, with sabre rattling daily fare in the influential tabloids of both countries, even as governments in both Belgrade and Zagreb continue to accommodate each other’s respective irredentist projects in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Serbia, moreover, is decidedly on the path towards one-man rule, while Croatia is fast veering towards joining Central Europe’s illiberal consensus. And in Montenegro, NATO’s newest member state, they’re still sorting out the facts concerning an apparent Russian-sponsored coup in October 2016, as the country prepares for another election in which Milo Đukanović (2015’s “Man of the Year in Organized Crime”) is expected to triumph.
In other words, even as the EU promises that the next round of enlargement could take place as soon as 2025, the quality of post-Yugoslav governance, and the general political climate of the region, are in precipitous decline. So, just how did the largest state-building and democratization effort since the Marshall Plan devolve to the point where social insurrection, coups and great power adventurism, rather than “peace and reconciliation,” are the political leitmotif of the contemporary Western Balkans?
The worst best option
Answering that question requires reframing the nature of the international project in the region entirely. As political scientists Josip Glaurdić and Brendan Simms, among many others, have shown, the West was never particularly keen on becoming involved in the Yugoslav crisis. Even the signing of Dayton was fundamentally premised on realizing the “worst best option” available to international policymakers: bringing to a close the deadliest chapter of the Yugoslav wars but with the least amount of diplomatic, political or military pressure applied to the actual architects of the conflict, namely, the regime of Slobodan Milošević.
Accordingly, Dayton largely acquiesced to the then Belgrade government’s desire to, effectively, partition Bosnia and Herzegovina. NATO’s Operation Deliberate Force, which finally “forced” Milošević and his proxies to the negotiating table, lasted barely three weeks and resulted in the deaths of less than 30 Serb nationalist paramilitaries. By that point, however, approximately 100,000 people had already been killed in the Bosnian War (1992-1995), most of eastern Bosnia had been ethnically cleansed by Belgrade-backed militias in the largest campaign of genocide in Europe since the Second World War, and some two million people were displaced. And while the Dayton peace accords were a landmark legal document, with a constitution embedded within a broader peace agreement, they were a footnote to the West’s wider strategic failure.
After all, less than four years later, NATO was once again forced into action in the Western Balkans when Milošević orchestrated his fourth war in less than a decade, this time in Kosovo. Operation Allied Force successfully ousted the then still nominally “Yugoslav” — that is, Serbian — forces from Kosovo but, in familiar fashion, it left Kosovo in legal limbo. The former Serbian province became a protectorate of the United Nations, which it would remain until 2008, when the Kosovo government unilaterally declared independence from Serbia. Kosovo is now recognized as a sovereign state by 114 countries, including more than half of the UN’s member states, but it is still barred from numerous international organizations, including from a seat in the UN General Assembly, thanks to widespread opposition campaigning by Belgrade and a Security Council veto by Russia.
Yet despite formally being included in most of the EU’s enlargement activities in the region (though with a perennial asterisk), it is still a major question mark as to whether Kosovo will ever successfully join the union, especially if Belgrade joins first, as appears almost certain. Bosnia and Herzegovina, meanwhile, enjoys full international recognition, but its sovereignty and territorial integrity is consistently undermined by the Dodik government, backed by Belgrade and Moscow, and the Zagreb-backed Croat nationalist establishment in the country. For its part, Macedonia remains largely at the whims of Greece, Serbia, Albania and Bulgaria, each of whom habitually draws into question the country’s very existence.
What each of these situations has in common is a persistent pattern of Western foot dragging. By refusing to clearly identify and confront the main drivers of instability in the region — individuals like Dodik or former Macedonian prime minister Nikola Gruevski — the EU and the US have allowed the aspirations of provincial strongmen to become potential continental security dilemmas. If it was possible to still (incorrectly) use the excuse of “intractable conflicts” to justify Western inaction in the 1990s, it is utterly incomprehensible how in the second decade of the 21st century Western and European policy in the Balkans remains so utterly directionless.
And the region is, indeed, without direction. EU officials speak in near messianic terms about the Balkans’ “European perspective” — including in their most recent strategy paper — but it remains unclear why or how EU membership, in and of itself, will resolve any of the above concerns. For example, the accession process has left Croatia remarkably untransformed, with the country teetering on the brink of economic ruin, and still politically dominated by the reactionary Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), a party that has only lost two parliamentary elections since the country gained independence in 1991. And Zagreb’s post-EU foreign policy is nearly indistinguishable from its priorities over the preceding two decades; namely, settling scores with Belgrade, and making a province of the parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina dominated by the HDZ’s local wing.
As disappointing as post-EU Croatia has been in this regard, the prospect of Serbia and Montenegro joining the club in 2025 would be even worse. While Montenegro’s abilities to cause mayhem are relatively small, notwithstanding the country’s centrality (along with nearby Albania) in Europe’s organized crime networks, Serbia remains cause for significant concern. Simply put, President Aleksandar Vučić’s apparent evolution from rabid reactionary to European pragmatist is too good to be believed. It is belied by his increasingly overt authoritarianism in Serbia, his deepening ties with the Kremlin, and his continued ultra-nationalist flirtations. Like Đukanović, this is not a man who intends on giving up power any time soon — never mind losing an election.
Those who will pay the price for indulging Brussels’ fantasies about Vučić and his fellow regional “big men” are the same people who have been victims of Europe’s appeasement in the Balkans for decades: ordinary citizens. And they will suffer not according to some artificial ethnic key but collectively, all as one, as they have for the better part of the last quarter century. Nor will entry into the EU deescalate the nature of this brewing crisis. If anything, by advancing the membership aspirations of these regimes without fundamental political reform, the EU is undermining its own stability and integrity.
Rebooting the Balkans
Suffice to say, a major rethink of international policy in the Balkans is urgently needed. It must begin by definitively terminating any pretensions recalcitrant local elites may harbour as to their ability to “create new facts on the ground” through the use of force or political brinkmanship. The essential territorial integrity of the region must be (re)guaranteed. This is a project in which NATO, arguably, has a bigger role to play than the EU, which is why Macedonia’s and Bosnia and Herzegovina’s membership in the alliance must be a priority.
Thereafter, the whole premise of who constitutes local stakeholders must be fundamentally rebooted. When dealing with obviously illiberal regimes, political elites cannot be the exclusive interlocutors of the EU or the international community more broadly. Civil society and the free press have a critical role to play in precipitating, monitoring and evaluating the quality of democratic governance in these polities, as shown by recent events in Macedonia. A failure to do so risks deepening even further the sense of profound political alienation and rage that now prevails across the region.