THE EU ENLARGEMENT AFTER BREXIT Case Study: the Western Balkans
Among the complex consequences of United Kingdom’s recent decision to withdraw from the European Union (Brexit), one of the main problems for the Union’s leaders – indeed, a component of the EU’s future – is the EU enlargement process, notably the accession of the six countries of the Western Balkans (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia).
In 2012, Serbia became an official candidate for membership in the union, and in 2014, Albania, Montenegro and Macedonia also became EU candidate states. Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, whose independence is unrecognized by five EU members, are recognized as potential candidates for membership by the EU. Bosnia and Herzegovina has formally submitted an application for membership and Kosovo signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU, which generally precedes the lodging of membership application.
a) The immediate post-Brexit official reaction in the Western Balkans’ capitals, as well as that of the main representatives of the European Union was that EU membership efforts would continue undiminished.
At the Paris Conference on the Western Balkans (4 July 2016), the EU, France and Germany have told Balkan leaders (from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia) that the UK’s exit would not stop aspirant countries from one day joining the bloc.
The Paris Conference, organized under the auspices of the “Berlin Process”, was the third such event connecting leaders of Western Balkans states (Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania), and representatives of several EU states (Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Croatia and Slovenia). The previous two conferences were held in Berlin and Vienna in 2014 and 2015.
Both French president François Hollande and Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel declared at the meeting that the enlargement of the European Union would continue. “The British decision does not in any way put into question commitments made toward countries in the Balkan region. They will be respected,” said François Hollande, and Merkel issued a similar call of reassurance, saying that EU’s enlargement strategy “has not changed with the decision of the UK.”
Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, also said: “It is very important for the European Union to reaffirm the willingness to proceed on the European integration of the Western Balkan countries – all of them.”
A similar position of the EU is to be found in its recently issued foreign policy and security strategy, which mentions that an enlargement into the Western Balkans is a key strategic investment for the future: “The future of the Western Balkans fully lies in full EU membership and already today, the EU and Serbia face common challenges that can be solved more easily through joint efforts”.
b) Notwithstanding the optimistic official positions, most analysts and observers agree that Brexit, which came at a moment when the EU was showing less enthusiasm about enlargement, is likely to delay accession for the Western Balkan countries.
Even before the outcome of the British referendum, the Western Balkans and the topic of EU enlargement were hardly top priorities for Europe’s decision makers. Since at least the onset of the economic and financial crisis in 2007 and 2008, and with mounting worries about member states leaving the EU, the community has been chiefly concerned with internal matters. Moreover, as Euro-skepticism gained favor among citizens, the governments became reluctant in pursuing
EU enlargement, particularly since the Western Balkans are economically weak and haunted by bilateral conflicts that are still unresolved.
In the Western Balkans countries, where the EU accession has been a driving force for change in the past decade, this motivation has also been declining in recent years, as the Greek crisis and general reluctance towards enlargement in many EU member states has made the EU an unenthusiastic enlarger. After Brexit, the EU-UK relationship will take most attention of the EU and the governments of key member states such as Germany and France. With Britain, but also with significant parts of the electorate in many countries unconvinced of the EU and seeking a vote, the Western Balkans find themselves seeking to join an increasingly unpopular club.
c) Since the promise of Eastern expansion – championed by Britain – helped halt the brutal 1990s wars among the former Yugoslav republics, if EU membership prospects for these states vanish, democracy and peace in the entire region could experience dangerous setbacks. They are already to be seen in the democratization of political systems, particularly in Macedonia but in other West Balkan countries as well. Authoritarian tendencies in the governments and attacks on the freedom of the press are just two of the more alarming symptoms. The region’s elites have come to comfortable terms with the status quo: they are often only willing to uphold reforms to the extent that their own sinecures are not threatened.
Without a strong presence of the EU and its willingness to accompany political processes in the region, further regression away from democracy and, eventually, destabilization across the Western Balkans could be possible. There are already signs that patience is fraying as stagnation sets in and hopes diminish.
d) With the EU turned westwards, the Western Balkans will also be more vulnerable to other influences, with Russia and Turkey, but also China offering different ways of governing. The more authoritarian system of rule in these countries is attractive to leaders in the Western Balkans. The main driving force of the EU in the region has been its attractiveness for the citizens and the desire of elites to be both popular within their own countries and to receive recognition from the EU. Both are at risk to fall at the wayside of the Brexit. In their place, other actors are willing to step in, most notably Russia in its search for European and global influence.
On 28 June, three Serbian parties, as well as their counterparts from Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bulgaria signed a “Declaration for military neutrality”, launched and signed by Russia’s ruling party, United Russia, which calls for military neutrality in the Balkans.
The Serbian parties signing the declaration were the Democratic Party of Serbia, the Dveri Movement, and the Serb People’s Party. Democratic Party of Serbia’s representative Dragana Trifkovic said that her party also plans to “send to parliament a military neutrality bill and work to ensure that the term of Serbian military neutrality is incorporated in all strategic documents, including the National Defense Strategy.” Additionally, Trifkovic said that Russia plans to expand its influence in the Balkans, and, as such, sees “Serbia as a central state in the region.”
A similar assessment of Russia’s geopolitical intentions was formulated during the Warsaw NATO Summit, at an informal dinner discussions on 8 July, where the NATO leaders agreed that Moscow “is likely to exploit any vulnerability” in the Western Balkans, Moldova and Ukraine. The NATO leaders agreed that they need to maintain “a firm and united stance” on Russia and that Moscow “has to deliver” on its commitments under the Minsk agreements designed to stop the fighting in eastern Ukraine. One particular focus of the NATO leaders during the dinner was the Western Balkans and the independent nations that once were part of Yugoslavia.
e) The Western Balkans’ situation is also becoming more complex in the recent context of the failed coup in Turkey, for which accusations are directed against the Fetullah Gülen’s organizations. Recently the Turkish media pointed to a broad network coordinated by the Gülen movement in most of the countries in the western Balkans, notably in Albania (where it started as early as 1993) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (since 1998). It has entered public institutions as well as numerous private companies in the education, tourism and media sector.
According to figures given by the Turkish media, the Gülen movement, which prioritizes investments in the education field, operates a total of 40 schools in the Western Balkans, with 15 schools in Bosnia, 12 in Albania, 7 in Macedonia, 5 in Kosovo, and one in Serbia. Consequently, the Ankara regime might seek to make more use of its presence in the Western Balkans against the movement that is sees as being the source of the recent failed coup.
