Balkan Beat



Janusz Bugajski, September 2020

The Greater Serbia project has been revived under the presidency of Aleksandar Vucic. But unlike during the Slobodan Milosevic era, the project no longer revolves around outright war, ethnic murders, mass expulsions, and territorial capture. The campaign now operates through three main principles – stealth, flexibility, and patience.

Under Milosevic, an enlarged Serbia was supposed to emerge from a crumbling Yugoslavia by seizing territories containing Serbian majorities from neighboring republics and murdering or expelling other ethnic groups to create Serbian majorities. The project failed largely because of the resistance of Croats, Bosniaks, Albanians, and Montenegrins, and eventual international military intervention led by the United States.

Vucic served as Milosevic’s minister of information and is therefore very familiar with disinformation and deception to achieve grandiose political goals. With his Progressive Party monopolizing Serbian politics and the opposition sidelined, Vucic has plenty of space to pursue Serbia’s mini-imperial Balkan ambitions.

Belgrade’s strategy revolves around three chief elements – weakening neighbors, duplicitous diplomacy, and Russian assistance. Serbia is in no position to challenge Croatia, which has achieved both NATO and EU membership, although it continues to acquire weapons from Russia and China in a mini arms race with its richer northern neighbor. Croatia has a much smaller and less compact Serbian population than during the Yugoslav era and there are fewer political and economic vulnerabilities that Belgrade can exploit.

The three main targets of the revived Greater Serbia project are Kosova, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Kosova cannot be reabsorbed by Serbia and opposition to any form of partition remains pronounced. Belgrade’s objective is to indefinitely delay a final settlement in bilateral relations and keep Kosova unstable and uncertain about its future. A weak Kosova enables Belgrade to increase its regional leverage.

Although Montenegro is a NATO member, Vucic’s policy is designed to subdue its sovereignty and subordinate its foreign policy. Serbian officials and media interfered in Montenegro’s recent parliamentary elections to promote the nationalist opposition. The new governing coalition can weaken the country’s Western orientation, especially if the Democratic Front (DF) exerts dominance in the new government. It is closely aligned with Serbian nationalist groups and Russian operatives and supports the Greater Serbia project. It will seek to strengthen Serbian identity in Montenegro and cancel the new religious property law. Bosniak and Albanian leaders will be especially concerned about rising Serbian chauvinism that could be directed against their communities.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is the third major target of pan-Serbianism. The country remains dysfunctional primarily because of the blocking policies of the autonomous Republika Srpska (RS). Its leader, Milorad Dodik, periodically threatens to secede and create a new Serbian state. The territory has a predominantly Serbian population following the war-time genocide of the Bosniak Muslims. Although Vucic avoids campaigning for Bosnian partition and absorption of the RS, the calculation is that a wider regional crisis and conflicts within Bosnia itself will provide future opportunities for secession when the West is distracted.

A second key component of Belgrade’s approach is duplicitous diplomacy. While claiming aspirations to EU membership and closer relations with NATO, Serbia seeks to balance the four major powers – Russia, China, U.S., and EU. It aims to benefit from each, diplomatically, economically, and militarily, in imitation of Yugoslavia’s strategy of non-alignment after Tito’s rupture with Stalin in 1948. This can also disguise and assist the pan-Serbian project if Belgrade gains support from major international actors.

The third factor that Vucic calculates will help his Greater Serbian agenda is Russian government assistance. Moscow views Belgrade as a useful tool to undermine stability in the Western Balkans, limit Western integration, and expand Russian influence. At some point, however, the Kremlin may try to push Vucic into a direct regional conflict that he has been seeking to avoid. Putin may exploit his even closer alliance with Banja Luka to push for the secession of RS and precipitate a chain reaction of conflict that will preoccupy both the EU and NATO.

Instead of direct confrontation that could provoke Western sanctions, Vucic prefers to operate by stealth and manipulate the vulnerabilities of neighbors. Instead of a direct assault on the integrity or sovereignty of nearby states, Vucic is flexible in diminishing their independence and encouraging nationalist disputes. And instead of a rapid pursuit of regional dominance, Vucic prefers to be patient, calculating that time is on Serbia’s side.


Janusz Bugajski, September 2020

Since the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s, American leadership has remained crucial for ensuring regional security in the Western Balkans. The meeting in the White House between Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosova Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti on 3-4 September demonstrates Washington’s commitment to resolving disputes that retard regional development and could again flare up into armed conflicts.

Talks between Serbia and Kosova to “normalize” their relations have continued sporadically since the Brussels Agreement in 2013. While the EU relaunched negotiations this summer after several years of drift, it is America’s involvement that ensures real impetus to a final resolution.

The core of the conflict is Belgrade’s stubborn refusal to recognize Kosova as an independent state. After NATO’s intervention led by the U.S. in 1999 to prevent genocide by the Serbian government of Slobodan Milošević against the majority Albanian population, Kosova declared independence in 2008. Its statehood has been recognized by the majority of UN members and all but five EU states. But instead of accepting reality and developing productive inter-state relations with Kosova, the Serbian authorities remain stuck in a Yugoslav nostalgia and cling to Serbian exceptionalism.

The White House summit specified various economic areas where the two countries can intensify their cooperationand a general list of initiatives was agreed. But the real significance of the meeting was twofold. First, it reaffirmed that American officials are convinced that only mutual recognition between Serbia and Kosova as two independent states will normalize relations between them.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo subsequently underscored the U.S. position in a private meeting with Prime Minister Hoti. Serbian officials had been hoping that the Trump administration would soften or even reverse its position on Kosova’s statehood and objected to the initial draft of the White House text, which stressed the importance of working toward mutual recognition.

In a second major step, Washington reiterated its commitment to expanding the number of countries that recognize Kosova’s statehood. The announcement in the White House that Israel will recognize Kosova’s independence was a significant breakthrough, especially as Kosova views itself similarly to Israel as a country created in the wake of genocide to defend the Albanian people. Serbia’s campaign of blocking and derecognizing Kosova in Africa, Oceania, and elsewhere has been contrary to U.S. policy and Belgrade pledged to freeze its efforts, at least for a year. Kosova will also desist from petitioning to join international organizations during the same period to show its good will.

Serbia’s most important supporter in trying to reverse Kosova’s statehood is Putin’s Russia. Moscow, together with China, continue to block Kosova’s membership in the United Nations through their Security Council veto. The Kremlin supports ultra-nationalist campaigns against Kosova’s independence throughout the Balkans, spreads disinformation about NATO and the U.S as the alleged enemies of the Slavic and Orthodox people, and injects its corrupt business interests throughout the region. The Albanian population has proved the most resistant to Russian inroads and remains staunchly pro-American.

In future meetings between Serbian and Kosovar leaders sponsored by the White House or the U.S. State Department, American officials need to focus on how to neutralize the hostile regional influences of both Russia and China in order to build a common pro-Western and Atlanticist front. Belgrade’s inadequate resistance to Moscow and Beijing and its willingness to facilitate Russian subversion through energy deals, arms contracts, and propaganda sharing contrasts starkly with the policies of Kosova, Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and other countries in the Balkans.

The EU also has a major role to play in resolving the Serbia-Kosova standoff and new rounds of talks are planned in the coming weeks. But Brussels needs to reinforce the principles laid out by Washington that the final status of Kosova is irreversible and that mutual recognition between Serbia and Kosova is the only logical solution. Such an achievement would not only normalize political relations but would also boost economic interactions between the two states.

Foreign investment is vital in economic developments, but business needs certainty about a stable political climate where all barriers on trade and travel are lifted, including Serbia’s acceptance of Kosova’s passports and other documents. Only a symmetrical relationship between two states that recognize each other can generate regional stability and economic progress. American leadership must remain focused on this goal regardless of which administration holds office after the U.S. elections.


Janusz Bugajski, August 2020

Montenegro’s general elections on 30 August are an important test not only for the country’s statehood but also for regional stability. Montenegro has been targeted by Serbian revisionists and Russian imperialists for freezing NATO enlargement and reversing the process of Westernization in the Western Balkans.

Since the failed coup attempt organized by Russia’s military intelligence during the last elections in October 2016, Montenegro has continued to be pressured to reverse its independence and accession to NATO. Serbian nationalists assisted by Moscow’s intelligence services, the Russian media, and President Vladimir Putin’s oligarchs conduct an intensive campaign against the government in  Podgorica and exploit any issues that can widen social divisions and discredit the authorities.

The Serbian Orthodox Church provides the impetus for public protests against a new law that aims to register all religious buildings and sites that were owned by the independent kingdom of Montenegro before it was absorbed bySerb-dominated Yugoslavia. Religious believers have been caught up in demonstrations against a law which the opposition depicts as anti-Serb and anti-Orthodox. In reality, it is important for any state abiding by the rule of law to trace the ownership of official property and whether it had been legally acquired. It will also be an important step in restoring Montenegro’s independent Orthodox Church, bolstering Montenegrin statehood, and reasserting the country’s distinct history.

The “pro-Serbian” political bloc is led by the Democratic Front and several smaller parties and coalitions. While somevoters support the opposition on religious or national grounds, others campaign against official corruption and assert that President Milo Djukanovic and the Democratic Party of Socialists have been in office for too long. However, such charges often disguise deeper political objectives.

Serbia-oriented political figures claim that Montenegro’s foreign and security policy must not conflict with that of Belgrade or Moscow. They allege that there is no distinct Montenegrin identity and that the government has betrayed Serbdom through its membership in NATO and recognition of Kosova as an independent state. They accuse the Alliance of war crimes in 1999 when it freed Kosova from Slobodan Milosevic’s occupation.

Serbia’s Orthodox Church provides an umbrella for the political opposition and the clergy interferes directly in Montenegrin politics with Belgrade’s blessing. The ultimate aim, whether through the ballot box or through a coup with subversive assistance from the Kremlin, is to establish a government that is subservient to Belgrade and remains passive toward Moscow. One cannot discount the possibility of another violent provocation either during or after the elections.

It is ironic how Serbian nationalists complain about the lack of democratic oversight in Montenegro by accusing Djukanovic of being a dictator, but fail to apply the same principles to Serbia, where a single party monopolizes politics and government institutions. Vucic can use his recently expanded election mandate in one of two ways. He can continue to support or tolerate Serbian groups that are determined to destabilize Montenegro, or he can act as a statesman by underscoring that Montenegro’s statehood is irreversible. His current policies illustrate that Montenegro, Kosova, and Bosnia-Herzegovina remain the key targets for an expanded Serbia project.

Vucic also has the power to place brakes on the provocative role of members of the Serbian Orthodox clergy. And if he is genuine in defending Serbia’s independence, he needs to learn from Montenegro in curtailing the subversive role of Russia in the country’s domestic and foreign policy. This will earn him a higher stature in the region and demonstrate that Serbia can be a factor of stability rather than a tool of Kremlin intrigue and destabilization.

In this vital election for Montenegro it is unfortunate that Albanian parties were unable to forge a single coalition and thereby gain additional parliamentary seats. Nonetheless, important tests lie ahead after the elections when Montenegro’s Albanian leaders must amplify their voice in support of trans-Atlanticism and against pro-Russianism. Whatever criticisms can be levelled against Djukanovic domestically he is a staunch defender of independence, regional security, and Western integration.

Albania would face a potentially hostile northern neighbor if the pro-Moscow opposition were to gain power in Montenegro. To better protect the region from all forms of outside subversion, Tirana and Podgorica will need to consolidate their cooperation in all aspect of security. The dangers will intensify in the wake of the pandemic and economic contraction.


Janusz Bugajski, August 2020

Politicians in Kosova have to put aside their partisan and legalistic disputes for the good of the nation and the survival of the state. With talks restarted between Kosova and Serbia under EU auspices it is important to examine the strengths and weaknesses of the two protagonists and how Prishtina needs to act to achieve its objectives.

Kosovar Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti has claimed that the meeting with Serbian President Aleksander Vucic in Brussels on July 16 initiated the drafting of a “final agreement” between Kosova and Serbia. This may be wishful thinking for two main reasons – Belgrade’s determination not to finalize the talks and Kosova’s persistent political divisions.

Kosova’s political leadership is fractured at a time when it urgently needs unity. President Hashim Thaci has been sidelined and is poised to resign because of Hague indictments over alleged war crimes. The main opposition leader Albin Kurti is attacking Hoti for his alleged lack of legitimacy, transparency, and unpreparedness for the talks. And Ramush Haradinaj and Fatmir Limaj, leaders of parties in the ruling coalition, claim they were not consulted in the appointment of Skender Hyseni’s as state coordinator for dialogue with Serbia.

Hyseni’s role remains unclear, whether as the coordinator of a technical dialogue or the negotiator of a final agreement. The lack of political consensus around the talks and over Hyseni’s role is a major gift for Belgrade. Hoti called for a parliamentary session about the Brussels talks, but this was not only boycotted by opposition party leaders but also by coalition partners. In these hostile conditions, one wonders how long the government with a narrow majority in parliament will actually survive.

The threat of government collapse and a further postponement of talks benefits Vucic who wants to restrict the negotiations to endless technical details. The strategy is intended to demonstrate that Kosova is a failed state, badly governed by squabbling politicians, a hub for organized crime, led by war criminals who are victimizing Serbs, and a source of regional instability. By arguing that Kosova is not a credible state, Belgrade wants the EU to abandon its conditionality in recognizing Prishtina and focus on supporting Serbia.

Belgrade’s ultimate objective is for Kosova to be so embroiled in internal conflict that the state ceases to function and the economy collapses. If Belgrade cannot regain Kosova then it wants to make certain that the country does not survive and will again raise the specter of a division of territory between Serbia and Albania as the only solution.

Confusion over the content of the EU talks also helps Belgrade. Following the July 16 meeting, Miroslav Lajcak, the EU Special Representative, stated that both leaders agreed to work intensively at expert level. Hoti dismissed the notion that this simply meant a continuation of a technical dialogue but would focus on mutual recognition. Vuciccontradicted Hoti’s statement that a final agreement is being drafted by the two capitals.

EU mediation efforts have rested on the assumption that Serbia will normalize relations with Kosova in exchange for EU accession. The problem is that Belgrade does not trust Brussels in delivering on such promises. Although Vucic publicly supports Serbia’s EU entry, it remains unclear whether he really want Serbia to join an organization that requires political accountability and economic transparency. Brussels is unlikely to approve the entry of a state where one party has a monopoly and where the rule of law is violated and the media stifled.

Unless the current Kosova-Serbia negotiations have a clear purpose and a deadline then they will continue to keep the region in a limbo. One solution would be an EU ultimatum that either Serbia recognizes Kosova as an independent state or EU-Serbia accession talks will be suspended while relations with Kosova will develop through visa liberalization and closer association. Unfortunately, Brussels lacks the courage to take such bold steps.

The frustrating fact is that consensus does exist across the political spectrum in Kosova that any final agreement with Serbia must involve mutual recognition. Unfortunately, there is a lack of trust and leadership in Prishtina to make sure that this message is loudly and consistently heard on both sides of the Atlantic. And internal political conflicts help Belgrade by creating the impression that Kosova’s leaders are divided on their objectives. To achieve concrete goals one needs both strategy and unity.


Janusz Bugajski, July 2020

During the recent riots in Belgrade, Serbian officials claimed that the country was under attack from Russia. One wonders whether the close Serbia-Russia relationship is collapsing or whether Moscow is simply testing its “younger brother.”

For several nights in early July, thousands of people gathered in front of the National Assembly in Belgrade following the announcement by President Aleksandar Vučić that a curfew would be imposed due to a dramatic rise in COVID-19 infections. Demonstrators were outraged that the government claimed that the virus had weakened prior to the 21 June elections and then abruptly proclaimed a dramatic reversal.

A growing number of Serbs accuse the government of risking people’s lives by allowing the virus to spin out of control in order to hold elections and tighten the ruling party’s grip on power. Protestors are also convinced that the actual number of infections and deaths had been hidden from the public and continues to rise dramatically.

Violence erupted when protesters attempted to storm the Serbian parliament. The police were accused of brutality in dispersing the demonstrators and attacking journalists. The unrest represented the most serious protest against the ruling Progressive Party since it took power in 2012. However, none of the opposition leaders who boycotted the elections called on citizens to demonstrate. And evidence indicates that protestors gathered spontaneously following calls on social networks and without any ideological message.

Clearly fearful of attempts to overthrow him, Vucic claimed that unspecified foreign security services had instigatedthe unrest. He pledged that he would resist outside intervention and not be toppled. In what seemed like growing paranoia, he also blamed an assortment of conspiracy theorists, flat earth believers, and anti-vaccination campaigners for staging the protests.

The alleged foreign connection in the demonstrations and storming of parliament is the most intriguing. Vucic himself did not specify a Russian role, but claimed that intelligence agencies active in the region were involved. Officials in Belgrade seemed intent on spreading suspicions that either Croatian, Montenegrin, or Albanian agents may be provoking unrest in Serbia.

Jelena Milic, the director of the Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies (CEAS), a pro-government policy institute in Belgrade, was more specific. She directly accused Russian security services of organizing the rioting. Unsurprisingly, her charges were vehemently denied by Russia’s ambassador to Serbia.

If true, then what would be Moscow’s objective in destabilizing its closest ally in the Balkans? It seems unlikely that this was a direct Kremlin-directed coup attempt, as in Montenegro during the October 2016 elections when the country was on the verge of NATO membership. Unlike in Montenegro, no guns were confiscated and no foreign coup plotters were identified or arrested. It will be instructive to see what official investigations actually reveal.

The riots could have been a deliberate test and warning to Vucic that he was not invincible despite the June elections, which in effect turned a multi-party system into a single-party structure. Maybe Moscow wanted to mobilize ultra-nationalist and pro-Russian groups to demonstrate their ever-present threat to Vucic’s dominance and that Serbia could not escape Russia’s orbit.

The violent protests may have been a display of dissatisfaction with government aspirations to join the EU and to develop closer relations with the U.S. and NATO. Milic also implied that the Kremlin was sending a strong signal to Belgrade not to make any deals with Kosova. The timing of the riots was suspicious – on the eve of resumed talks with Prishtina under EU auspices.

In stark contrast, Serbian opposition leaders claimed the violence was a provocation engineered by the government to discredit all demonstrations. They blamed the attempted storming of parliament on groups controlled by the ruling party, including football hooligans, designed to scare off ordinary people from participating in any protests.

However, if the Kremlin connection in the rioting is accurate, then the Vucic government must act to protect the state. Belgrade needs to jettison its “balancing” policy between West and East, remove Russian agents from the “humanitarian center” in Nis, follow the EU and U.S. in imposing sanctions for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and start moving toward NATO membership.

Moreover, with his huge election victory Vucic also has the mandate to make tough decisions such as recognizing the final status of an independent Kosova. In doing so, he would be recorded in history as a major statesman who finally reconciled Serbs and Albanians and moved Serbia into all Western institutions.


Janusz Bugajski, July 2020

Kosovar confronts a critical summer. With President Hashim Thaci facing a war crimes indictment, a weak coalition government considered illegitimate by the opposition, an ongoing pandemic, and stalled international initiatives to restart talks with Serbia, the country’s progress will be blocked during the coming months.

Thaci has asserted that he will immediately resign if the war crimes indictment is confirmed by a Specialist Chambers pre-trial judge. The indictment will benefit Belgrade in its attempts to delegitimize Kosovar. By depicting the KosovaLiberation Army as being led by war criminals, the country’s claim to statehood and international integration can be undermined.

The alleged crimes of a small number of guerrillas during a war cannot be equated with those of the Serbian state against the entire Albanian population of Kosova. Context and numbers matter. Otherwise, the assassination of German SS-men, Nazi officials, and their collaborators during World War Two would be equivalent to the Nazi slaughter of millions of innocent civilians.

Prishtina must be adamant that the Special Court is not investigating the KLA as a liberation movement but individuals who have been accused of specific war crimes. In addition, government officials and analysts needs to speak openly about the war crimes committed by the Serbian military and police forces during the war and the lack of justice for the murder and disappearance of thousands of Kosovar Albanian civilians. Although a handful of senior Serbian officials were convicted of war crimes by the Hague Tribunal, a Specialist Chamber for Serbia involving deeper and broader investigations is long overdue.

Kosovars are also inflicting political damage on themselves by an inability to form a broad coalition government to confront the mounting threats facing the young state. This is not the time to argue over constitutional interpretations or governmental legitimacy, as this plays into the hands of outside forces seeking to prove that Kosova is a failed state. Kosova will either need a more inclusive government with wider parliamentary support or a new election that would bestow fresh legitimacy on state institutions.

Prime Minister Avduallah Hoti could include either the Democratic Party of Kosova or Vetevendosja in the coalition by appealing for a national front in difficult times. If Thaci indeed resigns, parliament will also need to elect a new President or face new general elections. Elections will be disruptive and conflictive precisely at a time when Kosovaneeds political and social stability.

The timing of Thaci’s indictment raised suspicions that EU officials were involved to prevent him seeking an agreement in Washington, fearing that this could block further war crimes investigations. Brussels may also have been concerned that a potential land swap deal facilitated by the White House would destabilize the broader region. There are additional speculations that the U.S. administration itself concurred with the release of indictment procedures, calculating that the Washington summit would fail and create a bad image for Trump.

Hoti will need to lead the Kosovar team in any upcoming talks but he must consult closely with his government coalition and parliament before he proceeds. Government weakness and delays in restarting talks will benefit President Vucic who is fearful of any U.S. pressure that Serbia recognize Kosova. Vucic was helped by his resounding election victory boycotted by the opposition and faces no credible resistance to one-party rule.

Vucic also visited Moscow before his planned visit to Washington. Putin is seeking to strengthen Belgrade’s position in the talks and no doubt issued guidelines on how to deal with Trump’s officials. Moscow prefers to maintain a frozen conflict and transform Kosova into a frozen state. This would undermine the campaign for international recognition and enable Serbia to claim that it is showing good will while Kosova is not a credible partner.

One major unknown is whether Trump’s special envoy Richard Grenell will seek to resume the talks or simply transfer the initiative to the EU, which is planning a Kosova-Serbia summit in Paris later this month. He has tried to focus on economic issues and to convince Belgrade and Prishtina to create a special economic zone. This ignores the basic fact that bilateral economic ties cannot be intensified without ensuring a symmetrical relationship between Serbia and Kosova, in which both sides recognize each other’s statehood. Such a solution will not be reached this summer.


Janusz Bugajski, June 2020

President Donald Trump has invited the leaders of Kosova and Serbia to the White House on 27 June to resolve their long-standing dispute over Kosova’s final status. The mini-summit will be presided over by Richard Grenell, Trump’s special envoy for the dialogue. Grenell has urged an accelerated resolution to the conflict, thus setting the stage for a dramatic Balkan summer.

Three questions will need to be answered if talks between Kosova and Serbia are to produce concrete results – the purpose, the participants, and the mediators. The new government in Prishtina is consistent with its predecessors in its approach to the talks. Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti has outlined his government’s platform, underscoring that Kosova will not negotiate its independent statehood or territorial integrity. He also asserted that any agreement must result in reciprocal recognition, enabling both countries to peacefully co-exist.

In stark contrast, Belgrade seeks the revocation of Kosova’s statehood by placing the country under Serbian jurisdiction, especially in its foreign and security policy. Such a move could only be achieved under immense international pressure and would provoke widespread and explosive resistance in Kosova. It would also contradict U.S. policy, which recognizes Kosova as a fully independent state that qualifies for UN membership.

In sum, the White House-led negotiations will not “normalize” relations between the two Balkan neighbors unless they both acknowledge each other as separate states. Without equal status between two negotiating parties Belgrade’s unilateral non-recognition will continue to generate regional uncertainty and potential instability. This will also expose the Western Balkans to more intensive Russian subversion. For the Putin regime, promoting division and conflict serves its geopolitical goals by preventing NATO and EU enlargement.

A second urgent question revolves around who will lead the Kosova delegation in the talks? According to Hoti, the dialogue must be chaired by the Prime Minister in line with Kosova’s constitution, and President Hashim Thaci has signaled that he will comply. They may decide to visit the White House together to present a united front. This would counter the strategy of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić who prefers to deal exclusively with Thaci. Thaci had previously hinted that he may accept land swaps in exchange for Kosova’s recognition. Belgrade has pitched the territorial option to encourage political conflicts in Kosova, pitting President against Prime Minister. In practice, neither government will accept any loss of territory.

The question of international mediation has become the third problem in the upcoming dialogue. Washington is frustrated by the slow progress of the European Union in restarting the talks and for failing to push both sides toward resolution. Brussels is fearful that the U.S. may convince the protagonists to sign an agreement that could seriouslydestabilize the region by including border changes and encourage other states to demand more territory from their neighbors.

The EU does not want to be sidelined in the upcoming talks and has appointed former Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák as Special Representative to give fresh momentum for its own arbitration. However, Lajcak’s appointment has divided the Kosovar leadership, with Thaci refusing to acknowledge his mediating role. This can place Prishtina at loggerheads with the EU, but the onus is also on Brussels to play a constructive role by leaning on the five EU countries (including Slovakia) that have still not recognized Kosova’s statehood to change their stance.

The White House seems determined to push through with an agreement and present it as a significant foreign policy success during the U.S. presidential elections. Such a strategy will only work if Grenell can convince Serbia to accept Kosova’s statehood or no longer block the country’s entry into international institutions. Simultaneously, he can persuade Prishtina to recognize Serbian Orthodox buildings as internationally protected sites and allow for a decentralized association of municipalities for the Serbian minority, forming under 8% of Kosova’s population.

Otherwise, the most important question will focus on what happens if no agreement is reached during the summer? Will the White House simply walk away from the negotiations and leave the dispute to the EU, or will it carry through on the threat of withdrawing the remaining American troops from Kosova where they provide an essential anchor of stability? Grenell has already pushed for a major U.S. military drawdown in Germany and Kosova may be next on his agenda.


Janusz Bugajski, May 2020

As the U.S. and the EU push for restarting talks between Serbia and Kosova, the Serbian government is posing as the most essential power in the Balkans. However, Belgrade’s imitation of Tito’s Yugoslavia is bound to fail if Serbia continues to develop close ties with both Russia and China.

Since the ouster of Milosevic twenty years ago, successive governments in Belgrade have tried to raise Serbia’s stature by replicating the Yugoslav policy of non-alignment. But in trying to balance the U.S., the EU, Russia, and China, Serbia risks aggravating its relations with each partner and sinking into international isolation.

All other countries in the Western Balkans, except half of Bosnia-Herzegovina, have unequivocally chosen their geopolitical alliances and national destinations – NATO and the EU. Serbia remains stuck in a time vortex, in which Russia, China, Europe, and America are viewed as equivalent and government officials have sought advantages by playing them against each other.

When dealing with NATO states, Serbia underplays its relations with Russia and China and asserts that it conducts more military exercises with the North Atlantic Alliance than with Russian forces. When dealing with Moscow, Belgrade plays down its relations with NATO as merely technical and portrays the Alliance as an aggressor and Russia as an Orthodox Slavic brother and national protector.

Connections with Moscow have continued to expand under President Aleksander Vucic even while government representatives claim that these policies were inherited from previous administrations. Belgrade contends among Western officials that it is fearful of curtailing ties with Russia because of domestic opposition from nationalist groups and the Orthodox Church who seek a tighter strategic alliance with Russia. In reality, Vucic’s government faces no unified or strong political opposition and has cracked down on any resistance to its policies.

