Why the Balkans are on a Glide Path to Collapse [III]

  • By Octavian Manea

The West has failed to resolve the underlying source of tension in the Balkans; the mismatch of ethnic and political boundaries.

Timothy Less, warns that the West has failed to resolve the underlying source of tension in the Balkans, the mismatch of ethnic and political boundaries. In the third part of the discussion (Read parts [i] and [ii] here ) with Less he states that as a consequence the Western settlement in the region “is beginning to crack as minority groups seek their own solutions to their specific problems”.


Where is the West in terms of stabilising the Balkans?

The West has managed to uphold a temporary peace in the Western Balkans by imposing itself on the region and building the basic institutions of state. However, I am not convinced that this is a permanent peace. This is because the West has failed to resolve the underlying source of tension in the region, which is the mismatch of ethnic and political boundaries. There are various minority groups living in the Western Balkans that would like to change the boundaries of the state in which they live because they feel insecure sharing a state with a majority group which does not respect their interests. The most obvious example is Bosnia, where the conflict of the 1990s never really ended, although it now plays out in the form of politics rather than warfare. But the same phenomenon also applies to FYROM and, in a slightly different form, to Kosovo. In this respect, it is possible, even probable, that conflict will break out again at some point in the future.

Did the Western settlement fail or is the current state of the region a product of EU enlargement fatigue and part of its own internal crisis?

Both statements are true. The settlement which the West imposed on the Western Balkans is unstable because it adheres to the administrative boundaries from the Yugoslav period rather than the desire of minority groups such as Croats and Serbs in Bosnia or Albanians in FYROM to live in secure nation states alongside their ethnic kin.

There was a context and rationale to the West’s approach back. Rightly or wrongly, Western policymakers believed that maintaining the Yugoslav-era borders after the collapse of the Yugoslav state was a means of promoting peace after the outbreak of war by creating a fait accompli of Croatia’s and Bosnia’s independence within their existing borders. This, they hoped, would persuade the Serbs that there was nothing left to fight for. A settlement based on the Yugoslav-era borders also satisfied the West’s desire to uphold international law, as interpreted by the Badinter Arbitration Committee; to promote justice, by not rewarding the Yugoslav National Army’s resort to murder and ethnic cleansing; and to promote multi-ethnicity as an international norm.

The problem, as I just mentioned, is that the settlement runs contrary to the wishes of minorities on the ground who do not feel they can realise the basic interests of any national group - namely their security, rights and prosperity - in a state dominated by another group. For what it’s worth, the same also applies to majority groups such as Bosnians, Macedonians and Kosovo Albanians who feel that their recalcitrant minorities stand in the way of building the stable and prosperous states in which they wish to live.

As a consequence, the West has been obliged to enforce its settlement. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it had to impose its will by deploying troops on the ground and establishing intrusive civilian missions in Bosnia and Kosovo. Then, in the late 2000s, after a few years of peace and the passing of the leading role from the US to the EU, the West chose to utilise the soft power of the EU enlargement process. This was intended to work in two ways. On one level, the EU offered the locals an implicit compact: accept the Western-imposed settlement and you can eventually join the EU (and NATO), with all the benefits this entails: work, prosperity, good governance and the opportunity to unite with ethnic kin inside a borderless Europe. On another, the EU hoped to change the region in the process of preparing it for membership by insisting on democratisation, economic reform and respect for human rights as preconditions for entry. In doing so, the EU believed it could transform non-consensual and dysfunctional states into the kind of prosperous, law-bound and humane polities where minorities would be permanently content to live.

For a while, this compact appeared to be working but it has started to break down in the last few years. For one thing, the EU’s prescriptions have not made the region prosperous or well-governed. The local economies have certainly grown, quite impressively in some cases, but the gains have not been evenly spread. Instead, free market reform has tended to enrich a small oligarchical elite, which now controls the institutions of state, while breaking the social contract that used to guarantee a basic standard of living to the rest of the population. This has undermined local consent for the compact on which regional stability depends.

But, more importantly, the enlargement process has effectively been suspended, probably permanently. The reasons for this can be described as enlargement fatigue, as your question suggests, although this implies several different things. Certainly, the EU is still experiencing difficulties in absorbing the first wave of accession states from Eastern Europe which, in aggregate, are still poorer, more corrupt and more authoritarian than their Western counterparts. There is also widespread scepticism about further enlargement into the Balkans, which is perceived as a source of many of the EU’s problems - especially since Greece’s mismanagement of its economy nearly felled (and could still fell) the euro zone. Now, on top of all this, the EU is beset by a multitude of problems - from economic stagnation in the Mediterranean to push back from Russia over Ukraine - which it cannot agree how to resolve and which have prevented European policymakers from thinking strategically about the future of the EU, including the question of whether it can and should enlarge into the Western Balkans.