BREXIT CONSEQUENCES: SCENARIOS FOR THE WESTERN BALKANS
While it seems likely that the formal request from the UK to leave the EU will not be presented in the immediate future, the Brexit uncertainty radiates beyond the question of the British membership of the EU and extends to countries which have been seeking for years to join the Union.
The post-Brexit EU: back to the two-speed Europe?
Many EU observers noted that one of the likely outcomes of the Brexit would be a reconfiguration of the EU along the “two-speed Europe” concepts, which would accommodate, in the long term, the enlargement to the Western Balkans.
This is to be seen in a recent document called “A strong Europe in a world of uncertainties” signed by the French and German foreign ministers, Jean-Marc Ayrault and Frank-Walter Steinmeier. It is already seen as a new European government program that envisages an integrated Europe, but with many references to the possibility that such an integration may not apply to all of the EU states, leading to the old concept of the “two-speed Europe”.
Acknowledging that “support and passion for our common project has faded over the last decade in parts of our societies” and “neither a simple call for more Europe nor a phase of mere reflection can be an adequate answer”, the document mentioned, for the European leadership, a twofold task: “to strictly focus joint efforts on those challenges that can only be addressed by common European answers, while leaving others to national or regional decision making and variation”.
An interesting aspect in this document is the fact that it alludes, in several places, to the existence of different European groups of interests: France and Germany will “move further towards political union in Europe and invite the other Europeans to join”, but they “need to recognize that member states differ in their levels of ambition when it comes to the project of European integration” and will “have to find better ways of dealing with different levels of ambition.”
Also, in the field of the common asylum and migration policy, Germany and France are “convinced that it is high time to work towards establishing truly integrated European asylum, refugee and migration policy”, but “given the urgency of the matter” they “should not rule out the possibility of a group of member states that share a sense of common responsibility making progress on common policies”. The document also mentions that “the Dublin system has to be improved to deal with exceptional circumstances” and “if necessary, Germany and France stand ready to proceed on this matter with a group of like-minded partners”.
The “two-speed” concept was also implied in the statements made at the Paris Conference on the Western Balkans. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at the summit that she does see a European perspective for the Western Balkans states, but that their EU accession process will have “different speeds”, which should mean that they will integrate into the EU at different stages without a Western Balkans “enlargement Big Bang”.
Uncertainty as a key factor
According to Florian Bieber, professor of Southeast European History and Politics at the Graz University (Austria), the uncertainty that Brexit produces makes prediction difficult and uncertainty in itself will also play an important role in shaping policy making. The consequences are both structural – the ability of the EU to act and integrate new members – and normative – the ability of the EU to promote a particular type of democratic, consensus-oriented system of government.
The implications of the Brexit vote for the Balkans are clear and wholly negative and some even said that the UK’s departure from the EU may be “the last nail in the coffin” for accession. The analyst developed the following post-Brexit scenarios for the Western Balkans:
Scenario 1: Britain and Europe Disunited, would mean that Britain dissolves, and the difficult negotiations will lead to worsening of relations between the EU and the UK and within the UK. At the same time, a Scottish referendum will encourage further referendums in Catalonia and elsewhere. In such a scenario, the EU might find itself reduced, transforming into a structure with multiple layers of integration at different levels, and the emergence of a “core EU” in northern Europe. For the Western Balkans, the transformative dynamic of the EU would disappear and outright rejection of the EU and the associated reforms might prevail. In addition, secessionist movements in the region, such as in Republika Srpska, might be encouraged by the European dynamic.
Scenario 2: Britain disunited, Europe united, according to which Scotland leaves the UK but is able to stay in the EU. This might facilitate a settlement that makes England, Wales, and Northern Ireland into a member of the European Economic Area, keeping the border with Scotland and Ireland open. The EU would still be able to operate and after a period of difficulties, also to resume enlargement, but the disintegration of the UK and the departure of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland results in a stronger German hegemony of the EU. EU accession for the Western Balkans re-emerges as a viable option after a number of years of crisis, and the European Economic Area (or a similar revived ante-chamber to the EU) fills the role of a more immediate step prior to full membership.
Scenario 3: Britain united, Europe disunited, according to which Scotland might not secede and the country would survive. EU leaders might not like or accept such a move, but to prevent too much acrimony, the EU might accept such a scenario. Consequently, the UK might remain an important (but diminished) international actor. For the Western Balkans, such a scenario would be the closest to the status quo, yet even here, the influence of the UK as an advocate for enlargement, the policy distraction of years of negotiation, and the loss of credibility for the EU would still severely diminish the pull of accession and reforms.
From optimism to domino-effect
According to another study at the Center for Southeast European Studies of the University of Graz, the scenarios vary from optimistic to “worst-case”.
In one of the scenarios, shaken by Brexit, the EU unites and re-commits to broadening and deepening. The accession process is sped up to project a message of confidence and to secure the region even more firmly under its own influence. The fact that the UK’s voice is missing from the choir will make little difference to the governments and the people in the western Balkans. In the likelihood that a post-Brexit government is led by a right-wing that has stated it will abolish foreign aid, UK input into the region would drop sharply. As the UK tries to re-assert itself on the international stage, the Western Balkans may disappear from its strategic map. However, this would be of little consequence to the countries in the region, should EU accession remain a realistic goal.
In the most pessimistic scenario, the “domino effect” takes into account the rise of the extreme right and the anti-EU forces all across Europe.
Several recent facts: in Estonia, the anti-EU, right-wing EKRE is the country’s third most popular political party. Recent reports show that a ‘Swexit’ is considered a possibility as Sweden, always fairly Euro-skeptic, watches the British across the North Sea. In Slovakia, the anti-EU Marian Kotleba’s “Our Slovakia” took its first seats in Parliament. In Hungary, Viktor Orban’s hostility to the Union is also well documented. In the Netherlands, the Islamophobe Geert Wilders is one of the most popular politicians and his party is promising an immediate Dutch exit of the union should it win. In Austria and France, Marine le Pen and Heinz-Christian Strache are often appearing together in public, advocating a ‘patriotic spring’ for Europe. In Germany, the right-wing Alternative for Germany, an anti-EU party is currently the country’s third most popular party.
In this last scenario, the Union either dies, or re-emerges as something vastly different. Right-wing governments sweep to power everywhere, returning to realism, bilateral relationships and geopolitical hardball, with a dominant Germany.