Under Vucic, Serbia has signed a free trade agreement with the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, despite strong opposition from the EU. It has thereby joined a handful of post-Soviet states that remain loyal to Moscow. It has consistently refused to join the sanctions regime imposed against Russia for its invasion and partition of Ukraine. And it has acquired heavy weapons from Moscow, including anti-aircraft systems, despite warnings of U.S. sanctions.

Belgrade continues to expand the “humanitarian center” in southern Serbia with Russia’s intelligence services even though it has not afforded it formal diplomatic status. The center enables Russian intelligence gathering throughout the Balkan region. In the economic arena, Serbia maintains its reliance on Russian oil and gas. The second leg of Gazprom’s Turk Stream gas pipeline will traverse through Serbia, which is already dependent on Moscow for natural gas and its biggest oil company, Naftna Industrija Srbije, is majority-owned by Gazprom.

Much like Yugoslavia, Belgrade manipulates its ties with Moscow to gain advantages from Brussels and Washington. By threatening the West with a more comprehensive turn toward the East the Vucic government seeks concessions from the EU and greater tolerance for the control of the ruling party over state institutions. It also seeks to weaken Kosova’s statehood and dilute EU demands that it “normalize” relations with Prishtina.\

Belgrade also continues to pursue closer ties with Beijing as tensions rise dramatically between China and the U.S. China’s investments and loans to Serbia dwarf all other states in the Balkans and now exceed $9 billion. This has significantly increased Serbia’s indebtedness to Beijing, in which high debts to Chinese state-supported companies are transformed into political capital that will guarantee Belgrade backs China diplomatically on the international arena.

If the Vucic government continues its pro-China policy, even while tensions between the U.S. and China escalate, then it risks alienating the Trump administration at a time when it wants to leverage the White House to eliminate Kosova’s independence. Belgrade also risks its path toward EU accession, as in the wake of the pandemic Brussels is likely to push for limiting Beijing’s economic influence in Europe, having already declared China a “systemic rival” and “strategic competitor.”

Serbia’s neo-Yugoslavism will ultimately fail not only because it is not a pivotal state, unlike Titoist Yugoslavia, or a major player on the international stage. It will fail primarily because both Russia’s and China’s inroads throughout Europe are likely to decline in the wake of the pandemic. If Serbia chooses not to closely align with the EU and NATO and qualify for membership of both organizations then it will be left out in the cold.



Janusz Bugajski, May 2020

With economies frozen and societies paralyzed it is difficult to imagine how the world will look once the pandemic subsides. But it is precisely at such times that all possible scenarios must be examined. And in poor regions like the Western Balkans adjustments to the new realities will severely test social resilience.

The economic impact of the pandemic will be far-reaching throughout Europe, with the most optimistic scenario envisaging a short, sharp shock. Forecasts by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) predict deep contractions in the output of all Balkan economies in line with the severe downturn in the rest of Europe. The global economic decline will be much steeper than during the financial crisis of 2008-2009 and could reach 7.5% of GDP in the Euro area. In Southeast Europe the economic contraction is expected to range between 3 and 10%.

The IMF also forecasts that the global economy can quickly rebound and register 5.8% GDP growth in 2021, reaching 4.7% in the Euro area and 4.2% in developing European economies such as the Balkans. However, this depends on the resumption of a relatively high level of economic activity. The current restrictions on movement and assembly will last for several months, with a gradual relaxation and return to some semblance of normality expected during the second half of this year.

All European capitals are planning to relax social restrictions, with some already starting the process, although the economic opening is largely experimental. Several Western Balkan countries are preparing to allow small and medium-sized businesses to open in May. Larger public gatherings, including schools, shopping centers, parks, and sports venues will be opened more gradually if the loss of life continues to decrease.

However, a swift recovery is not guaranteed and some observers are warning about a second wave of the pandemic in autumn and winter. If no vaccine is developed and social immunity remains limited then deaths may again soar and the economy will stay underwater for far longer. All states face a dilemma, as no one can be certain about the right balance between economic activity and public safety. Prolonged quarantines will result in substantial losses in production and revenue, but an early economic reboot could trigger a steep rise in fatalities.

For most Balkan states two economic arenas are especially damaging – tourism and remittances. Their economies are highly vulnerable to deep disruptions in global tourism, with revenues exceeding 20 per cent of GDP in Albania, Croatia, Greece, and Montenegro. Additionally, dependence on remittances makes several states vulnerable to job losses in Western Europe. Remittances account for approximately 10% of GDP in Albania and 15% in Kosova.

The lockdowns will also impose a substantial fiscal cost for governments and result in sharp increases in public debt. To help cushion the blow, the European Commission has proposed a €3 billion macro-financial assistance package to ten enlargement and neighborhood partners to help them limit the economic fallout. Albania is likely to benefit by €180 million and Kosovo by €100 million. The Commission’s proposal is subject to adoption by the European Parliament and the Council of the EU.

In the longer term, new economies will emerge. There will be a reassessment of the over-concentration of risks in global manufacturing and a renewed emphasis on diversification, national self-sufficiency in key sectors, and regional rather than long-distance inter-dependence. This will herald new business opportunities for some local companies. Balkan policy makers can begin the process of readjustment by exploring the prospects for post-pandemic production, services, and markets.

Domestically, service industries such as transport, restaurants, sport, and entertainment may suffer for a prolonged period, but other industries could record significant growth, especially in on-line shopping, deliveries, telecommunications, computer products, and renewable energy. All Balkan capitals should also think regionally about how their expertise, location, labor, and resources can open up new inter-state markets or act as a manufacturing base or supply chains for essential or emergency products needed in the EU, including its health sector.

Paradoxically, poor Balkan countries with parallel grey economies and lesser dependence on state subsidies and bank loans may be better buffeted against prolonged unemployment and impoverishment. Societies that have for decades survived communism, war, and economic uncertainty could prove more resilient in emerging through the COVID-19 pandemic than some traditionally stable West European societies.



Janusz Bugajski, March 2020

No country is immune from the coronavirus pandemic, but poorer regions with inadequate health care systems and bad planning will be most affected in the long term. Although the epidemic has thus far been limited in the Balkans a wave of infections is projected to sweep through the region until a sufficient percentage of the population can build up immunity.

Over 4,000 recorded infections and over 70 virus-related deaths have been recorded until now in the entire Balkan peninsula, and the numbers are growing. Despite the medical warnings, not all political leaders initially acknowledged the severity of the threat and few have been willing to put aside their partisan disputes during the crisis.

Kosova is the most glaring example where the Prime Minister and President failed to put aside their differences as the pandemic threat escalated. The short-lived government of Prime Minister Albin Kurti lost a no-confidence vote in parliament and the country now faces further months of political turmoil.

Potential elections at a time of national crisis will not only disable a concerted response to the pandemic, it will furtherundermine public trust in Kosova’s politicians and institutions. This will provide ammunition to Kosova’s adversaries that the country has no legitimate government. It may also revive the rumored deal between Thaci and Vucic to exchange territories.

Curfews and lockdowns have been uneven across the region and have led to suspicions, as in Albania, that the government is using emergency measures against the pandemic to stifle political opposition and strengthen its controls over national institutions. A proposed law in Croatia allowing authorities to monitor the communications devices of people undergoing self-isolation has outraged the public.

Every government should have a clear message in combating the virus and allow health experts and epidemiologists to explain the facts without any political bias. It also needs to be consistent in imposing any restrictions. Without accurate, truthful, and up-do-date information, the public becomes confused and even more frightened. And fears about pandemics can trigger political, social, and ethnic conflicts.

A potential new influx of refugees from Syria when combined with a pandemic explosion could provoke violence in several states. This will be exacerbated by the likelihood that the West Europeans will no longer accommodate refugees and they will be stuck in the Balkans. The prospect of a new wave of Middle Eastern refugees may have also convinced Berlin and Paris to cooperate more closely with the transit states and finally allow Albania and North Macedonia to start EU accession talks.

The economic impact of the virus could prove devastating not only for employees and companies but also for state budgets. Each government needs to implement a comprehensive rescue package for the public at a time of economic slowdown to prevent potential social conflicts. The Balkans can expect a major economic downturn through falling GDP (Gross Domestic Product), higher budget deficits, lessened investments, and rising unemployment. The launch of accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia will enable both countries to access the EU Solidarity Fund to gain direct assistance in combating the impact of the virus. However, with EU economies also facing contraction because of the pandemic there will be no substantial economic benefits for the region in the near term.

Claims that the EU has not helped Balkan countries to deal with the virus are misleading. Such assertions enable China to improve its tarnished image for covering-up the virus threat by sending assistance to several European states. After President Vucic claimed that EU members have not helped Serbia with medical equipment, the EU approved 7.5 million euro for Belgrade to combat the crisis and dispatched cargo planes to deliver necessary supplies. In the case of Albania, it remains unclear whether countries outside the EU, including Turkey, will actually deliver any equipmentdespite initial promises.

Growing fears about a Chinese offensive of economic acquisition in Europe may be lessened because of the pandemic scare. Beijing may find itself in a weaker economic position to develop its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) across Eurasia or its 17+1 program with countries in south eastern Europe. Additionally, host countries may be less willing to enter into unpredictable economic contracts with China. Nonetheless, such an outcome will not benefit the poorer European states who have looked toward China for new investments and have limited alternatives. The economic storm is yet to come.


Janusz Bugajski, February 2020

Islamophobia is deeply rooted in the European Union and may have surpassed anti-Semitism as the predominant form of 21st century racism. Albania and other Balkan countries with Muslim populations have become the victims of this politically-manipulated prejudice.

In psychological jargon “phobias” are irrational fears or anxieties over particular situations, such as heights and closed spaces, or organisms, including spiders and snakes. When such phobias are projected on to individuals they become conflictive, and when they are projected on to entire groups of people they become dangerously racist.

Anti-human phobias can trigger defensive mechanisms such as ostracism, discrimination, and exclusion, and in some cases result in outright violence against the targeted group. Such fear feeds on ignorance, simplistic ideas, and collectivist thinking that all white people or all Christians share the same characteristics, as do all non-whites or Muslims.

Leftist and rightist radicals have fanned collective fear to expel or eliminate entire nations. Hitler and Stalin were the main practitioners of phobia politics in the 20th century, and Milosevic applied their methods to target the Bosniak Muslims and Kosova Albanians. In the current era, the public education system in EU states has failed to counter the persistence of this primitive racist mindset, in which individuality and other crisscrossing identities are ignored.

Modern day Islamophobia in the European Union is based on at least four major fears – fear of Muslimization, fear of cultural extinction, fear of replacement, and fear of terrorism. All four are exploited not only by fringe parties and extremists but also by national leaders in order to gain popularity.

The notion of a Christian Europe remains pervasive in the EU, despite the fact that a majority of citizens are either non-believers or only nominally adhere to any Christian denomination. European Christianity like European Islam is predominantly secular. Nonetheless, there is a strong belief that Christianity is a foundation of democracy, liberty, and human rights, and that Islam does not respect these values. The historical record is forgotten that democracy and equality triumphed in Europe often despite the teachings of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

The EU displays an astonishing absence of knowledge about Balkan Islam. In particular, most West European populations are unaware that religion among Albanians or Bosniaks is not a source of division, dogma, and destruction unlike in much of Europe’s historical intra-Christian rivalries. Islam, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy were all traditionally accepted in Albania and not forcefully imposed.

The fear of Muslimization from a secular Albanian society would be comical, except that it reinforces other prejudices. The idea that most Muslims follow Sharia law, do not respect democratic values, and repress their women fosters widespread fears of growing intolerance and even cultural extinction. Various politicians capitalize on these popular anxieties, claiming that they are simply defending democracy, secularism, and liberalism. Such deeply-ingrained preconceptions partly explain the statements and policies of state leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron.

Even more terrifying for several EU populations is the fear of replacement, a theory propounded by ultra-right xenophobes and racists. The Great Replacement theory was first popularized in France by the author Renaud Camus, and claimed that white people would be gradually replaced by outsiders, whether black Africans, Muslims, or Asians. The process is allegedly directed by globalist liberal elites who manipulate immigration to stay in power.

The replacement theory has also been subsumed in the “white genocide” conspiracy theory. In this nefarious scheme the indigenous people of Europe will allegedly be replaced because of their falling birth rates, driven by liberal support for abortion and family planning, and high birth rate among an increasing number of migrants. This theory has gained wide resonance among far-right parties and populist politicians in the EU and in the U.S. Milosevic was one of the first to trumpet such ideas when he claimed that Albanian leaders had a deliberate plan to produce more children and overrun Serbian lands.

The fourth major fear whipped up by xenophobes is that of terrorism. Indeed, the word itself has become almost synonymous with Islamic believers in the minds of many Europeans. After years of bombings and other attacks by Salafist jihadists in a number of EU cities it is easy to trigger hostility by describing immigrants from Muslim-majority countries as potential terrorists. Indeed, President Donald Trump has employed the same provocative language in seeking to limit migration from Latin America, and it appealed to Americans who fear immigrants.


Janusz Bugajski, February 2020

Of all the countries in the Balkans, Albania may have the steepest path toward EU membership. In addition to the basic criteria for candidate status, numerous additional conditions have been imposed over the years and accession talks have been blocked unilaterally by France. The question is whether the new EU enlargement proposals will further delay Albania’s accession.

In response to widespread negative reactions to French President Emmanuel Macron’s veto on accession talks, the European Commission has announced a new enlargement plan. It asserts that some of the six western Balkan states can become members by 2025. The new Commission strategy was drawn up without regional consultation and will be subject to revision before it is approved. Although it is supposed to deliver bigger carrots for each EU aspirant, evidence indicates that the sticks may be bigger than the carrots.

The promised incentives can certainly benefit the aspirant states. Over the next few years, the EU will offer €500 million in payments to western Balkan countries as they deliver on elements of the new enlargement plan. However, the EU intends to wield at least three larger sticks in order to appease Macron and the opponents of enlargement.

First, the European Commission plans to impose tighter rules on Albania and North Macedonia with more focus on “fundamentals,” such as the rule of law, democratic institutions, and combating corruption. Such initiatives arecrucial, as EU ability to push for domestic reform is reduced significantly once a country is a member. However, the question is whether the candidate states will be held to much higher standards than previous aspirants.

Second, all EU members will have additional opportunities to veto the accession process, as each government can suspend a candidate’s progress at any point. There are even suggestions that EU chapters which have already been closed in the case of Serbia and Montenegro could be reopened and progress toward accession reversed if there is backtracking on required reforms.

And third, the Commission plan includes a renewed focus on regional and inter-state relations. Jean-Claude Juncker,president of the European Commission, stated that the EU would never again accept a country with border disputes. For a candidate country such as Serbia this will underscore the urgency of settling bilateral relations with Kosova by recognizing its statehood.

The proposal is similar to a document released by Paris in November, which groups all EU accession chapters in six clusters: fundamentals; internal market; competitiveness and inclusive growth; green agenda and sustainable connectivity; resources, agriculture, and cohesion; and external relations. Negotiations on each cluster would be opened as a whole. However, this may add even more  complexity in states where there is limited political willingness or technical capacity to pursue several major reforms simultaneously. Instead of a simplified approach to accession, the EU may further complicate, confuse, and bureaucratize the process.

The EU Commission calculates that member states will adopt its plan at the next European Council meeting scheduled for March 26-27 and hopes that membership talks will be opened for Albania and North Macedonia at a special summit in Zagreb in May. However, resistance to enlargement will continue in the Union, partly based on Islamophobia among rightists and conservatives in resisting the entry of Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, or Kosovar. There is also fear among leftists and liberals of bringing in states such as Serbia that could form an alliance with Hungarian leader Victor Orban and strengthen the nationalist and xenophobic agenda within the EU.

Some have speculated that the real purpose of the EU Commission in issuing the new enlargement document is to appease Macron. It would allow the Union to offer North Macedonia a start date for talks before its April elections and thereby prevent a nationalist resurgence. Although this would be a welcome step, if Albania is excluded from this timetable then it would send a negative message throughout the region.

The EU confronts a major dilemma. On the hand, blocking the accession path for West Balkan states could unleash the very problems that Brussels seeks to avoid by damaging EU credibility, disillusioning citizens, undermining domestic reform programs, and providing more openings to hostile foreign interference. Conversely, if accession is opened primarily because of fears of radicalism then the reform program itself may lose value. The imminent threat of instability then becomes the most powerful reason for starting the process of EU accession.


Janusz Bugajski, February 2020

The escalating protests in Montenegro can directly impact on the wider Balkan region, including Albania. As Serbian nationalist parties and the Serbian Orthodox Church intensify their campaign against the Montenegrin government,the danger of provocations and violence looms over the country and could even draw neighbors into the conflict.

Regular mass demonstrations in Podgorica and other cities are intended to reopen the “Serbian question” in Montenegro, as well as in Kosova and Bosnia-Herzegovina. This has two ultimate objectives – claiming a larger Serbian nation-state and questioning the legitimacy or size of neighboring countries containing Serbian minorities.

The current demonstrations in Podgorica were sparked when the government introduced a law to track the original ownership of religious property. Serbian Orthodox leaders and anti-independence politicians jumped on the opportunity to accuse the Milo Djukanovic government of planning to confiscate church property and transfer it to the reconstituted Montenegrin Orthodox Church – whose autocephaly was extinguished by Serbian leaders after World War One.

Although much of this real estate was stolen by Belgrade from the independent Montenegrin state in 1918, it is highly unlikely that the current government would seek its return. Such a policy would be unmanageable, chaotic, and could provoke outright civic conflicts. Nonetheless, every government is entitled to investigate and register the fate of former state property or other real estate confiscated by a foreign power or by the fascist and communist regimes. This has been the case in various parts of eastern Europe.

The property registration dispute has enabled Serbian nationalists and Russian state propaganda to reinvigorate their attacks on Montenengro’s government, statehood, and NATO membership. Unable to dislodge President Djukanovic in general elections or even through an attempted coup d’état in October 2016, these hostile forces are now intent on stirring mass protests, painting the government as corrupt and repressive and Djukanovic as the arch villain.

Montenegro is a divided society and similarly to other post-communist states its democratic system, especially in areas such as judicial independence, has major shortcomings. Nonetheless, it is no less representative than its neighbors and government corruption is actually below that of Serbia and Albania, according to the most recent Transparency International index. Without a proven pro-Western leadership which has stood up to Serbian nationalist demands and Russia’s persistent pressures, the opportunities for regional destabilization would significantly expand.

The new anti-government campaign also has an ethnic component, by exacerbating divisions between Montenegrins and Serbs. This can impact on the Albanian population in Montenegro who may stand accused by radical Serbian leaders of collusion with the ruling party. Any attempt to overthrow the government through street revolution can lead to bloodshed and the potential scapegoating of Albanian and Bosniak populations that have supported Montenegrin independence and NATO membership.

Serbian nationalist demands toward Montenegro resemble those of Russia’s elite toward Ukraine. They refuse to admit that these are permanently independent states and do not recognize the national Orthodox Churches as being autocephalous. Moscow recently experienced a major defeat when the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was recognized as autocephalous by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, thus reducing the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Serbian Church now fears a similar defeat if the Montenegrin Orthodox Church strengthens its position and is internationally recognized as autocephalous.

The Kremlin has not given up in trying to destabilize Montenegro. It would be a major prize for President Vladimir Putin if he could rupture a NATO member from within by supporting Serbian revisionism. And potential success in Montenegro would embolden ultra-nationalist groups to become more active in seeking to destabilize Kosova and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Indeed, the anti-government demonstrators in Podgorica have also rolled Kosova into their agenda, claiming that Kosova remains Serbian territory. Although this may be more wishful thinking than concerted action, militants can be recruited by Russian intelligence services to stage provocations and violent attacks in any neighboring country.

Such scenarios would pull Albania into a new regional conflict, not only to defend its kindred in Montenegro but also to protect Kosova’s statehood. Much will depend on the reactions of the Serbian government, which faces new general elections in April. It is unclear at this point whether the Aleksandar Vucic administration will play the nationalist card or stake its future on peaceful relations and bilateral normalization with both Montenegro and Kosova that would promote its aspirations toward EU membership.


Janusz Bugajski, February 2020

The new Transparency International (TI) corruption perception index reveals that the Balkan countries continue to decline in global rankings with Albania among them. The results indicate there is a close correlation between state corruption, democratic regress, and economic stagnation, and with the growing potential for domestic violence.

The TI index ranks 180 countries by their perceived levels of public sector corruption, according to local experts and business people. Its recently released index for 2019 demonstrates that countries in Southeast Europe are either making no progress or going backwards in combating corruption.

Albania and North Macedonia scored worst in the region by tying for 106th place. Albania declined in the rankings since last year when it finished 99th and even Kosova ranked above Albania in 101st place. Serbia, fell to 91st place, while Montenegro slightly improved to 66th place. Even EU members Hungary and Romania came in 70th place and Bulgaria 74th. As a region, the Balkans scored worse only than African countries.

The index is not the only measure of Balkan corruption, as the World Bank periodically issues papers that paint a bleak picture in most of the region. All such reports confirm that corruption corrodes and destroys the three pillars of a healthy state – the political system, the economy, and the social structure.

Systematic corruption among government officials, a politicized public administration, and a bribery-prone judicial system deform states such as Albania. Public sector corruption takes many forms, whether in failures to disclose the sources of party campaign funding, unregulated flows of private and foreign money to government officials, kickbacks from awarding government contracts to favored businesses, and the politicized allocation of the state budget. Just as professional criminals are usually one step ahead of the police, corrupt officials try to avoid detection by finding novel ways to channel illicit fund to their cronies and relatives.

The political system is also damaged by a clampdown on the free media, threats against journalists, and limitations on civic society organizations that monitor government corruption. A corrupt government always seeks to preserve its rule so officials can continue to benefit from the state treasury and a new administration does not conduct legal procedures against them. In the worst case scenario, corruption results in “state capture” and consolidates one party rule.

Government corruption undermines developing economies through a distorted form of crony capitalism. It impedes investment, as foreign businessmen avoid extortion and uncertainty. This has serious consequences on economic growth and job creation. The World Bank has clear evidence that countries systematically confronting corruption through legal means attract more investment and grow more rapidly.

Social bonds also suffer under prolonged corruption. The communist system was underpinned by corrupt privileges in return for unswerving loyalty. In a developing democracy like Albania’s, corruption erodes public trust in the government. This is especially damaging in polarized states where corruption perpetuates inequalities and discontent can lead to extremism and violence.

During the last year, anti-corruption movements across the globe gained momentum with millions of people stagingprotests in various capitals. In many countries citizens experience petty bribery on a daily basis where access to basic public services such as health care and education is often blocked. Growing frustration erodes confidence in political leaders, elected officials, and in democracy itself.

The United States is certainly not immune from corruption. It dropped to 23rd place in the TI Index, its lowest score in eight years. According to the Pew Research Center, trust among American citizens in their elected representatives is at an all-time low. The country faces challenges to democratic checks and balances between the three branches of government. It is also corroded by special interests and the use of anonymous shell companies by corrupt politiciansto hide illicit funds.

Although Donald Trump campaigned on a promise of “draining the swamp” and checking the privileges of Washington insiders and political elites, numerous executive resignations and scandals over unethical behavior indicate that corruption may have become more entrenched. This feeds into public perceptions that the political elites ignore citizens and rich people basically buy elections.

Despite its problems America has antidotes to outright corruption, including a free media, independent civic organizations, an uncorrupted legal system, and the possibility of electing candidates who are not beholden to large donors. The American experience demonstrates that democracy cannot be taken for granted but must be constantly guarded. And young democracies such as Albania’s need particular defending so that corrupt authoritarian temptations do not prevail.


Janusz Bugajski, January 2020

Kosova is heading toward a political and economic crisis if a new government is not formed soon. Almost four months since the general elections the dispute over government positions continues. If it cannot be resolved the resultingnational instability will retard the country’s international integration and benefit Kosova’s adversaries.

The constant jostling for official positions ignores the will of the electorate and frustrates young people in particular who voted for a new party that promised to shake up the status quo and root out pervasive corruption. The stalematealso freezes Kosova’s institutions, its budgeting process and legislative work, and may ultimately undermine the country’s statehood.

If a new coalition government is unable to function for several more months then Kosova may face increasing public unrest and potential economic chaos. This will give ammunition to outside powers that dispute Kosova’s final status as an independent and integrated state. A similar process has unfolded in Bosnia-Herzegovina over the past decade when the central government is paralyzed.

If agreement between Vetevendosja (VV) and the Democratic League of Kosova (LDK) cannot be reached, then either the LDK will attempt to form another government with the Democratic Party of Kosova (PDK) or new elections will be called. The return of the “old guard” will anger a sizeable part of the electorate and the new government may have limited public trust. Alternatively, another round of elections will further delay any new administration and paralyze necessary economic and diplomatic initiatives.

Observers wonder who stands to benefit from protracted delays or possible new elections in Kosova. One explanation is that members of the established political elite, which has largely controlled the government since Kosova gained independence, are sabotaging a new coalition accord. Former officials may be fearful that VV and Prime Minister Albin Kurti will try to deliver on the promise to bring corrupted politicians to justice.

An alternative explanation for the delays is that VV itself is holding back on forming a government calculating that it will gain advantages from any ensuing public unrest. The LDK, PDK, and other parties can be accused of deliberately undermining the process because they want to cling to power and money. This could result in protest actions especially if civil servants and other workers are not paid because the state budget expires in February, and increase support for VV in the next elections.

An additional concern is how the political standoff in Prishtina will affect the stalled negotiations with Serbia. It is difficult to see any talks with Belgrade restarting until both countries have new governments in place. Serbia itself faces elections in the spring and may bring to power an even more intransigent government now that the country’spath to the EU, and those of other Western Balkan states, has been obstructed by French President Emmanuel Macron.

There is also growing frustration in Washington that talks are not on the horizon between Serbia and Kosova. President Trump’s special envoy Richard Grenell visited Prishtina and Belgrade this week to urge both sides to resume negotiations. The White House is seeking successes in U.S. election year and although the Balkans are not a national security priority in terms of threat they are a high priority for conflict resolution.

Incessant delays in talks with Belgrade can damage Kosova’s international credibility, particularly if there is no functioning government or if new elections further postpone the process. Serbian nationalists and Russian imperialists will increase their propaganda campaign claiming that Kosova is a failed experiment in statehood and that Kosova’s final status needs to be revisited by the international community.

The absence of an elected government in Prishtina will also obstruct necessary legal and economic reforms and make Kosova even less attractive to potential foreign investors. The perception of crisis can further damage the country’s reputation and performance. In order to stimulate economic development and business interest a predictable political and regional climate is essential.

Croatia’s six-month European Union presidency would be a valuable opportunity for Kosova to pursue its European agenda. Zagreb has placed enlargement as a top priority and will focus on trying to lift the blockage of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania. It will also be open to new initiatives to expand the enlargement agenda. But without a functioning government and a credible program to develop closer links with the EU, Prishtina will be unable to benefit from Croatia’s presidency.


Janusz Bugajski, November 2019

Imagine for a moment that Albania and not Ukraine was at the center of the congressional impeachment probe against U.S. President Donald Trump. How would the American and Albanian governments and their people react to the spotlight fixated on a pro-American state pulled unwittingly into U.S. politics?

