The western Balkan outlook: beyond 2005

Andrew Wachtel
9 November 2005

If the current situation in the western Balkans were to be described using the vocabulary of a weather forecaster, the word “unsettled” would come immediately to mind. While at first glance, things look fairly calm with only scattered clouds visible, there is a serious risk of violent thunderstorms accompanied by potentially destructive winds, particularly in the central and southern regions.

The proximate causes of this political/meteorological volatility are external to the region (emanating from Europe and at the United Nations), most importantly the rejection of the proposed European Union constitution by voters in France and Holland in May-June 2005 and the decision by the UN on 24 October to give the green light for talks on Kosovo’s final status. The precise effects of these external factors, however, depend on the specificities of the western Balkan landscape.

Among openDemocracy’s articles on the past, present and future of the Balkans:

Alix Kroeger, “Bosnia’s war of memory” ( August 2002)

Carl Bildt, “Europe’s future in the mirror of the Balkans” ( April 2003)

Dusan Velickovic, “Belgrade: war crimes in daily life” ( June)

Ivan Krastev, “The European Union and the Balkans: enlargement or empire?” ( June 2005)

Ed Vulliamy, “Srebrenica: ten years on” ( July 2005)

James Walston, “Kosovo: the end of the beginning” ( October 2005)

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Starting from the north, Slovenia has successfully removed itself from the Balkans - if it ever was part of the region - by entering the European Union and successfully reinventing itself as “ Alpine”. Its southern neighbour Croatia is in the next best position of the former Yugoslav Balkan territories; as opposed to Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, and even Macedonia, Croatia behaves as if her future fate is in her own hands rather than being at the mercy of outside forces.

Thus, despite decidedly mixed messages from the European Union regarding Croatia’s chances for membership in the Euro club, and despite fairly broad swings of public opinion regarding the desirability of joining that club, the government of Ivo Sanader continues to prepare the country for Euro-integration. This is unquestionably a good move, for even if EU membership stalls, the vast majority of reforms that the EU demands will have a salutary effect on the country: improving Croatia’s economic viability, making the country more attractive to outside investors and tourists, and eliminating the remaining deleterious legacies of the Franjo Tudjman regime.

But even if Croatia succeeds in implementing all the necessary reforms, the chances of admission to the EU in the near future are fairly dim. Croatians are well aware that the failure of the EU constitution has been interpreted by leading European political figures as a vote against further expansion. And even though overwhelmingly Catholic Croatia, with its relatively small population of 4.5 million, cannot be perceived as posing either a cultural or economic threat to the EU, securing the approval of all twenty-five member- states (or twenty-seven assuming that Bulgaria and Romania are admitted, as promised, in 2007) will be exceptionally difficult.

Croatians worry, and rightly so, that their country will become a political football, at the mercy of any member-state whose government wants to demonstrate that they have listened to the “will of the people.” Nevertheless, after a summer of record tourism on the Adriatic, with the controversy over war criminals in abeyance if not resolved, with a stable and clearly maturing democratic system, and at least some steps taken in controlling the corruption that had been rampant under the Tudjman regime, the skies over Croatia look as if dotted only with cumulous clouds of good weather.

Bosnia and Kosovo

The same cannot be said of Croatia’s neighbours to the south and east. Here the most worrisome overall trend is a seemingly unalterable stasis and an unwillingness to take full responsibility for their own future both on the part of political leaders and the general population.

Thus in Bosnia, ten years after the Dayton accords that stopped the bloodletting everyone understands that the makeshift constitutional structure provided by the international community cannot remain in place forever; but there appears to be no consensus as to how to get from present point A to some future point B. The departing high representative, Paddy Ashdown, continues to try mightily to cajole and sometimes force integration, but his efforts are almost always met by foot-dragging, grumbling, and at least passive resistance.

With nationalist political parties in control almost everywhere in the country, it is clear that fear of change rather than hope for the future is the operative mode for Bosnia’s voters. Political stalemate fuels economic stagnation as well, and thus despite billions of dollars of investments from the international community, the country’s unemployment rate hovers at 40% and some 60% of young Bosnians say they do not see any future in remaining in their country.

Unfortunately, it is hard to see what would force a significant change in the status quo. As opposed to Kosovo, where there is momentum for a long-term solution even if it is unclear what that solution will be, no one appears powerful enough to break the logjam in Bosnia. The international community seems content to allow the situation to remain more or less stagnant as long as there is no immediate fear of violence, pushing for slow incremental change in the hopes that the local populations will eventually see that they must take the initiative to integrate their country if they can ever hope for a better future. Local politicians tend to resist any change, however, preferring to control the limited resources at their command, while too few of the population at large have the inclination or the leisure to demand or create alternative structures.

