Although seventeen years have elapsed since NATO’s military intervention, policy makers should not assume that all conflicts in the Western Balkans have been assigned to history. Disputes continue to fester over statehood, territory, and political authority, compounded by the uncertainties of international integration.
The promise of EU and NATO membership has been the key incentive to democratize each state and promote inter-ethnic co-existence. Without that prospect reforms falter and local disputes are revived. In the wake of the EU’s existential crisis and preoccupation with “Brexit,” enlargement is not high on the Union’s agenda. It seems unlikely that any country can be considered for accession for at least a decade. Such receding opportunities for membership will undermine Balkan commitments to the rule of law and can result in democratic reversals.
The region confronts three kinds of danger: social unrest, minority turmoil, and foreign interference. In combination, such threats could destabilize some states and even provoke violent clashes. If local conflicts expand across borders, both NATO and Russia could be sucked into the escalating combat.
Several Western Balkan countries are currently stuck in a no-man’s land between democratic statehood and international integration. Two conflict scenarios in particular, in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia, need to be closely monitored and managed, as they would prove the most threatening to regional stability.
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the standoff between the Serbian entity (Republika Srpska, RS) and the government in Sarajevo may come to a head. RS representatives claim Bosniak Muslims are seeking to dominate the state and to minoritize the Serbs. If US and EU attention shifts away from the country, RS representatives may withdraw from central government institutions and stage a referendum on independence. This can sharpen political conflicts, provoke violence, and drag both Serbia and Croatia, a NATO member, into direct confrontation.
In Macedonia, Albanian frustration with government policy and political polarization among Slavs may disable the formation of a stable government following recent parliamentary elections. Albanian leaders can push for federalization or a two-entity structure and even declare an autonomous region along the Albanian and Kosova borders. In response, Macedonian nationalists would mobilize the public to defend the country’s territorial integrity. Neighbors could be drawn into the dispute, with Serbia offering assistance to Skopje against Albanian separatism, while Kosova and Albania, a NATO member, will seek to protect their ethnic kindred.
A persistently unstable Balkans radicalizes sectors of the local population frustrated with the political elites and with receding prospects for international integration. Balkan nationalism could then combine with political populism. Social unrest and a weakening government would also facilitate the infiltration of jihadist and other terrorists. Militant groups could target US and EU representatives or use the region to plan for attacks in the wider Europe. Balkan insecurity will also enable Russia to become more active and intrusive. The Kremlin may calculate that a Donald Trump administration may be less committed to the region and more willing to tolerate Russian involvement.
President Putin aims to maintain several “frozen states” in the Balkans to prevent Western integration, as is the case with Ukraine and Georgia. He encourages the autonomist RS entity to keep Bosnia divided and question its future as a single state. In Kosova, the Serbian minority is backed by Moscow as a repressed nationality in order to uphold the specter of partition. In Montenegro, Kremlin proxies were evidently behind a failed coup attempt in October, with the country on the verge of NATO accession. Moscow also manipulates Macedonia’s internal turmoil and its obstructed path toward NATO and the EU by the Greek veto.
Unresolved conflicts and disputed states empower the Kremlin and international terrorist networks to claim that NATO has failed to stabilize the region despite its military presence. Instability and escalating conflict will symbolize Western disarray and America’s decline and encourage ultra-nationalist groups and neo-imperial states to pursue their ambitions in other unsettled regions.
To prevent such a spiral of conflict, the incoming US administration needs to focus on four core policies that will simultaneously serve Balkan, European, and American interests. First, Washington has to avoid any display of military weakness or diplomatic withdrawal, as this will simply convince aggressors that they have the green light to precipitate conflict. US disengagement can incapacitate NATO and undermine America’s global stature and leadership role.
Second, Washington should continue working closely with Brussels and Berlin to push for reforms in all Western Balkan states in order to stimulate economic development and help stabilize the region. It is ultimately Europe’s responsibility to assist in institutional reform, but the US provides an essential supportive role at a time when EU leadership is viewed as weak and preoccupied.
Third, Washington needs to work closely with all governments to help secure the region from jihadist infiltration and enhance Western security. And fourth, the Trump administration should view South East Europe as part of a larger emerging market, increasingly interconnected through energy, transportation, and trade networks not only with the EU but with Turkey, the Middle East, the Caspian Basin, Central Asia, and China. A stable and secure Balkans will create fresh opportunities for investment and development across several potentially profitable regions.