This would be Albania as a mirror image of Ukraine. It would not be a full NATO member but only a partner, with no article five defense guarantee from the Alliance. It would be almost fully dependent on military assistance from the United States. At a time of existential crisis and foreign invasion, in a reflection of Ukraine’s Donbas and Crimea, Serbia had occupied a slither of territory inside Albania and militarily regained Kosova. Serbian vessels had also blockaded Albanian ports on the Adriatic, bombarded the country with disinformation, and threatened to isolate Albania from the outside world.

Similarly to Ukraine, Albania had also gained a reputation as a deeply corrupt state where huge profits could be made by foreign operatives without too much oversight or transparency. Realizing that Albania was especially vulnerable to outside pressure and almost fully dependent on Washington militarily, the American President calculated that he could bribe or extort Tirana to announce investigations against his main political rival on the eve of the 2020 U.S. presidential election campaign. Such an investigation even without any hard evidence would help tarnish and weaken Joe Biden, the Democratic Party front runner, in the eyes of the American electorate.

The U.S. President then dispatches his personal lawyer and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani to apply pressure on the Albanian government. Giuliani warns Tirana that American military aid essential in fighting invading forces, together with a meeting with Trump in the White House for the Albanian Prime Minister, will be withheld until Tirana complies with the President’s demands. At the same time, the anti-Albanian campaign is ratcheted up in the pro-Trump right-wing U.S. media. Albanian officials are accused of interfering in the 2016 presidential elections to help Hilary Clinton against Trump and then covering up their involvement.

What if Tirana like Kyiv now faced a stark choice – either to help Trump by announcing investigations of Joe Biden and burning its bridges with Democrats and possibly the next U.S. administration. Alternatively, they could ignore Trump’s demands, be deprived of vital military assistance, and spoil their relations with the current administration that could be re-elected in 2020. Whatever the decision the Albanian government would conclude that it simply cannot stay out of American politics.

If leaks and whistle blowers in the White House had not revealed such illicit transactions involving Trump, Tirana would now face an unparalleled foreign policy crisis. The Albanian Prime Minister would be expected to appear on American television and announce that he is launching a criminal investigation into Joe Biden and his son Hunter who was a board member of a major Albanian energy company.

And then the impeachment probe is formally launched in the U.S. Congress. Every day for numerous weeks Albania’s reputation is dragged through the mud, whether over endemic corruption, theft of state revenues, interference in foreign elections, computer hacking, or other forms of criminality. A steady stream of negative publicity about Albania and its people now features around the clock on American television and other media outlets. The American public issaturated with stereotypes of Albanians as corrupt, greedy, unethical, immoral, and secretive.

Meanwhile, both political sides in Washington will continue to expect Tirana to back up their version of events. Of course, Albanians, like Ukrainians, would clearly want to downplay any pressure from the Trump White House. Indeed, as many police officers have stated, victims of extortion, bribery, or blackmail rarely report the perpetrators to the authorities because of fear of even worse consequences.

Albanians would also confront an inexplicable irony. For many years, American officials and NGOs had been encouraging Albania to combat corruption and now suddenly the U.S. President himself was pushing Tirana to engage in a clearly corrupt act. Not only was it corrupt because the U.S. constitution forbids any election meddling by foreign powers. Above all, demands for an investigation of Joe Biden was the exact opposite of what Washington had been telling Tirana for years – not to use anti-corruption campaigns as an excuse for revenge against political opponents.


Janusz Bugajski, November 2019

Neutrality and non-alignment are outdated concepts that Serbia can no longer hide behind. In foreign and security policy, a European state cannot be simultaneously pro-Western and pro-Russian because the two negate each other. Moscow is engaged in an extensive shadow war to weaken Western institutions and an alliance with Russia contributes to this anti-Western policy.

Serbian officials claim that their foreign strategy is non-bloc, multilateral, and designed to develop good relations with Europe, America, Russia, and China. Although such an approach may work in economic transactions and cultural exchanges, in the sphere of security such a balancing act becomes contradictory. Indeed, how can Serbia be trusted by NATO if it is not only buying weapons systems from Russia but may also be sharing intelligence data on the Alliance with Moscow?

An envoy for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation recently met in Belgrade with Serbia’s Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic and warned him that the country faces potential sanctions for breaking the embargo on purchasing weapons from Russia. Belgrade recently acquired T-72 tanks and BRDM-2 armored combat vehicles and is scheduled to receive multipurpose Mi-17 helicopters, MI-35 helicopter gunships, MiG fighter jets, and BUK surface-to-air missile systems from Russia.

Serbia’s deepening military and security ties with Moscow indicate that either the government is complicit with Russia or is being duped and exploited by the Kremlin to undermine NATO. It is highly unlikely that Serbian officials areinnocent victims of Russian machinations. In fact, they endeavor to use Moscow to their advantage in disqualifyingKosova on the international arena, and the Russian connection can give Belgrade greater leverage with other states.

Nonetheless, Serbian officials do not want to alienate the U.S. and the EU. As a result, they have petitioned for EU membership and engage in various forms of cooperation with NATO. Their public relations exercise toward Western governments consist of four main components. First, they want to demonstrate to Washington that Serbia deserves to be trusted because it is focused on developing good relations with NATO although not petitioning for membership.

Second, Serbian officials endeavor to prove that they are not Russia’s puppets and the country does not serve as an outpost for Moscow’s subversion in the Balkans. This is despite the fact that Serbian nationalists were co-conspirators with Russia’s military intelligence to overthrow the government of Montenegro and that the “Humanitarian Center” in Nis serves to gather military intelligence for Moscow.

Third, Belgrade tries to convince Western capitals that Russia has peaceful interests in the region rather than hostile intentions. Fourth, by demonstrating its trustworthiness, Serbia claims that it should be supported in the upcoming talks with Kosova. Conversely, Belgrade charges that officials in Prishtina cannot be trusted because Kosova is a corrupted and failed state led by war criminals and racists. Hence, its final status should be revisited and its recognition as an independent state rescinded.

In practice, by assisting Moscow in its penetration of the Balkans and providing legitimacy to Putin’s policies, Belgrade becomes a co-conspirator in undermining the foundations of Balkan security. Close diplomatic, political, institutional, and energy ties with Serbia enable the Kremlin to project its subversive policies toward all nearby states.

Belgrade’s policies directly contradict those of Washington. There are three core elements of American and NATO policy in the Balkans: Kosova’s statehood; NATO’s positive security role throughout the region, whether by stationing troops or incorporating new members; and Russia as NATO’s core adversary across Europe’s East.

In an evident sign of resistance to both the NATO and EU, in October Belgrade signed a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union – one of Moscow’s multi-national organizations designed to obstruct Western influences. The move was opposed by officials in Brussels who point out that EU rules are incompatible with that of the Eurasian Union and will prevent Serbia from aligning with the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy.

At the core of Serbia’s problems is a persistent vision of state grandeur, global balancing, and strategic significance. In reality, Serbia is no longer Yugoslavia but a small and poor European country whose best hope is Western integration which Moscow is trying to prevent. By aligning closely with Russia, Serbia can temporarily amplify its significance but only by creating security threats for its neighbors and alienating Western institutions.


Janusz Bugajski, November 2019

The victory of Vetevendosje in Kosova’s elections has created both confusion and concern for the future of the planned talks with Serbia. However, the new government in Prishtina may actually provide much needed realism in the international approach to the frozen dispute.

The White House is seeking results in the Prishtina-Belgrade dialogue before the 2020 presidential elections. President Donald Trump wants to claim a historic foreign policy success in the Balkans and lay the groundwork for the withdrawal of American troops. Together with Syria and Afghanistan, the President can then claim during the election campaign that he is finally ending America’s “endless wars.”

The White House appointed Ambassador Richard Grenell as special envoy for the talks because he is results oriented and does not get bogged down in process. However, the new envoy will face significant political challenges in achieving a rapid breakthrough. Nonetheless, this may enable him to discover what lies at the core of the dispute – Belgrade’s refusal to recognize Kosova as an independent state.

There are at least four obstacles to a successful dialogue. First, in Kosova another month could elapse before a government is formed. It will probably take even longer for a negotiating team to be established that formulates a program for the talks. Second, Serbia faces elections in the spring of 2020 and the current government is unlikely to concede any ground before the balloting, as this could rebound negatively during the election campaign.

And third, the EU is unlikely to be a significant partner for the American negotiators, as it finds itself in the midst of internal turmoil. In addition to debating enlargement reforms that will obstruct the entry of candidate states, the Union has to deal with the impact of Brexit and the continuing attacks of nationalists, populists, and Euroskeptics on the foundations of the European project.

Grenell has not publicly raised the question of border adjustments between Serbia and Kosova and he will face stiff resistance to such proposals from the incoming government in Prishtina. Albin Kurti, the Prime Minister elect, will lose much of his public mandate if he surrenders territory and does not gain Serbia’s recognition.

Aleksander Vucic’s government is concerned that the incoming leadership in Prishtina has clean hands, whether regarding corruption or alleged war crimes. In order to try and discredit it in Washington’s eyes, Serbian officials will depict Kurti as a radical socialist, racist, and ethno-nationalist. Of course, Vucic’s own record as a racist nationalist during the murderous Milosevic years in Kosova and elsewhere will continue to be concealed.

To deflect attention from the necessity of recognizing Kosova, Belgrade will also claim that the Serbian minority in Kosova is repressed and needs closer protection by Belgrade. One can only imagine the international outcry if Tirana or Prishtina were actively engaged in undermining the integrity of neighboring states on the pretext of defending their kindred communities.

The border adjustment question looks like a trap for Prishtina, whereby territory is surrendered without meaningful reciprocity. Belgrade has used the temptation of land swaps to drive wedges between Albanians and Serbs, to divide Albanians themselves, and depict Kosova as a failed state without a credible national program.

The Albanian government has contributed to the Serbian disruption campaign over potential border changes in Kosova. Vucic has evidently baited Prime Minister Edi Rama with the allure of unification with a rump Kosova. President Hashim Thaci may also have participated in such a scheme to deflect attention from his own problems with the Specialist Chambers in The Hague, escalating corruption charges, and a potential loss of American support.

The new Kosova government needs to devise a dialogue strategy that can gain U.S. confidence by demonstrating seriousness about a final agreement. As a goodwill gesture, this could begin with the lifting of tariffs on Serbia that will test Belgrade’s sincerity and place pressure on the Vucic government to reciprocate.

If Grenell concludes that the main stumbling block to resolution is the government in Serbia then he will face one of two decisions. He can either walk away from the dispute and leave it once again to the EU to drag on indefinitely and threaten regional conflict. Conversely, Grenell can apply more sustained pressure on Belgrade to commit to a resolution that will culminate in recognizing Kosova’s statehood without any more prevarications and provocations.


Janusz Bugajski, October 2019

The European Union’s failure to launch accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia at its October summit contributes to destabilizing the Western Balkans. Blocked entry will send a message of abandonment precisely at a time when aspirant states need more intense EU involvement.

The progress of Albania and North Macedonia was blocked primarily because of France’s opposition, despite recommendations from the European Commission and the European Parliament. Both institutions confirmed that both countries had made sufficient progress in their reforms to reach the next phase of integration. A positive decision on accession talks would not have signified imminent membership but the start of a long process of qualifying for all chapters of the acquis communautaire – the vast body of EU law.

French President Emmanuel Macron led the blocking policy and was joined by Denmark and the Netherlands. There needs to be unanimity among EU members before approval is given for accession talks to begin. Macron claimed that the accession process itself had to be reformed, signifying that the October decision is unlikely to be reversed any time soon because any EU reform process can drag on for years.

Without the strong position of the United Kingdom in supporting EU enlargement, France has become more emboldened in challenging Union commitments to include all Balkan states, as specified at the EU’s 2003 Thessaloniki Summit. France’s internal politics and fear of mass immigration figured in Macron’s decision. There is little doubt that Islamophobia and anti-Albanian sentiments also played a role.

The EU’s blocking policy can have several negative repercussions for the Western Balkans and for Europe as a whole. It damages EU credibility as a pan-European organization open to new members. It can disillusion citizens and politicians and undermine various reform programs. It will also nurture the already widespread notion that the EU is complicit in upholding corrupt governments in exchange for a measure of stability – what some have dubbed as “stabilocracy.”

Johannes Hahn, the EU commissioner for enlargement, accused EU leaders of breaking commitments to North Macedonia and Albania. He asserted that member states will now have to clarify their long-term obligations to each country, while the refusal to acknowledge proven progress will risk destabilizing the Western Balkans.

The blocking policy can reinforce domestic political polarization and radicalization by encouraging nationalists, populists, separatists, and irredentists to claim that EU rules no longer apply and each state needs to pursue its own national interests. This will discourage inter-state agreements and undercut the efforts of the two U.S. special envoys appointed to resolve the dispute between Serbia and Kosova, as Belgrade will have less incentive to compromisewithout the prospect of EU membership. Serbia and Montenegro have started accession talks but will now calculate that these may lead to another French cul de sac without full EU consensus on further enlargement.

The most immediately affected country will be North Macedonia. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev took substantial domestic risks in changing the country’s name and settling the long-standing dispute with Greece in order to fulfill EU conditions for accession talks. The government now feels betrayed and has called for early elections in April 2020 that could invigorate nationalists. The EU decision can also stir renewed political and social turmoil in Albania.

The negative EU decision will provide more openings to hostile foreign interference in the region, particularly from Russia. In essence, Paris has unwittingly reinforced Vladimir Putin’s propaganda narrative that the EU is untrustworthy and does not want any new members from the Balkans. This will help the Kremlin to further undermine Western cohesion and deepen its political, economic, informational, and intelligence penetration. It will also calculate that it has a freer hand to encourage Balkan nationalisms and manufacture conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosova, Montenegro, and North Macedonia from which it can benefit.

A negative decision on accession talks and further enlargement in the Western Balkans will rebound negatively on the security of the European Union itself. The population outflow into the EU will continue if membership prospects recede, reforms are stalled, foreign investments reduced, and unemployment rises. And the EU will be in a weaker position to resolve disputes if it seen as surrendering its main leverage – the incentive of membership. This will ensure that the U.S. role in the region becomes even more critical.


Janusz Bugajski, October 2019

Kosova has reached an important crossroads in its development as an independent state. Two opposition parties surprisingly won the general elections on 6 October and need to conduct major house cleaning to reform the country’s institutions. And the appointment of a new U.S. envoy to restart talks between Kosova and Serbia can give fresh impetus to a final resolution to one of the most intractable regional problems.

During the election campaign, crime and corruption, in addition to health care and education, topped the agenda. The incoming government not only needs to commit itself verbally to rooting out the worst abuses, it must finally start to deliver. Simply repeating slogans may no longer placate an electorate that has grown increasingly frustrated with the lack of economic progress or satisfy international players who see the country as being stuck in a hole.

The anti-corruption initiative must start within government institutions. Strict standards of accountability and the reporting of all assets owned by officials must be mandatory, while any contacts between elected officials and business representatives must be transparent and subject to investigation. Judicial reform must also be completed to replace judges and prosecutors who grow wealthy on bribes.

Serbian officials claim that Kosova is a failed state riddled with criminality and is not deserving of international recognition. Measures to counteract corruption would send a strong message to international institutions that Kosova is serious about qualifying for membership. The head of Vetevendosje, Albin Kurti, may be the most important figure since independence to confront state corruption.

A second major task for the new government is to speak with one voice in resolving its standoff with Serbia. The sooner that a coalition government between Vetevendosje and the Democratic League of Kosova (LDK) is formed the better for the country, otherwise there will be a perception of uncertainty and disunity. The new administration must underscore one clear goal – full international recognition and inclusion in all key international organizations. Anything less will not bring stability to the region.

The appointment of the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, as envoy for the Kosovo-Serbia dialogueindicates that the White House is determined to normalize relations, having already appointed Matt Palmer, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, as special envoy for the West Balkans. While Grenell is a novice in the region, Palmer is a seasoned State Department official who is well aware of Balkan complexities.

The dispute over normalization can only be fully resolved if Serbia accepts Kosova’s independence. Grenell will be hard pressed to quickly find the formula to achieve such a breakthrough. He will need to work with EUrepresentatives, but as the U.S. ambassador in Berlin he has been highly critical of German foreign policy. Grenell wasevidently recruited because of his experience as a negotiator in the United Nations. Prishtina must work closely with both envoys by demonstrating willingness to compromise on certain issues, such as lifting tariffs against Serbia. On the other hand, it must avoid any traps laid by Belgrade during the upcoming talks.

Some observers have speculated that Grenell will be more open to land swaps or the exchange of territory for Serbian recognition. However, he will face significant political obstacles, as leaders of the new government in Prishtina could lose much of their public support if they are seen to be surrendering territory to Belgrade.

Likewise, the Serbian government is unlikely to exchange any territory for four northern municipalities in Kosova, as many observers have speculated, especially in the run up to parliamentary elections in April 2020. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has expressed surprise by Washington’s decision to appoint two special envoys to accelerate the negotiation process. Belgrade has always looked toward Brussels to fudge and delay any agreements with Kosova, hoping that it can play off various capitals against each other and move into the EU before reaching any final agreement with Prishtina.

Given Washington’s renewed urgency for resolution, Belgrade may increasingly enlist Moscow to neutralize or derail the initiative if it is intended to culminate in Kosova’s recognition and UN membership. Russia may even appoint its own envoy or demand an equal voice in the process. But it is worth remembering that the only agreements that have been actually implemented in the region, such as Dayton and Prespa, are those where Moscow played no role.


Janusz Bugajski, September 2019

Serbia has embarked on a campaign of military rearmament. Increasing supplies of Russian and Chinese weapons could presage a regional arms race with Croatia and challenge the security of both Kosova and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Serbia has recently acquired thirty modernized T-72 tanks and thirty BRDM-2 armored combat vehicles from Russia. Although officials have described these deliveries as a donation, in an attempt to circumvent Western sanctions against Moscow, they signal closer military ties with Russia that can undercut Serbia’s relations with NATO.

Romania refused to allow the shipment of Russian vehicles through the Danube, signaling its adherence to the EU embargo on Russian arms acquisitions imposed after Moscow’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea. Instead, the vehicles were transported through Hungarian airspace in a civilian plane, indicating that the government in Budapest may be increasingly beholden to Moscow.

Serbia itself has refused to join Western sanctions on Russia for its attack on Ukraine, despite persistent demands from Brussels that as an EU candidate Serbia needs to align its foreign policy with that of the Union. For Belgrade, Moscow’s military assistance is more important than promoting Serbia’s path toward EU membership.

According to Defense MinisterAleksandar Vulin, Belgrade is due to receive additionalRussian military equipmentfrom.This includesfour multipurpose Mi-17 helicopters, fourMI-35 helicopter gunships, andseveralBMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles.Serbia also plans to purchase Russian MiG fighter jets,two BUK surface-to-air missile systems, and eight Mikoyan MiG-29 fighter aircraft from Belarus.

China is also active on Serbia’s behalf. Beijing has agreed to sell armed drones to Belgrade, in the first export of Chinese remotely piloted aircraft to a European country. A delivery of nine Chengdu Pterodactyl-1 drones is expected, with a possible future order of another fifteen. The combat drones can be used for reconnaissance missions and for missile strikes at enemy targets.

Serbia’s military purchases from Russia and China are likely to fuel an arms buildup that could again threaten peace in the region.According to Vulin, the Serbian army is rearmingin preparation for the “worst developments.” The Balkan arms race will increasingly embroilCroatia, which is planning topurchasesixteenmobile artillery systems from the American military. The Pentagon regularly sells military equipment to other NATO members.

Croatia is also obtaining transport helicopters, fighter jets, self-propelled howitzers, and patrol vessels. Croatian Defense Minister Damir Krsticevic confirmed that the country will acquire new fighter aircraft while phasing out Soviet-era MiG-21s.  These could be either European Gripens, Mirages, or American F-16s.

Zagreb also wants to order ballistic missiles with a range of 300 kilometers that could alter the military balance in the region. Such missiles could reach targets anywhere in Serbia and Belgrade has evidently appealed to Russia for countermeasures. Russian Deputy Prime Minister, Dimitri Rogosin, proposed the sale of S-300 Russian missile defense systems in response, a move that would increasingly isolate Serbia from NATO.

War between Serbia and Croatia currently seems unlikely, as Zagreb is both restrained and protected by its NATO membership. Nonetheless, an arms buildup will raise the political temperature throughout the region, particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosova, and could draw both Serbia and Croatia into conflict.

Croatia’s military modernization will demonstrate that Serbia is becoming overly dependent on Moscow and will receive inferior equipment to that of its NATO neighbors. Some analysts also speculate that Washington may deliberately arm Croatia to demonstrate to Belgrade that NATO membership would benefit its own military development and as a warning against any military intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Kosova will also be on the front line of Serbia’s arms buildup. Belgrade is unlikely to engage in any military adventures given the U.S. and NATO presence in Kosova and their commitment to defending the young state. Nonetheless, increasing military acquisitions will be interpreted as a threat to the integrity of Kosova.

Paradoxically, Serbia’s maneuvers should boost Prishtina’s drive toward creating its own army and defense structure. The transformation of the Kosova Security Force into a fully-capable Military Force will be seen as the best deterrent against outside threats that will gradually take much of the defense burden from NATO.

Serbia’s military build-up will also strengthen the position of those Western policy makers who encourage Kosova to build its own armed forces and begin the journey toward NATO membership. Although Kosova’s NATO accession may be years away, Belgrade’s aggressive actions may actually hasten that process.


Janusz Bugajski, September 2019

The appointment of Deputy Assistant Secretary Matthew Palmer as U.S. Special Representative for the Western Balkans is a significant move. It underscores Washington’s commitment to conflict resolution and international integration. However, while raising expectations of America’s effectiveness, it may prove insufficient in dealing with the most intractable problems.

The new envoy will face at least four challenges, beginning with the question of stature. Palmer is an experienced diplomat with deep knowledge of the region, but he already holds the position of Deputy Assistant responsible for the Western Balkans. Simply changing or adding titles does not provide him with additional powers to alter the harsh reality on the ground.

Successful U.S. envoys during and after the wars in the 1990s were higher-level officials or senior former officials often who often had the ear of the White House and were backed by a substantial NATO presence. Although American involvement has always been essential to resolve Balkan disputes, Palmer may lack thestature to push the conflicting parties together.

The recent resolution of the Greek-Macedonian disputehas encouraged Washington to try and emulate this diplomatic success. However, the ethno-political divisions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Kosova-Serbia standoff are much more complex, belligerent, and existential.

Palmer may give fresh impetus to the stalled talks and push the agenda of bilateral normalization. However, revisiting the notion of territorial exchanges may actually aggravate relations. Expectations may also grow that Belgrade must quickly recognize Kosova just as the Prespa agreement resulted in Athens recognizing North Macedonia.

A second problem for Palmer is the danger that the standoff in Bosnia-Herzegovina may spiral into a more menacing conflagration at a time when he is focused on the Serbia-Kosova dispute. It would be difficult to diplomatically handle two simultaneous conflicts, something that separatist leaders in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska (RS) may be calculating.

Bosnia’s status quo is not indefinite and the ingredients are present for another violent implosion. There is no functioning central government between election cycles, the RS threatens to secede, Croat nationalists are demanding a third entity, and Bosniaks are caught frustrated in the middle as the economy stagnates.

In one feasible scenario, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik will reject key reforms that partially stitch the country together, such as the formation of joint armed forces, a state court, and police agency. He has already threatened to withdraw from the Armed Forces Agreement and to withhold taxes for state-level institutions. He can undermine numerous competencies that have been transferred from the two entities to state level institutions since the 1995 Dayton accords. The RS could then withdraw from state institutions and announce a referendum on independence. Whether or not such moves trigger renewed violence they would preoccupy the U.S.envoy to the detriment of resolving the Serbia-Kosova dispute.

A third obstacle for Palmer will be the European Union, which has decided on a prolonged pause in its Balkan enlargement. This could set in motion a negative sequence of developments in which the six aspirant states confront an indefinite limbo that will discourage reform, stimulate EU skepticism, and boost nationalist sentiments. This in turn would provide ammunition for EU politicians who oppose further expansion.

The EU has postponed until October a decision on whether to open accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia, given resistance from several Union members, particularly France and Holland. Although some regional leaders claim that Montenegro and Serbia (who are in accession talks) may gain membership by 2025, such a goal is overly ambitious. The June 2019 European Council summit did not provide any timetable for accession even for the most qualified states.

Palmer’s mandate includes a “focus on integration of the Western Balkan countries into Western institutions.” The problem is that the U.S. has no role in the EU enlargement process. Even if the special representative is able to push for necessary reforms among aspirants, he will have no influence over “enlargement fatigue” in the EU.

Even NATO integration has limited prospects, as only three states will remain outside the Alliance once North Macedonia enters in 2020. Serbia does not seek membership, Kosova has to build a military force in order to qualify, and Bosnia’s membership will remain blocked by the RS.

The fourth persistent problem for Palmer will be Moscow’s determination to undermine regional stability. Russian diplomats and local agents are likely to engage in various provocations and influence operations to test Washington’s resolve and to discredit America’s main emissary in the Balkans.


Janusz Bugajski, August 2019

Belgrade is intensifying its diplomatic campaign against Prishtina. During this summer Serbia’s Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic has endeavored to create an alternative reality regarding the future of Kosova that will favor Serbia.

There are three basic elements of Dacic’s offensive – Kosova’s status, America’s reaction, and Europe’s approach. Above all, Dacic is determined to depict Kosova as a failed state that should be de-recognized. Greater Serb advocates such as Dacic refuse to accept the reality of Kosova’s independence and continue questioning its final status, even though neither Washington nor Brussels are backtracking on Kosova’s statehood.

In an effort to prove his point, Dacic has warned about a Greater Albania project in which Tirana and Prishtina are co-conspirators. The agreement between Albania and Tirana to share some embassies and coordinate their foreign policies is standard practice between several European states. But Dacic’s logic is that because Kosova has failed as a state it will try to unite with Albania and thereby destabilize the Balkans.

Dacic’s second fraudulent claim is that the US has decided to reopen the question of Kosova’s status and will allegedly favor Serbia in future talks between Belgrade and Prishtina. Dacic trumpeted his meeting with US National Security Advisor John Bolton in Washington in July as a major breakthrough for Belgrade. Bolton allegedly informed him that a lasting solution to the conflicts a White House priority.Certainly the US seeks bilateral normalization but not any reversal of Kosova’s status.

Dacic also asserted that Bolton would visit the region in August or September to launch a new initiative that would benefit Serbian interests. The government had to backtrack on these assertions. Although Bolton has publicly stated that Washington does not rule out territorial changes, this should not be interpreted as a planned unilateral concession by Prishtina to Belgrade.

Ever since the election of Donald Trumpin November 2016, Dacic has claimed that the new administration no longer supports Kosovaand this provides important opportunities for Serbian diplomacy. Much like Moscow, Belgrade has tried to pit Democrats against Republicansin the US. Dacic claims that Trump officials consider former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as “vampires” whose policies must be changed.

Serbia’s Foreign Minister has also asserted that Serbia must become more involved in domestic US politics by urging its diaspora to learn from other successful émigré groups, particularly Greek sand Armenians. Dacic announced that Belgrade would urge Americans with Serbian origins to vote for Trump in the 2020 presidential elections while claiming that most of them support Trump already.