As a consequence, we can see the Balkans becoming increasingly unstable. Since the EU apparently cannot offer the locals the security, prosperity and justice it once promised, they are starting to turn on their own governments, everywhere from FYROM to Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia. But something else is also happening, which is that the West’s settlement in the region is beginning to crack as minority groups seek their own solutions to their specific problems. This is most obvious in Kosovo and FYROM where the minorities - Serbs and Albanians respectively - recognise that a central government dominated by the majority group does almost nothing for them, but whose limited numbers mean they have no means to change it. Instead, we see them making demands for autonomy from the centre in order to break the influence of central government. Even though they are not working to any kind of master plan for a separate entity, this is state fragmentation by any other name.

In a time of renewed great power politics and competition, how is Russia going to exploit the emerging structural cleavages inside the EU and inside a European project that is in disarray? 

Russia is interested in the Balkans. Primarily its aim in the region is to bolster its alliances, deter the expansion of NATO and defend its economic interests. But I suspect Russia is also playing a strategic game in the Balkans, broadening its range of options in case it is cornered by the West in Ukraine. In the last few years, we have seen Russia cultivate its relationship with national groups such as Serbs and Macedonians and crucially, with the Bosnian Serbs. Among other things, Russia has feted Republika Srpska’s President, Milorad Dodik; shielded Serbs from accusations of genocide; called for an end to international supervision in Bosnia; and, if press reports in Belgrade are correct, encouraged Bosnian Serbs to press their demands for independence.

Why is Russia doing this? Perhaps there is no master plan. But if there is, Russia’s objective must be to keep Bosnia on edge so the Bosnian Serbs can make an eventual break at a time of Russia’s choosing. This would trigger a regional crisis that ties the West down, consuming its diplomatic and potentially military resources, and freeing up Russia to act more decisively in Ukraine. In this sense, Russia would simply be replaying its strategy of the 1870s, when it encouraged nations such as the Bulgarians to pursue independence in order to weaken the Ottoman Empire.

EU has a New Security Strategy. Will the Balkans become the test of EU foreign and security policy? 

I don’t attach a great deal of significance to the new security strategy and plans to create a European army. The EU is severely handicapped by internal divisions and it members cannot agree on even the most basic foreign policy positions, such as the nature of the EU’s relationship with Russia, its largest neighbour. Worse, whatever capacity the EU may once have had to project power externally is in decline because of its internal crisis. It is unable to think strategically about its role in the world; it is unable to enlarge; and it increasingly lacks the allure it may once have had for countries in its periphery, such as Turkey. As for an EU army, realising this will be a formidable challenge given the impending loss of the EU’s primary military power and the refusal of the rest of its members to commit sufficient funds to military spending. In this respect, I see the security strategy mainly as a bureaucratic exercise guided by true believers within the European elites who want to arrest the EU’s steady decline.

As for the Balkans, I think the EU’s ability to play the role of a peace guarantor is inevitably waning: witness its so-far unsuccessful attempts to end the political crisis in FYROM. This is not to say that the EU’s ability to uphold its settlement in the Western Balkans is completely spent because the refusal of its respective members to recognise any changes in borders means that minorities have no hope of gaining formal independence. But in the longer term, the EU lacks the power to stop minorities from functionally separating from the centre, and it is probably only a matter of time, and a change in geopolitical circumstances until they formally separate. History suggests that changes in borders in the Balkans come when there is a serious shock to the international system, akin to 1918 which created Yugoslavia, or 1990 which precipitated its collapse. In my view, the collapse of the EU, if it comes, would constitute a shock on the scale of these earlier events, leading to the final breakdown of the settlement we see today and the probable emergence of nation states, which is what minorities on the ground feel they need to guarantee their rights and security.

As an analyst, I am generally loath to give advice to policymakers. But if the EU and the US are serious about staying true to their goal of upholding peace in the region, they would do well to recognise that we are moving into a new political epoch in which the West’s ability to impose its will on the Balkans is breaking down; that the settlement imposed on the region after the collapse of Yugoslavia is unlikely to hold; and that it would be prudent to prepare for some kind of re-ordering to make sure that, when change finally comes, it happens peacefully rather than violently.

On the one hand, this means allowing some degree of fragmentation in the short term, whether that is the federalisation of FYROM, or the creation of a third entity for Bosnian Croats, while continuing to put a brake on the process by vetoing outright secession. And on the other, it means acclimatising groups such as Bosnians, Macedonians and Kosovo Albanians, to the probable loss of territory which they covet by abandoning the empty promise that the borders can never be changed and all will be well once the region joins the EU.

In this respect, the West’s engineering of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia in 2008, and its subsequent consent to the creation of self-governing enclaves for Kosovo Serbs are both steps in the right direction. In the meantime, Western policymakers would do well to plan (secretly) for how they might eventually resolve thorny issues such as the status of the Brčko District if and when Bosnia splits, rather than pretending to themselves that they have matters under control and that this will never happen.

