Members of Kosovo Security Forces during a celebration marking the eighth anniversary of Kosovo's declaration of independence, Pristina, February 2016.
Members of Kosovo's security forces during a celebration marking the eighth anniversary of Kosovo's declaration of independence, Pristina, February 2016.
Marko Djurica / REUTERS

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.


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 of diplomatic and military initiatives, including a NATO bombing campaign that in 1999 helped put an end to the war in Kosovo.

In the aftermath of these conflicts, Western governments sought to encourage the region’s states to ease their ethnic divisions through a program of economic and political reforms, pushing them forward by dangling the prospect of deeper integration into the Euro-Atlantic community. That strategy succeeded in the cases of Croatia and Slovenia, which joined the EU in 2013 and 2004, respectively, and today are mostly stable democracies with strong middle classes.

Farther south, however, the bargain that lies at the heart of the European strategy has largely broken down. Especially in the last few years, the EU has been too preoccupied with its own challenges—from the 2008 economic crisis and an influx of migrants to the rise of populist nationalism—to keep the pressure on western Balkan states to reform. The United States, meanwhile, mostly disengaged from the region after the end of the Kosovo conflict, preferring to outsource the heavy lifting to Europe. This is troubling because the structural problems at the root of Yugoslavia’s bloody collapse have not yet been fixed. The resentments linked to the conflicts of the 1990s linger close to the surface.

At a rally of the ultranationalist Radical Party in Belgrade, January 2008.
Marko Djurica / REUTERS

Among these structural challenges is the mismatch between the region’s borders and the locations of its ethnic populations, particularly its ethnic Serbs and Albanians. Serbian irredentism—or the belief that the borders of the former Yugoslavia should be revised so that all Serbs are united in a single state—was a major cause of the wars of the 1990s. It could be just as dangerous today: bringing all Serbs into a single state would require the dismemberment of several western Balkan states, which governments and non-Serb populations would likely resist, by force if necessary. The majority ethnic groups in states with Serb minorities, meanwhile, can draw popular support by stoking anti-Serbian sentiment, contributing to a vicious nationalist cycle.

Serbs represent around 30 percent of Bosnia’s population and are a large majority in the Republika Srpska, or RS, which makes up half of Bosnia’s complex federal structure. Macedonia and Kosovo, for their part, have tiny Serbian populations, but those communities are nonetheless politically important, thanks to their geographic concentration and opposition to the region’s postwar settlement. Indeed, in an echo of the tensions that brought violence to Yugoslavia in the 1990s, some Serb activists in RS and in northern Kosovo have been agitating for independence and eventual incorporation into Serbia—a move that would require further territorial revisions and would probably lead to conflict. One of the most outspoken proponents of a so-called Greater Serbia is RS President Milorad Dodik, whom the U.S. government sanctioned earlier this year for obstructing the implementation of the Dayton agreement, the 1995 accord that ended the Bosnian war, and who has called for holding a referendum next year on RS’ secession from Bosnia. Bosnian and Kosovar officials charge the Serbian government in Belgrade with providing arms to Serbian militants in their countries and fanning Serbian-minority nationalism.

There are also large ethnic Albanian populations outside of Albania—especially in Kosovo and Macedonia, where they make up around 90 and 25 percent of the population, respectively. Their political activism is less explosive than that of Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo, but it still has had important effects. After Macedonia’s December 2016 parliamentary elections failed to produce a majority for any party, for example, the Albanian government brokered an agreement between three of Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian parties: the parties decided they would  participate in the governing coalition only if they were granted a number of ethnically oriented concessions—among them, a constitutional revision that would make Albanian an official national language throughout Macedonia.

Macedonia’s non-Albanian parties and the country’s president, Gjorge Ivanov, reacted with fury to this proposal, which they viewed as a product of foreign interference. The deal offered by the Albanian parties, Ivanov and his allies claimed, would undermine the agreement that ended ethnic violence in the country in the early years of this century  by giving ethnic Albanians a special status. Meanwhile, the leaders of Albania and Kosovo condemned Macedonian officials for refusing to accept ethnic Albanian demands. Kosovo’s president, Hashim Thaci, suggested that “Albanians in Macedonia should take the fate of their rights into their hands.” When such ethnic tensions escalate within one state, they can reverberate across borders—especially when opportunistic politicians manipulate them for their own ends. 


The mismatch between borders and ethnic populations is hardly a new problem in the Balkans. The fact that it has become more important recently has much to do with choices on the part of the region’s leaders, who have sought to exploit nationalist sentiment to distract from their countries’ political and economic problems and their citizens’ doubts about the prospects of EU integration. It is no coincidence that ethnic nationalism has been on the rise throughout the Balkans since the 2008 economic crisis and as regional states’ paths to EU membership have become increasingly fraught.