Dacic’s third diplomatic spin is the allegedly changing European Union approach toward the Serbia-Kosova dispute. The appointment of Spain’s Foreign Minister Josep Borrell as the new EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy has raised Belgrade’s expectations. Borrell is a Catalan socialist who strongly opposes Catalonia’s secession from Spain.Serbia’s Foreign Ministry seems to believe that he will push for non-recognition of Kosova in the EU in line with the official Madrid position.

Europe’s foreign policy chief, appointed for five years, is a member of both the European Commission and the European Council, chairing meetings of foreign ministers and attending summits for heads of state or government and he will have an impact on policy. However, he cannot automatically pursue the position of his government or he will be censured by the vast majority of EU governments who have recognized Kosova.

In a recent sign of frustration with the EU, Dacic attacked Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov over comments that Borrell must respect the position of the EU on Kosova rather than that of Madrid. It would be difficult for Borrell to block talks between Serbia and Kosova or to favor Belgrade without alienating Germany, France, and other states that have invested for many years in Kosova’s statehood. Additionally, Borrell’sopen criticism of the Trump administration will also lessen his impact in the negotiating process.

Dacic’s is pursuing two primary goals. First, he wants to create the impression of success for Belgrade on the eve of restarted negotiations with Prishtina. And second, he is determined to weaken Kosova’s position by promulgating the notion of its declining support in Washington and Brussels. However, the propaganda of success only has a limited impact when it does not correspond with reality.


Janusz Bugajski, July 2019

Russia is facing a revolt of the regions that can eventually tear the country apart. As the process of disintegration gathers momentum the experience of Montenegromay serve as a precedent for Russia’s numerous restive nations and republics.

The unstable Russian Federation consists of 85 distinct territorial units, of which 22 are republics representing non-Russian nationalities, including the Middle Volga, North Caucasus, and parts of Siberia, northern Russia, and the far eastern provinces. Eveninregions where Russian ethnics predominate a growing number of residents feel alienated from Moscow and are rediscovering their unique identities.

Contrary to Western predictions, Russia’s democrats and liberals are unlikely to transform the country. Instead, it is regionalists, autonomists, and pro-independence groups of various nations who are increasingly challenging Putin’s authoritarian and colonial rule. Regional anger against Moscow revolves around numerous factors, whether economic stagnation, state corruption, exploitation of regional resources, attacks on language rights, or threats to eliminate or merge federal units.

Mass protests are mounting, whether against dumping Moscow’s trash in the northern Arkhangelsk region, the building of an Orthodox cathedralin Siberia’s Krasnoyarsk, or the arbitrary changes of borders between Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan in the North Caucasus. Almost any issue can trigger demonstrations against Moscow’s rule, thus setting the stage for separatism.

In their struggle for liberation, Russia’s regionalists can learn lessons from the Montenegrin experience in gaining independence from a dominant Serbia. In many respects, Montenegro’s relations with Serbia were a microcosm of relations between several federal regions and the Russian state. Regionalists will need to focus on four questions in particular: local identity, economic viability, peaceful separation, and international connectivity.

Identity is a complex cluster of loyalties and cannot be reduced to one factor. Even speaking the same language or having close ethnic ties does not guarantee a single identity or yearnings to live in one state. The United States separated from the British Empire despite sharing a common history, culture, religion, and language.

Montenegrin identity was rediscovered and fortified during the collapse of communist Yugoslavia, as the majority of the population realized that they had a unique regional history with traditions separate from an imposed Serbism. Such a process of awakening can be replicated in Siberia, the Urals, the Far East, and the Far North where there are growing distinctions with Muscovites even among people who are considered Russians. All these regions were conquered by Muscovy and even settlers from the central empire increasingly adopted the local identity.

In the economic arena, despite its small size, Monetenegro has proved that it is a viable state and even a leading candidate for EU accession. Similarly, several of Russia’s federal units possess the natural resources, demographics, and location to become independent economically once they terminate their exploitation by Moscow. Trade and investment from neighboring European and Asian countries can significantly develop regions such as Kaliningrad, Karelia, Tuva, Sakha, and Magadan.

Montenegro can also serve as a model of peaceful separation once regionalgovernors decide whether they will remain as Moscow’s stooges or become genuine representatives of the local population. With unrest mounting they could be swept out of power unless they commit themselves to strengthening their republics or regions. And much like Podgorica, they will have to show resilience and unity in confrontingpersistent provocations from Moscow.

Russia’s regions also have an advantage over Montenegro in pushing for secession. While Montenegro faced Milosovic alone because all other republics had already separated, dozens of Russia’s regions can coordinate their escape to freedom. Simultaneous actions would weaken Moscow’s attempts to extinguish each movement, as happened during thedismemberment of the Soviet Union. Success in one republic would encourage others and further neutralize the threat from Moscow.

In terms of international connectivity, much like Montenegro, states that emerge from a disintegrating Russia will benefit from forging closer economic and political contacts with neighboring countries rather than depending on Moscow’s shrinking federal budget. They can also petition and qualify for membership of various international organizations.

Moscow pursues a hypocritical stance on separatism. On the one hand, it supports secessionist movements in targeted states such as Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. On the other hand, it invents conspiracy theories that Washingtonintendsto break up Russia. Indigenous regionalist and ethnic movements in the artificial Russian Federation will expose Kremlin hypocrisy by pushing for independence and statehood.


Janusz Bugajski, June 2019

Albania is sliding toward conflict and chaos, and the repercussions could be more far-reaching than the state collapse witnessed over twenty years ago. Domestic political radicalism, social unrest, and institutional fragility may also generate regional instability, block Albania’s path toward European Union integration, weaken its relations with the United States, and open a new front for Moscow.

Compared to the economic crash in 1997, when tens of thousands of citizens lost their life savings, Albania’s current “pyramid schemes” are both political and economic. Clientelism and corruption have deeply infected both major parties while there is no viable third alternative. Even more destabilizing than official corruption is the extreme polarization of Albania’s politics. All countries in the Balkan region are undermined by corrupt links between politics and business, but none of them have experienced Albania’s acute bipolar disorders.

Kosova has a viable multi-party system, with at least four major formations competing for office. Even though Montenegro’s politics is divided between Montenegrin and Serbian streams, the pro-independence parties are stronger and have remained in office over several election cycles. North Macedonia may have two major parties but because of the important role played by Albanian parties in coalition cabinets, parliament functions and the government is able to arrange landmark agreements with its neighbors.

Albania is stuck in a quagmire where trust in the two major parties is falling while militants predominate and compromises cannot be reached between political leaders. The Democratic Party opposition has abandonedits parliamentary seatsand called for the Socialist Party government to resign while an interim administration takes office until early general elections. However,a national election without some grand bargain between the major political players will simply reproduce resentment among the next election losers and begin another cycle of protests.

The opposition is also boycotting Albania’s June 30 local electionsand in most municipalities only a single candidate is standing for mayor. The Socialists, who have enough parliamentary seats to run on their own,have assertedthat they cannot violate the constitution and change the Election Day. This position will simply ensure thatthe Democratsbecome more radical and aggressive, while the legitimacy of state institutions is jeopardized among a sizeable sector of Albanian citizens.

Several opposition demonstrations against the government have already turned violent and more clashes are expected between protestors and police. Democratic Partyleaders warn of further escalation as Election Day approaches and protestors may try to forcibly prevent the ballot from taking place.Following violent demonstrations on June 8, Albania’s President Ilir Meta declared he was unilaterally cancelling the local elections because of escalating political tensions. Prime Minister Edi Rama challenged Meta’s decision, claiming that the balloting would take place as planned, thus setting the stage for a major political showdown in which parliament could dismiss the President and precipitate a constitutional crisis and even more heated demonstrations.

It is worth noting that street protests in Albania are not manifestations of a Ukrainian-type “Majdan” uprising where in 2014 a popular, pluralistic, reformist, and pro-Western movement ousted a deeply corrupted and unpopular pro-Moscow regime. In Albania’s case, the protests are directed by the major opposition party, which primarily aims to replace the current government without eliminating the sources and drivers of corruption and clientelism.

The cyclesof boycotts and demonstrations have become commonplace in Albania and have seriously damaged the country’s reputation over the past two decades, and the manifestations of violence willfurther postponethe initiationof EU accession talks. Governments in France and Holland, who oppose further Union enlargement, will point at the street violence, political divisions, and institutional weaknesses as evidence that Albania does not belong in Europe.

Chaos and violence in Albania can also impact on regional stability by drawing into the fray neighboring Albanian politicians and parties, especially in Kosova and North Macedonia. This could contribute to radicalizing and even polarizing politics in both states. There is also a nightmare scenario of a repeat of the 1997 “pyramid scheme” collapse, in which the state basically ceased to function, weapons were pilfered from government arsenals, and armed vigilantes roamed the streets.

The descent into chaos of a NATO member and staunch US ally must be prevented through a firmer diplomatic initiative that pushes both sides toward dialogue, reigns in militants, and defuses tensions. Unfortunately, the Donald Trump administration has paid insufficient attention to Albania, having focused primarily on resolving the Macedonia-Greece and Kosova-Serbia disputes.

For almost a year Albania has had no US ambassador. The absence of a senior envoy sends a signal of indifference and encourages political radicalism. Statements from the State Departmentthat violence must be avoided are insufficient if the roots of the problems are nottackled and the US does not take a more forthright role.Washington must also be aware that political fragmentation, public revolt, and potential regional instability will open another Balkan door to Moscow’s subversive interventions.



Janusz Bugajski, May 2019

The Berlin Summit on the Western Balkans delivered more symbols than substance, even though symbolism is also important in international politics. The fact that both Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Emmanuel Macron met with all Western Balkan leaders was intended to demonstrate renewed EU commitments to the region. However, the lack of concrete decisions is likely to generate more cynicism about the results of the Summit and also about future meetings.

Traditionally, major international summits have been held when agreements have already been reached between heads of state and the meeting simply enables important protocols to be followed and accords signed. In the case of the West Balkan summits, a process launched by Berlin in 2014 to boost regional cooperation and security, few if any accords are arranged in advance. As a result, expectations rise that the session itself will produce concrete results, and this in turn can generate disappointments.

Berlin can boast at least one symbolic Summit achievement. The presence of both the German and French leaders underscored that Paris is now a major stakeholder in Berlin’s Western Balkan process. It was also a useful forum for Macron and Merkel to display a united front after recent strains in their relations over the future of the EU and the contours of Europe’s economic policy.

Nonetheless, the Summit’s shortcomings were more glaring. Although Serbia and Kosova agreed to restart “constructive” talks, there is little optimism of a major breakthrough this yearto normalize relations.Kosova’s President Hashim Thacicorrectly pointed out that no final bilateral agreement couldbe reached without the participation of the United States because the EU is too weak and dividedto resolve problemsor to implement solutionsin the Western Balkans.

Although Germany and France will be pushing Serbia and Kosovatopursuedialogue, the next meeting of negotiatorswill only be held in Paris in early July.Berlin also failed to resolve the tariff dispute followingPrishtina’sdecision last November toimpose 100% tariffs on Serbian goods in retaliation for Belgrade lobbying against Kosova’s membership of Interpol.Kosova’sofficials insist that tariffs will only be revokedifBelgrade recognizesthe country’s independence.

For its part, Berlin sent a strong message against any land exchanges between the two protagonists. This seemed to counter some of the signals that Washington has been sending in recent months. Although one can only speculate about all the private dinner conversations, rumors soon spread that adamant messages were delivered behind closed doors that there can be no border changes in the region and multi-ethnicity must be defended throughout the Western Balkans.

In another stark Summit failure,North Macedonia’s EU aspirations made little progress despite the landmark agreement between Skopje and Athens that is widely praised in the EU. Skopje did not receivea clearsignal from France, which remainsskeptical about EU enlargement in the Balkans, on a date for opening Union accession talks.Merkel seemed to sum up the low expectations and meager symbolic results when she concluded that the Summit was not about making decisions but about “having an honest and joint conversation.”

For Albania, there was little of real value at the Berlin Summit. Merkel and Macron made it abundantly clear that there is little immediate prospect for any Western Balkan aspirants to join the EU unless they complete wide-ranging reforms especially with regard to the rule of law. Albania’s ongoing political instability and public protests certainly do not help the country in activating its membership bid. Tirana is unlikely to obtain the go-ahead to formally start accession talks this year.

A more wide ranging sixth annual Berlin Process Summit will be held in Poznań, Poland on 4-5 July. It is scheduled to be attended by prime ministers, foreign ministers, and ministers of economy from the six Balkan EU aspirants, two current EU member states (Croatia and Slovenia), and several other EU members, including Austria, France, Germany, and Italy, as well as representatives from international financial institutions.

The Poznan agenda looks ambitious and includes discussions on economic investment, inter-state connectivity, youth and cultural ties, the development of civil society, and regional security. But oftentimes too broad an agenda is itself self-defeating, as each item may only receive shallow treatment. Above all, there will be much skepticism whether at the next Western Balkan Summit substance will actually prevail over symbolism.


Janusz Bugajski, April 2019

Serbia’s government may be planning to eliminate Kosova statehood by supporting a “Greater Albanian” project. Since the break-up of Yugoslavia, officials in Belgrade have toyed with various solutions that would permanently settle relations between Serbs and Albanians and finally eliminate the “Kosova question.” The current focus on territorial partition can be viewed in this strategic perspective.

All Serbian leaders since Slobodan Milosevic have resisted negotiating with the authorities in Prishtina, and only acquiesced because of pressure from the EU and the US. They prefer to deal with Tirana and in bypassing Prishtina they deliberately seek to undercut the legitimacy of the Kosova state and its officials.

Tirana has sometimes fallen into this diplomatic trap even though it has firmly supported Kosova’s independence and territorial integrity.In November 2014, Prime Minister Edi Rama paid a historic visit to Serbia, the first by an Albanian premier in 68 years, paving the way for the normalization of relations between the two countries. This was followed a few months later by the first visit by a Serbian prime minister when Aleksandar Vucic travelled to Tirana. Such visits are important to promote regional stability, but they may also disguise a more divisive agenda.

Officials of both major parties in Tirana have periodically claimed that they are the leaders of all Albanians in the Balkans. Such statements, usually made during election campaigns, may be intended to give support to various Albanian communities but they inadvertently assist Belgrade by undercutting Prishtina’s position. Politicians in Kosova do not want rifts with their counterparts in Tirana, and although they view Albania as their historic motherland, they do not consider its politicians as their “elder brothers.”

Belgrade will consider almost any option to avoid recognizing Kosova as an independent state. Having failed to reintegrate the territory into Serbia or to disqualify Kosova on the international arena, it has revisited the concept of a “Greater Albania” that could serve Serbian interests. Partitioning Kosova and merging most of the country with Albania could achieve several objectives.

First, for domestic consumption, the government can claim that Serbia has actually benefited by gaining Serb majority areas without recognizing Kosova’s right to exist. Such border changes would evidently ensure greater ethnic cohesion and homogenization and enable Serbs to focus on the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The “Greater Serbia” project would have received its most significant boost since the demise of Milosevic.

Second, for an EU audience, Belgrade can claim a breakthrough in stabilizing the Balkans by forging a lasting Belgrade-Tirana compact. This would help the government in moving forward in its bid toward EU membership and appeal to Washington, which is in search of other permanent regional solutions following the landmark Skopje-Athens agreement.

Third, negotiations for a Belgrade-Tirana accord, depicted as an historic treaty “between Serbs and Albanians,” would serve an additional objective even if they fail by provoking rifts between Albanians in both states. One cannot assume that relations between Tirana and Prishtina will always be trouble free. An undercurrent of resentment of Tosk linguistic and cultural dominance that is periodically expressed could bubble to the surface if Kosova feels it is treated as a second-class partner.

There is also a rational political calculation, in that an accord between Belgrade and Tirana over Prishtina’s head could marginalize Kosova’s leaders and weaken Kosova’s international position. The new state would be viewed as a mere province of Albania rather than an equal partner. Support in Prishtina for a loose confederation between Albania and Kosova or a merger through an EU-driven process that dissolves borders does not envisage outright annexation.

A Serbia-Albania agreement also carries looming threats to other neighboring states, particularly to Montenegro and North Macedonia. The Albanian population in southern Montenegro could be enticed with secession to “join the motherland” and used as a wedge against the government in Podgorica in an effort to reintegrate Montenegro in a larger Serbian state. In North Macedonia,any territorial union between Albania and Kosova could revive the ghosts of separatism among the Albanian population in the western districts and even in Skopje.

In an idyllic world, Albania,Kosova,and Serbia would move towarda common future in the EU where borders would cease to be significantmarkers of ethnic exclusivity.But the region is far from idyllicand the wider Europe itself is now rocked by greater demands for ethnic borders.


Janusz Bugajski, December 2018

2019 promises to be a crucial year in the Western Balkans where decisions made by political leaders and international players will decide its long-term future. These decisions can usher in greater state stability, regional security, and international integration, or they could precipitate new conflicts. But regardless of the outcome, the current status quo cannot continue indefinitely.

In the coming year, two outstanding inter-state disputes could be resolved and contribute to regional coexistence. First, the Kosova-Serbia dialogue can move in one of two directions: constructive or destructive. A constructive dialogue that brings concrete results would culminate in Serbia’s recognition of Kosova as an independent state. This could be expedited through border changes or limited land swaps or some other inter-governmental arrangement. A comprehensive accord would free both countries to pursue their EU aspirations and Kosova could focus more intensively on developing its security structure and petitioning for NATO membership.

A destructive scenario would witness the Prishtina-Belgrade talks collapsing indefinitely. Public frustrations will then increase with Kosova sinking deeper into an international limbo, the economy stagnating, and the best-educated workers continuing to emigrate. This would make the country more vulnerable to populism and nationalism, intensify inter-ethnic disputes, and substantially increase tensions with neighboring states.

Radicalism in Prishtina can be inflamed by public frustration with economic conditions and by Kosova’s international blockage, including delays in EU visa liberalization, exclusion from Interpol, and lack of progress toward membership in the United Nations. In recent weeks, the government in Belgrade has also intensified its de-recognition campaign against Kosova, with over a dozen small states in Africa and the Pacific targeted by Serbian officials offering lucrative bribes.

Some Kosova politicians also face potential prosecution, as the Special Court for war crimes has begun to subpoena witnesses to appear in The Hague. Prishtina is concerned that the objective or the result will be to delegitimize the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA) and boost Serbia’s claims against Kosova. At the same time, elected representatives of the Serbian minority continue to boycott Kosova’s institutions on Belgrade’s instructions, while uncertainty prevails over potential border changes and what they will mean for the country’s future. Such an array of pressures may be part of a negotiating ploy by Belgrade ahead of bilateral talks or they may be part of a strategy designed to demonstrate that Kosova is a failed state.

In an environment of expanding grievances, the government in Prishtina calculates that it needs to assert itself on the international stage. Hence, new legislation has been passed on creating a Kosova army despite opposition from Serbia and several EU and NATO officials. Parliament recently approved transforming the 3,000-strong Kosova Security Force into an army consisting of 5,000 active troops and 3,000 reservists during the next decade.A supportive statement from the US administration on Prishtina’s progress indicates that if it implements the necessary reforms, Kosova is likely to join NATO long before Serbia does. According to Kosova’s constitution, Serb minority representatives should be included in the process of legislating for the creation of an army, but Kosova cannot come to a standstill because of their persistent boycott of parliament.

Prishtina is also asserting itself by imposing 100% tariffs on Serbian and Bosnian imports in retaliation for Belgrade and Sarajevo blocking imports from Kosova and creating a large trade imbalance by unfairly treating its goods. This has brought the government significant domestic popularity by demonstrating that it is no longer passive. There is widespread resentment that the EU favors Serbia and ignores how Belgrade discriminates against Kosova and destabilizes the region through its close connections with Moscow. Without fair trade, open markets, state stability, and membership in international organizations, investors will shy away from Kosova and the economy will languish.

The second lingering regional dispute between Macedonia and Greece is on the verge of resolution. The Macedonian parliament has until the end of January to ratify constitutional changes to adjust the country’s name to the Republic of North Macedonia. This would clear the path toward NATO membership and help move the country toward potential EU accession in the coming decade. Nonetheless, there is still a possibility that the process could unravel. For instance, the Macedonian government may not muster the needed two thirds of deputies to ratify necessary constitutional modifications or the Greek government could face new opposition to the deal with Skopje amidst calls for early elections.

In the worst-case scenario, Macedonia rejects the name change and returns to a frozen status with the door to both NATO and EU entry firmly closing. The moderate Social Democrat government falls, the economy declines, nationalism rises, ethnic tensions increase, and civil disturbances escalate. Instead of becoming a pillar of regional security, Macedonia devolves into a factor of instability in which each of its four neighboring states will be pulled into the fray.

2019 can either be a year of success or a year of failure – the onus is on state leaders to take brave steps and act on behalf of the long-term interests of their nations rather than the short term personal advantages of political office.


Janusz Bugajski, November 2018

Contrary to conventional assumptions, Serbia and Russia have not established a close alliance but an asymmetric coupling in which the Kremlin exploits its dominance. When Moscow needs Serbia to fulfill certain international tasks to Russia’s advantage, the pressure mounts on Belgrade, as evident in the current push toward border adjustments in the Western Balkans.

Although official history claims that Russia was instrumental in liberating Serbia from the Ottomans, the real ambitions of the Tsars was to expand their empire toward the Mediterranean. Christian Orthodoxy and pan-Slavism were useful ideological tools crafted to convince Serbs that Russia was defending their national interests.

After World War Two, Stalin undercut Serbian ambitions and prevented the emergence of a Balkan Communist federation combining Yugoslavia and Bulgaria because he feared that a strong state in the region would challenge Moscow’s diktat. Tito’s Yugoslavia subsequently demonstrated that Belgrade was unwilling to remain a loyal puppet when it broke from the Soviet bloc in 1948 and helped to establish the non-aligned movement.

Milosevic and Yeltsin were not close allies but exploited each other’s political ambitions. With the onset of war in Yugoslavia during the 1990s, Belgrade appealed to Russian solidarity whether over preserving Yugoslav integrity, creating a Greater Serbia, or retaining control over Kosova. Moscow in turn manipulated Serbia’s grievances against the US and NATO to demonstrate that Russia remained a major factor in European affairs.. However, since the overthrow of Milosevic, Serbian governments have adopted the role of Russia’s junior partner, enabling Putin to transform Serbia into Moscow’s outpost in the Western Balkans.

The Kremlin calculated that in exchange for blocking Kosova’s entry into the UN and other international bodies in which Moscow has a veto, Belgrade would surrender ground to Russia and disqualify itself from Western institutions. The scars from the 1999 NATO intervention over Kosova to prevent the genocide of Albanians have not healed sufficiently for Belgrade to petition for NATO membership. And Moscow makes sure that anti-Alliance sentiments are constantly nurtured among the Serb public.

Bilateral relations are contaminated by the persistent disinformation that Russia is Serbia’s main economic benefactor, even though its trade and investment in the country is not only dwarfed by the EU but is based largely on opaque deals that primarily benefit corrupt politicians.

Serbia was persuaded to give Gazprom majority shares in its major oil and gas company, NiS,and entered into other deals that tied the country tightly with Russia’s energy supplies. Belgrade was also pressured to open a “Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center” near the southern city of Nis, which Russian services can use as an intelligence gathering facility vis-à-vis the West and to train paramilitaries for future Balkan conflicts.

In a new twist to its exploitation of Belgrade, the Kremlin now seeks to benefit from Washington’s goal to “normalize” relations between Serbia and Kosova. As the notion of land swaps has been mooted, the Kremlin is pushing Serbia to accept territorial exchanges with Kosova despite the political resistance in Belgrade. The unprecedented meeting between Putin and Kosova’s President Hashim Thaci during the World War One Armistice anniversary in Paris, the first between the heads of both states, ratcheted up the pressure on Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic.

Putin’s strategists are pursuing two main objectives. First, border changes in the Balkans approved by Western powers can be trumpeted as a valuable precedent and example for Crimea, Donbas, Transnistria, and other regions coveted by Russia. Russian officials can contend that changes in the Kosova-Serbia border simply bring co-ethnics into the motherland. Hence, a similar process can be applied to territories with sizeable Russian populations, including parts of Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, and Kazakhstan.

Second, the Kremlin simultaneously calculates that border changes in the Balkans can create havoc for NATO and the EU by stimulating calls for further partitions. Local nationalists could orchestrate violence to demonstrate that ethnic co-existence is not feasible and borders have to be adjusted. A ripple effect of territorial aspirations will not only affect unsettled states such as Bosnia-Hercegovina and Macedonia, but also impact on NATO members Croatia, Albania, and Montenegro.

Vucic will come under increasing Western pressure to forge a deal with Prishtina but may not be able to contain domestic nationalist opposition without Kremlin backing. If Belgrade officially acknowledges the loss of Kosova through a bilateral deal, Russia’s appeals to Slavic Orthodox solidarity may be insufficient. Instead, and regardless of Vucic’s reluctance, Moscow can express support for the partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia’s incorporation of Republika Srpska (RS). This would be a bigger prize for Serb nationalists than the northern fringes of Kosova and where RS leaders, working with Russian agencies, yearn to join Serbia.

The result of Moscow’s deepening intervention will be to embroil Vucic in a new conflict with the EU, NATO, and the US over Bosnia-Herzegovina. This will also serve Kremlin interests by blocking Belgrade’s path toward EU accession. Unless it breaks free from Russia’s suffocating political grip, Belgrade cannot achieve its national potential and will continue to be exploited as a pawn in Putin’s campaign to dismantle the West.


Janusz Bugajski, October 2018

Bosnia-Herzegovina is a politically frozen state veering toward further ethnic division. In the recent general elections all three main nationalist formations that have dominated the country’s political institutions were re-elected. The results indicate that Bosnia’s administration will remain gridlocked and the country paralyzed in its aspirations toward EU membership. However, after each election cycle the status quo becomes less sustainable and post-election politics are likely to witness growing radicalization and instability.

Bosnians elected a new state parliament, assemblies in the two entities, ten cantonal assemblies within the federation entity, and a three-member state presidency. Milorad Dodik, head of Alliance of Independent Social Democrats,won the Serbian seat in Bosnia’s presidency and Šefik Džaferović from the ruling Party of Democratic Action gained the Muslim seat. Željko Komšić won the Croatian seat to the national presidency but Bosnian Croat seats in parliament will again be led by the Croatian Democratic Union.

Even in the most optimistic scenario, the formation of new governments at entity and central levels will take prolonged negotiations. In the federation entity there is currently no legal basis for the election of a new House of Peoples, as the approval of a key election law has stalled. In addition, Croatian leaders complain that Bosniak Muslims upended the 1995 Dayton accords by voting across ethnic lines to elect Komšić to the presidencyand defeat Dragan Čović, the CDU candidate. This will contribute to immobilizing the federation and central governments.

At a more fundamental level, Bosnia’s ethnic politics disguises failed reforms, economic decline, and social despair. The country’s infrastructure is deteriorating, the healthcare system is collapsing, education and welfare are threadbare, and the legal system remains deeply corrupt. The country has Europe’s highest unemployment rate of 25% with over 54% of young people out of work. The country faces a demographic crisis through a combination of low birth rates, high mortality, and growing emigration.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is not a multi-ethnic country but an association of ethnic fiefdoms, in which national parties maintain divisions in order to control their citizens and protect their spoils. Politicians have been stoking fears of armed conflict since the end of the last war and claim to be protectors of national interests in order to divert attention from deep-rooted corruption and economic failure. Politicians seeking a more cohesive state that guarantees equal citizenship regardless of ethnicity have limited support.

