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Perspectives for the western Balkans in light of the ongoing European crisis

All western Balkan states depend heavily on their cooperation with the EU. If the EU crumbles under the weight of the economic crisis, what fate awaits the countries of the former Yugoslavia?
Milan Marinkovic
1 March 2012

The Balkans – and its western part in particular - are usually considered the black sheep of Europe. The peninsula lags behind the rest of the continent in all respects save one: political instability. The First World War broke out there, while the Second was accompanied by local civil wars between the liberation army of Yugoslavian partisans on one side and various Nazi collaborationist forces on the other. Finally, when some two decades ago two major events - the end of the Cold war and the fall of the Berlin Wall - set the stage for an eventual unification of Europe, the western Balkan nations plunged into interethnic war, following the collapse of their theretofore common supranational state Yugoslavia.

Today all of the western Balkan states are aspiring to EU membership, some with more and some with less success in the process. Leading European countries basically welcome that aspiration, hoping that integration into the EU would eventually stabilize the turbulent region. But the Union is currently engulfed by a profound economic crisis which is increasingly threatening to put even the entity’s very existence into jeopardy.

Whether or not the EU will survive the crisis, one thing is sure: it will lose appetite for further enlargement at least for the next several years. Yet, the survival of the Union would, if anything, help the western Balkan states remain calm - insofar as this region can be calm anyway – by keeping their hope of the prospective accession alive.

But what if the United Europe crumbles notwithstanding all the efforts to the contrary? In terms of economic development, all western Balkan states depend heavily on their cooperation with the EU, whether through foreign direct investment or credits or donations. If these sources drew up, national economies of the region would be largely left to their fate.

Theoretically, that could result in two basic scenarios and several more sub-scenarios. If rational, the governments of the western Balkan states would seek to strengthen ties with one another, creating a customs union for example, in order to mitigate consequences of the failure of the European integration process as much as possible.

However, historical experience teaches us that rationality has never quite been a trait of most national elites in this part of Europe. Instead of improving overall relations in the western Balkans, the potential loss of the European perspective is more likely to resurrect retrograde ethnic nationalisms throughout the region. Although the focus is currently on Kosovo due to events in its northern area, the countries to which special attention should be paid are Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Serb nationalism involves two basic concepts. Conservative nationalists are expressively anti-western and insist on establishing the closest possible alliance with Russia in order to avoid any kind of westernization, as it “tends to deprive Serbian nation of its cultural identity and tradition”.  The moderate faction, on the other hand, advocates a more balanced approach to pursuing supreme national interests. One that manages to strike a balance between these two concepts – depending on which one prevails among people at a given time – is usually one that wins the election in Serbia.

What needs to be emphasized here is that the idea of 'greater Serbia' is something both conservative and moderate nationalists embrace, albeit with some differences between their respective strategies for its realization. While the conservatives believe it must be pursued by any means available, including war, the moderates propose that Serbia should be patient and wait for international circumstances to turn in its favour before taking more decisive steps.

The greater Serbia is envisioned to comprise all areas in the region where ethnic Serbs either constitute a majority or inhabit them in a considerable number. Serb nationalist ideologues vindicate the idea on an arrogant assumption that Serbs were those who had actually prevented the expansion of the medieval Ottoman Turkish Empire northwards into Europe, for which reason they deserve to be privileged over the other South Slavic nations. The animosity of many Serbian nationalists toward the western powers in many ways stems from the fact that the latter have never shown any understanding of such a line of reasoning.

Somewhat paradoxically, the notion of greater Serbia is more popular among Serbs in neighbouring Bosnia than in Serbia itself. And Bosnia generally represents by far the most complex issue in the region. The concept of a multiethnic state devised by the west has proved largely ineffective there, whereas the creation of a typical nation-state is also infeasible due to Bosnia’s ethnic structure which is such that no single ethnicity is numerous enough to form an overwhelming majority within the overall population. In a nutshell, whether Bosnia can grow into a viable state mostly depends on whether local Muslims and Serbs – Croats as well, though to a lesser degree - separated into two entities (Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Republika Srpska respectively), can reach a compromise on how the country should be restructured to suit the political interests of all.

Unlike Bosnian Serbs, which almost unanimously cherish the ambition to secede from Bosnia and subsequently unite with Serbia, Bosnian Muslims – commonly known as Bosniaks, although some of them oppose that term and simply call themselves Bosnians – are deeply divided on how their country should be organized and governed. While pro-western secularists are, logically, in favour of a civil secular state, nationalists insist that Bosnia should be the nation-state of Bosniaks just as Serbia and Croatia, for example, are nation-states of Serbs and Croats respectively (those more extreme even flirting with the idea of creating an Islamic state).