The possibility of accession will vanish for the Western Balkan countries, amidst uncertainty and instability. The Orthodox countries will pivot relatively painlessly (for their leaders at least) towards Russia, who will jump at the chance to increase its influence in the region. Kosovo’s status will become a flashpoint once more, but Belgrade’s influence backed by Moscow is likely to prevail. Real problems will arise in Bosnia, as Republika Srpska’s will press for secession from Bosnia and Herzegovina, either to independence or to Serbia. It is unlikely the new Europe would put up any resistance to such a move.
As to the Muslim population, repulsed by the wave of Islamophobia in Europe, faced with break-up of their countries and the final triumph of Serb nationalism in Bosnia, the only option might be to seek support from other Islamic nations. The results of this might well be positive, even desirable for Balkan Muslims, but in the context of a wave of continent-wide instability however, the odds of such situations remaining peaceful are quite low.
- According to Petros Fassoulas, Secretary General of the European Movement International, “enlargement will be frozen” after the UK’s decision to leave the EU, as the Union would be preoccupied with its own problems.
During a debate in Belgrade on the consequences of the British referendum, Fassoulas said that the freezing entailed continuous postponement, or slowing down, to the point where not much would happen, which is worse than taking a break. The British referendum will launch the process of closing off and enlargement won’t be the first thing for the EU leadership.
- The Belgrade-based European Policy Center created three potential scenarios covering Brexit’s impact on the enlargement policy: the most favorable scenario for the countries of the region would be a fast and efficient exit, while the worst would be Britain’s long and painful divorce from the Union. The third scenario – for Britain not to initiate the exit procedure, is the least likely one and would not impact the accession process much, after the initial shock.
These scenarios highlight the considerable risks that Brexit holds for the Western Balkans. With the EU self-absorbed and diminished, focused elsewhere for years to come, the countries of the region can no longer rely on the EU to promote reform and the consolidation of democracy. With the transformative appeal of the EU largely gone and its ability to act reduced, others will fill the void.
INTERNAL AND REGIONAL RISKS OF A FAILED EU ENLARGEMENT
The European perspective seemed to unify a region with plenty of other topics that still divide it. One of the major unsettled issues after the conflicts’ times is an inability to agree upon a shared understanding of responsibility for the violent past and move towards reconciliation. European integration, as a forward looking project, has allowed the Balkan countries to look beyond divisions and disagreements. The United Kingdom together with its (former) partners in the EU has been a major player in that endeavor. Steered by the EU, the countries initiated a comprehensive set of political and economic reforms, coupled with regional inter-state cooperation. Although the European journey has been fraught with difficulties, the progress has been undeniable, albeit not irreversible. If EU membership prospects for these states vanish, democracy and peace in the entire region might be affected.
Local observers note that the apparent Westernization of the region came at the cost of favoring the rising of a new generation of autocrats. Both EU and U.S. policymakers have been willing to turn a blind eye to corruption which plagues the region’s governments and have downplayed or ignored the rise of autocratic rulers.
These autocrats operate differently than those of the 1990s: internationally, they embrace the EU in their foreign policy. With the exception of Serbia, they express the same position towards NATO. Domestically, they rely on a tested formula that makes their citizens, who suffer from some of the highest unemployment rates in Europe, entirely dependent on state-controlled patronage networks for jobs and other resources. These rulers also undermine their domestic opponents by forging alliances with oligarchs, often dependent on the state for their wealth, and exerting control over the media and the judiciary.
a) Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has experienced one of the most brutal conflicts in the region, launched, after the war, new socio-economic reforms that led it into its most constructive period in a decade. The country’s polarized elites have also passed new laws on labor and civil service, but they have yet to make changes in other areas, such as corruption and political patronage, which continue to weigh on the country’s economy. Bosnia also faces rigid divisions within its Serb, Bosniak Muslim and Croat communities and some young people have been lured to Syria by Daesh (also known as ISIS).
Meanwhile, Milorad Dodik, the president of the Serbian entity, Republika Srpska, has rejected the country’s endorsement of the Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU, the framework for Bosnia’s EU integration process. He claims that it would hurt Republika Srpska’s agricultural sector that would lose $56 million. But in reality, Dodik’s refusal to cooperate over EU integration has more to do with the fact that allowing Brussels to straighten up the country might force him to accept certain realities, as the fact that the 2013 census results indicate a possible increase in the Bosniak population (Dodik has argued that the results wrongly reduced the size of Serbian population). Dodik is also Moscow-oriented and his ideas of Serbian independence, is seen as a risk of a renewed conflict.
b) Kosovo is another country that needs the carrot of EU membership to entice its leaders into making difficult but needed reforms. As Macedonia, Kosovo is torn by internal ethnic divisions. Serbs control the country’s north and ethnic
Albanians control the south, even though the region still holds a slim majority of Serbs who live uneasily in their dispersed enclaves. The EU mediated a deal to give Serbs more autonomy, but it elicited opposition from Albanian nationalists.
Opposition figures recently tossed tear gas canisters into parliament, including during a session to elect the country’s new president. These clashes are happening alongside rising unemployment and corruption. Unsurprisingly, many disenchanted Albanians have simply left for the EU. But without a clear pathway to the union, this malaise will grow, opening up similar avenues for conflict.
Less than a decade old, the state of Kosovo is also exhibiting features of a budding autocracy: the Democratic Party of Kosovo, led by former Prime Minister and recently inaugurated President Hashim Thaci, failed to gain a ruling majority in the country’s 2014 elections and held on to power mainly by relying on the party’s control over the Constitutional Court. In response to the opposition’s protests against the agreement with Belgrade, the government has arrested dozens of opposition MPs and the leader of the main opposition party and used antiterrorist police units to ransack the main opposition party’s headquarters.
c) In Macedonia, the decade-long rule by the center-right VMRO-DPMNE party of Nikola Gruevski has been accompanied not only by rampant corruption, but also by an undermining of the democracy. The same forces that nearly pulled the country into war and potential dissolution 15 years ago have re-emerged, encouraged by Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s so-called “nation rebranding”. In fact this is an appeal to a Macedonian identity of antiquity, a nationalistic project that repelled the Albanian minority and also created a deep rift among Macedonians. There is also domestic division over the longstanding dispute with Greece over the country’s name, Republic of Macedonia. Athens accuses Macedonia of stealing the name from the eponymous Greek province. Some Macedonians are open to a name change, others are staunchly against it.
