Early in 2017, headlines speculating about the possible outbreak of renewed war in the Balkans have popped up in the international press. Tensions that have been simmering in the Western Balkans in recent years are now gaining increasing attention in the sphere of geopolitics, particularly as they relate to the battle between the West and Russia for influence in the region. The West is now becoming increasingly concerned that Russia will stoke nationalism in the Balkans in order to ignite conflict, cause destabilization and consequentially halt Euro-Atlantic expansion.
While ethnic tensions are a core and explosive issue in the region, economic productivity, or lack thereof, may be as responsible if not more for the instability that exists in the Western Balkans. The region’s poor economic prospects have much to do with its unattractiveness to the European Union, as well as its vulnerability to extreme nationalism, Russian propaganda and, to a lesser degree lately, jihadist recruiters.
Balkan hot spots
Presently, the Western Balkans sits at the frontier of the Euro-Atlantic world. Croatia and Albania are members of NATO, and Montenegro is closing in on officially joining the alliance. Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia are nowhere near ready to join the alliance, and Serbia is not angling for NATO membership.
In terms of political orientation, all Western Balkan states aspire to join the EU, but only Croatia is currently a member of the bloc. With the possible exception of Montenegro, major obstacles lie ahead on the other Western Balkan states’ EU accession paths.
Several locations in the region are grappling with political instability and ethnic tensions that could potentially boil over into armed conflict. Much of this tension is concentrated in Kosovo and Bosnia.
In Kosovo, tensions spiked in January when the Serbian government ordered a train to travel from Belgrade to Mitrovica. The train was painted in the colors of the Serbian flag, and it contained the words “Kosovo is Serbia” in more than 20 languages. Belgrade ended up halting the train at the Serbia-Kosovo border as Pristina sent special forces to prevent the locomotive from entering Kosovo.
The train incident sparked a flareup in tensions between Belgrade and Pristina with Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic threatening to send troops into Kosovo to defend the Serb population. Kosovo’s president, Hashim Thaci, accused Serbia of attempting to follow Russia’s “Crimea model” by plotting to use force to retake the Serb-dominated north of Kosovo.
Belgrade and Pristina were already quarreling over a host of issues, including the creation of an association of Serb municipalities in Kosovo and the possibility of Kosovo having its own military.
Freedom of movement in Mitrovica, an ethnically divided city, remains another source of tension. The Kosovo Serbs erected a wall near the Mitrovica bridge — the landmark that divides the city between the Serb North and the Albanian South. The Serbs then tore down the wall following EU-brokered talks in the aftermath of the train incident. But, a fence remains on the Serb side, which prevents vehicles from crossing the bridge. The Mitrovica bridge is a location of previous violent clashes between Serbs and Albanians.
Some commentators say Russia is egging on Serbia to reclaim territory in Kosovo. But, as the New York Times recently noted, NATO troops are keeping an uneasy peace in the former Serbian province. About 5,000 NATO soldiers are still stationed in Kosovo.
In Bosnia, however, there is a much smaller NATO presence, and Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik has repeatedly threatened secession. Last September, Dodik held a controversial referendum in Republika Srpska that sparked talk of a regional war. Dodik receives political support from Russia, the only country that approved of the Republika Srpska referendum.
Bosnia’s other main entity is the Bosniak-Croat controlled Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. While the Bosnian Croat leadership is not threatening secession from the country, it is seeking the creation of a Croat entity. The issue is highly divisive, and it threatens to further erode the composition of the Bosnian state.
Some Balkan residents say there is legitimate risk for a new war. Others say the region has no appetite for another war.
Recent spikes in tension can be largely attributed to political maneuvering. During election season in Balkan states, politicians tend to turn to nationalist rhetoric to secure votes and remain in power. Both Serbia and Croatia held parliamentary elections last year, and nationalist rhetoric spiked during the respective campaigns.
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic maintains a balancing act of carrying out western-ordered reforms but also pleasing a sizeable nationalist electorate. Less than a year after securing a victory for his party in the parliamentary election, Vucic is now running for president. Some observers view the Kosovo train incident as an election ploy.