Numerous initiatives for constitutional changes to amend Dayton and eliminate entity vetoes and ethnic voting have failed. Dayton was not designed to construct an integrated state with an effective central government. Instead, it created a complex administrative structure in which ethnic balancing predominates and layers of governmental bureaucracy ensures inefficiency and budgetary burdens. This system has obstructed effective decision-making and Bosnia’s progress.

Ethno-politics and patronage networks stymie the development of state citizenship, programmatic pluralism, individual rights, and a competitive democracy. In this climate of state paralysis,the Serbian entity has steadily moved from autonomy toward sovereignty and its President Milorad Dodik, with Moscow’s financial and political support, has raised the prospect of separation and unification with Serbia. Dodik is likely to be encouraged by the election results to push for further RS autonomy. He also plans to benefit from the partition debate revolving around Kosova.

Dodik’s relative success has tempted some Bosnian Croat politicians to call for a third entity and the partition of the Bosnian Federation. Meanwhile, Bosniak Muslim leaders warn about a renewed war as they are committed to defending Bosnia’s territorial and constitutional integrity. However, politicians from the other two ethnicities view any further centralization as a pretext for reducing their national status.

EU leaders have proved inadequate in resolving Bosnia’s predicament. Despite several Balkan summits, the country has achieved only limited moves toward accession. Summits in Sofia, Brussels, and London over the summer produced vague commitments to speed up the process of integration at some indeterminate time after the European Parliament elections in May 2019. In reality, EU preoccupations with populism, migration, and Brexit means that there is little appetite for further enlargement.

The evaporation of a visible EU perspective contributes to stirring nationalist and separatist sentiments, as frustration and resentment invariably assume an ethnic dimension. The EU is also blamed for failing to push through constitutional and political reform. As long as there is no violence, Brussels appears content to keep Bosnia-Herzegovina in a limbo and actually benefits from the political paralysis because it keeps the country at arms length from membership.

However, the durability of Bosnia’s status quo may prove deceptive. During each election cycle, economic decline, ethnic division, state bankruptcy, and social desperation further exacerbate nationalist radicalization. Ethno-nationalist leaders who have in effect divided the country between them will have fewer resources to offer citizens. This can exacerbate turf battles in which a unified government will prove even more difficult to forge and the separatist option will become more appealing. In this acrimonious climate, armed conflicts can again be provoked and may ultimately prove the only way to break the stifling deadlock.


Janusz Bugajski, October 2018

Macedonia stands on the verge of political decisions that will impact on its long-term stability, security, and integrity. The lowvoter turnout in a referendum on changing the country’s name has threatened the agreement with Greece that promised to open doors to NATO and EU membership. And if such prospects disappear the country will be increasingly exposed to ethnic radicalization,regional instability, and Moscow’s interference.

According to the Prespa accords signed between Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in June 2018, the government in Skopje agreed to rename the country as the Republic of North Macedonia. Simultaneously, the name of the language as “Macedonian” was retained and the nationality was defined as “Macedonian/Citizens of the Republic of North Macedonia.” Skopje made one key compromise by agreeing to alter the constitution so that the appellation “Republic of North Macedonia” can be used both internationally and domestically.

To come into force, the Prespa agreement needs to be ratified by the Macedonian and Greek parliaments.The referendum in Macedonia was intended as thefirst step in this process and its validity depended on a 50% turnout and a majority “yes” vote. However, although 91% of those that voted approved the name change, just under 37% of the electorate actually cast their ballots, with the highest turnout in Albanian majority areas.

Even though the referendum was only “consultative,” Zaev did not receive the broad popular mandate to push the Prespa agreement through parliament. Thegovernment coalition holds a slender parliamentary majority with 69 out of 120 lawmakers – eleven short of thetwo-thirds needed to enact constitutional amendments in altering the country’s name.

Following the referendum, Zaev entered into urgent negotiations with the VMRO opposition. However, given the polarized political environment VMRO seems unlikely to back the government.VMRO leader Hristijan Mickoski declared that the referendum failed and that the Prespa agreement was rejected by a majority of Macedonians.Zaev’s only recourse will be to call for early elections in late November to increase his majority, although this itself is a risky proposition given that nationalists will be emboldened by the referendum boycott.

The clock is ticking on Skopje’s decision. A new parliamentary majority will need several weeks to pass the required constitutional changes, and this must be accomplished before Greece starts its own election campaign in the Spring of 2019. Greek parliamentary ratification of the Prespa deal cannot be guaranteed if the Tsipras leftists lose the next elections. Indeed, the entire agreement could then be rejected by Athens.

Many Macedonians claim that the Prespa agreement will eliminate their identity and language despite the fact that many nations have had geographical appellations in the name of the state without weakening their ethnic identity. Paradoxically, it is Macedonian insecurities about their future that could propel the country toward a new crisis in which three potentially negative elements may converge.

First, Macedonian nationalists will be bolstered by the shortcomings of the referendum. VMRO leaders, backed by President Gjorge Ivanov, who called for a boycott of the referendum,are likely to claim that any parliamentary vote on constitutional changes is invalid. Some politicians will assert that the majority of Macedonians abstained from the ballot and that Albanians should not determine the country’s name. Such assertions will intensify inter-ethnic tensions.

Second, the Albanian population will become increasingly frustrated with Macedonia’s blocked path toward NATO and the EU if the Prespa accords fail to be ratified. While many Slavic Macedonians believe that membership in either institution may not be essential, for Albanians NATO accession in particular is viewed as an existential imperative.Albanian disillusionment could fuel more militant demands for federalization or territorial autonomy.

Moreover, with the partition debate raging in Kosova and Serbia, neighboring Macedonia could be drawn into the calculations. If Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosova President Hashim Thaci reach an agreement on border changes, some Albanian leaders in both Kosova and Macedonia may see a chance for further ethnic homogenization by attaching territory from Macedonia to Kosova.

And third, nationalism, separatism, and irredentism will leave Macedonia more vulnerable to Russia’s influences. Moscow relishes the prospect of a rump anti-Western Macedonian state lodged in the middle of the Balkans that will assist the Kremlin’s strategic thrust against NATO and the EU. Moscow may calculate that Macedonia could evolve into a second Republika Srpska– the Bosnian entity that is increasingly beholden to Russian money and influence.

A combination of these three factors would also unsettle the wider region. Macedonia’s blocked path toward Western institutions and growing ethnic polarization will raise calls for national self-defense in several neighboring countries and increase tensions between majorities and minorities. It will also energize the Kremlin and its local nationalist supporters to unravel the region’s fragile democratic achievements and benefit from the ensuing disarray. Meanwhile, prospects for both NATO and EU accession in the Western Balkans will further recede.


Janusz Bugajski, August 2018

In recent weeks a new specter is haunting the Balkans – the specter of partition. After several provocative statements by Serbian and Kosovar politicians and silence from the US administration, suppositions are growing that a territorial exchange is being planned between Belgrade and Prishtina.

Kosova’s President Hashim Thaci asserted that the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue will include talks on “the correction of borders” – a term that implies the exchange of territory and not simply demarcation agreements as with Montenegro. His Serb counterparts have repeatedly put forward the territorial option to normalize relations between the two states but thus far the issue has not been seriously considered.

In a move that inflames rumors of secret exchanges, Thaci has stated that talks with Belgrade should consider the unification with Kosova of the Presevo Valley, a part of southern Serbia with a majority Albanian population. Thaci clearly wants to bring Presevo into the discussion and not be faced with a unilateral surrender of northern Kosova.

Until now, Washington and Brussels have opposed any border changes, viewing such moves as too precarious in a still volatile region. Rumors are now growing that the Trump administration may overrule the State Department in an effort to resolve the Serbia-Kosova dispute, but without carefully evaluating the consequences.

In a recent media interview, the US ambassador to Kosova, Greg Delawie, did not rule out territorial transactions, claiming that Washington would stand by any agreement between Belgrade and Prishtina. At the same time, Serbia’s Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, claimed that he had discussed partition during his visit to Washington. Meanwhile, the State Department has remained silent, fuelling further speculation that the US has given up on integrating four northern municipalities inside Kosova.

In principle, territorial exchanges or partitions are nothing new, whether through post-war adjustments by the victorious parties or on the basis of democratic plebiscites or inter-governmental agreements. While Yugoslavia was partitioned through wars and elections, Moscow was unable to hold the Soviet Union together by either force or persuasion, and Czechoslovakia was amicably divided by the governments in Prague and Bratislava. In each case, however, the new units that emerged possessed federal status, clearborders, and elected governments. The potential division of Kosova would open a new principle – the division of states that emerged from the defunct federations.

Such a process would require at least four conditions to be realized peacefully. First, because only sovereign states can swap territory, Belgrade and Prishtina would need to recognize each other as independent countries and not block entry into international institutions. Second, popular approval in both states would need to be secured either through parliament or a public referendum. Third, international mediation would be needed to monitor and implement any territorial agreements. And fourth, the citizens affected by the land exchange would have to obtain the resources to relocate to the state of their choice.

But even if all these conditions were met, border changes in the Western Balkans are fraught with numerous perils. Above all, they would be interpreted throughout the region as legitimizing national homogenization. With the principle of multi-ethnicity jettisoned, demands for mono-ethnicity would escalate and potentially unravel several countries. Western institutions and NATO forces may find themselves woefully unprepared for the wave of instability that could then engulf the region.

In Kosova itself, the Serbian Orthodox Church would vehemently oppose any loss of territory especially as most Serb religious sites and over 60% of the Serbian population are not located in the northern municipalities. Nationalist Serbs and Albanians could incite violent protests in order to expel the other ethnicity from their assigned territories. And a similar process can be envisaged in the Presevo valley if a land swap is agreed.

The territorial exchange would also raise support in Kosova for unification with Albania. Such momentum could rapidly spread to Macedonia where at least a quarter of the population is Albanian. Threats to Macedonia’s territorial integrity would intensify nationalism, scuttle the name deal with Greece, and bring both Bulgaria and Albanian into the expanding conflict.

Meanwhile, the Serb entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina can demand the application of the Kosova precedent in order to join Serbia; the Croat population could petition for western Herzegovina to be absorbed by Croatia; and the Bosniak population would campaign for Serbia’s Muslim-majority Sandjak region to unite with Bosnia. Montenegro would also be caught in the middle of this maelstrom, with Bosniaks, Serbs, and Albanians all demanding slithers of the country in which they form local majorities. And all this is unlikely to occur in a peaceful political and political climate but would be peppered with violent incidents to prove that separation was necessary.

Although such a scenario sounds like a bonanza for the Kremlin in consolidating its own partition of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, it would be premature for Moscow to celebrate Kosova’s partition. The signal would be amplified that the Russian Federation, containing 85 federal units, may also be divided according to ethnic, religious, or regional principles. Paradoxically, Kosova’s partition could serve as a precedent for Russia’s potential partition.


Janusz Bugajski, April 2018

Turkey’s influences in the Balkans have heightened local fears that the Recep Tayyip Erdogan government may be destabilizing the region. Initially seen as a useful supplement to the EU and the US, especially among Muslim populations, Turkey’s self-declared “neo-Ottomanism” is increasingly viewed as a form of potential neo-imperialism.

Over recent years, Ankara has extended its influences across the Balkan peninsula through trade, investment, cultural exchanges, humanitarian assistance, and religious contacts. In general, all countries welcomed Turkey’s involvement and viewed the country as a developing economy and a trusted NATO member. However, with Ankara kept at arms length by the EU and its democracy regressing, the government is now perceived as overly intrusive.

Ankara has applied pressure on the region’s governments in demanding the extradition to Turkey of adherents of Fethullah Gulen – an ostracized Turkish cleric living in exile in the US since 1999. President Erdogan claims that Gulenists organized the coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016 and has pinpointed the movement as the main danger to the state. Unable to convince Washington to extradite Gulen himself, Erdogan has focused on Gulenist supporters in Europe, with the Balkans viewed as the softest target.

A scandal recently erupted in Kosova over the expulsion of six Turkish citizens allegedly linked with Gulen but without the knowledge of Kosova’s Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj. The Prime Minister fired the Interior Minister and the head of Kosova’s Intelligence Agency after news of the deportations was announced. Erdogan accused Haradinaj of protecting terrorists and claimed that Ankara would continue to intervene in Kosova. Officials admitted that Turkish agents had conducted the operation in cooperation with collaborators in Kosova’s security services.

Erdogan also implied that Washington was behind Haradinaj’s decision, claiming that the Prime Minister was acting on the orders of another country. Any attempts to turn Albanians against the US is a futile proposition. On the contrary, public opinion is likely to turn against Turkey. Already a growing number of officials and analysts complain about overbearing Turkish influence and an imperial “big brother” syndrome toward Muslims similar to the Russian variant among Slavic and Christian Orthodox populations.

Turkey’s President likes to portray himself as a protector of Muslims in former Ottoman dominions. He also uses this image in domestic politics, as millions of Turkish citizens have Bosnian or Albanian backgrounds. However, the extent of Turkey’s political impact in the region varies. In Macedonia and Bulgaria, Ankara has supported pro-Turkey parties and civil society organizations among local Turks and other Muslims and has enlisted people who are loyal to Erdogan. These bodies do have influence at local level where there are sizeable Turkish populations and when they enter government coalitions. Nonetheless, it is in Muslim-majority states that Turkish influence is more challenging.

Kosova and Albania are largely immune to pan-Turkism or pan-Islamism and Turkey is important only as far as its policies are in sync with those of the EU, which both countries seek to enter. Turkey is not a political role model for these secular Muslim societies and the only way it could gain more influence is if these countries were to be abandoned by the EU and US.

There are two populations that may be more susceptible to Ankara’s interventions – the Bosniak Muslims and the Sandzak Muslims. Bosnia-Herzegovina is home to private schools founded by the Gulen movement and Ankara has been demanding that they all be closed. Theseeducational institutions stand accused by Ankara of fostering a personality cult around Gulen. Supporters of the institutions contend that they provide a balanced education and are opposed to their closure.

In the ongoing dispute between Erdogan and Gulenists and with increasing pressure on Bosnia, intra-Muslim disputes could escalate. This would assist the separatist agenda of leaders of the Serbian entity backed by Moscow who contend that Bosnia is an unstable and failing state. Bosnia’s limited progress toward EU membership and its stagnant economic conditions would feed into the turmoil.

The Sandzak is a Muslim-majority region along the Serbia-Montenegro border where Turkey claims significant influence. The region was created by the Ottomans in order to separate Serbia and Montenegro and to connect the Ottoman Empire with Bosnia. Sandzak Muslim loyalty toward Turkey stems from close historical and cultural ties, and because Ankara is viewed as a potential source of protection from Serbian nationalism. The region is also connected to Turkey by a large diaspora, with some estimates that nearly five million Bosniaks live in Turkey, most of whom originate from the Sandzak.

If there is unrest in Bosnia, the Sandzak will be directly affected and Ankara could be pulled into the fray if new waves of nationalism increase religious and ethnic divisions. Since the wars in the 1990s, Turkey’smoderate Islam has been viewed as a valuable counterpoint to radical Salafist penetration from Saudi Arabia. However, the intra-Turkish struggle between Erdogan and Gulenism and Ankara’s heavy-handed approach may contribute to intensifying Balkan disputes.


Janusz Bugajski, March 2018

Although Croatia is both a member of NATO and the European Union, it continues to face security challenges along its long southern borders that could drag the country into another war. Although this may be a worst-case scenario, it is important for Zagreb to develop contingencies for its worst-case reactions.

During the past few weeks, EU institutions have issued documents and several EU leaders have conducted tours in the West Balkan states to underscore their renewed commitment to incorporating the entire region inside the Union. The European Commission has issued a new report asserting “A credible enlargement perspective and enhanced EU engagement.” And the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker just completed his first regional pilgrimage in the footsteps of Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn.

Although the EU document claims that the Union can start to admit new members by 2025, there are serious doubts about how realistic such a plan will prove given the enduring problems in several candidate states. Critics argue that the EU announcements do not signify any real acceleration in the enlargement process but are simply a means to press each country to pursue reforms and prevent further instability.

Both Brussels and Washington have expressed heightened concern that renewed conflicts may be just over the horizon. In conditions of economic stagnation, popular frustration, nationalist manipulation, and limited inter-ethnic reconciliation most of the flashpoints are found along Croatia’s southern border.

Bosnia-Herzegovina remains the primary danger where developments can rapidly spiral out of control. Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik may not fully realize that he is playing with fire when he toys with the idea of referenda on separation. Bosniak Muslim reactions should not be underestimated and even delayed revenge attacks for the attempted genocide in the 1990s cannot be discounted.

But Bosnia could implode even without a provocative political decision in Banja Luka. Conflict can be triggered by a violent act such as a political assassination or a major terrorist outrage. This could become a pretext for the RS to withdraw from all state institutions in Sarajevo, declare statehood, and construct a hard border across the country. Moreover, the creation of paramilitary forces by Banja Luka will simply encourage similar moves among Bosniaks and Croats. The EU may warn against armed conflict but it lacks the deterrents to prevent it, while any NATO mobilization is likely to be significantly delayed.

In the most extreme scenario, armed clashes between Serbs and Bosniaks will rapidly escalate and draw Croats into the fighting. Such developments may create a vacuum and an opportunity to declare a Croatian entity or even to announce outright autonomy. Croatia and Serbia could not afford to stand on the sidelines during the growing crisis if their kindred across the borders are being killed or expelled. If Bosnia starts to crumble some form of military intervention by Zagreb and Belgrade would become practically inevitable, with an enormous risk of clashes between the two neighbors.

At this point NATO would automatically become involved in the war to honor its article five pledge to Croatia, while Moscow would not want to lose credibility by claiming neutrality. Having assisted Dodik in creating a paramilitary force and fearing that Serbia could suffer a military defeat, the Kremlin would probably intervene either with its special forces or assorted “volunteers” relocated from Ukraine or Syria. This would raise the prospects for NATO-Russia clashes, with Croatia trapped in the middle.

A second crisis scenario along Croatia’s southern border could involve Montenegro. Although Montenegro has already entered NATO and is a primary candidate for EU accession, Moscow has not surrendered the country to the West and will use any opportunities to incite conflict. The attempted coup and assassination attempt in October 2016 was intended to demonstrate that Moscow has every means at its disposal including outright violence.\

The coup plot was also designed to deliver a strong message to Serbia. In effect, Belgrade needs to comply with Russia’s international aspirations or face a potential overthrow of the Aleksandar Vucic government. Russian officials have no enduring loyalties toward their Serbian counterparts but exploit the latter’s economic needs and nationalist yearnings to further Moscow’s anti-Atlanticist agenda.

An assassination or coup in Serbia would further damage relations with all of Serbia’s neighbors and could increase pressure on Bosnia, Kosova, and Montenegro in particular. An even more pro-Moscow administration in Belgrade could jettison its EU aspirations and even stage provocations against Croatia in attempts to embroil the country in the region’s instabilities. Just as the Kremlin is testing NATO commitments toward the three Baltic states, Serbia could be used as a vehicle by Moscow to test Alliance commitments in defending Croatia and Montenegro.

Zagreb cannot sit on its hands and assume that conflict and war have been consigned to history. In addition to preparing for potential military and self-defense operations, it would be valuable to expand the “Immediate Response” exercises with NATO forces and develop contingency plans for a series of crises along Croatia’s unpredictable southern borders.


Janusz Bugajski, January 2018

The Balkans are returning onto America’s radar screen, as threats to regional stability and European integrity are mounting. To prevent a dangerous spiral of escalation, Washington needs to pursue a more vigorous strategy to help secure the remaining states within Western institutions and curtail Russia’s spreading subversion.

Drift and delay in dealing with the Western Balkans can give a false sense of security. After years of relative peace and progress, a new crisis can erupt when ambitious nationalist politicians and foreign governments are intent on provoking armed conflicts to gain power or expand their influence.

In recent months, the region has witnessed several ominous developments, including a Moscow-directed coup attempt in Montenegro, the creation of a Russian-trained paramilitary force in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the assassination of a moderate Serb politician in Kosova. Whether or not there is a grand strategy behind the three incidents, it is clear that nationalist radicals and Kremlin operatives directly benefit from the resulting instability.

In October 2016, Montenegrin police arrested several suspects, including former Serbian gendarmerie chief Branislav Dikic, on charges of plotting a coup against the elected government. Evidence indicates they were funded and directed by Russia’s military intelligence service. The plot was confirmed by Western intelligence and by the Serbian authorities, which provided Montenegro with assistance in apprehending the conspirators.

In recent weeks, reports have surfaced about the creation of a paramilitary force styled as Serbian Honor (Srbski Ponos) at the behest of Milorad Dodik, President of the Serbian entity in Bosnia. According to local analysts, the unit has been trained in Russia and at Moscow’s military outpost in the Serbian city of Nis. Some of its members fought as mercenaries alongside the Kremlin’s proxy separatists in Ukraine. Bosnia’s Minister of Security Dragan Mektic, a member of the opposition Serbian Democratic Party, confirmed the existence of the paramilitaries whose objective is to defend the Serb entity in case of conflict with the central government in Sarajevo.

In another blow to regional stability, Oliver Ivanović, a prominent Serb politician in Kosova who favored talks with the government in Prishtina, was gunned down outside his party headquarters on the day that Belgrade and Prishtina resumed talks on normalizing relations. Although investigators have yet to find the culprits, the assassination clearly profits politicians who want the talks to fail. Indeed, the Serbian delegation withdrew from the discussions after news of the murder was announced.

To prevent political radicalization and ethnic polarization that could ignite armed conflicts, a more vigorous Western Balkan strategy led by Washington is urgently needed. Such an initiative must be grounded on three pillars – counter-subversion, national security, and regional collaboration.

Counter-subversion entails monitoring and combating imminent security threats, whether these stem from illegal paramilitaries, terrorist cells, criminal organizations, or Russian-financed networks. Improved intelligence collection, police effectiveness, banking transparency, judicial reform, media responsibility, information literacy, and the elimination of political corruption can reduce the sub-military threats. Washington can play a more prominent role in developing a comprehensive inter-agency approach to help defuse the dangers.

In bolstering national security, each state needs to be brought under the NATO umbrella with its defense structure modernized according to NATO standards. Last year’s accession of Montenegro into the Alliance is a consequential step in this process. Washington can take the lead role in unblocking Macedonia’s and Bosnia’s progress toward NATO and offering both Serbia and Kosova dual entry once they establish full bilateral ties and complete the necessary military reforms.

However, even NATO inclusion is not sufficient to ensure security. The Alliance must not only assist each state in its struggle against domestic and foreign subversion but also avoid moves that undermine national stability. For instance, attempts by some Western embassies to sideline Milo Djukanovic, Montenegro’s most important political figure, are a short-sighted strategic mistake. One cannot assume that because Montenegro joined NATO then its security problems are fully resolved. The Kremlin together with Serb nationalists will continue to undermine the state and without a proven pro-Western leadership opportunities for destabilization will expand.

The third pillar of US policy should enhance opportunities for regional security collaboration, in which practical initiatives defuse tensions. Countering political and religious terrorism, organized crime, and foreign subversion provide valuable arenas for cross-border cooperation. For instance, the murder of Ivanovic may actually improve ties between Belgrade and Prishtina. Because the destabilization of one state has a ripple effect on neighbors, each government will enhance its effectiveness by working jointly. Moreover, such collaboration would also boost their credentials for both NATO and EU membership.

In an important recent initiative, the US House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee has ordered a report from the Defense Department on Russia’s intrusions in the Western Balkans. It is especially concerned about Serbia’s defense links with Moscow and how its acquisition of new weapons systems may affect regional stability. The investigation of both hard and soft security threats is the first step in combating the dangers and demonstrating America’s effectiveness in countering Putin’s strategy of destabilization.


Janusz Bugajski, January 2018

2018 is bound to bring several surprises, particularly in the Balkans. Although the region has made progress in moving closer to NATO and the EU, as well as registering some economic growth, dangers continue to lurk beneath the surface. In addition to a potential Bosnian implosion and another Macedonian crisis, the Serbia-Kosova conflict could place the US and Russia at loggerheads.

EU-sponsored talks between Belgrade and Prishtina, initiated during the Brussels Agreement in April 2013, have stalled. Moreover, the negotiations have only handled smaller and easier issues, on the assumption that a step-by-step approach would help build confidence while leaving the more critical questions for later. The problem is that “later” has already arrived and the remaining questions may not be resolvable without tackling the bigger ones.

During the past year, the parliament in Prishtina has failed to ratify an agreement on establishing an Association of Serbian Municipalities. Its opponents argue that it could turn Kosova into another divided state such as Bosnia. In addition, Prishtina does not see any reciprocal moved by Belgrade that would strengthen Kosova’s statehood. The stalemate suits neither side, as it retards Kosova’s international progress and Serbia’s EU aspirations.

With the Kosovar government coming under increasing criticism from Brussels, officials are now seeking US involvement in a renewed dialogue with Belgrade, and the new US administration might be more willing to participate than the previous one.

After a December meeting at the White House, Kosova’s President Hashim Thaci claimed that US Vice President Mike Pence pledged that America would be directly involved in reaching a final agreement to “normalize” relations between Kosova and Serbia and to bring Kosova into the UN. What this will mean in practice is still unclear, although it seems evident that the Trump team is seeking some foreign policy successes.

Americans are already indirectly involved in the Serbia-Kosova negotiations and remain well-informed on their progress and regress. Washington is concluding that practical questions can be more effectively handled by the EU, such as protecting religious buildings, agreeing on border posts, and forging cooperation on energy links or telecommunications. However, Brussels has studiously avoided dealing with the more fundamental roadblocks.

The main concern for the US revolves around “normalization” so that the current standoff does not develop into a full-scale conflict in which Washington would need to re-engage militarily. “Normalization” would include Kosova’s entry into the UN, mutual recognition between Serbia and Kosova, and the exchange of ambassadors. Having decided on NATO involvement and state recognition in the past, the US is in a better position than all other states to push for full-scale “normalization.”

While Prishtina is trying to entice Washington into the talks, President Aleksandar Vučić has threatened to involve Moscow. Vucic spent his pre-Christmas visit to Russia canvassing for Kremlin involvement in order to neutralize a more direct American role. Indeed, Vucic claimed that President Vladimir Putin agreed that Moscow would be involved as mediator.

Vucic also made an ominous sounding comment that Belgrade had concluded “certain agreements” with Moscow: “in case there are any conflicts, the format will expand in order to resolve the situation.” This could mean flexing Serbia’s military muscle and allowing Russia to have a more prominent diplomatic or even security role. Such moves could worsen relations between the US and Russia if Washington concludes that the Kremlin is obstructing resolution and denying the US a foreign policy success.

Vucic informed Russia’s state-run news agency TASS that Serbia was planning to buy Russian military transport helicopters and air-defense systems. Moscow has already provided Serbia with six MiG-29 fighter jets. Serbia’s moves to heighten military ties with Moscow are of grave concern to NATO and several neighboring countries, including Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosova.