 Is the multi-ethnic state an illusion/fantasy/impossibility in the Balkans and is multi-ethnic peace without an outside enforcer/balancer possible?

 No, it’s not impossible. The multiethnic state of Yugoslavia survived for eighty years and was relatively successful, certainly by the standards of Eastern Europe. However, as Tito’s method of rule makes clear, the stability of a multiethnic entity in the region requires a careful mix of balancing and enforcement, whether that is directed by an internal or external actor.

Why is that so? As an outside observer of the Balkans, I cannot claim to feel the emotions felt by the locals – their fears, their hopes, their sense of collective identity, and so on. But what I can see is that there has been a breakdown of trust due to a recent history of atrocities; and that the absence of a strong tradition of democracy and constitutional liberalism means that minorities in the region lack confidence in shared institutions to uphold their basic rights. This situation is unfortunate but manageable as long as each group can live separately and safely behind an internationally-recognised border. Diplomatic relations between Serbia and Croatia, or Serbia and Albania, or Albania and Greece are not exactly rosy but they are basically functional because none of them makes a formal claim on the territory of any of the others and everyone feels secure. Where matters get complicated in when territory is contested, as is the case in Bosnia, FYROM or Kosovo. In all these states, the territory occupied by the minority group is implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, claimed by the majority group, leaving the minority group feeling profoundly uneasy. This builds tension into the body politic of the state, which can only be held in check by some kind of high-level enforcement.

I recognise that this is a bleak caricature of the region and that many Western policymakers take the view that multi-ethnicity can be made to work with the right mix of sanctions and rewards. But this requires a permanent commitment by the West to managing the region, and a permanent brake on its political and economic development. It is impossible to square the goal of multi-ethnicity with the simultaneous goal of democratisation if the West denies minorities their most basic political goal which is the security of their territory. And the evidence from the last twenty years is that fears about security crowd out virtually every other political issue, allowing nationalists and strongmen who promise to protect their populations to run the economy corruptly in their own interests, without much objection from the majority of the people.

Does your reading of the events rehabilitate the ancient hatreds theory?

 I hope not. For one thing, the various Balkan nations have only been in competition over territory since the collapse of the European land empires and the rise of nation states in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. That is hardly ancient history. But more importantly, the problems of the Balkans do not derive from some kind of national character defect that predisposes the locals to violence. Instead, their predicament is a geopolitical one, namely that they are prevented by outside powers from making the transition to nation statehood, which is the norm everywhere else in Europe and, despite greater mixing of populations in recent years, still constitutes the basic organising paradigm on the continent. In this respect, I am optimistic that, when Serbs, Albanians and Croats are able to live securely in properly-constituted nation states, the Balkans will calm down.

Can we talk about a state-building malpractice or a nation-building malpractice? What can be learned from Western interventionism in the Balkans?

I don’t think it’s worth paying too much attention to the minutiae of the state-building process. It’s tempting to think that, if only the West had done this or that differently - waiting a little before holding elections in Bosnia, for example, or putting a bit more pressure on Serbia to recognise Kosovo’s independence - that things might have turned out differently. But this approach assumes that the failure to build viable multi-ethnic states lies in the details when in fact the problem is a fundamental one – that sizeable minorities in Bosnia, FYROM and Kosovo do not recognise the legitimacy of the states in which they find themselves after the collapse of Yugoslavia and do not wish to be part of them.

In this respect, the problem of state-building can be traced back to the very beginning. At the point where Yugoslavia first began to disintegrate there were two potential settlements. The first was the emergence of nation states, comparable with those in Western and Central Europe, which was the solution pushed by Serbian and Croatian nationalists. And the second was the emergence of multi-ethnic states based on the old administrative borders from the Yugoslav period.

For a while, both settlements were possible and the West was willing to accept whatever the locals could agree among themselves. The problem is that the locals could not agree among themselves and that disagreement eventually turned to armed conflict. At this point, for the noblest of reasons, the West made the wrong call by recognising the independence of Croatia within its existing borders, and later all the other Yugoslav republics, on the assumption that the locals would be willing to accept a shared fate inside a common state and that multi-ethnicity was a viable organising principle. Instead, this approach was to have tragic consequences by increasing the sense of vulnerability felt by the various emergent minority groups, fuelling violence in the short term and creating dysfunctional states thereafter.

It is hard to draw lessons from the experience of the Balkans which could be applied to other scenarios around the world. However, I deeply regret that the West acted prematurely to recognise Croatia within its republican borders back in 1991, something that set in motion a catastrophic series of events which, sadly, may require another round of violence to finally resolve.

Read all three parts, of the discussion with Timothy Less, here

Timothy Less is the director of the Nova Europa political risk consultancy. Tim spent a decade working as an analyst, diplomat and policymaker at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office where, among others things, he ran the British Embassy Office in Banja Luka (Bosnia and Herzegovina) and the EU Institutions Department, and served as the Political Secretary at the British Embassy in Skopje (FYROM).