Beware of viewing Balkans as new front in Russian-NATO proxy war
In an effort to hit back at the West for its support to Ukraine, Russian commentators are clearly eager to cast the disputes and recent flare-up on the Serbian and Kosovo border in the former Yugoslavia as a potential theater of Russian-NATO proxy conflict.
That does not, however, mean that Western policymakers should do the same. Russian abilities to affect the situation on the ground in the Balkans are in fact limited; and by the same token, a Western campaign to reduce Russian influence will also not produce solutions. The region does indeed suffer from colossal problems, and presents colossal problems for Western policy, but these issues are locally generated and must be solved — or rather managed — in accordance with local realities.
The frozen conflicts of the western Balkans have their origin in the Ottoman and Habsburg empires, and their disintegration. This legacy includes a disastrous combination of deeply intertwined nationalities and especially strong ethno-religious nationalisms. The resulting conflicts were suppressed under Communist Yugoslavia, itself a kind of empire with a kind of state religion.
With the end of the Cold War, both Communism and the U.S.-Soviet strategic balance that had helped to preserve an independent and united Yugoslavia also came to an end. The result was a series of civil wars, which were ended — or rather suspended — by NATO military interventions in which U.S. forces played the dominant role.
In the case of Bosnia, the West created an exceptionally complicated kind of power-sharing confederation between Serbian and Croat-Muslim ethnic republics, held in place by an EU peacekeeping force backed by NATO and supervised by a “High Representative” selected by the EU. This arrangement has not permitted serious reform. Serbian Bosnian forces are now working actively to destroy it, and the Croats are making very little effort to make it work.
In Kosovo, NATO backed an Albanian rebellion against Serbian rule and eventually recognized the independence of the territory. This violated previous Western promises during and after the war to keep Kosovo an autonomous part of Serbia, and was opposed by a range of multi-ethnic states around the world (including Russia, China, and India, but also five EU members) with their own reasons to fear ethnic separatism.
Their opposition means that Kosovo has not yet been admitted to the United Nations. Kosovo is protected from Serbian revanchism by a small NATO peacekeeping force, which also serves to protect the remaining Serbian minority in northern Kosovo that is closely linked to Serbia and in practice largely autonomous. The precarious and volatile nature of Serb-Kosovo relations was, however, illustrated last September when a move by the Kosovo government against Serbian vehicle license plates triggered a dangerous crisis. After tensions boiled over last week on the border, the Kosovo government tabled their plans.
The real hope for the solution to — or at least the fading away of — the region’s ethnic conflicts, however, lay not in the arrangements put in place by the West at the end of the Balkan conflicts, but rather in the incentive that resolution of their disputes would result in their eventual admission to the European Union, with all the vast economic benefits that this entailed.
Nor was this hope an irrational one. If there is a solution to the festering wounds of the western Balkans, it lies through the EU, not NATO. The EU accession process played a large part in preventing ethnic conflict elsewhere in eastern Europe. Indeed, the common EU membership of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland contributed to the eventual Northern Ireland Peace Agreement, and Brexit risks re-igniting that conflict.
The problem in the western Balkans, however, is that the countries of the region are not moving towards qualification for membership of the European Union, and their own hopes of membership have also faded. The EU, from this point of view, is quite different from NATO. Accession to NATO today requires at least superficial commitment to democracy, minority rights, and free market capitalism; but far less than the EU’s Acquis Communautaire, with its thousands of highly detailed and specific regulations, to which aspirant members must legally accede.
Quite apart from the region’s ethnic conflicts, extremely high levels of corruption, “illiberal democracy” and cultural conservatism in Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Albania make EU membership a distant prospect, if not an impossibility. Nor is increased democracy the answer, given that hardline nationalist positions enjoy massive popular support in the countries concerned.
An additional factor in EU resistance to admitting more Balkan countries has been a widespread feeling in Western Europe that Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria were admitted to the EU prematurely and have failed to stick to the conditions of membership: in the case of Hungary and Poland, because of authoritarianism and ethnic chauvinism; in the case of Bulgaria and Romania, corruption and governmental dysfunction. Rather than solving the problems of the Balkans, further EU enlargement could contribute to further dividing and paralyzing the EU.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has further disturbed this already murky pond. Sympathy for Ukraine has led the EU to promise Kiev an accelerated path to EU membership. This has led to hopes in the countries of the western Balkans that they too might receive early membership. In practice, however, Ukraine remains very far from meeting the conditions of the acquis Communautaire in terms of domestic reform; and, as long as the war continues, domestic reform along EU lines is in any case unrealistic.
This dilemma has led President Emmanuel Macron of France to suggest that Ukraine could join a form of outer circle of the EU, with fewer qualifications and also fewer rights than full membership. It seems questionable, however, if the promise of such third-class EU membership would satisfy the peoples of the western Balkans enough to get them to abandon their fundamental ethnic claims against each other.
Russia’s ability to exploit this situation is limited. On the one hand, popular sympathy for Russia and hostility to NATO in Serbia (and to a lesser extent Montenegro) and among the Serbs of Bosnia is extremely high. Serbia has refused to join Western sanctions against Russia, and in return has received a three-year guarantee of Russian gas supplies.
On the other hand, the Serbian government has been anxious not to destroy its relations with the EU and has taken no concrete steps to help Russia. Moreover, the geopolitical (and geographical) limits on Russia’s ability to help the Serbs were vividly demonstrated when all the countries surrounding Serbia are NATO members and last month barred Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov from overflying their territories to reach Belgrade. They would obviously do the same in the case of any Russian attempt to help Serbia in a new Balkan conflict.
But this does not mean that the West has the power to solve these frozen conflicts. It would be better if the EU, and NATO’s European members recognized two things: that this region demands a long-term and patient Western strategy of management backed by military commitment; and that this is primarily the responsibility of Europe, not the United States.
In the event of a new crisis, Americans would be correct to reject new military commitments when America’s European allies have more than adequate resources to do this themselves. During the Bosnian civil war of the early 1990s, the Europeans failed utterly in this regard. If they were to do so again, the entire moral foundation of NATO would be called into question.
Artin Dersimonian contributed to the research for this article.