In Kosovo itself, thanks in part to the threat of violence from the Kosovar Albanian community, the international community has finally given consent to talks aimed at devising a long-term solution to the province’s future. There is still a great deal of uncertainty, however, as to what sort of solution can be proposed, because the positions of the Albanian majority and the Serbian minority remain very far apart. To put it in the crude terminology of the internationals, the Albanian community wants “independence without standards” and the Serbs want “standards without independence.” The goal of negotiations is, presumably, to force the Albanians to make enforceable and concrete promises to the Serbian minority before independence is granted, while convincing the Serbs that independence is inevitable.

Matters are complicated by the fact that the Serbs themselves are divided, with some Kosovar Serbs inclined to cut a deal while others, supported by Belgrade, remain obstructionist. A final impediment is that it remains unclear who can in fact bestow independence on the Kosovars. Presumably, Serbia has the right under international law to accede to the creation of a Kosovar state. If the Serbs do not agree, however, it is unclear whether the UN security council members - particularly the Chinese worried about the status of Tibet and the Russians worried about Chechnya - would agree to create a precedent whereby a sovereign state was compelled to give up territory merely because the inhabitants of the territory no longer wished to belong to that state.

Serbia and Montenegro

Meanwhile in Serbia proper – still locked in uneasy political union with Monenegro - the two leading politicians, Boris Tadic and Vojislav Kostunica, vie for power by diverting the public from the country’s problems through endless sabre-rattling on the Kosovo issue and somewhat less frenzied concern regarding the possibility that Montenegro will declare independence. In such conditions, the best thing that could possibly happen for the health of Serbian politics would be some sort of external force that would create an independent Kosovo and Montenegro.

Were this to occur, Serbs might finally realise that they have lost once and for all their dream of a Serbia containing all historically Serbian territories, and get on to tackling the truly enormous problems of an economy in shambles and a society pervaded by corruption in all spheres of life (including, apparently, in some of the key government ministries). In the absence of such a solution, the stalemate that characterises Serbian political life, and reverberates throughout the country, will only continue.

Andrew Wachtel is director of the Center for International and Comparative Studies at Northwestern University, Chicago

Among his books are Making a Nation, Breaking a Nation: Literature and Cultural Politics in Yugoslavia ( Stanford University Press, 1998)

As for Montenegro, longtime political strongman Milo Djukanovic may finally get his referendum on independence in 2006, a referendum whose outcome is difficult to predict both because it appears that only a slim majority of Montenegrins favour independence, and because the EU continues to lobby hard against such a move. Still, it is hard not to sympathise with Montenegrins who find every attempt at real reform stymied by Belgrade.

A cloudy horizon

If this is the situation in the individual constituent parts of the region, what is the political weather like over the western Balkans as a whole? The defeat of the EU constitution has potentially changed the rules of the game for all of the players here. Although groups such as the International Commission for the Balkans (ICB) - which produced its report, The Balkans in Europe’s Future , in April 2005 - continue to agitate for a further expansion that would include the entire western Balkan region (see its recent open letter to the heads of government of EU member-states). The ICB’s argument that EU accession is the only possible positive way out of the status quo in the region is conveyed in a somewhat desperate tone, indicating an awareness that it is swimming upstream. And if the defeat of the constitution was not problem enough, the explosion of riots in France threaten to shelve any chance that Europe will be looking outward in the near future.

For many years, the carrot of potential EU entry and the stick of potential exclusion served to influence the behavior of rational political actors in the region (though it had little effect on leaders such as Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman). As the realisation sinks in that EU expansion in even the medium term is highly unlikely, the ability of EU policy-makers to influence Balkan states will probably wane. For example, to this point EU disapproval has so far kept the Montenegrin referendum off the table, and EU promises have served to preserve Macedonia’s integrity, despite ethnic tensions between Macedonian Albanians and Slavs that continue to simmer on the back burner.

The recognition that European Union entry is not on the horizon may well change the equation in the western Balkans with unpredictable results. It could serve to encourage countries in the region to develop closer ties with each other, attempting to solve their problems together rather than through Europe; or it may take the pressure off separatist groups and encourage further “Balkanisation”. It is difficult to predict which path will be taken: one lesson of the region’s history in the last fifteen years is that political forecasting is a dangerous art.

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