Supporters of Serbian ultra-nationalist leader Vojislav Seselj light flares during an anti-government rally in Belgrade, March 24, 2016.
Marko Djurica / Reuters

Over the past year, a number of incidents in the western Balkans have raised concerns that the region might be in for renewed conflict. In January 2017, in a provocative stunt orchestrated by the Serbian government, a train set to run from Belgrade to North Mitrovica in Kosovo was plastered with signs in more than a dozen languages controversially declaring that “Kosovo is Serbia.” The Serbian government halted the train’s journey only after Kosovo authorities threatened to do so themselves—and by force, if necessary. A few months later in Macedonia, a group of thugs, let in by members of the ruling nationalist party, VMRO-DPMNE, stormed the Parliament, beating up and threatening the lives of opposition deputies and seeking to prevent the formation of a new government. Just a few weeks ago, a leading Kosovo Serb politician, Oliver Ivanovic, was shot and killed in broad daylight in Mitrovica by unidentified gunmen. 

These and a dozen other small incidents have driven home the message for the United States and the European Union that leaving the Balkans outside of Euro-Atlantic structures carries significant risks. In response, there has been a flurry of renewed activity, beginning with the completion of Montenegro’s NATO membership in June 2017 and the EU’s recent reengagement in the Balkans. The EU has offered an updated and considerably more robust strategy for the region, including a new approach for joining the union, the details of which it released this Tuesday. The question remains, however, whether the new strategy will do enough to change the dynamics in the region.

The new EU strategy rightly recognizes that the problems the Balkans face are rooted in the way the region is governed and in its general democratic decline: state capture, serious political interference in the media, and a number of bilateral disputes stemming from the legacies of the wars in the 1990s, for example. State capture became openly visible in Macedonia under the previous government when wiretaps revealed that Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and his entourage had not only put pressure on judges and newspapers by threatening or bribing them but had also bused in ethnic Macedonians during the 2013 local elections to vote multiple times using fake IDs. In other countries, such as Bosnia, Serbia, and Montenegro, there are widespread reports of vote buying; and the hiring and firing in public administration is often based on party membership.

And yet, although Europe has identified the region’s problems with great clarity, the proposed responses lack teeth. A new framework and greater scrutiny for the rule of law, for example, offer little direction on whether or how governments that fail to live up to EU standards will be named and shamed. If there is state capture, those involved must be identified. As a diplomatic document, the strategy fails to mention those who have been entangled in corrupt practices, and it is not clear that the EU will be able and willing to confront such individuals more frankly and directly. It promises more ad hoc missions that will identify shortcomings in the rule of law, such as the one it had successfully conducted in Macedonia. Whether the EU will make these reports public, and thus allow for civil society to use them to pressure their governments, remains unclear. The EU, because it is not a single actor, must consider the different and at times divergent positions of its members and is thus often forced to moderate its tone when it comes to the Balkans. In addition, for the sake of not losing a potential future member, the EU tends to trod carefully on delicate issues affecting the region.

In fact, the democratic decline in the Balkans has been complicated by the formal commitments the governments have made to EU accession and their promise to maintain stability. In March 2016, for example, at the request of the Austrian government, Macedonia closed its borders to prevent refugees from heading into Europe. In exchange, the Macedonian ruling party, despite being involved in what the EU described as state capture, secured public support from Sebastian Kurz, then Austria’s foreign minister and currently its chancellor. Similarly, the Serbian government led by President Aleksandar Vucic, who has overseen the erosion of independent institutions and curtailed press freedoms, has enjoyed public support from key EU members. Vucic, for example, met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel less than a week before his election as president in April 2017, after promising to improve relations with Kosovo and turn his back on Russia. 

The renewed rivalry between Russia and the EU and the United States has also become intertwined with rising authoritarianism in the Balkans. Russia has played the role of spoiler by launching anti-EU disinformation campaigns and by supporting political allies and thuggish nationalist groups, as well as by engaging in limited economic partnerships in the region. That said, Russia has not been the cause of the recent crises. It has merely opportunistically used the disinterest of the EU and the United States to its own advantage.