Most of the countries in the western Balkans have serious economic problems. Joblessness, especially among young people, is one of them: 68 percent of Bosnia’s youth are unemployed, as are 58 percent in Kosovo, 50 percent in Macedonia, 41 percent in Serbia, and 17 percent in Slovenia. With so few opportunities at home, young people are moving abroad, worsening the region’s long-term economic prospects. Those who remain are often frustrated and angry.

Then there is the matter of corruption—a long-standing problem. In 2003, Montenegro’s leader, Milo Djukanovic, was charged by Italy’s Antimafia Commission with running a smuggling ring while in office. In 2015, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a watchdog group, named Djukanovic its “Person of the Year in Organized Crime”; Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski came in third. Albania’s ruling party has also been accused of having ties to organized crime. Harping on nationalist themes lets politicians distract voters from these problems.

Since the end of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, the prospect of EU membership and its associated benefits have been Europe’s most important incentive for encouraging Balkan leaders to make reforms and cooperate with one another. The perception that European integration is receding into the distance—a product of the bloc’s recent internal turmoil—makes officials less willing to do either of those things.

Consider the ongoing EU-sponsored talks between Kosovo and Serbia, which began in 2011 to address some of the practical challenges that arose from Kosovo’s 2008 secession from Serbia, such as the continued entanglement of the two states’ telecommunications networks. Serbia, which does not recognize Kosovo’s independence, sees its participation in those talks as a kind of down payment on its accession to the EU. But over the last few years, as EU membership has seemed less likely, the talks have become less productive as the Serbians have taken a number of provocative steps—notably painting a train in the colors of the Serbian flag and the slogan “Kosovo Is Serbia!” and sending it to the border.


Although the EU remains nominally committed to integrating the western Balkan states, the momentum of that project has slowed in recent years. Conscious of the rising anti-EU sentiment in many member states, EU officials and politicians have become reluctant to champion further expansion. Formal accession talks with Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia have yet to begin. Meanwhile, the EU’s statements about the region have grown increasingly formulaic, and Brussels has put off issuing its next assessment of the region’s progress until 2018. In response, citizens of the western Balkan states are growing less sure that their countries will ever become EU members.

As the EU has pulled back from the Balkans, Russia has become increasingly active there. Through economic aid, diplomatic support, and targeted communications, Western observers claim, Moscow has sought to turn public and elite opinion against Euro-Atlantic integration. The goal of these efforts is to weaken support for democracy and integration with the West and to reinforce the idea that the Slavic Orthodox peoples of the Balkans should identify with the “Russian world” Moscow seeks to build around its borders.

Protesters demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski clash with police in Skopje, Macedonia, May 2015.
Ognen Teofilovski / REUTERS

Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, make frequent visits to the majority-Orthodox states and entities of the Balkans—Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Bosnia’s Republika Srpska—and Russian investment has been flowing into the region, especially in the energy and infrastructure sectors. (In 2013, for instance, Russian Railways signed a $940 million agreement to modernize Serbia’s railways.) The western Balkan region is central to Russia’s plans to build new energy pipelines to Europe that bypass Ukraine—an initiative that the European Commission opposes. Meanwhile, drawing from a playbook similar to the one that sparked war in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Moscow has spread pro-Russian propaganda while reinforcing its support for politicians and movements that reject the EU-oriented status quo, such as the Serbian ultranationalist group Zavetnici, whose members posed for photos with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow in 2016. Russia has also backed Dodik’s obstructionism within Bosnia’s federal system, hard-line nationalist ideology in RS schools, and RS’ lobbying efforts in the West.

Moscow has not limited its influence to political and financial assistance. It also agreed to supply billions of dollars’ worth of heavy weapons to Serbia ahead of the country’s April 2017 presidential elections. (Like Serbia, Russia does not recognize Kosovo’s independence.) In 2014, a group of Russian Cossacks financed by the Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev—who has been accused by some in the West of being a principal conduit for funds to pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine—traveled to RS ahead of its presidential elections, which were held in October of that year. Leaked emails suggested that the Cossacks could have been used to stir unrest had Dodik lost.

Many local and foreign observers believe Russia was behind a failed coup attempt in Montenegro in November 2016, just ahead of a NATO summit that would ratify Montenegro’s membership in the alliance. Montenegrin authorities charged 14 people, including two Russian citizens, nine Serbians, and two pro-Russian Montenegrin activists with conspiring against the state.

Some Macedonians point to an increase in the size of the Russian embassy’s staff in Skopje as a sign that Moscow seeks more influence in Macedonia, as well. In early June, documents from the country’s intelligence services surfaced suggesting that Russia and Serbia had long sought to support anti-Western nationalists and “isolate [Macedonia] from the influence of the west.”