Additionally, Russia’s military intelligence base in Nis is damaging its position in Washington and the EU. The base will need to be closed or Russian personnel replaced by Europeans if Belgrade is serious about hosting an actual humanitarian relief center.

Belgrade is committing a basic miscalculation if it believes that it can leverage its relations with Kosova in order to gain improved conditions for EU entry. It will eventually have to accept Kosova as an independent state in order to qualify for the Union, but an early acceptance could actually prove more advantageous. “Normalization” would build confidence between the two states and may win Belgrade support for a faster track to EU accession. Vucic is also in a better position to deliver than previous Serbian leaders, as his base is nationalist and he benefits from broad public support.

Serbia’s reliance on Russian benevolence in blocking Kosova’s UN admission may be a grievous error. Vucic naively claims that he is “absolutely convinced” that Serbia can “always count on Moscow’s support.” He has evidently forgotten that Russia does not operate on sentiments but according to its expansionist interests. If Serbia no longer profits Moscow’s geopolitical calculations and can trade Kosova for some other strategic prize then Belgrade’s aspirations can be easily discarded.


Janusz Bugajski, October 2017

Following Catalonia’s referendum on independence, some politicians have equated Catalonia with Kosova. Such comparisons are not only politically misleading they also stir instability in both the Balkan and Iberian peninsulas. Kosova gained independence under NATO and EU supervision following a campaign of mass murder by the Slobodan Milosevic regime against Kosova’s population, after which reunification with Serbia was no longer a viable option. Catalonia is testing the framework of Spanish democracy and the right to regional self-determination that could ultimately result in separation from Spain.

Serbia’s Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic has claimed that the EU was hypocritical in recognizing Kosova’s independence while dismissing Catalonia’s aspirations for statehood. Dacic has conveniently forgotten recent history. Kosovar separatism was a reaction to state repression, which entailed the abolition of Kosovo’s autonomy and the attempted genocide and expulsion of the majority Albanian populationin Belgrade in 1999.

Belgrade lost its legitimacy to govern a population that its government sought to systematically expel or murder, thereby precipitating NATO’s intervention. Countries that lose wars invariably lose the lands that that they conquered or brutalized. Belgrade consistently demonstrated that it primarily sought the territory of Kosova and not its majority population. For instance, over a million Albanian voters were excluded from voting lists for Serbia’s constitutional referendum in October 2006 and from all national elections, demonstrating that they did not belong in Serbia. Kosova declared its independence in February 2008.

Since the unilateral revocation of Kosovo’s autonomy in the early 1990s, Belgrade has consistently demonstrated that it principally seeks to hold the territory of Kosova and not its majority Albanian population. Hence, over a million Albanian voters were disenfranchised and excluded from voting lists for Serbia’s constitutional referendum in October 2006 and from Serbia’s presidential and parliamentary elections. Kosova declared its independence in February 2008

Some EU governments voiced fears that Kosova’s independence would destabilize a number of multi-ethnic European countries. In reality, the collapse of Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and Czechoslovakia, and the emergence of two-dozen new countries during the 1990s did not precipitate the breakup of West European democracies. Unlike in Kosova, Catalans and other nations did not face mass murder at the hands of the central state and no international security force needed to intervene to prevent further bloodshed.

The regional sovereignty movements in the EU operate within a democratic framework. Several pro-autonomy parties have won increasing local control for their territories in a number of countries. Although the majority of the public may support membership in a larger state, sentiments for statehood have accelerated in Catalonia and will be boosted by the heavy handedness of the central government. If outright secession is to be avoided, the region’s autonomy must be preserved and negotiations resulting in constitutional changes will be essential.

The notion that Catalonia looks toward Kosova as an example and precedent for separation is not serious. The Catalan movement has a long tradition fortified over the past decade by Spain’s economic crisis and the belief that the region would be wealthier as an independent state within an EU framework. Whether or not the regional government declares independence, Madrid’s reaction is crucial to prevent radicalization and violence. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy should beware of relying on coercion to control Catalonia, otherwise the region may witness civil unrest and potential armed insurgency.

Kosova’s independence did not trigger Catalan or other separatist movements; this was accomplished by prolonged political and economic disquiet in Spain combined with a revival of regional identities, the promise of economic improvement, and the prospect of peaceful separation. Indeed, Catalan leaders asserted three years ago that it was Scotland’s independence referendum in September 2014, even though unsuccessful, that had invigorated the Catalan movement.

In Catalonia we are not witnessing the rise of ethno-nationalism, as the Spanish government contends, but an awakening of a regional movement for self-determination. Such a process is not necessarily conflictive but can forge political units better adapted to the 21st century rather than larger and more cumbersome states. An effective antidote to EU-skepticism may indeed be greater sub-state autonomy and even administrative independence where regions can find flexible solutions to local problems.

Although Kosova does not serve as a model for Spain, there is one specific link between Madrid, Prishtina, and Belgrade. Spain is one of five EU countries (together with Cyprus, Greece, Romania, and Slovakia) that have not recognized Kosova’s independence, and the Serbian government has praised Spain’s stance. However, that relationship may now begin to fray. Belgrade’s comparison of Kosova and Catalonia could be interpreted in Madrid and Barcelona as underscoring equivalence between Milosevic’s brutal “ethnic cleansing” of Kosova in the 1990s and Prime Minister Roja’s police crackdown against voters in the Catalan referendum and the potential suspension of Catalonia’s autonomy.

Moscow has also played its part in exploiting the Catalan-Spanish dispute. Every European election and referendum provides an opportunity for the Kremlin-funded media and its cohorts of disinformation to encourage EU discord and division. No country should consider itself immune from such attacks. In the Spanish case, Moscow has promoted the country’s fracture despite the fact that Madrid has been soft on Putin by calling for the easing of sanctions on Moscow for its ongoing attack on Ukraine. Maybe it is time for the Spanish authorities not only to engage in a fruitful dialogue with Catalan leaders but also to explain the difference between Catalonia and Kosova and to adopt a more assertive and effective policy toward Russia.


Janusz Bugajski, September 2017

The Balkans are back from vacation and facing a testing autumn. The last few months have witnessed contradictory developments in the region driven by domestic political ambitions and by various outside influences. In the best-case scenario, conflicts will be avoided and progress made toward long-term regional security and NATO and EU accession. In the worst-case possibility, new rounds of conflict and instability can expand because the most persistent regional disputes have not been resolved.

International efforts to reform and integrate the region made significant strides in recent months. Montenegro joined the NATO Alliance in June and received a visit from US Vice President Mike Pence who commended the country’s development. At the Adriatic Charter Summit, Pence also encouraged further NATO enlargement in the Western Balkans.

On the intra-European front, six national leaders convened in July with their EU counterparts at a summit in Trieste, Italy in order to promote regional and EU integration. This continuation of the “Berlin Process” launched in 2014 indicates that Brussels and Berlin understand the importance of interconnecting the entire Balkan peninsula.

More immediately, the Summit focused on economic reconstruction, although falling short of an-often requested “Marshall Plan” for the region. In an initiative led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, the EU pledged 1.4 billion euros to finance twenty infrastructure, energy, and transportation projects over the next three years. Among the proposals is the construction of a west-east railway from Albania to Bulgaria, linking the Adriatic with the Black Sea. This would not only facilitate travel and commerce but also provide NATO with a major logistical connection across the region.

Attendees at the Trieste summit signed a Transport Community Treaty, which outlines the need for a transport network within the Western Balkans as well as between the region and the EU. They also launched a “Regional Economic Area” to enhance the flow of labor, trade, and business investment. The Balkan leaders signed a “Multi-Annual Action Plan” for the concept, and established a monitoring mechanism through the Regional Cooperation Council and the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA).

The summer also brought some positive domestic news. Despite the threat of an opposition boycott, Albania held a legitimate national election and promptly installed a new government committed to EU membership. Macedonia finally established its own new administration led by the Social Democrats and prepared to resolve Skopje’s disputes with Greece and Bulgaria and reinvigorate the country’s bid for NATO and EU accession.

However, whenever we hear good news in the region, some bad news invariably follows closely behind. Aside from the fact that many countries continue to be riddled with official corruption, poor governance, unreformed judiciaries, and insufficient attractiveness for investors, several states also struggle with seemingly endless political disputes.

In Kosova, almost three months after national elections, a government has still not been formed and agreements with Serbia that would enable both states to move forward toward the EU remain blocked. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, decision-making is persistently obstructed by special interests that seek to disable the consolidation of a single functional state. In a glaring example, Republika Srpska leaders blocked Sarajevo from signing the EU’s Transport Community Treaty in Trieste.

In another potentially negative move, leaders of Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria met in Thessaloniki a day after the Trieste Summit in the pursuit of policies that could damage regional stability. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic requested that Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras uphold the non-recognition of Kosova, while Tsipras underscored that Macedonia will not be allowed to enter NATO and the EU without altering its name for Athens’ approval.

Belgrade has also been embroiled in a diplomatic standoff with Macedonia, as the new administration in Skopje seemingly has evidence that Serbian embassy staff colluded with Russian intelligence operatives against the formation of a new government. Moscow methodically exploits opportunities in the region to foster state paralysis and inter-state conflict.

In Thessaloniki, Serbia and Greece also discussed a transportation route between Belgrade and the Greek port of Piraeus and basically ignored the EU proposal for stronger west-east regional connections. The Thessaloniki meeting was undoubtedly welcomed by Moscow in its pursuit of an “Orthodox bloc” across the region that would obstruct further NATO and EU enlargement, undermine US policy, and serve as a gateway for Russian political and business interests including its oil and gas pipeline networks.

As autumn approaches, the struggle between the European and Russian projects for the Balkan region will intensify. This makes it imperative that Washington takes a more prominent role by following up on VP Pence’s important recent visit. Although the US does not have a voice in EU decisions, it remains the main promoter of security. This role can be enhanced by unblocking Macedonia’s and Bosnia’s progress toward NATO and combating Russian subversion in all its guises. Just as Poland, Romania, and the three Baltic states form NATO’s eastern front, the Balkan countries are now part of NATO’s internal front.


Janusz Bugajski, April 2017

Storm clouds are gathering again in the Western Balkans. If escalating grievances and national disputes are not resolved, the region could again be engulfed in a spiral of conflict that degenerates into violence. Several interlinked generators of instability need to be urgently addressed by elected leaders as well as by Western governments and international institutions.

Economic frustrations: Although GDP growth has been registered across the region in recent years, the impact on living standards is uneven and public expectations remain unfulfilled. Moreover, youth unemployment remains high and public frustration with corrupt and incompetent governments is rising. Conversely, economic growth is contingent on political legitimacy, social stability, and investor confidence – all of which are undermined by public protests sweeping across several states.

Political polarization: Partisan battles are so intense in some countries that opposition parties boycott the parliament, block legislation, and even refuse to participate in elections. This is currently the case in Albania, which faces general elections in June but where the opposition Democratic Party claims in advance that the vote will be rigged.

Creeping authoritarianism: Serbia and Macedonia are at the forefront of accusations that ruling parties are appropriating the state for their benefit and eliminating any viable opposition. After his election as President on April 2, Alexander Vucic’s Progressive Party now controls Serbia’s executive and legislature, with the next parliamentary elections only due in 2020. Attempted state capture has been even more blatant in Macedonia where the outgoing VMRO-led government was caught in various abuses of power including wire tapping its opponents.

Growing public protests: Serbia is in the midst of extensive protests against the election of President Vucic. Social networks and student organizations have mobilized tens of thousands of young people with different political and ideological beliefs calling for the ouster of a government viewed as increasingly authoritarian. The protests are an outpouring of years of frustration with pervasive official corruption, controlled media, and political manipulation. The protests could spread to workers dissatisfied with low wages and poor conditions.

Ethnic escalation: Where political divisions become ethnified the prospects for conflict rapidly increase. This is the case in Macedonia where the formation of a new bi-ethnic government with Albanians has been blocked and where the President and outgoing administration claim that Albanian leaders aim to fracture the state. Separatism is also exploited by leaders of the Serbian entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina amidst widespread frustration with political institutions and economic stagnation.

Border disputes: Conflicts over borders and the non-acceptance of statehood for some countries persist in the region. For instance, tensions are periodically ratcheted up between leaders of Serbia and Kosova, while Serb nationalists do not accept the permanent independence of Montenegro. Even where borders are not disputed, ethnic clashes in one state can precipitate demands to incorporate a minority territory in the “mother state.” In other cases, the removal of borders is seen as a threat, as between Albania and Kosova. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama recently raised the question of unification and aggravated fears of pan-Albanianism that would violently break up several countries.

Foreign scapegoating: Governments facing growing social or ethnic unrest could stage a crackdown and seek to discredit protestors as traitors in the pay of foreign powers. Instructively, the George Soros-funded Open Society organization has become a major scapegoat for nationalists and ultra-conservatives throughout the region, from Hungary to Macedonia. Media disinformation and public revolts foster political radicalization and can propel anti-Western sentiments.

EU blockage: EU entry remains a receding ambition in much of the region despite the benefits that this provides new members, including accession funds and investments. Although several countries are candidates for the Union, progress has been stalled because the EU is preoccupied with internal problems and public opinion opposes further enlargement. There is also disillusionment among citizens in the Balkans that the Union has been complicit in upholding corrupt government in exchange for a measure of stability. In this vicious circle, failure to reform the state precludes EU membership. As an example, Serbian citizens complain that Brussels has supported Vucic’s election while ignoring his role in stifling a free press.

Russian provocations: In this cauldron of unrest, Russia’s uses its “soft power” tools to entrap local politicians with financial and diplomatic support, impregnate the local and social media with disinformation, stir inter-ethnic animosities, and threaten pro-Western governments. The coup attempt in Montenegro in October 2016 involving Serbian nationalists led by Russian intelligence operatives against a pro-NATO government may be a trial run for further acts of violence. Moscow’s next attempt may be more sophisticated and broad-based, whether by inciting Serbian minority leaders in Bosnia against the Muslim Bosniaks, engineering ethnic clashes in Macedonia, or provoking Serbian-Montenegrin conflicts.

If it serves his interests, President Vladimir Putin would not be averse to pursuing a regional war to test NATO resolve and undermine the process of Western integration, while camouflaging Kremlin involvement. To this end, Moscow favors a military buildup in the region, as evident in recent talks between Putin and Vucic in which Belgrade looks set to purchase Russia’s S-300 air defense system in addition to MiG-29 fighter jets and T-72 battle tanks. The reaction among Serbia’s neighbors is unlikely to be passive.


Janusz Bugajski, February 2017

Controversial statements by US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher in support of redrawing borders in the Western Balkans have provoked both fear and expectation throughout the region. Some political leaders assume that Rohrabacher, as a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump, could influence White House policy.

The California congressman has been a controversial figure in Washington for many years, often voicing views diametrically at odds with mainstream government policy. In recent interviews for the regional media he has reiterated his position on how the Balkans should be reorganized twenty-five years after the disintegration of Yugoslavia.

In his first proposal, Rohrabacher believes that in order to stabilize the region Serbia and Kosova should exchange territories and populations, thus leading to mutual recognition.Rohrabacher has even dispatched a letter to Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, asking Serbian authorities to consider the exchange of territories in the north of Kosova with parts of the Presevo valley currently in southern Serbia.

In his second proposal, during an interview with Albanian television Rohrabacher asserted that Macedonia should be divided between Kosova and Bulgaria because it is not a “proper state.” He claimed that Albanians and Macedonians cannot be reconciled. Hence, parts of Macedonia should be attached to Kosova and the eastern section of the country to Bulgaria.

Rohrabacher seems eager to bring home all remaining US troops, arguing that Washington is keeping alive an artificial state through its regional presence. And given his reasoning, presumably other states should be partitioned, including Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro. His argument also rests on the supposition that territorial exchanges can be accomplished voluntarily, without renewed violence, and without more intense American involvement.

Despite the obvious problems in implementation, some politicians and analysts are worried that Rohrabacher’s proposal will be accepted by the Trump administration in order to scale down the US presence and refocus on more critical regions.

Rohrabacher has often espoused both controversial and contradictory positions. On the one hand, he supports the creation of a Greater Albania or a Greater Kosova and is widely considered anti-Serbian. But on the other hand, he is known as President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent defenders in Washington and has opposed Montenegro’s membership in NATO.

Rohrabacher was the first member of Congress to insist that the US arm the Kosova Liberation Army and remains one of the few members who have consistently publicly supported the independence of Kosova. However, he does not apply the same principle to Ukraine’s struggle against Russia. On the contrary, he has is widely considered as the most pro-Moscow and Putin friendly Congressmen.

Rohrabacher boasts about his personal friendship with Putin and consistently defends “the Russian point of view.” After Trump won the elections, Rohrabacher backed the new president’s statements that relations with Moscow should be improved by cooperating on the settlement of the Syrian crisis, combating international jihadist terrorism, and deterring China’s expansionism in East Asia.

As chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats, Rohrabacher was on the short list for nomination as the new US Secretary of State. However, his maverick position on Russia and softness toward Putin has alienated him from many congresspeople, including Republicans.

Although it is too early to determine the Balkan policy of the Trump administration, its contours are beginning to emerge. Observers and politicians in the region speculated that Trump may be more amenable to Serbia’s position or more willing to make deals with Moscow in which Kosova or Bosnia-Herzegovina could be sacrificed. Some European analysts even believe that Trump will withdraw completely from the Western Balkans and declare the region a “European issue” that the EU should handle.

But contrary to the high hopes in Belgrade and Moscow, the new President’s objectives may be far from beneficial for Serbia or Russia. Indeed, the exact opposite may be the case. In one indication that the Kremlin position will be disregarded, the White House national security advisor has recommended that Trump support Montenegro’s membership in NATO to smooth the ratification process in the US Senate.

Serbian officials also seemed certain that the Trump administration would be less committed to Kosova’s independence or membership in international organizations. In reality, the opposite may be true. As a self-declared pragmatist and deal-maker, Trump may seek to speed up the process of Kosova’s statehood and international integration in order to hasten the removal of American troops.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis implicitly backed such an approach during his Senate confirmation hearings. Mattis indicated that Washington may support a more rapid creation of a regular Kosova army that can take on all security functions including the defense of Kosova’s borders. This has not been well received in either Belgrade or Moscow and both capitals are anxiously waiting to see what position the new US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will adopt. Some observers are now speculating that Washington may soon demand that Serbia recognize Kosova.


Janusz Bugajski, January 2017

The Serbian government has begun 2017 with mixed messages to the West and with the potential to spark regional instability during America’s presidential transition. It is therefore vital for NATO members such as Croatia to demonstrate their commitments to existing borders and inter-state norms.

On the constructive side, Belgrade is cooperating with Podgorica to flush out the organizers of the failed coup attempt in Montenegro during last October’s elections. Serbian police recently arrested two suspected coup plotters on terrorist charges, in line with arrest warrants issued by Montenegrin authorities.

Serbian officials stated that they would continue working on Montenegrin extradition requests in line with their bilateral agreement. Podgorica issued arrest warrants for two Russian and two Serb citizens for “setting-up of a criminal organization and terrorism,” including a plan to kill former Milo Djukanovic on election day.

Montenegrin authorities describe the coup attempt as an anti-NATO plot designed to bring a pro-Russian coalition to power. The Serbian government quickly distanced itself from the plotters and decided to collaborate closely with an imminent NATO member.

It appears that the Aleksandar Vucic administration realizes that a successful coup in Montenegro could encourage a similar attempt in Serbia if the government enters into a prolonged dispute with Moscow. The Kremlin supports a more aggressive Serbian role in the region and views Prime Minister Vucic as too accommodating to NATO and the EU and insufficiently assertive toward Kosova and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

To keep pace with Moscow’s strategy and to maintain its support, Belgrade’s position toward Kosova is unsettling the region. Serbian officials remain fixated on pursuing major political figures in Kosova as alleged war criminals and in claiming that Kosova remains a part of Serbia.

In the most recent dispute, Belgrade has urged France to send former KLA commander and ex-Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj to Belgrade to face war crimes charges. Haradinaj has been acquitted twice by the Hague-based war crimes tribunal but has been detained in France as Paris considers the validity of a Serbian arrest warrant.

In a move that will further sour relations with Western capitals, Belgrade warned of retaliation if Paris refuses to dispatch Haradinaj to a Serbian prison. Officials asserted that they will disregard any extradition treaties with France and other states that do not recognize Serbia’s arrest warrants. Slovenia declined to send Haradinaj to Belgrade after detaining him in 2015, while Switzerland refused last year to send two former members of the KLA to Serbia to face trial.

If Haradinaj was actually dispatched by the French authorities to Belgrade for trial by Serbian courts, the impact on the region could prove devastating. The outcry in Kosova itself would raise inter-ethnic tensions and seriously threaten the Serbian minority, still viewed by many Albanians as facilitators and supporters of Milosevic’s attempted genocide in 1999. Albanian unrest in Kosova would scuttle any chance of normalizing relations between Prishtina and Belgrade and have serious reverberations in Macedonia where Albanians are becoming more vociferous in demanding equal rights with Macedonians. Renewed conflicts would place pressure on all pro-NATO governments and open new inroads for Russia’s subversion.

The conflict with Kosova is further exacerbated by Belgrade’s plans to establish a regular railway service to the Serbian enclave in northern Mitrovica. The Russian-built train has been painted in Serbian national colors and bears the slogan “Kosovo is Serbian” in twenty languages. If Belgrade pushes ahead with this scheme it will provoke a direct conflict with Prishtina and raise prospects for outright violence. Serbia’s pro-Kremlin President Tomislav Nikolic has accused Kosova’s leaders of “wanting war” because of their refusal to allow the train on their territory.

A third developing problem in which Serbia will also be involved is the status of Republika Srpska and the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina during the Donald Trump administration. Officials in Banja Luka and nationalist politicians in Belgrade believe that the Trump White House will be more favorable toward RS and less accommodating to Muslim populations in the Balkans. Hence, they will be testing the new administration and Washington’s reaction to their assertiveness.

President Milorad Dodik has made a major point in being invited to side events at the Trump inauguration on January 20th, signaling that his presence indicated a significant change brewing in US policy toward his quasi-state. In reality, little is likely to alter in US policy in the Balkans in the short-term, especially as the Trump team will be preoccupied with much more pressing domestic and foreign policy problems.

Serbia’s international maneuvers place the onus on Croatia to act as a regional stabilizer, beginning with Bosnia. Commitment to a single Bosnian state must be demonstrated through words and deeds, including joint regional programs with Sarajevo and the reigning in of any separatist tendencies among Bosnian Croats. A crunch time is approaching in which relations between Croats and Bosnians will be sorely tested, as Russia and Serbia now see an opportunity for measuring American and European resolve.


Janusz Bugajski, December 2016

Although seventeen years have elapsed since NATO’s military intervention, policy makers should not assume that all Balkan conflicts have been assigned to history. Disputes continue to fester over statehood, territory, and political authority, compounded by the uncertainties of international integration.

The prospect of EU and NATO membership has been the key incentive to democratize each state and promote inter-ethnic co-existence. Without that prospect reforms falter and local disputes are revived. In the wake of the EU crises and preoccupation with “Brexit,” enlargement is not high on the Union’s agenda. It seems unlikely that any country will be considered for accession for at least a decade. Receding opportunities for membership undermine Balkan commitments to the rule of law and engender democratic reversals.

The region confronts three kinds of danger: social unrest, minority turmoil, and foreign interference. In combination, such threats could destabilize some states and even provoke violent clashes. If such conflicts expand across borders, both NATO and Russia could be sucked into the escalating combat.

Several Western Balkan countries are currently stuck in a no-man’s land between democratic statehood and international integration. Two conflict scenarios in particular, in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia, need to be closely monitored, as they would prove the most threatening to regional stability.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the standoff between the Serbian entity and the government in Sarajevo may come to a head. RS representatives claim Bosniak Muslims are seeking to dominate the state and minoritize Serbs. If US and EU attention shifts away from the country, RS representatives may withdraw from central government institutions and stage a referendum on independence. This can sharpen political conflicts, provoke violence, and drag both Serbia and Croatia, a NATO member, into direct confrontation.

In Macedonia, Albanian frustration with government policy and political polarization among Slavs may disable the formation of a government following recent inconclusive parliamentary elections. Albanian leaders may call for federalization or a two-entity structure and even declare an autonomous region along the Albanian and Kosova borders. In response, Macedonian nationalists would mobilize the public to defend the country’s territorial integrity. Neighbors could be drawn into the dispute, with Serbia offering assistance to Skopje against Albanian separatism, while Kosova and Albania, a NATO member, will seek to protect their ethnic kindred.

A persistently unstable Balkans would radicalize sectors of the local population frustrated with the political elites and with receding prospects for international integration. Social unrest and a weakening government facilitates the infiltration of jihadist and other terrorists. Militant groups could target US and EU representatives or use the region to plan for attacks in the wider Europe. Balkan insecurity will also enable Russia to become more intrusive. The Kremlin may calculate that a Donald Trump administration in Washington may be less committed to the region and more willing to tolerate Russian intervention.

 President Putin aims to maintain several “frozen states” in the Balkans to prevent Western integration, as is the case with Ukraine and Georgia. He encourages the autonomist RS entity to keep Bosnia divided and question its future as a single state. In Kosova, the Serbian minority is backed by Moscow as a repressed nationality in order to uphold the specter of partition. In Montenegro, Kremlin proxies were evidently behind a failed coup attempt in October, with the country on the verge of NATO accession. Moscow also manipulates Macedonia’s internal turmoil and its obstructed path toward NATO and the EU by the Greek veto.

Unresolved conflicts and disputed states empower the Kremlin and international terrorist networks to claim that NATO has failed to stabilize the region despite its military presence. Instability and escalating conflict will symbolize Western disarray and America’s decline and encourage ultra-nationalist groups and neo-imperial states to pursue their ambitions in other unsettled regions.

The incoming US administration needs to focus on four core policies that will simultaneously serve Balkan, European, and American interests. First, Washington has to avoid any display of military weakness or diplomatic withdrawal, as this will convince aggressors that they have the green light to precipitate conflict. US disengagement can incapacitate NATO and undermine America’s global stature and leadership role.

Second, Washington should continue working closely with Brussels and Berlin to push for reforms in all Western Balkan states in order to stimulate economic development and help stabilize the region. It is ultimately Europe’s responsibility to assist in institutional reform, but the US provides an essential supportive role at a time when EU leadership may be viewed as weak and preoccupied.

Third, Washington needs to work closely with all governments to help secure the region from jihadist infiltration and enhance Western security. And fourth, the Trump administration should view South East Europe as part of a larger emerging market, increasingly interconnected through energy, transportation, and trade networks not only with the EU but with Turkey, the Middle East, the Caspian Basin, Central Asia, and China. A stable and secure Balkans will create fresh opportunities for investment and development across several potentially profitable regions.


Janusz Bugajski, December 2016

Following the weekend elections, Macedonia is moving closer toward outright conflict over the structure of the state. The governing VMRO coalition gained a narrow plurality of parliamentary seats over the opposition Social Democrats (SDSM). This will ensure that Albanian parties will play a greater role in coalition politics and escalate their demands for administrative restructuring.

With a two seat lead in parliament VMRO will attempt to form the next government. Most probably, it will again try to bring the largest Albanian party, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), into a governing coalition. At the same time, SDSM leaders will challenge the legitimacy of any VMRO-led coalition and renew their protest actions. Alternatively, if VMRO fails to muster a majority coalition a new SDSM alignment could be forged with Albanians that would also remain fragile.

