Trouble in the Balkans

Since the conclusion of the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, ethnic conflicts have lingered but remained under control in Eastern Europe. This year, however, has seen rising European nationalism and political turmoil spread into the Balkans.

Image Source: Business Insider

Territorial disputes and internal divisions have shaken the fragile status quo in the former Yugoslav areas, raising fears of broader violence.

In Macedonia, an attack last month on Parliament by right-wing protestors injured 100 people, including prominent government officials, after an ethnic Albanian was elected as speaker by the Social Democratic Party. Meanwhile, Serb minority groups in Bosnia, egged on by Russia and Serbia, are agitating for independence.

Moldova is countering a separationist movement of its own from renegade province, Transnistria. Moldovan authorities have agreed with Ukraine to establish joint border controls and encircle Tiraspol (the self-proclaimed capital of Transnistria), which would mark the first time since 1992 that federal troops have entered the area.

Neighbouring Kosovo, which achieved full statehood in 2009, is edging closer to joining “Greater Albania” – the proposed re-unification of Albanian populations into one state – with the backing of the Albanian government. This is also seen as a bargaining chip for Kosovo in its bid for EU membership which is likely to fall short.

According to the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research, a total of 18 ongoing territorial disputes have been reported in the Balkans. These are complex to reconcile, but the driving force behind most of these movements is the desire for autonomy from minority groups, many of which were marginalized or displaced in the formation of Yugoslavia and subsequently during the atrocities of the 1990’s. With the confusion that has resulted in Europe from the Brexit decision almost a year ago, the EU’s authority across the continent has steadily unravelled. The confluence of economic stagnation, the influx of Syrian refugees, and ever-present terrorist threats has birthed large-scale populist movements disrupting the democratic order. As European cohesion has been strained, so too has the ability of its leaders to influence smaller states and reign in nationalist impulses.

By extension, American influence in Europe has all but disappeared; with the bulk of military and strategic resources committed to the Middle East and towards North Korea, any initiative in Eastern Europe is an afterthought.

This has been the fate of the Dayton Accords which, established under President Clinton in 1995 to end the Bosnian War, lack a 21st century enhancement and a long-term strategy for peace. John McCain, now Senator of Arizona, decried the changing dynamic in a Washington Post column last month, urging some restoration of American leadership to South-Eastern Europe in particular, which would entail assistance to uphold the rule of law and counter corruption, as well as more frequent visits by US statesmen. This “Euro-Atlantic” mission would require the EU to remain open to admission of the Balkan countries that wish to join. Of course, such policies would align with American self-interest, as they would neutralize the effect of an expansionist Russia in the region.

Serb communities, many of which still harbour resentment towards NATO for the 1999 liberation of Kosovo and the subsequent bombing of their mother country, have been the focus of Russian interference. The New York Times comments that in pursuing regional hegemony – the region in this case including Montenegro, Croatia and Macedonia in addition to Bosnia and Kosovo – Serbia is essentially acting as an agent of Russia. Its orientation has historically been toward Russia, and the two share a military alliance, with Putin’s regime arming Serbia while reportedly inciting Serb insurgents, encouraging them to obstruct legislation and undermine institutions in their areas. Russia’s Balkan exploits seem part of a broader effort to reassert military and geopolitical strength, but the Kremlin has also realized an opportunity to exact “vengeance on NATO, the United States, and the West.” Kosovo’s statehood in particular is a thorny issue for Russia (in addition to Serbia), serving as an embarrassing reminder of the end of the 1999 Kosovo War when its attempts to occupy the region were thwarted by NATO, which has acted as protector-in-chief ever since.

Could Serb-inspired hegemony across the Balkans prompt a second proxy war between the United States and Russia? While the potential exists, such a conflagration scenario seems unlikely at present. The Trump administration has been anything but predictable, but democratic stability in South-Eastern Europe is clearly not a priority. Neither is honouring the original NATO agreement, which Trump has steadily disparaged since the US Republican primaries. It is thus difficult to foresee an American-led “Euro-Atlantic” mission gaining much traction; it seems to be wishful thinking by the very neo-liberal, pro-globalization, establishment that Trump has squared off against. However, should Russian and Serbian interference in the Balkans go unchecked, it could elicit further sectarian violence, destabilize several governments and shatter the semblance of order that followed the last major conflict. The responsibility lies with the leaders of the West – with or without the United States – to restore and preserve stability in the Balkans. A globally-backed initiative focussed on sustained, long-term peace must be established.

Kabir Vassanji

Kabir Vassanji

Junior Editor at InPRA
Kabir Vassanji graduated from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, with a degree in Finance and International Business in 2015. He has interned in the fields of wealth management and capital markets, and now works at an investment bank. His areas of interest include finance, economics, technology, and foreign affairs. Particularly of interest is the intersection of finance and macro-economic policy, within his home country Canada, as well as in emerging markets. In exploring these topics with InPRA, Kabir hopes to enhance his writing and research skills to complement his quantitative background.
Kabir Vassanji

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