It is against this overcharged scene that the current government has cracked down on the media, prosecuted political opponents, and captured state institutions by installing party members in key judicial and prosecutorial roles.
In 2015, a wiretapping scandal involving Gruevski revealed the government’s extensive use of domestic intelligence to spy on the opposition and Gruevski’s own political associates. After the scandal broke, a European Commission inquiry found that the government had systematically engaged in “interference in judicial affairs, restrictions of freedom of the media, electoral irregularities, blurring of state and party, as well as lack of oversight over intelligence activities.”
Gruevski was forced to step down under the terms of an EU-mediated deal with the opposition but so far, he and his party have resisted the agreement’s stipulations to hold free and fair elections and accept the legitimacy of the Special Prosecutor’s Office, a judicial body created by the agreement to prosecute the crimes exposed by the wiretaps. Gruevski’s ally, Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov, ordered the end of the inquiry on the wiretapping scandal, which effectively freed Gruevski from the prospect of facing criminal charges.
d) Montenegro is often accused of being one of the most corrupt countries in Europe, in a region particularly notorious for lack of transparency and clean government. In one way or another, Montenegro has been under the rule of current Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic and his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) for 25 years. In the late 1990s, Djukanovic broke with the pro-Serbian wing of his party and led Montenegro to independence from Serbia in 2006. Since then, Djukanovic has, in effect, turned Montenegro into his family’s private fiefdom. In 2007, Italian prosecutors charged Djukanovic with leading a conspiracy involving cigarette smuggling and money laundering in the 1990s (charges Djukanovic has repeatedly denied while relying on his diplomatic immunity to avoid cooperating with the prosecution). In 2009, a report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists found that Djukanovic owned assets worth nearly $15 million (his reported income is a monthly salary of 1500 Euro). Djukanovic was named ‘Person of the Year’ in 2015 by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) for “his work in promoting crime, corruption and uncivil society.”
Djukanovic’s brother, Aco Djukanovic, is one of Montenegro’s wealthiest men. Having started off as a concert promoter in the 1990s, he became the main shareholder of First Bank, which underwent what many believed to be a rigged privatization in 2006. The privatization involved an open tender producing only a single bidder, which was owned by the prime minister’s brother. The bank subsequently became Montenegro’s largest, with the government becoming its largest client.
e) Serbia counts with what some see as a spectacular transformation from ally of a war criminal into a Western-cultivated politician: Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić. He has become a favorite in the West for his supposed willingness to resist Russian influence in the country, despite the resistance of his governing partner and former mentor, President Tomislav Nikolić.
Both Vučić and Nikolić were allies of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic but they refashioned their images from radical nationalists to reformers. In 2015, Vučić visited the United States and met U.S Vice President Joe Biden andNational Security Advisor Susan Rice. He also signed a controversial agreement with NATO, effectively undermining what many saw as Russian efforts to gain a military foothold in Serbia. Moscow responded indignantly to Belgrade’s agreement with NATO but has so far shied away from any steps to retaliate.
However, Vučić also maintained ties with Kremlin: in October 2015 he visited Moscow, where he met President Vladimir Putin and signed a deal for the purchase of Russian military equipment. Unlike Albania and Montenegro, Vučić has resisted demands to abide by EU sanctions against Russia, imposed after the Ukraine crisis. He and Nikolić have both made personal efforts to allay Russian fears over Serbia’s NATO agreement and reaffirm its official position of military neutrality.
When, in December 2015, Vučić was praised for arresting 80 former officials, including former ministers, on corruption charges, few noted that most of those arrested were members of opposition parties. Serbia’s independent media have also suffered under his rule: Human Rights Watch has reported that the number of attacks and threats against journalists in Serbia was among the highest in the region.
While Vučić expressed his willingness to continue negotiations with the leadership of Kosovo, in a bid to “normalize” relations, this “normalization” falls short of any real intention by Serbia to recognize Kosovo’s independence, which
Vučić categorically rejects, or dismantle Belgrade’s parallel institutions in the Serbian-controlled north.
The price to pay
So far, EU and U.S. policymakers have shown great tolerance toward the Balkan rising autocrats, since Western priorities have shifted toward preventing or minimizing the Russian influence in the region, especially in Serbia and Montenegro.
Geopolitics have also enhanced the importance of efficient Balkan rulers in other ways: their ability to deliver immediately on the more expedient demands of Western powers is more valued than success at the long and slow processes of democratic and judicial reform.
Some observers believe that U.S. support in recognizing the Serbian claims in northern Kosovo is partly the result of this shifting geopolitical landscape, in which the United States is willing to pay a price to appease Belgrade. The diplomatic push for Kosovo’s international recognition has also diminished: despite being recognized by more than 100 countries, Kosovo has remained largely shut out of international organizations. Last year, the country launched a failed bid to join UNESCO.
The 2015 refugee crisis has made Macedonia an important frontier state, and the EU has turned a blind eye to the country’s use of violent tactics to keep Syrian and other Middle Eastern refugees from entering the country. Serbia’s efforts to control the flow of refugees have been equally applauded, especially given the tensions the issue has created in neighboring Hungary. Moreover, domestic crises, including the Eurozone dilemma, Brexit, and political fallouts from the flow of refugees, have kept EU officials preoccupied with internal matters, making EU enlargement largely an afterthought.
Aware of their indispensability to strategic goals and interests beyond democratization and the rule of law, local leaders have masterfully exploited the political and diplomatic cover offered by strengthened EU and U.S. ties to attack and undermine domestic opponents. These ties especially have allowed leaders like Gruevski, Thaci, and Djukanovic to claim that, unlike their opponents, they enjoy the support of powerful Western patrons.
Tensions between the major Balkan rivals
The recent growing of the tension between the two Balkan rivals, Serbia and Croatia, is also seen as an indication of the dangers that may arise without the perspective of both countries being in the same group of interests.
a) The recent efforts of both countries to acquire new weapon systems is already leaving many wondering whether the Cold War ever really ended and whether the current events in the Balkans are the next step, after Ukraine, of the long struggle between the Russian Federation and the West.