The outgoing VMRO government was embroiled in a major wire tapping scandal. Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s administration reportedly spied on thousands of officials, including ministers, opposition figures, civil society activists, journalists, businessmen, ambassadors, and religious leaders.

The illicit recordings revealed major abuses of power. Gruevski and his colleagues discussed how to forge elections through ballot stuffing and voter intimidation, as well as deciding on appointments to the judiciary. VMRO officials were also charged with coercing journalists and businesses to tow the party line.

Fearing mass unrest and instability, international diplomats pressed the government to allow for early elections. As a result, the Przino Agreement was signed in July 2015 by all major parties, requiring new elections despite months of delays and boycotts. Large-scale protests brought together both Macedonians and Albanians demanding the resignation of the two governing parties.

VMRO is as a monopolistic party with a tight grip on government institutions, including the judiciary, public administration, police, army, intelligence services, educational and cultural institutions, and numerous public enterprises. Although Macedonia has attracted significant foreign business and invested heavily in infrastructure, as evident in the extensive rebuilding of Skopje, the net result is a massive increase in the public debt. Moreover, the economy is unlikely to grow if political gridlock continues.

VMRO has managed to uphold a measure of inter-ethnic peace through a power sharing arrangement in which the DUI has developed its own patronage network among its Albanian supporters especially in Albanian majority districts of western Macedonia. However, this co-existence is ultimately dependent on delivering a slice of the national economic pie to the Albanian community.

Macedonia will witness growing conflict, not only between VMRO and SDSM supporters, but also within the Albanian community. VMRO’s nationalism and focus on the historical identity of Macedonians has alienated Albanians who believe that this has blocked the country’s entry into the EU and NATO and thereby denied citizens both security and prosperity. There is also resentment over VMRO’s implicit drive to turn the country into the national state of Slavic Macedonians.

Because of the Greek veto and limited prospects for Macedonia’s EU and NATO accession, the government is subject to limited outside pressure to carry out democratic reforms. Brussels and Washington may actually tolerate a quasi-authoritarian party-state as long as the government maintains ethnic peace. In addition, Skopje’s moves to control illicit immigration that impacts on the EU has gained it supporters in capitals that would normally be highly critical of democratic backsliding.

But Albanian discontent is growing fuelled by economic deprivation and continuing discrimination in employment and in the justice system. Local self-government has also been limited by insufficient funds allocated by Skopje to Albanian municipalities and activists believe that businesses linked with VMRO have benefited most from the rebuilding of Skopje.

A growing number of Albanians are becoming actively opposed to DUI leaders, viewing them as benefiting from state corruption at the expense of ordinary citizens. The past few months have seen protest actions, defections from the DUI, and the creation of new political parties with more radical programs.

If another VMRO-DUI coalition is formed, or even an SDSM-DUI coalition, it will experience mass pressure to achieve a better deal for Albanians, even including constitutional parity with Macedonians. The DUI pledged to make Albanian an official language throughout the country, greater economic opportunities for Albanians, and more effective inputs by Albanian representatives in government decisions.

If the DUI fails to deliver and is widely perceived as a token partner for either VMRO or the SDSM, Macedonia will undergo escalating unrest and the emergence of more militant movements claiming to be genuine representatives of Albanian interests. Such a scenario could break the government coalition and threaten the unitary state.

 Indeed, new Albanian parties such as “Besa,” which scored second place among Albanian voters, have voiced demands for a federal state structure or even a two-entity administrative division based on ethnic lines, similar to Bosnia-Herzegovina. This could become a stepping-stone toward demands for separation and independence. Such developments would unleash new violence in a country that remains uncertain about its future.

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Janusz Bugajski, October 2016

Montenegro’s electorate has confirmed the country’s path toward NATO and the EU despite concerted attempts to derail the process. The incoming government looks set to provide continuity and enable Montenegro to become NATO’s 29th member ten years after regaining its independence.

Two issues were central in the parliamentary elections – relations with the West and ties with Russia. The authorities accused Moscow of direct interference in the election process. Indeed, with the Kremlin seeking to influence the US elections through Emails hacks against Hillary Clinton, it is certainly even more interventionist in a small state like Montenegro where it seeks to prevent NATO accession. Montenegro’s membership is due to be ratified by Podgorica as well as other member states in the coming year.

Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic presented the vote as a choice between becoming an EU and NATO member or a “Russian colony.” Although this may sound like an election slogan, Moscow has subversive ambitions in the region. Above all, it wants to preclude further NATO and EU enlargement, cultivate Kremlin allies such as Serbia, and foster dysfunctional states, such as Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Montenegro has spent the past few years extricating itself from the tightening Moscow grip after mistakenly permitting corrosive Russian investments. Djukanovic realized that any major Russian business comes with political strings and ultimately proved unwilling to become another Putin ally like Serbia.

Russian investment in Montenegro has markedly dropped. Part of this is due to the decline of the Russian economy as a consequence of Western financial sanctions and a severe drop in oil process. Russia was once the leading foreign investor in Montenegro but in 2015 it cut its annual investment by half to just €68.9 million. This total fell to €22 million in the first six months of 2016.

Moscow has also tried to exert its influence through other channels. It has reportedly funded and promoted several opposition parties, particularly the Serb nationalists in the Democratic Front. The Kremlin-backed Sputnik news agency set up a local language portal from Belgrade last year and broadcasts anti-Western diatribes and conspiracies into Montenegro. Russian officials have also blackmailed Podgorica by threatening severe consequences if it enters NATO. It has fed the constant propaganda barrage about government corruption and tried to undermine Djukanovic’s popularity.

Montenegro has a diverse opposition and not all are anti-NATO. The Democratic Front ran the most vehement anti-NATO campaign, organized rallies that occasionally turned violent, and called for unrest if the government joined the alliance without holding a public referendum. Its leaders also claimed that they would abolish sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and develop the “closest economic and political ties with Moscow.”

On the eve of the election, police in Montenegro arrested twenty Serbs for allegedly planning to carry out armed attacks. Officials claimed that those arrested planned to use automatic weapons to attack state institutions, police officers, and state officials such as Djukanovic. Moscow is more likely to be behind such a provocation than Belgrade, which has more to lose in Brussels if it is caught destabilizing its neighbor.

The ruling Democratic Party of Socialist (DPS) and its traditional allies, including the minority parties, did not win an absolute parliamentary majority and will need to broaden the coalition. The Former DPS coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which ran on its own in the elections, may decide to rejoin the coalition to help finalize NATO accession.

Minority support from Albanians, Bosniaks, and Croats, has been crucial for Montenegro in gaining independence and is now vital for maintaining an alliance to join NATO and eventually the EU. Albanians in particular calculate that the victory of anti-Djukanovic parties would have been damaging for Kosova.

The current coalition was among the first to recognize Kosova’s independence in 2008, despite the furor from Belgrade, and is more likely to settle the current dispute over border demarcations. An anti-Djukanovic coalition would be beneficial to nationalists in Belgrade in their anti-Kosovar campaign and inject greater Russian influence throughout the region.

Just as it stood up to Milosevic, the Djukanovic government continues to defy Putin, despite the barrage of attacks and threats from the Kremlin. Unlike Serbia, it continues to support the EU’s policy of sanctions against Russia over its ongoing attack on Ukraine, its annexation of Crimea, and the continuing murder of Ukrainian civilians.

However, the Kremlin is unlikely to desist from further provocations, as it seeks to expand its influence in the Balkans and to create fresh problems for the West. In one particularly dangerous scenario, it may seek to create a parallel authority or another Republika Srpska in northern Montenegro where a majority of people identify themselves as Serbs.

The incoming government must therefore prepare itself for an intensified Kremlin operation to destabilize and divide Montenegro. Declarations by the Democratic Front that it does not recognize the election result looks like a step in that direction.

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Janusz Bugajski, September 2016

Whether the planned constitutional referendum in Republika Srpska takes place or not, it is clear that the leadership in Banja Luka is seeking any opportunities to push for greater sovereignty. President Milorad Dodik is calculating that he will lead the entity to independent statehood before he leaves the political scene.

The planned referendum is intended not only to undermine Bosnia’s Constitutional Court but above all to legitimize the self-determination of the Serbian entity. Banja Luka wants the annual Day of RS to continue to be celebrated on January 9, despite the fact that it was ruled unconstitutional and discriminatory against non-Serbs.

Various reasons have been suggested for a likely postponement of the referendum. Dodik can claim that the plebiscite will be held when all Bosnian Serb parties finally agree to it, in order to ensure full consensus. Several Serb opposition parties, including some of Dodik’s political allies, oppose the referendum.

Some observers believe that Dodik will buckle under growing international pressure. EU and US officials warned Dodik that the referendum would be considered illegitimate and could lead to personal financial sanctions against him, his family members, and some of his supporters.

However, one of the most persuasive factors for Dodik is the role played by Serbia. Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic and Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic both desisted from openly supporting the ballot. Without Belgrade’s support, Banja Luka would be left isolated in the region.

Analysts are also speculating whether the cancellation of the referendum would signify the end of Dodik’s political career. More likely, Dodik will stage a final dramatic exit from the political stage with a referendum on independence in order to ensure that he leaves behind a historical legacy.

To demonstrate his nationalist credentials and regain popularity ahead of local elections on 2 October, Dodik announced a new initiative to abolish the RS’s House of Peoples. This parliamentary chamber plays an important role in protecting the rights of non-Serbs and its disbandment will be viewed as consolidating ethnic homogeneity ahead of a potential referendum on independence.

Dodik has already pledged that an independence vote will be held during 2018, if various jurisdictions are not returned to the Serbian entity by 2017 in accordance with Dayton and the Bosnian Constitution. Such a referendum could be moved forward if a major political crisis erupts in Bosnia, if protests escalate against worsening economic conditions in the RS, or if attention needs to be shifted from the Serbian entity’s internal power struggles.

An independence referendum could also be pushed through when the international climate becomes advantageous. If the rift between the West and Russia widens, Moscow will oppose any international intervention while backing the RS’s right to self-determination. In the event of an East-West crisis elsewhere, Moscow can play the Bosnia card against Washington and Brussels by raising the prospects of a new Balkan war.

Even with regard to the constitutional referendum, divisions have been evident in the international community, with no consensus on possible sanctions. Even some EU and NATO members remain strongly opposed to applying the OHR’s executive powers, arguing that Bosnia should no longer be micro-managed by international players. Moreover, OHR has limited means to implement its decisions. This itself could encourage Bosnia’s Serbs to ignore its decisions and escalate the crisis without fear of retribution.

Banja Luka will also be emboldened by a weakening EU, especially if the Union is shaken by a new economic or refugee crisis or nationalist and anti-enlargement sentiments continue to expand. Additionally, a distracted Washington could mean a lessened US role in the Balkans. A Donald Trump presidency, if it premised on America’s military and political downsizing in Europe, will present new opportunities for separatism in various parts of the region.

Much also depends on Serbia’s calculations. The government in Belgrade has staked its future on EU accession. If prospects for membership are indefinitely postponed, nationalism will rise in Serbia and could push the government toward backing the creation of a second Serbian state. Officials will argue that the Kosova precedent should also be applied in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In the midst of the current standoff, RS and Serbia held their first joint “anti-terrorist” maneuvers at the end of August. The exercises heightened regional concerns that Belgrade is preparing to defend the entity in the event of conflict with Sarajevo. Some 200 members of RS’s and Serbia’s special police units, together with armored vehicles, helicopters, police riverboats, and gunships, simulated a battle against terrorists along the Drina, close to Zvornik. Both Presidents Nikolic and Dodik attended the exercises.

The maneuvers raised ethnic tensions in the country. The Bosniak vice-president of RS, Ramiz Salkic, accused Serbian leaders of “rattling their sabres.” The Drina exercise was primarily designed to demonstrate to Sarajevo that Banja Luka possesses its own fighting units and can combine with forces from Serbia in the event of armed conflict with Bosniaks.

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Janusz Bugajski, August 2016

The simmering feud between Croatia and Serbia has been revived in the midst of critical political turning points in both countries. Nationalist rhetoric has again gained prominence with the installation of a new Serbian government and with Croatia facing general elections on September 11. The current disputes demonstrate how conflicting historical interpretations sour bilateral relations and undermine regional stability by fueling resentment over numerous contemporary issues.

Historical reconciliation over the war in the 1990s does not mean the equalization of guilt but the acceptance of comparative responsibility. The anti-civilian war launched by Belgrade and its proxies in 1991 led to the occupation of Croatian territories and the slaughter of thousands of civilians. Belgrade’s denials of responsibility have been evident in the rehabilitation of Slobodan Milosevic among some political circles in Belgrade and the return to parliament of Vojislav Seselj, a key militia leader in the attack on Croatia, who captured over 8% of the popular vote and 22 out of 250 seats in the May elections.

For its part, Zagreb must take responsibility in fully investigating the murder of several hundred Serb civilians during Operation Storm that liberated occupied Croatian territories in August 1995, even if the government did not orchestrate the massacres. The contemporary scrutiny of war crimes is much more intense than it was in World War Two when massacres of German civilians was overlooked by the Allies as an unfortunate byproduct of liberation from Nazism.

Comparisons made by some Serb officials between Croatia today and the Nazi-allied Independent State of Croatia (NDH) during World War Two are not simply inaccurate but they create a climate of fear and anger in both capitals. Croatian Foreign Minister Miro Kovac rightly dismissed accusations by Serbian Labor Minister Aleksandar Vulin that Croatia’s Interior Minister Vlaho Orepic was turning the country into the NDH.

For his part, Minister Orepic has stirred controversy by claiming that that the actual Serbian population in the city of Vukovar is under 30%, and hence they may not be entitled to the use of their language and alphabet in local affairs, as stipulated in Croatian law. Without providing proof of false residence registrations among Serbs, the impression is created that Zagreb is intent on denying minority rights.

Allegations by Serbian officials that Croatia is introducing “racial laws” against the Serbian population do not contribute to improving relations at a time when Serbia itself is criticized for its faltering media freedoms, politically corrupted judicial system, and rising jingoistic nationalism. Studies by the Serbia’s Institute for European Affairs showing that people in Serbia still see Croatia as their biggest enemy, even ahead of the US and Albania, do not bode well for inter-state reconciliation.

Paradoxically, Serbia has become dependent on Croatia’s good will and support since it embarked on the long and winding road to EU accession, as any member state can block enlargement. There will be numerous sticking points along this route, as Croatia itself discovered when its disputes with Slovenia threatened to obstruct EU entry. In Belgrade’s case, Zagreb continues to demand that Belgrade change its law on jurisdiction over war crimes in line with Chapter 23 of the Acquis Communautaire. In addition, Serbia will be expected to cooperate with Croatian courts and agencies investigating missing persons from the 1990s war.

Croatia and Serbia have a long list of disagreements in which every niggling dispute takes on more menacing dimensions. These include property disputes concerning Croatian firms in Serbia that were nationalized and the possessions of Serbs who were expelled or fled Croatia in August 1995. There are also border disputes along the Danube where the river has changed its course during the last twenty-five years.

But above all hovers the question of minority rights. Both capitals claim that their kindred are subject to discrimination in such areas as employment and housing and do not benefit from the full array of collective rights. Undoubtedly, as Serbia seeks to move closer to the EU its treatment of various ethnic and religious minorities will come under increasing scrutiny.

While some politicians in both states restoke historical myths, genuine reconciliation is pushed aside. If self-interest actually prevailed then both Belgrade and Zagreb would leave history to historians while focusing on contemporary legal, economic, or social impediments that prevent Serbian minority integration in Croatia and Croatian minority integration in Serbia.

Both sides must also focus on developing economic cooperation through joint projects such as the EU’s Danube strategy, or various initiatives that can alleviate common problems in energy supplies. Both countries need to look at how German-Polish reconciliation has been pursued during the past two decades. The millennium long history of war between Poles and Germans and the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis during World War Two has not prevented reconciliation and the development of enormously beneficial economic ties. The past cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the future.

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Janusz Bugajski, April 2016

The Progressive Party government has declared Serbia’s parliamentary elections on April 24 as a plebiscite on EU entry. According to Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, the ballot will decide “whether Serbia wants to be a modern European country and whether it wants the future or the past.” But while government ambitions are admirable, Belgrade’s prospects for EU accession remain distant.

A recent Dutch referendum that opposed an economic Association Agreement with Ukraine, initially offered by Brussels in November 2014, demonstrates how fractured and resistant the Union has become in pursuing further enlargement. Growing populism, nationalism, and protectionism even in the most pro-EU states indicates that Serbia’s path towards Union accession will be long and arduous.

Belgrade aspires to join the EU for two fundamental reasons: to improve economic conditions in Serbia and not to be left behind in the region as a “grey zone” of insecurity. And Belgrade’s progress to meet EU standards has been noteworthy under the Progressive government despite the party’s ultra-nationalist pedigree.

Having begun accession talks with the EU in December 2013, Serbia now faces the most protracted and contentious process of closing all 35 chapters of the acquis communautaire – the most important step in gaining a formal invitation to enter the Union.

Eight of the acquis chapters are being opened this year and in several Belgrade will find it difficult to meet the necessary EU standards. In particular, chapters on the judiciary and fundamental rights, on justice, freedom, and security, on financial control, and on the environment will be particularly onerous.

Just as Slovenia proved to be both a partner and an obstacle to Croatia’s membership of the Union, until several bilateral disputes were settled, Croatia may now adopt the same position toward Serbia. For Zagreb, Serbia’s EU entry boosts regional security and can enhance regional economic development. It may also help pull Belgrade away from Russia’s embrace and contribute to stitching together a functional Bosnian state.

On the other hand, Serbia’s aspirations present a valuable opportunity for Croatia to extract concessions from its southern neighbor as a condition for approving its EU entry.

In recent days, the European Council working group removed from its agenda debates on Serbia’s opening of chapters 23 and 24, dealing with the rule of law, the judiciary and human rights, after Zagreb questioned Belgrade’s readiness. The EU requires unanimous consent by all 28 EU member states.

Croatian officials have not explicitly stated that they intend to block Serbia’s progress. Instead, Zagreb is demanding that Belgrade delivers on several core conditions, such as full respect for minority rights, including that of Croats in Serbia, unhindered cooperation with the Hague war crimes tribunal, and the annulment of a Serbian law on universal jurisdiction for war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Croatian officials point out that Serbia cannot act as a mini-Hague in the region especially in dealing with the wars that Belgrade initiated.

Serbian officials assert that they need a new mandate to pursue the difficult reforms necessary for EU accession and a resounding election victory for Vucic’s Progressives will boost talks in several acquis chapters. Ultra-right parties have little traction and opposition to EU integration has minimal backing. Recent attempts by the opposition to create a united front against Vucic have failed, opening the way for the Progressives to gain a two-thirds majority, which they narrowly failed to do in the last elections.

The process of closing the acquis chapters is likely to take several years. But even then the path into the EU is not assured because each member state needs to ratify the entry of any new aspirant. And with a possible fracture of the EU on the horizon following the UK vote in June, and other countries seeking to loosen their bonds with Brussels, Serbia’s membership of the Union could be indefinitely postponed.

There is one further stumbling block on Serbia’s path to the EU – relations with Kosova included in the final acquis chapter. Improved relations are seen by EU officials as a prerequisite for the two countries to join the bloc. This condition could be used to deny Belgrade entry even if it meets all other requirements.

Zagreb and other capitals in the region will also be closely watching the next steps of the Vojislav Seselji trial. They were outraged by his acquittal, given the accumulated evidence of involvement in war crimes in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. They will be monitoring the appeal process led by Serge Brammertz, the prosecutor at the UN Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals.

Without a reversal of the court’s ruling on Seselji, the Hague will simply encourage other ambitious war criminals, who can argue that the expulsion of civilians was a humanitarian gesture, that hate speech was a morale booster, and that ethnic expulsions was simply a means to protect the Serbian population.

NATO MOVES FORWARD WITH 0808-0710-1617-3136-150x150MONTENEGRO

 Janusz Bugajski, December 2015

NATO’s invitation to Montenegro to become its 29th member is an important step forward for the North Atlantic Alliance. The Brussels ministerial on December 2 overcame any latent opposition to further NATO enlargement, demonstrated that the Alliance does not retreat in the face of Moscow’s threats, and indicated its commitment to bringing the entire Balkan peninsula under one effective security umbrella.

NATO enlargement throughout Europe’s East has enhanced security, promoted stability, encouraged investment, fostered inter-state cooperation, and helped protect against future challenges to national integrity. However, since the accession of Croatia and Albania in April 2009, NATO leaders have been reticent in bringing in qualified candidates such as Montenegro or Macedonia or even offering Membership Action Plans (MAPs) to aspirants such as Georgia and Ukraine, partly as a result of “out of area” missions and partly in attempts to pacify Russia.

After the terrorist attacks on the U.S. in 2001, NATO’s attention was riveted on Afghanistan, Iraq, and the broader Middle East. Throughout the 2000s, the European homeland was largely neglected as NATO capitals assumed that the continent was permanently safe from armed conflict. In the aftermath of Russia’s attack on Ukraine in early 2014, NATO is returning to its core mission in Europe as the primary mechanism for mutual defense against outside aggression.

In announcing Montenegro’s invitation at the foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg aimed his comments at Moscow. He underscored that every nation has the right to decide its own security arrangements and no one can interfere in that decision. Montenegro’s accession talks, or “technical negotiations,” will be completed early in 2016, but ratification by all NATO member state parliaments could take longer.

In Montenegro itself, the benefits of NATO accession must be explained more broadly, as there is still significant opposition mostly among the sizeable Serbian population. Resistance to NATO accession is predominant among Serbs for two main reasons. First, they view NATO as an organization that bombed Serbia during the war over Kosovo in 1999, and second they exhibit some latent nostalgia for Tito’s Yugoslavia and membership in the now defunct “Non-aligned Movement.” However, the era of neutrality is no longer credible, as NATO develops into a security structure for the whole of democratic Europe.

Montenegro has no constitutional obligation to hold a referendum on membership in international organizations, and indeed few NATO members have organized such a vote. Parliament is likely to decide on accepting membership and the general elections scheduled by October 2016 will become a de facto plebiscite on NATO entry.

Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin has been adamantly opposed to further NATO enlargement. Following NATO’s invitation for Montenegro, Russian officials immediately asserted that they would be forced to react. But it is unclear what steps Moscow could take, as no European state seeks membership in organizations that Russia dominates, such as the Eurasian Economic Union or the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and many former Soviet republics are seeking closer ties with the West as protection against Russia.

Quite possibly, the Kremlin may endeavor to destabilize the Western Balkans by supporting Serbian separatism in Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina or by stirring inter-ethnic conflicts in Macedonia and Kosova. But Russia possesses no committed allies in the region and even Serbia uses Russia for diplomatic and economic purposes rather than having any ideological, political, or strategic commitments to the Kremlin.

Paradoxically, the Alliance response to Russia’s aggressive words and deeds can revitalize the core mission for which NATO was created. One essential component of this mission is to bring qualified European democracies into the organization both to enhance their security and contribute to the security of the Alliance. In this strategic context, much of the Western Balkans still remain a missing piece in the NATO mosaic.

NATO interests throughout the Balkans have come into sharper relief since the onset of the war in Ukraine and the stark reality that forcible partition, territorial acquisition, and military aggression are concepts that persist into the 21st century. To counter such temptations, the entire West Balkan zone needs to join the rest of the peninsula under the NATO umbrella.

As Central Europe has demonstrated, NATO accession enhances regional security, solidifies existing borders, promotes democratic consolidation, attracts foreign investment, and improves each country’s economic prospects. It will also help neutralize Moscow’s attempts to sow discord and conflict in the region designed to preoccupy Western capitals and shift attention from its ambitions in the post-Soviet neighborhood.

Just as it led regional opposition to Slobodan Milosevic and helped to terminate the Yugoslav experiment, Montenegro can now take the lead in bringing the rest of the Balkans into the Alliance. Conversely, one of the most effective ways for NATO to demonstrate its own vitality and determination is to include Montenegro and underscore that all remaining West Balkan states will become members.Montenegro’s inclusion in NATO represents both a congruence of interests and values.

NATO is not only a military alliance, but also a community of democracies that carries several practical domestic and regional benefits. It will eliminate any doubts about Montenegro’s future and encourage Western investment, rather than the corrupt and politically linked Russian business witnessed in recent years. It will include the entire Adriatic coastline within the NATO zone and thereby assist in joint operations and interoperability in such endeavors as emergency response, humanitarian assistance, anti-smuggling, and anti-terrorist coastal patrols. In addition, it will boost confidence in Montenegro during its already advanced accession talks into the European Union.

Montenegro’s membership will also encourage Serbia to look toward a NATO future. While this will necessitate a political decision by Belgrade, Serbia’s military appears to support NATO entry, as membership would help modernize the armed forces. It can also encourage Bosnia-Herzegovina to push toward accession and move Kosovo in the same direction as it develops its security structure. Additionally, a new initiative is needed to bring Macedonia into NATO and overcome the veto that Greece continues to wield in opposition to the country’s name.

If this ambitious agenda is accomplished, there will be no black holes or grey zones left in the Western Balkans and common security will enhance inter-state cooperation in other spheres, from culture and education to economic investment, energy linkages, and infrastructural development. From being misperceived as the land of ancient hatreds, the Balkans can finally assume a modern identity as a zone of ethnic, religious, and inter-state coexistence.

CROATIA’S RESTLESS NEIGHBORHOOD0808-0710-1617-3136-150x150

Janusz Bugajski, November 2015

Several states in Croatia’s immediate neighborhood are experiencing serious domestic turmoil that contributes to unsettling the broader region. Although each instance differs in intensity and outcome, there are several common factors that need to be tackled or they will escalate over the coming year.

Most of Croatia’s southern neighbors are affected by unrest, whether in the form of protests against government abuses in Macedonia, street demonstrations against official corruption in Montenegro, a crackdown on the independent media in Serbia, threats of a referendum on dissolving Bosnia-Herzegovina, or opposition disruptions of parliament in Kosova in protest against signing agreements with Belgrade.

Three factors in particular destabilize the neighborhood: institutional failure, economic underperformance, and international inattention. If the public loses its remaining trust and support for national institutions, state officials, and an assortment of politicians, then the terrain opens up for populism, street politics, and potential violence.

Despite over twenty years of state building, democratic reform, and Western engagement, corruption and mismanagement remain prevalent in the region. The judicial systems have evaded rigorous vetting and modernization and remain beholden to special interest groups. Meanwhile, politics and business remain parasitically attached, thus delegitimizing both in the eyes of many citizens.

Parliament in particular is a key institution in any developing democracy, as it directly represents the people and passes laws. If the public loses trust in the legislature and its deputies, then the alienation of citizens from the state and the rule of law can create dangerous social and ethnic fissures that will be exploited by demagogues.

The public throughout the region is clamoring for economic improvements having for too many years witnessed stagnation, official incompetence, growing inequality, and a lack of fair economic competition. Economic distress, poverty, and public frustration radicalize politics and can generate social, ethnic, or even inter-state conflicts.

Persistent poverty and disaffection with numerous governments has certainly driven the recent refugee crisis for the EU, as a substantial share of the asylum seekers in Germany were from the Western Balkans. Despite measures to stem the threat, an even bigger exodus can be expected if conditions do not improve for the majority of people.

