Another bad year for Balkans
BSSB.BE worldpoliticsreview.com 4-01-2019
Balkans Europe USA
* Are the Bad Old Days Coming Back in the Balkans? Maybe
In Dec. 14, Kosovo’s parliament took a step that the Serbian government had warned could lead to military intervention: It voted to form an army. Months after Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and his counterpart in Kosovo, Hashim Thaci, shared a stage and discussed ongoing negotiations to bring lasting peace to the Balkans, the region seems to be tipping back to the bad old days.
An outbreak of war is very unlikely in the near future, but it is increasingly apparent that Western policy toward the region is losing traction, compounding past missteps and leading to the weakening of the Euro-Atlantic project in a swath of Europe.
The Kosovo parliament’s vote would change a lightly armed, 4,000-strong “security force” into a professional army. The move has divided Kosovo’s Western supporters. The United States has backed it as “Kosovo’s sovereign right,” while NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned of “serious repercussions for Kosovo’s future Euro-Atlantic integration.”
Nearly 20 years after the end of the war between Kosovo Albanian guerrillas and Serb forces, and a decade after Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence, the country’s status remains disputed. Serbia still officially regards Kosovo as an inalienable part of its territory and retains strong influence in its Serb-majority areas. Russia, and to a lesser extent China, have blocked Kosovo’s membership in the United Nations, and even five members of the European Union still do not recognize its independence.
Vucic has said that he expects the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo to dissolve the “illegal” new army, while Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic declared that military intervention in Kosovo “is currently one of the options on the table.” The Serbian government claims that it fears that Kosovo’s military will be used in ethnic cleansing of the remaining Serbs in the territory, who number around 120,000 of an otherwise overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian population of 2 million.
The army decision comes weeks after Kosovo slapped 100 percent tariffs on Serbian—and Bosnian—goods. Despite U.S. and EU pressure, Kosovo’s prime minister, Ramush Haradinaj, has said that the tariffs will not be eased until Belgrade recognizes Kosovo’s independence. The tariff hike, which was extended to more goods on Dec, 28, came after Kosovo failed to secure Interpol membership. Kosovo blamed Serbia, which has successfully blocked Kosovo’s membership in a range of international organizations and pushed several countries to suspend or rescind their recognition of Kosovo’s independence.
The sharp decline in relations between Belgrade and Pristina is particularly striking since just a few months ago, there was mounting speculation that the two parties could actually reach a deal on normalizing relations.
- “The massive opposition in Kosovo and Serbia to the suggestion of territorial changes seems to have led to a dramatic deterioration in relations,” says James Ker-Lindsay, a specialist in the politics of Southeastern Europe at the London School of Economics.
- “There is no doubt that the tensions at the moment reflect major problems with how the international community is dealing with Kosovo and Serbia and the normalization of relations between them.” The situation, he adds, “is very dangerous.” Many people across the region, though, are left frustrated at the slow pace of EU accession and what they see as broken promises and vacillation from Brussels. This is particularly acute in Kosovo, where citizens still await the liberalization of visas, which would allow them to travel freely to much of the rest of the continent. Progress seems unlikely in 2019, with upcoming European Parliament elections and the appointment of a new European Commission.
Dodik and Republika Srpska’s government have become increasingly favorable to Russia in recent years, raising concerns about the Kremlin’s influence. “Russia is expanding its playground very, very strongly, and Republika Srpska is a bastion for Russia,” says Jovan Kovacic, the head of the Belgrade-based think tank East-West Bridge and a senior member of the Trilateral Commission, an international cooperation organization.
- This comes as EU and U.S.-backed attempts to reform political structures have stalled over the past decade, not least due to Bosniak nationalist opposition. “Following the wars of the 1990s, there are several cases of ‘unfinished business’ in the Western Balkans,” says Dejan Jovic, a professor of international relations and national security at the University of Zagreb.
- “They were all meant to be resolved by EU enlargement, at least in a European vision of the region’s postwar future.” But that’s lost momentum. The growing gap between the Trump administration and the EU, Jovic adds, has led to further complications, and regional and international actors are taking advantage.
Over the past two and a half decades, American intervention has often proved decisive in the Balkans. Yet on top of the still unresolved long-term issues, the Trump administration’s mixed messages have weakened Washington’s influence.
“U.S. policy has not so much changed as wobbled,” says one former U.S. government official specializing in the region who requested anonymity in order to speak frankly. “No one knows what U.S. foreign policy is. The administration does not have a unified voice.” National Security Adviser John Bolton “is fine if Serbia and Kosovo swap territory,” while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is not.
“Every administration has internal differences, of course, but this one crafts no policy outcomes,” the former official adds. “Despite our happy talk about the European path and our declarations that current statuses are final statuses, nothing is final south of the River Sava,” which flows through Croatia and marks the northern border of Bosnia and Herzegovina. “Borders, identities and rival agendas all remain up for grabs.”
Are there ways out of these current impasses? One solution, Jovic suggests, would be to absorb all of the Balkans into the EU as quickly as possible, despite clear failings in the rule of law and democracy in states across the region. Of course, this seems very unlikely, given skepticism toward enlargement within the EU. Jovic’s “second-best” scenario is cooperation between the U.S., the EU, Russia and Turkey as collective guarantors of peace and stability in the Balkans, which would be seen by many in the West as welcoming the foxes into the henhouse.
Kovacic insists there is too much at stake in the Balkans for the current situation to deteriorate much further, and that more backsliding will focus minds.
“I don’t expect any serious violence,” he says. “Tensions will be ratcheted up, but renewed talks between Belgrade and Pristina will happen, and Bosnia will be under great pressure to join NATO to solve the problem of Russian interference.” Another growing outside power, China, is investing huge amounts of money in the region, and it “needs stability.”
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