After stating its desire to acquire 12 PzH-2000 mobile artillery systems from the American military in 2015, the Croatian government announced intentions to purchase sixteen M270 ATACMS ballistic missile systems, ostensibly to augment the antiquated inheritance it received from the former Yugoslav Army. In a swift reaction, the Prime Minister of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, decided that “Serbia must have [an] answer to ballistic missiles in [the] region.” Serbia’s “answer” was to query its old Slavic ally, the Russian Federation, about potentially bolstering its air defense with Russian-made surface-to-air missile systems and anti-aircraft batteries capable of deterring the Croatian missile systems.
The purchase of ballistic missiles by either Serbia or Croatia would shift the balance of power in the region significantly. Since Serbia’s pro-Russian stance is a threat to NATO’s consolidation in Europe, arming Croatia could be seen as an attempt to pressure Serbia to abandon its pro-Russian stance, secure NATO’s pre-eminence in the region, and isolate Russia from its only European ally.
Regardless of whether the acquisition of armaments is solely for domestic and defensive purposes, the fact remains that as Croatia and Serbia respectively entertain the idea of modernizing their armed forces with ballistic missile systems and air defense systems, the entire region of the Balkans becomes more unstable.
According to the 2016 Global Firepower Index, of the 126 countries studied, Serbia and Croatia currently occupy the 70th and 62nd places, making them relatively even in terms of military strength. Croatia’s announcement to procure ballistic missiles would change the balance of power in the region and most of central and northern Serbia would be within range of the Croatian missiles. Consequently, Serbia announced its intentions to purchase Russian weaponry capable of neutralizing such a threat.
If both Serbia and Croatia acquired missiles and air-defense systems and the balance of power is technically maintained, the result could be an arms race that would eventually spiral out of control. Neither side would feel secure in their military capabilities relative to one another and would begin arming themselves accordingly.
b) While both Croatia and Serbia claim to be attached to European values, cooperation and good neighborly relations, in practice, the former enemies are finding their opposing views on recent decisions related to their history a constant source of quarrels. The most recent took place on 5 August, when Croatia celebrated the 21st anniversary of its victory in “Operation Storm” against the Serb rebels and practically ended the conflict in 1995. But what to Zagreb was a “resounding victory” is remembered as a “pogrom” by Serbia.
Overshadowing the contentious military anniversary this year is a string of political and judicial decisions that have heightened tensions between the two Balkan nations. Croatia has opposed Brussels’ decision to open negotiations with Serbia on its judicial system, fundamental rights and security.
On the other hand, Belgrade has protested recent court rulings in Croatia, especially the Supreme Court’s quashing of a verdict against a former lawyer convicted of war crimes for killing Serbs. Another recent overturned verdict that annoyed Belgrade was the communist-era conviction of controversial Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac for collaborating with the Nazi occupiers and Croatia’s pro-Nazi regime during World War II. Belgrade sees the Croatian court decisions as revisionist history and a “rebirth of Nazism”.
Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic and Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić signed a joint declaration last June, on “improving relations”, but the document has small chances to be implemented, especially with the EU facing more pressing matters than Balkan relations. With Serbia yet to form a government following an April election and Croatia holding snap polls in September, analysts say the ongoing external rows could be useful for internal political elites.
Changing influences in the region
The growing tensions in the Western Balkans are seen as potentially being favored by Brexit, in terms of both British and European influence.
Experts that took part to a recent seminar on the topic at the London School of Economics (LSE) stressed that Britain’s exit from the EU is likely to lead to a drastic curtailment of its influence and engagement with the Balkans, where it has been an active diplomatic force in favor of enlargement.
James Ker-Lindsay, Senior Research Fellow on South East Europe at LSE, said Britain had been an active, benign force in the Western Balkans, especially in Bosnia and Kosovo, even though the level of its engagement had noticeably declined in recent years. Earlier, however, it had been “extremely important” in the context of Kosovo’s recognition as a state as well as “instrumental” in taking Serbia-Kosovo relations forward. However, he warned that in a post-exit UK, the future stability and integration of the Balkans will become “a very secondary issue”.
As Britain recedes from the Balkan scene, Germany’s role in the region will become ever more important. It was already the “unassailable central power” in the European club, Kerr-Lindsay observed, and Berlin was now “the place to go” for Balkan leaders seeking advice and encouragement.
Denisa Kostovicova, Associate Professor in Global Politics at LSE, also agreed that the impact of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU was likely to be negative for the Balkan region. It would likely slow enlargement and confirm the de facto division of the Balkans into EU members like Croatia and a “non-EU enclave” comprising the rest, in which there was “divergence as opposed to convergence” with European norms and standards.
Without a strong presence of the EU and its willingness to accompany political processes in the region, further regression away from democracy and, eventually, destabilization across the Western Balkans could be possible. Other global players, particularly Russia are willing to fill the vacuum and expand their sphere of influence.
AN ASSESSMENT OF RUSSIA’S POTENTIAL
The Brexit issue has also fueled the debate on whether it would open a window to Russia’s greater influence in the region. Many Western analysts believe that the consequences of Brexit will enable Russia to strengthen its political influence in the region, even though Serbia is more tied to the EU, economically. They foresee that Russian President Vladimir Putin may increase his pressure in Serbia, Republika Srpska (one of the entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina) and Macedonia to dissuade them from joining the EU and NATO.
More than two decades after the fall of communism, Russia is once again courting the countries of its former “socialist camp”. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has forged an $11 billion nuclear deal with Putin’s government and tried to emulate his model in pursuing an “illiberal democracy.” Czech President Milos Zeman and Slovak Premier Robert Fico have said EU relations should not come at the expense of Russia.
Growing Russian influence
Senior politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have voiced concern over Moscow’s “infiltration” of the Western Balkans. To U.S. State Secretary John Kerry, countries like Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia (FYROM) and Montenegro are “in the line of fire”, like Georgia or Moldova. Also, German Chancellor Angela Merkel considered, in a 2015 interview, that “Russia [was] trying to make certain Western Balkan states politically and economically dependent”.
In fact, Russia’s economic and political presence in the Balkan countries is higher than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Russian energy companies enjoy a near-monopoly in Serbia, Bulgaria and Bosnia’s Republika Srpska (RS). Russia has become more vocal on Balkan political and security issues, notably in FYROM and Bosnia. However, analysts note that the region still remains Western-oriented, albeit with Russia taking advantage of the loopholes in EU and NATO’s policies. The slowdown of EU enlargement has opened up opportunities for Russian policymakers to build additional leverage across the Balkans, scoring points in the overall tug-of-war with the West.