Although Russia is clearly interested in blocking the western Balkans’ path into the EU and NATO, officials in the region also have reason to overstate the threat posed by Moscow to maintain EU and U.S. support. Some observers have even questioned the Montenegrin government’s version of events surrounding the failed coup, blaming organized criminal groups for the plot and suggesting that the authorities exaggerated the seriousness of the crisis.

More broadly, even politicians who play up their connections to Russia understand that Moscow cannot offer the same financial and economic benefits as Europe. Less than ten percent of Serbia’s foreign trade is with Russia, whereas 64 percent is with the EU. Despite receiving Putin’s endorsement ahead of this year’s elections, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has been outspoken about the importance of EU membership for his country; a trade deal with Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union, meanwhile, has been announced but not finalized.

Vucic’s recognition that Serbia needs the EU gives Brussels leverage to push back against his country’s slide from democracy. So far, however, EU officials have been reluctant to use that leverage, fearing that Serbia and its neighbors will turn away from Europe and embrace Russia.


For two decades, the United States and the EU have helped preserve peace in the western Balkans. Yet the region’s engagement with the West has largely failed to improve the daily lives of most of its inhabitants. To more and more people in the region, EU membership seems distant—and irrelevant. And along with ethnic minorities and neighboring states, Europe has become a convenient scapegoat for politicians seeking to deflect blame for their region’s stagnation.

Nevertheless, EU membership remains the best way to promote reform and cooperation in the region. (Extending NATO membership to the region’s states should remain on the table, but the alliance should not prioritize doing so, since it would do relatively little to address the Balkans’ immediate problems.) The EU is based on the principles of pooled sovereignty and open borders. As the EU’s founders understood, this model represents the best hope for overcoming the fears and hatreds that led Europe to twice tear itself apart in the first half of the twentieth century and that still roil the western Balkans today. What’s more, aspiring members have to meet EU standards on democratic governance, the rule of law, the protection of human rights (including minority rights), and market-oriented economic policies.

Fulfilling these conditions and joining the EU would help Balkan states guard against instability on Europe’s southeastern flank. The alternative is to leave the region to fester. The western Balkans’ struggles with managing migration flows and countering jihadist radicalization have already made EU states less secure. The danger of a larger crisis stemming from some combination of nationalism, corruption, and Russian intervention is even more worrying.

Placing all six of the remaining western Balkan states on a formal path to joining the EU while providing concrete benefits and assurances that membership is possible along the way is essential. (Accession talks are under way with Serbia and Montenegro; Albania and Macedonia have yet to start accession negotiations, though they are formal candidates.) Brussels should do a better job explaining the benefits of integrationm, and senior European officials should be at least as visible as their Russian counterparts in the region. The EU should also consider making the western Balkans a priority in the bloc’s developing interest in defense cooperation. EU states should particularly focus on deepening defense cooperation with Serbia, both because of Belgrade’s strained relationship with NATO (dating to the 1999 bombing) and because having Serbia in the tent would make it easier to extend cooperation to other states with restive Serb minorities, namely Bosnia and Kosovo, in the future. The EU should also do a better job of providing concrete inducements for ordinary citizens, by, for example, funding the extension of the EU’s Trans-European Transport Network through the western Balkans. All of these steps should be conditioned on Balkan governments’ progress toward reform and regional cooperation. 

Indeed, even as Brussels works to make the Balkan states more resilient to Russian subversion, the West should not water down its demands for transparency and reform out of fear of losing the region to Moscow. Corruption and misrule are the most serious threats to the region; without them, Russia would have far fewer levers of influence. And although Europe should take the lead, the United States has a role to play, too. (The United States enjoys particular goodwill in Albania and Kosovo for its role in stopping the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo’s Albanians in the 1990s.) Washington should help the EU enlist the region’s citizens in the fight against corruption, working more closely with local civil society groups, for instance. Doing so effectively will require appointing more personnel to the U.S. State Department and preserving its funding.

Finally, the West should promote efforts to resolve the region’s lingering challenges—including the nonrecognition of Kosovo by a number of states; Macedonia’s dispute with Greece over its name, which is blocking Skopje’s path into NATO; and Bosnia’s sclerotic constitutional structure. For too long, the United States and the EU have tried to manage these challenges rather than resolve them, afraid of taking bold steps despite the leverage that Western financial assistance and the attraction of EU membership provide. Yet allowing these problems to linger exacerbates the region’s fragility. With the violence of the 1990s still close to the surface and Russia ready to take advantage of popular discontent, the United States and the EU must do more to show the citizens of the Balkans that a peaceful European future is still possible.

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  • JEFFREY MANKOFF is a Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
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