A Way Forward for the Balkans?

Europe's New Plan Is Promising But Not Tough Enough

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

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