Although seemingly less volatile, ethnic division is also bubbling in Macedonia, where the Albanian minority comprises approximately 25 percent of the country. Albanians in Macedonia are currently battling to have Albanian recognized as an official language. The issue is further complicating Macedonia’s troubled political situation. Nearly two and a half months after Macedonia held parliamentary elections, the country still does not have a government. If either of Macedonia’s two top parties are to form a government without including members of the rival party, they need support from at least one ethnic Albanian party. Some view the Albanian language issue as a stepping stone to the federalization of the country — something Macedonian nationalists fiercely oppose.
Albania and Montenegro appear to have more stable outlooks. Despite the shortcomings of the EU, Albania remains a pro-western country. Montenegro appears to be on a western course, despite an alleged attempt by Russian-backed Serbian nationalists to assassinate former Montenegrin prime minister Milo Djukanvoic and stop the country from joining NATO. Many locals are skeptical of the story, but numerous arrests have been made in the case and western intelligence agencies say the plot was real and orchestrated by Moscow.
Still, economic problems linger in Albania and Montenegro — in spite of their Adriatic coastlines — as well as across the region.
Weak economies and vulnerabilities
Western Balkan economies are consistently growing, but they remain weak. In 2015, five of the six non-EU Western Balkan states ranked between 75th and 107th worldwide in GDP per capita, according to International Monetary Fund data. Kosovo was excluded from the data, but the World Bank previously pegged Kosovo slightly below Bosnia in per capita GDP. Bosnia (107th) ranked lowest among Balkan States on the IMF list.
Low wages and high unemployment continue to plague the region. Deindustrialization is visible in the region, and cafes are often busy with young people during workday hours. One can also find lines outside German embassies as Balkan residents apply for work visas.
Balkan states are taking steps to curb their economic issues. There appears to be a growing international trend in which countries are lowering their corporate and/or personal income taxes. Balkan states are ahead of the curve — at least in the western world — in that several of them have tax rates at 10 percent or even below.
Despite its political problems and its rather weak economy, Macedonia now ranks 31st worldwide in economic freedom, according to the Economic Freedom Index released last week by the U.S.-based Heritage Foundation. Macedonia has some free economic zones, and Skopje campaigns for businesses to open or relocate within its borders.
Kosovo (48th) joined Macedonia in the top 50 of this year’s Economic Freedom Index. Despite having political problems and lacking rule of law, Kosovo has a healthy fiscal situation, according to the index. Like Macedonia, Kosovo has flat 10 percent tax rates.
Still, the region remains economically troubled. The lack of prosperity likely bolsters the region’s appetite for nationalist rhetoric.
Also, EU states are turned off to immediate expansion in the Balkans due in part to the region’s weak economy. Many EU members believe, if the Western Balkan states join the union, there will be rapid migration from the region as workers seek employment and higher paying jobs in western and northern Europe.
Europe responds by pumping cash into the Western Balkans. The EU pays for projects like refurbishing the Mitrovica Bridge and constructing a promenade — albeit simplistic in appearance — in Tirana. More substantially, the EU is a primary trading partner for the Western Balkans. But, Brussels is not succeeding in its efforts to lift up the region.
Moscow, which is slowly emerging from a severe economic downturn, is offering the Western Balkans relatively little in terms of investment and trade. Rather than pumping cash into the Western Balkans, Russia is pumping in propaganda. A proliferation of Russian-sponsored and/or pro-Russian media outlets exists in the Western Balkans, particularly in Serb areas. These publications, like Sputnik for instance, highlight the failures of the EU to audiences that are becoming increasingly alienated by Brussels. Russian-backed media are also seen as playing a role in stoking nationalist sentiments in the region, further encouraging politicians like Dodik.
If the Western Balkans is going to stave off extreme nationalism — whether inside or outside of the EU — the region is likely going to need major economic advancement. Likewise, if the EU is going to navigate the process of more expansion, it too, must have more to offer economically.
For now, the European project is stagnating in a region of the world that is susceptible to violence and is in the sights of Moscow, which if nothing else, would like to stir the pot.