The specific ethnic composition of Bosnia, however, makes it absolutely impossible to build the nation-state in the traditional sense of the word even with the best will in the world, unless Republika Srpska is allowed to secede. Aware of this reality, some Bosniak political and religious leaders appear to be willing to assent to the secession of the Serb-dominated entity, but fear it would trigger a fierce reaction on the part of Bosnian Army veterans who were defending the country during the war in the 1990s.

Still, the possible upsurge of ethnic nationalisms in the western Balkans is highly unlikely to escalate into a war on so large a scale as the previous one, for there no longer exists such a preponderant military force, as was the former Yugoslav People’s Army, to be misused by any of the potentially belligerent sides. Even so, the possibility of armed conflict of lower or medium intensity cannot be entirely ruled out.

In point of fact, intrastate civil war in one or more countries of the region is more likely to burst out than conventional warfare between two or more of them. At least two major factors might contribute to such an outcome. First, there are a number of crime gangs armed with large amounts of illegal firearms, most of which were smuggled from various battlefields where many criminals were acting as paramilitaries in the last Yugoslavian wars. These gangs are growing increasingly nervous, since their slice of the cake has been reduced, even as the authorities have intensified the battle against organized crime following political pressure from the EU. The other factor pertains to generally unfavourable socio-economic conditions which seem likely to worsen even more in time to come. In combination with relatively weak and corrupt state institutions, these factors can produce an explosive mix. Albeit not ethnically motivated, the contingent civil war could at some point assume an ethnic dimension, especially in areas with mixed population.  

Even apart from the prospect of war, the abortion of the European integration process would undoubtedly upset the overall balance in the region. Even if only partial, an unintended political withdrawal of the European powers from the western Balkans – with an America that is preoccupied with exceptionally serious problems both at home and elsewhere - would certainly open a window of opportunity for some other players to pursue their regional interests more assertively.

In that case, Serbia would be inevitably pushed deeper into the Russian sphere of influence. It is worth noting that Serbia has already become dependent on Russia for energy supplies by selling the majority share of its oil monopoly “NIS” to the Russian behemoth “Gazprom”. Similarities between Serbian and Russian political and business elites are also indicative in some way. And even though Serbia is nowhere near as important for the Kremlin’s interests as some former Soviet states, Moscow is certainly not going to easily give up a last area in this part of Europe where it still can wield a considerable level of influence.

Yet, behind the scenes the relationships between the two countries are fraught with some degree of mutual distrust and hence not so firm as the Serbian political elite is trying to portray to the domestic public, playing on its widespread Russophile sentiment. Likewise, the Russians, though rhetorically supportive of Serb nationalism, are far from keen on the project of greater Serbia, unless it is under their full control.  

At the same time, Bosnian Muslims, being surrounded by a basically hostile neighborhood, would naturally come to lean on Turkey for protection. The increased presence of Ankara and Moscow in the affairs of the western Balkans could have manifold ramifications. Although historically Turko-Russian relations can hardly be considered friendly, it’s unlikely that the two states would be willing to enter any potentially exhausting regional dispute now that both are facing a number of sensitive issues domestically.

There is, for example, a possibility that, under certain circumstances, Russia and Turkey might initiate negotiations between Serbian and Bosnian Muslim political leaderships which, in an extreme case, could even result in an ethnic-based swap of territories, whereupon two new old states would emerge. Serbia would thus probably be allowed to annex a northern part of Republika Srpska, whereas Sandzak – a Muslim-dominated region in the southwestern Serbia – would be handed over to Bosnia in return.

Certainly, there are more than obvious obstacles – in the first place geographic and ethno-demographic - to the foregoing scenario, but if it nevertheless materialized, the region would be virtually divided into three geostrategic zones with incessantly seething tensions between them: greater Serbia, as a Russian puppet state in the East; a string of predominantly Sunni Muslim countries – Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania – more or less closely associated with Turkey, in the middle; and, finally, in the West, Croatia and, probably, Montenegro, unless pro-Serbian opposition there comes into power in the meantime, thereby further complicating matters (Montenegro is another state toward which the proponents of greater Serbia are showing aspirations with the aim of gaining access to the sea).

Of course, at this point it’s still too early to predict which, if any, of the scenarios described above is the most likely one. Yet, it is better to warn in advance than await the outcome with unfounded optimism. Until things become more clear, the most proper advice to those concerned with the western Balkan affairs would be to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

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