In the energy sector, Lukoil Neftochim, Gazprom Neft and Zarubezhneft largely control the oil trade in Bulgaria, Serbia and RS respectively, through ownership of refining facilities and petrol stations. Gazprom Neft acquired a controlling stake in Naftna Industrija Srbije (NIS) in early 2008, on the promise that Serbia would be included in South Stream. The purchase consolidated bilateral links at a time when Moscow came out strongly on the side of Belgrade in their fight against Kosovo’s proclamation of independence. In Bosnia’s Republika Srpska, Zarubezhneft bought the refineries at Bosanski Brod and Modrica in 2007 and the Banjaluka Petrol trading company in a direct deal rather than through a tender, and is seen as being close to RS leader Milorad Dodik.
Gazprom remains a monopoly supplier of gas to most countries in the region, with the exception of Greece, Romania and Croatia. EU-backed diversification schemes have not made a great deal of headway and the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) will not be pumping Azerbaijani gas before 2019. As elsewhere in Europe, Russia wields gas as a diplomatic tool. The main objective is political, rather than economic: to show that containment by the West is futile. Greece, Macedonia and Serbia have all expressed interest in being part of Turkish Stream, the pipeline touted by President Vladimir Putin in December 2014 to pump Russian gas to Hungary via Turkey and the Balkans.
In political terms, Russia made a return to the Balkans in 2006 with the start of the so-called status process for Kosovo. Russia made use of Kosovo as a precedent in the case of recognizing the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states in 2008 and, later on, with the annexation of Crimea. Rather than pushing hard to roll back Western institutions in the post-Soviet space, it has sought to expose their policies as short-sighted, duplicitous and prone to failure, as well as seek extra leverage through building ties with Serbia, Greece, Macedonia or other countries in the area.
The 2015 crisis in Macedonia illustrates these dynamics. When protestors poured onto the streets in Skopje in April 2015, calling for the resignation of Nikola Gruevski’s government, Russian media accused the West of pushing for yet another color revolution, similar to Ukraine. The argument was readily picked up by pro-government outlets. After the armed clashes between security forces and Albanian radicals in the city of Kumanovo (9-10 May 2015), Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pointed the finger at NATO members Albania and Bulgaria, accusing them of plotting to partition their neighbor. The theory, originating from pro-Kremlin websites, had made its way into Balkan media before finally being voiced by Lavrov to Russia’s State Duma. Subsequently, EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn mediated a deal between Gruevski and the opposition, but the episode is significant to understand Moscow’s tactics in the region.
Russia’s goal in the Balkans is to prevent the expansion of Western troops and military infrastructure in the region while maintaining sufficient strength to implement strategic energy infrastructure projects.
Russian strategists see the Balkans as a geostrategic “backdoor” to Europe, the access point that Russia and China want to use in order to avoid the cordon sanitaire that the U.S. and NATO are supposedly setting up in Eastern Europe and to gain access to the heart of the continent. The Balkan Megaprojects – Russia’s Balkan Stream and China’s Balkan Silk Road – are supposed to make the region a focal point of north-south economic corridor linking together Central and Eastern Europe. Those projects are also meant to shift the EU away from the U.S.-led existing world order and for this reason the Central Balkans are seen as one of the most pivotal places in the entire world. Consequently, NATO membership in the Western Balkans is considered to be an issue that most worries Russia.
Montenegro’s recent move to join the alliance met with fierce criticism from Moscow. In a recent interview, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared that “it’s not about Montenegro. It’s about NATO’s attitude toward the development of relations not only with Russia, but also in ensuring global security. NATO is responsible for its own territory, and as it was written in the Washington Agreement, provides collective defense. Well in that case, sit within your borders, and no one will touch you.” He also invoked NATO’s actions in the Balkans during the 1990s and called for a Montenegrin referendum on membership: “They know that most likely the people whom NATO bombarded a couple of decades ago have not forgotten it, and that will be difficult to accept with enthusiasm the idea of their leadership to forget many things by joining NATO”.
At the same period with Lavrov’s interview, “Sputnik News” claimed that “a Serbian survey found that Serbs trust Vladimir Putin more than their own leader, and most would be happy to enter into a political and economic union with Russia”, while “Russia Today” claimed that “Western nations are making ‘huge efforts’ to prevent a NATO membership referendum in Montenegro.”
Strong points: Serbia, Macedonia,
In Serbia, Russia possesses many instruments of leverage that it is deploying to block Belgrade’s drift toward Europe, which go beyond the popular mythology of fraternal or religious brotherhood.
Through Gazprom, Russia owns 51 percent of Serbian oil reserves, which makes it impossible to know for sure how much oil Serbia actually possesses. Serbia’s armed forces are also looking to buy Russian air defenses and advanced MiG-29 warplanes, and the two states planned joint military exercises in 2016. On his visit to Moscow, in March 2016, President Tomislav Nikolić called for further increasing Russo-Serbian trade, which is largely connected to energy, and also cited the religious ties linking the two countries. He also hyperbolically claimed that, if not for Russia, the Islamic State would already be in control of Serbia.
The German government and Serbian non-governmental organizations like the Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies point to a “synergy” of Russian and Serbian anti-European interests, who wish to preserve their sources of corrupt income free from EU scrutiny and outside of any democratic accountability. Moreover, they discern evidence of mounting Russian pressure on Serbian media outlets. Notably, reports have highlighted Russian interests in Serbian TV and other media outlets being bankrolled by Kremlin-connected oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev, who was accused of helping to finance Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Russian efforts to turn Serbia’s foreign-policy goals eastward are to be seen in the creation of several Russian-Serbian friendship societies, such as the Association of Russian Descendants and the Strategic Culture Fund, a Russian-Serbian Internet site reporting on events in Serbia, Russia, Balkans and the former Soviet Union.
According to recent opinion polls, a further increase in Russian sentiment is possible, and recently a local wax museum inaugurated a wax statue of Vladimir Putin. The figure stands alongside a Yugoslav communist party flag and the statues of former leaders Slobodan Milosevic and Josip Broz Tito. In Belgrade, Putin t-shirts reading “Kosovo is Serbia, Crimea is Russia” are displayed amongst other patriotic kitsch in vendors’ stalls. The Russian and Serbian flags are twisted together on a Gazprom billboard, a hint at the country’s dependency on Russian gas.
