In Depth

Is trouble brewing in the Balkans once more?

More than 20 years after war divided the region, fears are growing that tensions could erupt again

When Donald Trump shoved aside the Montenegrin Prime Minister at a Nato meeting to celebrate the Balkan state's accession to the alliance last month, it was mostly seen as a sign of the US President's arrogance.

But analysts in the Balkans saw it as a symbol of the West's receding interest in a region where political tensions have been bubbling under for some time.

"Throughout history, the Balkans have produced their own crises that have often spilled over dramatically into other regions," writes former Serbian diplomat Vuk Vuksanovic.

"But the EU is currently preoccupied with finding solutions to its migration and economic crises, as well as seeing off the rise of populist forces and negotiating Brexit. Meanwhile, the United States is displaying less interest in Europe than it has at any time in recent history."

While "Trump may not have meant it," says Politico with "one push he inadvertently highlighted not only his own ambivalence about the alliance but the tribulations of many countries in Eastern Europe that, like Montenegro, believe they are increasingly in the crosshairs of Russia".

What's been happening in the region?

"As the influence of America and the European Union has receded in the western Balkans, Russia has been trying to fill the vacuum," says The Economist.

Last October, Montenegrin authorities said they had foiled a coup attempt they claimed was organised by Russian agents aimed at stopping its accession into Nato.

Opposition leaders called the claims "nonsense", but a source in the West told The Economist the evidence linking one of the coup organisers to Russian intelligence organs is "incontrovertible".

Separately in Macedonia, where authorities are struggling to form a new government following a political crisis in which ethnic Albanians have become increasingly disruptive, a series of documents leaked by the country's intelligence agency showed Russian spies and diplomats have been involved in a nearly decade-long effort to spread propaganda and provoke discord in the country.

Security officials also believe the Kremlin’s number one goal is to stop these countries joining Nato and to pry them away from the influence of the West, a charge Moscow heavily denies.

According to The Guardian, "the documents suggest Moscow has been seeking to step up its influence all across the countries of the former Yugoslavia."

US journalist Paul McCarthy, citing a poll showing Macedonian support for Nato membership is at its lowest level since 2008, says: "Russia has influenced public opinion among Serbs, Montenegrins and Macedonians to dampen enthusiasm for EU and Nato membership." 

In addition, ethnic tensions are rising in the region. In January, a Serbian train bearing signs saying: "Kosovo is Serbian" was sent towards the ethnic-Albanian region of Kosovo, plunging relations between the countries into crisis.

There was further unrest after Vetevendosje, a highly nationalist party led by Ramush Haradinaj, a former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, gained considerable ground in parliamentary elections this week.

“The situation is catastrophic,” said Haradinaj's colleague Belgzim Kamberi, an ethnic Albanian human rights campaigner and senior member of the party.

“Nearly two decades after war, this isn’t peace. The Albanian and Serb question is not closed in the Balkans; it’s Israel and Palestine in Europe.”

Meanwhile, Bosnia, a country split between two federal chunks – a Serb part and a Bosnian-Croat part – after the three-year war in the 1990s, "has never healed properly," says The Guardian.

A burgeoning Serbian separatist movement in the country prompted Norwegian foreign minister Borge Brende this month to announce extra funding to aid the country's accession into the EU.

"I am concerned that conflicts in the Western Balkans are developing by proxy. However, I am most worried about the development in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the conflict between Bosnians and Serbs has been exacerbated," Brende said, venturing that Serbs, after consistent threats of independence referendums, might eventually establish their own republic and in turn challenge the country's leadership.

Why are things coming to a head now?

Russia views Nato expansion in the region as an act of aggression and promised "retaliatory actions" after Montenegro was invited to join the alliance. Moscow has banned imports from Montenegro’s largest winemaker while the Russian foreign ministry warned tourists could "expect provocations and detentions" due to "anti-Russian hysteria".

The EU has also been accused of disengaging from the region and halting its enlargement programme after a difficult period in the bloc's history.  

"Brexit, the refugee crisis, and the rise of anti-EU sentiment in recent years have shaken the very foundations of the EU and further delayed the accession process for new member states," says McCarthey.

US support has been the "other stabilising force in the region", says the Financial Times, together with "the assumption that the US or Nato would intervene if conflict were to re-emerge - as they did in Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999".

However, the election of a president seen as having minimal interest in the edges of Europe has created an opening that "an an emboldened Russia is exploiting to push back against EU and US influence"

Adding to the geopolitical tensions, the Balkans has also been plagued by a poor economy and societal problems.

Bosnia-Herzegovina has a youth unemployment rate of 57.5 per cent, while Serbia, Macedonia and Kosovo hover around the 50 per cent mark.

"Poverty is rampant, and it is not strange that frictions are increasing. We are also witnessing a strengthening of extremist forces," Brende said alluding to reports of a growing number of jihadists in Kosovo.

What will happen next?

Senator John McCain praised the vote to allow Montenegro into Nato as "a strong message that Russia's malign influence in the region will not be tolerated, and that Vladimir Putin will not have veto power over the democratic aspirations of free peoples".

But the FT argues simply allowing accession to Nato is not enough.

"Much more EU engagement is needed," it says. "That includes close monitoring of developments, efforts to counter Russian disinformation, and frequent visits by European leaders and officials to provide reassurance that they still take the Balkans and its problems seriously."

EU officials also seem to understand the danger posed by  the institution's disengagement, with European Commission President Jean Claude-Juncker warning: "If we leave them alone - Bosnia-Herzegovina, Republika Srpska, Macedonia, Albania, all those countries - we will have war again."

Serb diplomat Vuksanovic says the EU "should not be surprised if stability in the Balkans deteriorates even further", giving certain countries "an incentive to pursue closer cooperation with Russia and other non-western powers."

Ideally, the EU would avert this possibility by fixing its internal problems, says Timothy Lees in the New Statesman

"Reviving the goal of enlargement and stabilising the region by means of integration, as has long been the plan," he adds.

"Yet, as matters stand, that looks like wishful thinking." 

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