That is why it is vital for Washington and Brussels to step up their efforts to reengage the region. In the past, the United States has been key in keeping up the pressure on the Balkans and being less diplomatic than the EU. Since being punished with (mostly symbolic) U.S. sanctions in January 2017, Milorad Dodik, president of the Republika Srpska, one of Bosnia’s two entities, has visibly toned down his calls for an independence referendum. Last year, two political crises, one in Albania and one in Macedonia, were resolved largely thanks to U.S. diplomacy. In Macedonia, then U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Brian Hoyt Yee brokered a transfer of power to the opposition following the storming of Parliament, whereas in Albania he negotiated an agreement allowing the opposition to participate in parliamentary elections. If the EU fails to give its strategy bite, it will fall to the United States to ramp up the pressure—and it is not yet clear whether the Trump administration is willing to continue playing this role.

The thorniest issue over EU enlargement is what is described as “bilateral disputes,” such as over borders, the rights of ethnic minorities, the independence of Kosovo, diametrically opposing views of what happened during the wars of the 1990s, and myriad other unresolved questions. The EU had ignored such problems for years, but its new Balkan strategy puts these regional tensions at its center. And yet the solution—an EU commitment to letting countries join as soon they are ready rather than admitting all six western Balkan countries simultaneously—will create problems. The approach appears reasonable, in that it encourages competition and could thus spur the states to achieve reforms more quickly, but the risk is that the more difficult cases, such as Bosnia and Kosovo, will be left behind. Once Serbia joins the EU, it could then use its veto powers to draw further concessions from both countries. Serbia would not be the first country to use its asymmetric power as a member, and there is no reason to expect it not to. This could easily lead to a new round of regional tensions and bilateral conflicts. How to avoid kicking these disputes down the road remains unaddressed in the strategy. 

A more immediate test case will be the long-standing dispute between Macedonia and Greece. Since Macedonia declared independence in 1991, Athens has opposed the new country’s name, arguing that it implies a claim on the eponymous Greek province and monopolizes the Macedonian identity. As a result, Greece has long linked Macedonia’s ascension to the EU with a modification of its name. Now, after years of impasse, the new Macedonian government, which took office shortly after the aforementioned storming of the Parliament, has reached out to Greece to resolve the conflict. Although the two have made progress in recent months, opposition to compromise in both countries, but particularly in Greece, has been strong. In Athens last week, thousands of Greeks followed a call by nationalist and far-right groups and parties, as well as the Orthodox Church, and took to the streets, demanding that no concessions be made. If the talks fail, this will be a major setback for the new reform-oriented government of Macedonia. More importantly, it will further delay its NATO membership, which had been promised a decade ago, and the start of talks for EU membership. Such a holdup would cause the new strategy of the EU to ring hollow: it would show how easily committed reformers can be defeated. So far, the EU has not been involved in the talks, as the dispute involves a member state. But key members, such as France and Germany, need to throw their weight behind the resolution that both governments have been moving toward. This includes a new name that offers some qualifying terms, such as “Republic of New Macedonia” or “Upper Macedonia.” Even if the two leading European powers cannot end the dispute, they could facilitate a more step-by-step approach to joining the EU, by allowing Macedonia to begin membership negotiations and then move toward a final settlement down the road.

Although a new Balkan war is and was not in the cards—nobody has the appetite or the means for such a conflict, nor would it be clear what the region would be fighting for—the real danger lies in the proliferation of small-scale incidents, which would gradually erode the peace arrangement that ended the wars of the 1990s. These incidents are not mere one-offs but the byproducts of a marked democratic decline in the region. Thus, the tensions in the Balkans will turn 2018 into a pivotal year for the EU: renewed EU engagement in the Balkans could break the downward spiral of authoritarianism and escalating crises and restore faith in the EU model, or it could go the other way, generating a rise in autocracy that lends greater space for spoilers, such as Russia, to increase their influence. That is precisely why it is so vital for the EU, and its partner, the United States, to get their Balkans strategy right and make it work.

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  • FLORIAN BIEBER is Professor of Southeastern European History and Politics at the University of Graz and coordinates the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group.
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