The success of Russia’s efforts were acknowledged recently by the European Parliament rapporteur for Serbia, David McAllister, who warned, on 14 July – during a conference in Belgrade having as topic “The European Union’s Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy and the Western Balkans” – that while the EU remains committed to enlargement in the Western Balkans, Serbia’s intention to maintain close relations with Russia would not be tolerated in the long run. McAllister also urged Belgrade to reduce its ‘dependency’ on Russian oil and gas and abide by the EU energy market rules. Since Russia “unilaterally changes European borders” and tries to “expand its influence” over its neighbors, Belgrade “needs to make strong efforts in aligning its foreign and security policy to that of the EU, including the policy on Russia,” he added, referring to the EU sanctions regime imposed on Moscow.
Similarly, Nathalie Tocci, adviser to EU Foreign Policy and Security Chief Federica Mogherini recently considered, in an interview with Tanjug.rs, that the relationship with Russia was “the biggest challenge for Serbia” in the process of accession to the EU.
Macedonia has also been a battleground for competing Russian and Western influence. In 2015, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov even floated rumors that Bulgaria and Albania might try to partition Macedonia. Also, according to balkananalysis.com, German intelligence has reported a Russian-Greek plan to mass 100,000 refugees on Greece’s border with Macedonia to destabilize the latter (a Greek aim) and the Balkans as a whole (a Russian aim). German intelligence has specifically singled out Malofeyev for his role in this and other plots involving pro-Russian Greeks.
Propaganda and disinformation
Observers say Russian propaganda, NGOs and cultural organizations have made significant inroads in the Balkans – in Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro and Albania. The common theme that it was the West that destroyed Yugoslavia and opened a Pandora’s Box of horrors and Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian president and indicted war criminal, was “merely their puppet” (yet another victim of a tragedy plotted in Berlin, Brussels, or Washington) is the starting point for Russian propaganda, which thrives on the Balkans’ denial and oblivion.
A recent example was a story planted in the Belgrade-based tabloid “Informer” about ‘a sensational plot’: its reporter had access to a secret document with instructions on how to undermine Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić and destabilize Serbia! Western powers are using local groups, including anarchists, leftists, Marxists, anti-globalists and trade unions. The paper has “solid evidence” of renewed attempts to create chaos in Serbia and topple Vučić.
In the same context and period, Sergei Zheleznyak, deputy chairman of the State Duma, Russia’s lower parliament house, launched another accusation, about a series of protests in Belgrade under the symbol of a yellow duck, at which representatives of the U.S. State Department were present as ‘observers’. Such protests, along with the protests in Banja Luka (Bosnia) and Macedonia, “bear all the hallmarks of operations carried out by external forces aimed at destabilizing the situation in the Balkans,” he said. In fact, Russia has interposed itself as the protector of the legitimate government against a potential “color revolution” manufactured by Washington and Brussels.
Zheleznyak also gave instructions on how to deal with “foreign agents”: “Our country and our party have extensive experience in successfully fighting similar attempts to interfere in our internal affairs. In 2012 in Russia a series of laws was adopted which make it possible to single out those NGOs engaged in political activities, and whose funding comes from abroad,” he said. In his opinion, “a consolidation of all healthy social forces is urgently needed, on the basis of ideas and values that unite the nation and distance it from the attempts to impose unacceptable outside solutions”, the “unacceptable outside solutions” being all that comes from the West, in this case from the EU and NATO.
The Russian propaganda outlets also “warn” about the West’s intention to provoke a new Balkan War, by fomenting a wave of violence unfolding in Skopje, Banja Luka, and Belgrade. Their idea is to “show” that the governments in Macedonia, Republika Srpska, and Serbia are “weak” and that they need foreign “help” or intervention.
The U.S. is accused of pursuing a dual track policy towards the Western Balkans, by simultaneously trying to gain influence over the targeted states while also working to destabilize them. Washington would like to be able to seize control of these governments so that it can then exert indirect proxy influence over Russia’s proposed Balkan Stream gas pipeline and China’s Balkan Silk Road high-speed railway or cancel them outright. In this sense, the U.S. is supposedly trying to achieve a ‘win-win’ policy whereby it either controls the Balkan Megaprojects or destroys them, which in either way works to Washington’s unipolar strategic benefit.
Russia’s support for Serbia’s position on Kosovo and the opening of an RT office in Belgrade, in 2015, also exemplify the efforts to leverage influence on Serbian nationalist parties and the population. Much of the evidence concerning the linked nature of these manifestations of political warfare lie below the surface, but there is enough out in the open to show that Moscow will continue to contest the Balkans and seek every means possible to destabilize this vulnerable region.
A “new cold war”
Local analysts also point that Brexit and the eventual postponement of the EU enlargement are most likely to turn the Western Balkans into an area of a “new cold war” between the West and Russia.
Russia and Serbia have been traditional allies for centuries, and currently Serbia has closer ties with Russia than any of the other nations of the former Yugoslavia. It essentially represents Russia’s only reliable ally in mainland Europe and as a result, is of crucial importance to Russia and its desire to expand or at least maintain its level of influence in the Balkans and Europe as a whole.
The December 2015 invitation to Montenegro to join NATO means that Serbia would be surrounded by either full-fledged NATO members or states that have explicitly expressed their desire to join the alliance. In this context, Croatia’s declared desire to purchase ballistic missiles can be interpreted as an additional pressure that NATO is putting on Serbia and by proxy, Russia. In such a case, Serbia will have little choice but to abandon its current stance of Russian-aligned neutrality and the Russian Federation would be deprived of its main European ally.
Without a pro-Russian state in the Balkans, Russian influence in Europe would be greatly reduced, as well as its ambitions to establish a Russian sphere of influence in the region. Additionally, the loss of Serbia would make impossible for Russia’s building a gas pipeline through the Balkans and into Europe.
The speculations of a “new cold war” were also fueled by CIA director John Brennan’s visit to Sarajevo during the spring of 2016. Brennan flew into Sarajevo directly from Riyadh where he accompanied the U.S. President Barack Obama and attended a meeting of the regional Arab security heads.
While some experts claimed that Brennan’s visit to Sarajevo should be viewed in the context of the recently completed operation “Balkan Trigger” which involved more than 5,000 police officers in several countries and was directed against weapons smuggling, other observers put that visit in connection with the fact that the 20 years long CIA’ intelligence domination over the large portion of the Balkans is being increasingly challenged by the Russian involvement.
