The western Balkans have reemerged as a geopolitical fault line. In recent years, as a number of the countries in the region—which comprises Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia—have dealt with corruption and economic stagnation, some of their leaders have reembraced ethnic nationalism, taking advantage of the undigested legacy of the conflicts that roiled the area in the 1990s to deflect popular anger from corruption and economic stagnation. Meanwhile, the European Union’s recent crises have slowed the process by which it sought to integrate Balkan states into its orbit and guide them toward good governance. Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia are formal candidates for EU membership, but officials in those countries have grown skeptical that their states will get to join the bloc anytime soon. That, in turn, has weakened the incentives for them to reform their countries’ corrupt, unresponsive political systems, exacerbating popular discontent and fueling nationalism.
Russia also remains unhappy with the dismemberment of Yugoslavia and the West’s willingness to use force against its clients in that country in the 1990s. Moscow’s efforts to gain influence in the Balkans risk exacerbating the region’s problems, giving Balkan elites a convenient excuse for putting off reform.
In short, much of the region is in danger of becoming a new gray zone: an area beyond the EU’s reach, vulnerable to Moscow’s influence, and at risk of domestic breakdown. To prevent the western Balkans from deteriorating further, the EU should reinvigorate its efforts to integrate the region, encouraging its leaders to fight corruption and demonstrating to ordinary citizens the benefits of reform and closer ties with Europe.
A BROKEN BARGAIN
The Balkan wars of the 1990s remain the darkest chapter in Europe’s post–Cold War history. More than 130,000 people were killed and millions were displaced in conflicts that engulfed Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia, and, briefly, Slovenia. Concentration camps returned to Europe. The fighting stopped thanks to a variety a NATO bombing campaign that in 1999 helped put an end to the war in Kosovo.
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