Timothy Less

The Balkan Tinderbox

Ethnic and nationalist tensions are drawing the region back to the 1990s.

The Balkans appear to be reaching a crunch point as the multi-ethnic settlement imposed on the region in the 1990s finally breaks down. The region today comprises five fully independent states, the disputed entity of Kosovo, and half a dozen national groups which haphazardly straddle regional borders. Albanians make up the majority in Kosovo, a quarter of the population in North Macedonia and form an enclave in Serbia. Serbs live in Bosnia, Kosovo and Montenegro and Bosnia has a large population of Croats. This is a source of persistent tension. In the inhospitable environment of the Balkans, with its legacy of inter-ethnic conflict and weak tradition of constitutional liberalism, no one wants to be a minority in someone else’s state.

When Yugoslavia collapsed 30 years ago, the various groups attempted to establish nation states in which their rights and safety would be assured, but this process was blocked by the West. In 1994-95, the US intervened in Bosnia to ensure the country remained intact, motivated by a wish to impose justice on the Serbs for their campaign of ethnic cleansing by denying them independence. Subsequently, the West was forced to defend the integrity of other states in the region to uphold its position in Bosnia, initially by means of NATO troops on the ground and subsequently by the soft power attraction of eventual EU membership. For a while, this was accepted by the locals, who saw integration with an internally-borderless EU as a quasi-solution to the unresolved national question.

However, these constraints are now falling away. The US is no longer practically committed to upholding the integrity of the Balkans, having signalled its wish, initially under Donald Trump and now Joe Biden, to disengage from peripheral regions where the US lacks core strategic interests. Meanwhile, years of crisis mean the EU is now too weak to integrate the Balkans without inflicting a potentially fatal blow to itself and, at a summit in Slovenia in October, effectively withdrew its earlier offer of EU membership. As a consequence, regional actors have little reason to abide by Western leaders’ insistence that they suspend their national goals.

The breakdown of the current regional settlement established in the 1990s has long had an air of inevitability about it, deferred only by the ability of the West to contain the Balkans’ unresolved nationalisms.

On the contrary, they are now reviving their unfinished business from the 1990s. In Kosovo, Albanians are trying to impose their authority on the Serb-populated north of the country, unfreezing a dispute which has remained frozen for the last two decades in which Kosovo has been functionally independent from Serbia, but the north has been functionally independent from Kosovo. Events turned ugly in September when Priština tried to consolidate Kosovo’s border with Serbia, leading to demonstrations by Serbs on the Kosovo side. In October, a raid by Albanian armed police into northern Kosovo killed one ethnic Serb and injured several others.

This has caused alarm in Serbia which worries about the security of the Kosovo Serbs and refuses to allow the north to come under the sovereignty of Priština. In response, Belgrade has threatened to annex northern Kosovo, something which would have been impossible a few years ago but now constitutes a credible threat. There is little chance of the US retaliating, as it did in 1999 with its 78-day bombing raid on Serbia. Nor does Serbia have anything meaningful to lose from the Europeans now that the option of joining the EU has been taken off the table. In the meantime, Serbia has the backing of Russia and China.

Events in Kosovo are also drawing in Albania. As Serbia threatens Kosovo and the US and EU offer only passive opposition, Priština is looking to Tirana, its most reliable ally, for security and political support. For its part, Albania is content to provide this guarantee to fellow Albanians who are in obvious difficulty. Leaders in both countries now talk openly of national unification which would overcome Serbia’s refusal to recognise Kosovo’s independence and bring its people under Albania’s protective fold. In October, Kosovo’s prime minister said he would vote for unification in any referendum. In November, Albania’s prime minister stated it was only a matter of time.

Meanwhile in Bosnia, the Serbs are making a decisive push to break their links with Sarajevo, by withdrawing from the shared institutions of government and threatening outright secession.
They too have little to fear from the US and little to lose from the Europeans while seeing events in Kosovo as a new opportunity. By creating a fait accompli of their independence, the Serbs can hope to jolt a tired West into accepting a land swap between Republika Srpska, which wants to be part of Serbia, and Kosovo, which wants to break free of it, thereby solving the Serbian national question and the West’s two biggest problems in the Balkans.

Other states in the region are not immune from pressure. Montenegro’s large Serbian minority is trying to move the country closer to Serbia against the will of many ethnic Montenegrins. As the Serbs disengage from Bosnia, Croatia is demanding greater autonomy for the country’s Croatian minority who do not wish to be left alone without the Serbs to balance against the Bošnjaks. Meanwhile, the prospects of Albania and Kosovo uniting is creating new pressures in North Macedonia and the Preševo Valley in Serbia where the local Albanian populations would like to be part of any new Albanian national state.

In Bosnia, the Serbs are making a decisive push to break their links with Sarajevo, by withdrawing from the shared institutions of government and threatening outright secession.

In the West, officials are viewing events with growing alarm, especially in those countries which played an important role in shaping the current regional settlement and fear renewed conflict if Serbia occupies northern Kosovo or Bošnjaks attack the Bosnian Serbs. In late 2021, the US, the EU and the UK all appointed special envoys to the Balkans, with the goal of containing the Bosnian Serbs and neutralising the dispute between Serbia and Kosovo. Its goal is an agreement in which Belgrade recognises the breakaway territory and Priština grants autonomy to the Serb population. Both the US and Germany have threatened sanctions against local revisionists.

Yet these expressions of resolve remain at odds with the political reality of a West which lacks the will or the wherewithal to uphold the integrity of the region. Even as American officials reinforce their position on the ground, the senior leadership continues to look to the EU to provide salvation for the region. Meanwhile, Europeans are openly divided about how to respond to the nationalist challenge. Liberal states such as Germany insist on the territorial integrity of the region while Hungary, Slovenia and other conservative-minded states have indicated their willingness to accept a reordering of the Balkans along national lines. If Germany imposes sanctions, it will have to do so unilaterally, setting back plans for greater EU cooperation in foreign policy.

All this has two near-term implications. The first is that regional stability is likely to become even more precarious as revisionist groups test the resolve of the West by pushing matters to the brink. And the second is that events in the Balkans will put pressure on a West which is ill-prepared for an escalation of tensions in the region. The breakdown of the current regional settlement established in the 1990s has long had an air of inevitability about it, deferred only by the ability of the West to contain the Balkans’ unresolved nationalisms. As that ability wanes, 2022 will reveal whether the region is now approaching its eventual moment of truth.

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