Using “old cold war” techniques
Russia’s plan to counter NATO’s expansion into the Western Balkan countries has its origins in the grassroots movement that arose in the aftermath of the “first” Cold War, which called for non-alignment and cooperation with both East and West. This desire for non-alignment is a continuation of the policy of Tito’s Yugoslavia during the Cold War. However, these groups were overwhelmed, in terms of both financial and propaganda resources, in the 1990s by pro-NATO forces in the West.
Creating and using small political groups for influence has been used by the U.S. and NATO intelligence services in the East-Central European states since the collapse of communism, when small parties were formed with the money coming from the various ‘black budgets’ with the task of entering the governing coalition and then steering the entire government in a specific direction charted by their foreign founders. The Russians (primarily, the SVR and the GRU) are currently using the same methods for their own interests.
- The process of building up pro-NATO sentiment in the media and NGO sectors, as well as a large number of politicians to favor NATO membership used a technique called by the U.S. intelligence community ‘seeding’: identifying potential agents of influence at an early stage and then acting to advance their careers. In the Balkans, the key role in the process of ‘seeding’ was accomplished by various institutes, conferences, retreats, grants, etc. According to intelligence sources, the long-time foreign minister and one-time prime minister of Montenegro, Igor Luksic, was a product of such a process. Luksic was chosen as a very young man to attend various conferences in Brussels and Washington and, after that, his political career really took off. All the while, he promoted the NATO agenda in Montenegro. Another example is Ranko Krivokapic, for over a decade speaker of the Montenegrin Parliament. He traveled on official business to the U.S. a few times every year and boasted to others that he had a lot of friends in the State Department and other institutions of the U.S. government.
- The forces seeking a non-aligned bridge role for the Balkan states suffered marginalization due to lack of resources. However, with increasing discontent with the weak economic prospects in certain Balkan states, combined with increasing instability in the EU, it is believed that there is an opening for growth of the movement. The opportunity is taken on by Russia, which turned its attention to the Balkans with a political force and funding that, according to local observers were “not seen since the days of Tsar Nicholas II.”
Just as the fundamental component of the U.S. grand design for the Balkans is its eventual full integration into NATO, Russia has articulated a clear and precise counter-design. Instead of joining NATO, the remaining non-NATO Balkan states (Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Macedonia) are to form an ‘alliance of neutral states’, or ANS.
The first formal document in which it has been articulated is the so-called Lovćen declaration, signed in the historically significant Montenegrin village of Njeguši on May 6, 2016. It was signed by the representatives of the United Russia party (founded by Putin and currently chaired by the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev) and the Montenegrin opposition party Democratic People’s Party.
The Lovćen declaration spells out in detail all aspects of political, economic, and social relations in which the Russian support will be forthcoming.
One of the most powerful political figures in Montenegro, the metropolitan Amfilohije, the chief bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, was present at the signing and gave his blessing. Though in the past Amfilohije has been known to support pro-NATO prime minister Milo Djukanovic, he has always publicly opposed a Montenegro NATO membership.
Amfilohije’s involvement with the Lovćen declaration reveals one of the fundamental components of Putin’s overall geopolitical plan: the nurturing and intensification of the religious Christian Orthodox connection between the Russians and the Orthodox peoples of the Balkans. This includes the Serbs, Montenegrins and Macedonians, but also the Greeks and Bulgarians whose states are in NATO.
Despite Russia’s efforts, until now no Balkan leader has shown willingness to make a foreign policy U-turn. In most cases, one witnesses a Tito-style balancing between Moscow and Brussels. Pressing issues, from economic growth to infrastructure development, to the recent influx of Syrian refugees reinforce the region’s orientation towards NATO and the EU.
Russia and the West share one rival in the Balkans: political instability. Located at the confluence of three historic empires, the strip of land between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea has long been the focus of competition among global powers. With both sides attempting to buy influence with investments and energy projects, internal political challenges threaten to undermine outside efforts to develop and shape the region. As major powers use their financial and political clout to gain influence in the Balkans, weak local governments will continue to balance among competing actors.
While Brexit strongly affected the EU’s position and influence in the Western Balkans, analysts point out that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s de facto leader, must step up to the challenge of leading the continent through this difficult phase of its history, and a good signal of Europe’s commitment to the European project is expanding it to the Balkans. A forthright plan for the Balkans will not only strengthen the EU, but also allow Merkel and her colleagues in Brussels to tackle growing anxiety, both in the United Kingdom and across the continent, about migration. However, the EU should not abandon its conditionality in the name of geopolitics. Brussels should resist efforts by Western Balkan governments to leverage the presumed threat of a takeover by Russia in obtaining a more lenient treatment with regard to the Union’s accession criteria.
It its turn, Russia may not overtly wish to overturn the regional order, but to bolster its alliances, deter the expansion of NATO and defend its economic interests in the Balkans. But regional disorder could still be the outcome. If Russia is cornered by the West over Ukraine, Moscow could trigger a serious regional crisis that embroils the EU and NATO, simply by giving a green light to the Bosnian Serbs, which is enough to trigger a domino effect.
The departure of the Republika Srpska would open up the question of Serbia’s borders and encourage Kosovo’s Serbs to separate themselves completely from their country’s Albanian population. This might make Serbia’s Albanian minority, who live in an enclave adjacent to Kosovo, to try a similar break from Belgrade. Macedonia’s Albanians would then try to separate from their Slavic compatriots, fuelling the creation of a “Greater Albania”. Bosnian Croats would seek to integrate their territory with Croatia. And many in Montenegro would seek close relations with an expanded Serbian state. The West would undoubtedly refuse to recognize any of this to prevent the onset of violence but the facts on the ground would speak for themselves.
Any new Balkan conflict would draw in a wider cast of players. Russia would not sit by and let others determine the outcome of events. The plight of Muslim Bosniaks and Albanians would draw in jihadists, as happened in the wars of the 1990s, only in much greater numbers. Meanwhile, several EU states would struggle to avoid entanglement. Croatia, which has recently adopted a more nationalist posture, would inevitably intervene in Bosnia on behalf of the Croat population. Bulgaria and Greece would take a keen interest in the fate of rump Macedonia after the departure of the Albanians.
As the EU loses its dominance in the Balkans, so the region’s unresolved nationalisms are returning to the surface on a bed of popular discontent. The Balkans have the potential to blow their problems back into Europe, entangling the EU in a new, potentially violent, regional crisis. Ideally, the EU would avert this possibility by fixing its internal problems, reviving the goal of enlargement and stabilizing the region by means of integration.