Probably the biggest danger for the region is a loss of faith in integration within the EU. Much of the public now calculates that the Union does not want their countries in the club, either because they are too poor, too corrupt, or are perceived as Muslim. Hence the various conditions and stages for EU entry are widely viewed as substitutes that will continue indefinitely. The integration of Croatia is perceived as probably the last opening for years or even decades in the region.

Citing evidence of the EU’s lukewarm approach toward further enlargement, local observers point to the lack of effectiveness in promoting essential reforms in justice and law enforcement. In several states people wonder why no brazenly corrupt politicians have been arrested, tried, and convicted despite the EU and US oversight of local leaders. Are EU officials doing enough to push through the necessary reforms that are essential to attain Union membership, or are they hesitant in enabling unwanted countries to qualify for accession?

Some people have also come to the conclusion that their own politicians may not desire EU entry because this would mean having to follow Union rules and laws. In the event of greater transparency, oversight, and accountability the opportunities for corruption, clientelism, and nepotism would diminish. As a result, essential reforms are deliberately delayed and conditions for entry are allegedly obstructed or neglected by government officials.

In such a climate of public suspicion and alienation, Croatia’s next government will have an opportunity to provide a measure of leadership and direction in the regional struggle for social and economic improvement. This would require a government in Zagreb that is committed to reforming the judiciary, resolutely combating corruption, and opening up the country to business. Croatia could thereby become a successful role model and encourage the development of parties and platforms in neighboring states that emulate its own goals.

Fences can be built to keep out refugees, but Croatia will find it difficult to shield itself from unrest and conflict close to its borders. The spillover from escalating regional turmoil will be felt in growing insecurity, a precarious business climate, a curtailment of investment, and in other persistent obstacles to regional economic development.

The incoming administration in Zagreb may consider creating a forum for the region that can explore effective policies and disseminate lessons from the Croatian experience. This can earn Zagreb support and funds from the EU. However, a government must first be established that can actually implement the reforms that are necessary to spur economic growth.

CROATIAN CROSSROADS0808-0710-1617-3136-150x150

Janusz Bugajski, October 2015

Elections are an occasion to assess the past and calculate for a better future. Voters in democratic states judge the performance of the incumbent government, listen to the policy prescriptions of major parties, and vote accordingly. In the case of Croatia, the economic slide under the center-left government would indicate that the political pendulum is swinging back toward the center-right.

Recovering from the scandals linked with the previous administration, the HDZ has made important strides in cleaning up the party. The media and the public should of course remain watchful that past abuses are not repeated by high officials from any party. They should also study the economic programs of both major election contenders and decide which one is more likely to stimulate business and create employment.

Croatia can certainly perform better than it has under recent administrations and citizens should have higher expectations from state leaders. The country was delayed in its progress into the EU because of the long aftermath of war and occupation. But there is no reason that it cannot reach the same economic level as Slovakia or the Czech Republic, countries that have rebounded since the global financial crisis of 2008-2009.

The Social Democrat coalition has been trailing in public opinion polls, but as the gap with the HDZ has narrowed in recent weeks, the danger is that the race will be decided on personalities rather than policies. Voters should beware of such distractions. The core problem remains Croatia’s dismal economic performance, during which six years of recession have wiped 13 per cent off national economic output.

Croatia is one of the weakest economies inside the EU and has barely recovered since the 2008 financial crisis. A World Bank global survey has listed Croatia among ten countries with the slowest projected annual growth rate between 2014 and 2017. It remains plagued by high unemployment, uneven regional development, and insufficient foreign investment.

The current Prime Minister is pledging economic recovery but has not fully explained to voters why the future will be different from the recent past. If a government cannot attract significant new business and stimulate the economy over an entire term in office then fresh ideas and initiatives are needed.

However, in presenting an economic stimulus package, populist promises that generate unrealistic expectations must be avoided by all sides. Among the majority of recent EU members, center-right parties with concrete programs have been instrumental in driving economic development. Rightists who discard exclusivist nationalism and cheap populism have proved to be the most successful economic transformers.

Grabar-Kitarovic’s victory in the presidential race boosted the HDZ, but the party cannot assume that a parliamentary election victory is guaranteed. Without a competent explanation of its economic priorities to voters and how this can attract foreign direct investment, create new jobs, and restructure the inefficient public sector, many citizens may be swayed more by populism than by sound policies.

The clearest example of rational economic management after a period of drift and decline was the center-right government in Slovakia. It took office in 1998, broke the bureaucratic post-communist stranglehold over the economy, and created the conditions for attracting substantial foreign investment. Slovakia became the entrepreneurial leader in Central Europe.

A similar process was visible in Hungary and the Czech Republic, while most of the social democrat formations in the Visegrad group eventually matured into pro-business liberals emulating the reformed British Labor Party. Croatia can also join this evolution.

In the security arena, the migrant question has been used in Croatia’s election campaign. No European government has benefited politically from its handling of refugees, and Zagreb is no exception. But there is a danger of growing xenophobia and Islamophobia stimulated by the alleged threat of more refugees. In all the confusion and fear, it is important to remember that Croatia is a transit country for refugees not a destination point. Its economic conditions are not attractive to any ambitious immigrants.

In the geopolitical domain, the winning party should provide both a vision and a realistic roadmap for Croatia. In the wake of growing threats to European security, whether from Russia or the Middle East, Croatia’s neighborhood may also become more unpredictable.

By fulfilling its NATO contributions and maintaining a strong trans-Atlantic link, Zagreb will gain in stature and capability in dealing with its unstable neighborhood. For istance, it can offer practical solutions to the Bosnian imbroglio in order to avoid state division and renewed armed conflict, something that the incumbent government has been unable to accomplish.

Croatia must also become a more vigorous player inside NATO by pursuing an important niche in Alliance policy – territorial self-defense. Since Russia’s attack on Ukraine and its sponsorship of proxy wars, NATO’s front line states are increasingly stressing the importance of national defense against various forms of subversion. Given its own experiences with proxy wars and occupations, maybe Zagreb should offer to host a NATO Center of Excellence focusing on territorial self-defense and thereby directly assist its most vulnerable allies.

BALKAN REFUGEE RELEASE VALVE0808-0710-1617-3136-150x150

JJanusz Bugajski, October 2015

The outflow of refugees from the Western Balkans contributes to preserving the peace in states that are not EU members. It helps release social pressure and prevents a surge of unrest that could destabilize incumbent governments.

Among the wave of refugees entering the EU are tens of thousands of Europe’s citizens from the West Balkans. People from four countries in particular are escaping poverty and unemployment. Out of the 200,000 asylum requests in Germany in the first half of 2015, 40 percent were filed by people from Kosova, Albania, Macedonia, and Serbia. Kosova itself is the third biggest source of asylum requests after Syria and Afghanistan.

In the most recent estimates, Berlin now expects over a million asylum applications by the end of 2015. The number of Kosovars seeking asylum in Germany soared from 3,000 in the first half of 2014 to 32,000 in the same period this year, while asylum requests from Albania jumped from 4,500 to 29,000. Other countries, including Switzerland, Austria, and the Scandinavian states have also seen an increased influx from the Balkans.

Over the past year, Kosova has witnessed an unprecedented exodus of more than 50,000 people. Most left because of desperate economic conditions in which four out of ten people live below the official poverty line and unemployment exceeds 40 percent. Many decided to migrate as rumors spread that Germany had open doors and available jobs. As the rumors were eventually quashed the outflow of job seekers has begun to dip in recent weeks.

Kosova’s exodus constituted the largest number of departures since the end of the 1999 war during the expulsions orchestrated by Belgrade. The euphoria of Kosova’s independence wore out several years ago and harsh economic realities have led to widespread disillusionment with national institutions and politicians among large sectors of the population.

Despite heavy investment in infrastructure, Prishtina has failed to develop a productive economy and remains heavily dependent on international assistance. Official corruption, nepotism, and mismanagement compounds the institutional failures. The aspirations of a large young generation, with an estimated 40% of the population aged between 15 and 30, have not been fulfilled.

Moreover, Kosova is the only country in the region without an EU visa liberalization agreement that acts as an economic release valve. The absence of fast legal mechanisms to travel and emigrate has spurred human trafficking as people seek a way out of their isolation. In the wake of this summer’s massive refugee inflow into the EU, visa liberalization is likely to be delayed for Kosova and renewed restrictions placed on other countries benefiting from the program, especially Serbia, Macedonia, and Albania. Even countries that have obtained liberal visa regimes with the EU have experienced a refugee exodus, indicating the poor economic prospects for many citizens.

To discourage further waves of refugees, the EU is also taking steps to separate those escaping war from those fleeing economic hardship. Several countries have established reception centers to determine who is a genuine refugee trying to avoid repression or violence. People from the Balkans no longer fall in this category.

EU capitals are planning to declare a list of “safe countries of origin” to which migrants can be returned because there is little risk of persecution. The proposed list would include Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Kosova, Montenegro, Serbia, and Turkey.

Several countries have welcomed their inclusion on a safe list, with Prishtina claiming that it would send “a powerful message” that political asylum will not be granted for economic or social reasons. During 2015, 14,600 Kosovars have already been repatriated from EU states, up from 4,600 in 2014. Germany in particular is speeding up the procedure for examining applications from the Balkans, and in the first seven months of 2015 it deported almost 10,000 people.

Even though less than one percent of asylum requests from the Balkans are accepted, EU policy has failed to diminish the number of people willing to try. One major incentive has been a monthly allowance in euros while waiting for the asylum process to be completed. The sum is larger than what refugees can earn at home. Berlin intends to provide food vouchers instead of cash to curtail this abuse of welfare.

Closing the door on economic migrants from Kosova, Albania, Macedonia, Serbia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina could ultimately create more problems than allowing them to enter and find work. Pressures are building in several states in which economic stagnation is increasingly resented by unemployed young people. Although in the long term, each country suffers by losing workers and professionals, in the short-term out-migration releases social pressure.

In Kosova, grievances against corrupt officialdom, economic stagnation, and international isolation can be manifest in growing support for radical groups or even spontaneous protests and random violence. In Macedonia and Bosnia economic distress is more likely to take on ethnic colorations. Tensions between Macedonian Slavs and Albanians can be exploited for political advantage by ambitious parties. Similarly, economic stagnation can feed into demands for separation in the RS on the grounds that Sarajevo is holding the entity back.

In the ideal solution, public frustration will lead to greater pressures on officials, increase governmental accountability, and spur economic development. Unfortunately, the frustrated public lacks effective organizations and mechanisms to impact on government policy. Paradoxically, a tougher EU policy on accepting Balkan refugees may trigger domestic revolts that some political systems will be unable to contain.

REFUGEES REVIVE 0808-0710-1617-3136-150x150


Janusz Bugajski, September 2015

The outflow of refugees into Europe has sparked passionate debates about EU quotas and asylum policy. In the Balkans and Central Europe it has also revived animosities between neighboring states. If such crises continue then any nascent regional solidarity will be rapidly buried.

The response of many countries toward the new refugees has been largely negative. The anxieties are based on public fears of economic decline and spreading insecurity, combined with racism, religious nationalism, and a sense that many of the refugees are simply economic migrants who do not want to fight or work for their countries. Many people believe the migrants are the initial trickle of an even bigger wave, as societies in the Middle East and North Africa view Europe as the Promised Land.

In South East Europe, where few migrants wish to stay, the refugee emergency has been a test for regional solidarity and the region has failed. The primary offender is Greece, which proved unable to control its outer Schengen border or to properly register refugees, and simply pushed them northward toward Central Europe.

In trying to deal with tens of thousands of asylum seekers, governments in South East Europe have projected blame on to their neighbors. Any semblance of trust has evaporated and the EU itself remains deeply divided over how to share the burden of relocating the refugees.

In a chain reaction of neighborhood blame, Macedonia charged Greece with incompetence, Hungary castigated Serbia for failing to stop the migrants from attacking border posts and throwing stones at Hungarian police, and Budapest accused Croatia of jeopardizing its sovereignty by sending thousands of migrants toward Hungary.

Hungary went a step further than its neighbors, not only by closing its borders but also by building a barbed wire fence across its frontier with Serbia. This diverted refugees to Croatia and provoked anger at Budapest in Zagreb. Croatia calculated that the refugees would simply transit through to Slovenia and onward to Austria and Germany. Instead, Ljubljana shut its border and Croatia was rapidly overwhelmed with over 30,000 refugees. Slovenia voiced anger that Croatia was moving people to its frontier while Germany and Austria were re-imposing border checks, as an emergency measure allowed under Schengen rules.

Serbia denounced Hungary for using tear gas against migrants, claiming that some of the canisters landed on Serbian territory. It also protested against Croatia for subsequently closing most of its border crossings and threatened legal action over the blocking of truck traffic that will effect its trade with the EU. Serbia’s Social Affairs Minister Aleksandar Vulin warned that Serbia will take the issue of border closures to international courts. Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic responded by comparing Belgrade’s international clout to that of a fly as compared to the Croatian eagle. Both countries thereby attained a new level of diplomacy.

Hungary’s government charged Zagreb with a “pack of lies” for claiming they had jointly agreed to establish a corridor for the migrants. Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto condemned the Croatian Prime Minister’s handing of the crisis as “pathetic.” Meanwhile, officials in Serbia, Croatia, and Romania compared Hungary’s tough policies, including its razor-coil border fence, to the policies of Budapest’s pro-Nazi regime during World War Two, stirring up even more animosities. Romania’s Prime Minister Victor Ponta called the Hungarian fence a “disgrace for Europe.”

To add insult to injury, Serbia and Macedonia were excluded from the EU summit on the migrant crisis, even though they are on the main Balkan route used by asylum seekers. Instead of finding common solutions within an EU context, the bitter regional arguments have poisoned the atmosphere and will damage trade and transport especially if the waves of refugees continue to roll across the peninsula.

At the EU level, the relocation of 160,000 migrants has exacerbated disagreements between member states. Central European governments firmly oppose Union plans for compulsory quotas to distribute refugees. They were outraged by the approval of EU interior ministers of a resettlement plan passed by majority vote rather than unanimous approval. They consider it a direct attack on national sovereignty.

Slovakia is launching a legal challenge to mandatory EU quotas. Prime Minister Robert Fico asserted that a charge would be filed at the European Court of Justice and Bratislava would not implement the ruling.

Meanwhile, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban rejected what he described as German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “moral imperialism.” Orban accused Berlin of encouraging the refugee influx by allowing so many to arrive and claimed that Europe’s Christian heritage was under threat because most of the migrants were Middle Eastern Muslims. In addition to revitalizing organized crime throughout the region, the EU may also be importing terrorism, as jihadists will be allowed into Europe under the cover of refugee status.

Berlin asserts that it seeks to ensure an orderly entry of migrants that includes registering every new arrival and rejecting economic migrants from outside the EU. Despite such assurances, Merkel’s Bavarian allies, the Christian Social Union, called Berlin’s approach to migration “an unparalleled political error” as Munich became overwhelmed with asylum seekers.

The refugee crisis demonstrates how brittle are inter-state relations and how easily it is to spark conflicts that could escalate from words to deeds. An even more dangerous wave on the horizon is that of growing nationalism, populism, and anti-Unionism in response to the refugee crisis and other inter-state disputes that could renationalize Europe and unearth unsettled grievances in the Balkans.


AT ENERGY JUNCTION0808-0710-1617-3136-150x150

Janusz Bugajski, September 2015

Croatia stands at one of the crossroads of Europe’s energy networks, especially in natural gas and crude oil that still account for the largest share of international consumption. However, Zagreb must implement several key decisions to convert its potential into reality.

As Ian Brzezinski and David Koranyi point out in an insightful recent paper for Washington’s Atlantic Council, the integration of Europe’s economic infrastructure has not been completed. This is especially evident in energy pipelines, roads, railroads, and communications links across Central Europe.

Moreover, economic growth is dependent on energy security, or the reliable supply of fuel to maintain industry, trade, and consumers. Unfortunately, Europe has too many missing energy links to guarantee security and stability for all countries. Brzezinski is due to address these questions at an international security conference in Zagreb on 18 September with the participation of Croatia’s President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic.

The Atlantic Council study focuses on constructing a North-South Corridor between the Baltic and Adriatic Seas to include energy pipelines, electricity grids, transportation, and telecommunications. This would help stiffen Central Europe’s economic backbone, boost economic development, and improve links with Western Europe.

Croatia stands at the southern gateway into Central Europe. But to achieve its significant potential several steps will need to be taken. Above all, following the imminent general elections the new government must declare its commitment to energy development and the North-South Corridor as national priorities. In addition to earmarking funds for construction, Zagreb must focus on gaining substantial investment from the EU for a project that will stimulate economic growth across the region.

The EU needs to promote and co-fund infrastructure projects most critical to the corridor’s completion, with additional funding generated by a spectrum of businesses and a number governments along the route of the Corridor. Central European governments should plan to establish a €1 billion regional investment fund that pools resources to complement EU funding.

The North-South Corridor can also become a significant element in the US-EU agenda. A more integrated Europe with greater energy security and economic prospects will be a more attractive partner for Washington. In particular, the US can assist Europe in diversifying its energy supplies. The Corridor will also provide a major test for Croatian officials as to whether they can effectively combat the temptations of corruption in pursuing huge and expensive projects.

Croatia has the potential of developing into a strategically important energy transit corridor to Central Europe, especially if the proposed Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) terminal on Krk Island is built. This terminal would be linked with the existing Croatia-Hungary interconnector and continue to the Hungary-Slovakia border. The pipeline could also link with the planned Poland-Slovakia interconnector and with the existing Hungary-Romania interconnector. Such a project would complete an EU–backed Baltic–Adriatic–Black Sea network that would significantly reduce dependence on Russian sources by providing avenues of entry for diverse gas imports.

During Soviet time, Moscow constructed an energy network that was deliberately intended to stifle regional integration and maintain dependence on the Kremlin. It has attempted to repeat this pattern under Putin’s rule. However, a major European energy-linked project such as the North-South Corridor would prevent Moscow from using Croatia for its economic and political penetration into the region.

One third of all Croatia’s energy imports, including oil and gas, originate in Russia, and nearly all of its gas imports are purchased from Gazprom. To increase dependence, Moscow has tried to engage Zagreb in several energy deals. Gazprom attempted to acquire the controlling share of Croatia’s energy champion Industrija Nafte (INA) in 2014, demonstrating the symbiosis between energy, foreign policy, and corruption. The Russian firm tried to buy the stake of Hungary’s MOL company in INA but the deal was dissuaded by Washington. Such a transaction would have given Moscow decisive energy leverage over both Hungary and Croatia.

The INA consortium represents an attractive target for Russian energy companies, considering its experience in offshore and onshore operations and production in the Adriatic Sea and the Pannonian basin. But given the Western sanctions on Russia, a deal with Gazprom would create problems for Croatia as an EU member forging long-term strategic cooperation with an ostracized Russian company.

Moscow seeks to attract Croatia into its energy sphere in order to obstruct EU plans to construct an energy corridor across the Balkans or a North-South corridor to Poland’s Baltic shore. Croatia also possesses promising offshore energy reserves that Russia would like to exploit. Several Russian energy companies have offered investments to develop domestic pipelines and explore oil fields in the Adriatic.

 For instance, Gazprom has offered lucrative deals to Zagreb to enable it to use the Adria oil pipeline (connecting Croatia, Serbia, and Hungary) in reverse for Russian oil exports, instead of oil from the Middle East and other sources flowing into Central Europe through Croatia. Such a transit reversal would cut Central Europe’s access to international oil markets, leaving the region even more dependent on Russian oil.

Above all, Gazprom wants to block the LNG terminal on Krk to prevent it undercutting Russia’s monopolistic ambitions throughout Europe. But despite Moscow’s efforts, in July 2015 the Croatian government announced that it would construct the Krk terminal as a strategic investment that will contribute to EU energy security. The next government must fulfill this commitment and become instrumental in forging a wider vision of energy security for Europe. This will not only enhance Croatia’s international status but also provide a significant boost to the country’s faltering economy.


 Janusz Bugajski, July 2015

Following on the heals of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s trip to the Western Balkans, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Victoria Nuland also conducted a lightning tour of six states. Although her overarching objective was to signal that Washington has not abandoned the region, in practice persistent doubts remain about American commitments.

For the Barack Obama administration, the Balkans have become a historic footnote rather than a pressing policy challenge. Conflicts in the Middle East, East Asia, and North Africa are of much more direct concern than the prospect of renewed Balkan disputes. Balkan fatigue is compounded by Europe fatigue, with the conclusion that Brussels and Berlin must provide the leadership and muscle rather than Washington.

The State Department wants to play a supportive role while signaling that America is no longer the supervisor who will automatically come to the rescue. Hence, Nuland’s tour was focused on three targets: to reinforce Merkel’s message that the EU plays the decisive role, to encourage democratic consolidation in order to improve economic conditions, and to indicate to Russia that despite Washington’s limited presence in the region it is closely watching Moscow’s involvement.

During the past year, Nuland has been preoccupied with the crisis in Ukraine and reassuring nearby NATO members that the U.S. will protect them from Russia’s aggression. The tour of Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosova, Montenegro, Albania, and Serbia is partly an extension of this policy but with much more onus on the EU role in European integration.

According to Nuland’s statements, Washington maintains three priorities for the region: completing the map of democracies, fostering infrastructure and energy connectivity, and combating an assortment of trans-national threats.

Democratization remains the core belief among American policy makers, as they are convinced that this stabilizes countries and makes them productive. But formal democracy without full political accountability and the rule of law remains insufficient. The Greek debacle demonstrates how a relatively strong democracy became a weak state because of mismanagement, corruption, and clientelism.

Ironically, the Western Balkan capitals now need shield themselves from a potential Greek contagion. Fears are evident in Washington that Greece may continue to deteriorate as a failing state with negative reverberations for immediate neighbors, whether through the collapse of Greek banks, the termination of remittances, or an upsurge of nationalist conflicts with Macedonia and Albania.

Having invested in the Western Balkans for over twenty years, the U.S. wants to present the region as a success story and a showcase for democracy and free markets to countries in the Wider Europe, particularly Ukraine, as well as in the Middle East.

Washington is also focused on energy diversity for Europe because it views Russian monopolization as a threat to security and national independence. Nuland and others have urged Belgrade to diversify its gas supply routes and not be fully dependent on an untrustworthy Russia. The U.S. is backing the Southern Corridor project with Azerbaijan and Turkey, with the potential of Iranian gas entering the European market after the recent agreement with Tehran on its nuclear technology.

When Nuland spoke about “joining forces to make the Balkans a no-go zone for today’s most pernicious threats,” she alluded not only to international terrorism and organized crime but also to President Vladimir Putin’s Russia: “Sleazy autocrats and oligarchs who come bearing gifts that promote their own interests, not yours.”

Combating corruption and crime through legislative and judicial reform was high on her agenda, including in Montenegro which is gearing up for an invitation to NATO later this year but continues to be criticized for not doing enough to eliminate high-level corruption. In the same vein, Nuland visited Albania where she encouraged the government to pursue judicial reforms and replace corrupt judges.

Corruption begets political abuse and Macedonia has become a negative showcase where democratic backsliding and state capture by a single party endangers the country’s stability. Nuland’s stopover in Skopje followed the collapse of talks between government and opposition on early elections and a neutral transitional government.

She pleaded with both sides to reach an accord but unfortunately could not assure them that Washington will unblock the Greek veto on Macedonia’s progress into the EU and NATO. Athens is already destabilizing the broader region through its intransigence on Macedonia’s name and a possible collapse of the Greek state once the next bailout runs out could embolden even more severe nationalist conflicts.

Nuland’s Serbia and Kosova visits supplemented Merkel’s message by urging Prishtina to establish a war crimes court and leaning on Belgrade to treat Kosova as a distinct entity. Kosovar MPs oppose constitutional changes allowing for a special court to handle war crimes committed by the Kosovo Liberation Army in the 1990s. Although the aim is to appease Serbia, the problem with trials of any popular partisan movements is that it questions the legitimacy of the liberated state.

An underlying theme throughout Nuland’s trip was the undercutting of Russia’s pernicious influences, whether these are generated through promised energy contracts, propaganda campaigns, fostering corruption, or fanning nationalist conflicts that undermine perspectives for EU or NATO enlargement. In all the arenas that Washington wants resolution, Moscow seeks influence by preventing any progress.

Given Washington’s limited engagement in the Western Balkans, evident in only occasional high-level visits and based primarily on verbal encouragement, one wonders what would convince the White House about the necessity for closer involvement. The one stark possibility would be a crisis that the EU could not handle, such as an outbreak of violence that threatens state survival or challenges existing borders.

MERKEL’S BALKAN MOMENT0808-0710-1617-3136-150x150

Janusz Bugajski, July 2015

In the midst of the Greek crisis Chancellor Angela Merkel took a trip to the Western Balkans. Her visit to Belgrade, Tirana, and Sarajevo may appear more symbolic than substantive, but above all it was intended to revive trust and commitment to the EU project.

The abject failure of Greece as a Eurozone member has left the entire EU integration process in question and some observers claim it has actually gone into reverse. The Greek fiasco has spawned rifts between member states with healthy finances and laggard countries that resent budget controls and austerity measures. It has also revived Europe’s German scapegoat, with Athens leading the charge that Berlin seeks to dominate the continent at the cost of EU equality.

Furthermore, the Greek failure has strengthened the hand of leftist and rightist radicals in several countries and inside the European Parliament who argue that the Union should be disbanded and all nations must regain their sovereignty.

Whether Athens leaves the Eurozone or hangs for a few more years with additional bailout funds, Merkel now faces a difficult dilemma: should Berlin punish states that do not obey EU rules by denying them funds and potentially unraveling the Union, or should it allow EU rules to become so flexible that integration will be increasingly resented by the richer states?

Germany cannot be seen to be dominating Europe, but at the same time it cannot be perceived as a weak leader because this would give impetus for the EU to unravel. Above all, Merkel’s trip to Tirana, Belgrade, and Sarajevo is intended to demonstrate to the rest of Europe that German leadership is a constructive factor and that the EU project is alive and well because so many countries are eager to join.

In this calculation, the Western Balkans play an important role. Merkel intends to accomplish two core tasks. First, to demonstrate that the Union door remains open to potential new members; and second, that in order to enter one cannot behave irresponsibly like Athens.

Ironically, it was the EU’s Thessaloniki summit in June 2003 that promised EU accession for all qualified Western Balkan states. And while Union policy remains committed to the entry of each country, the negative experience of recent members Bulgaria and Romania, as well as the litany of incomplete reforms in the region, continues to hold each country back.

A visit from the German Chancellor, in effect the real leader of the EU, sends a loud message of support to Serbia, Albania, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. However Merkel’s message was tempered with some tough talk, as she does not want to alienate EU governments wary of further enlargement that may incorporate more bailout candidates.

Merkel needed to make it clear that after the Greek debacle the EU will not accept fiscally irresponsible and deeply corrupt countries that will simply become dependent on other members and a permanent drain on the Union budget. Albania is a case in point, where pervasive official corruption has undermined the rule of law and retarded the country’s EU prospects.

The EU will also not welcome states in conflict, whether internally like Bosnia or externally like Serbia. As a result, Merkel stressed that the dialogue between Belgrade and Prishtina must result in the normalization of relations. Indeed, Serbia’s ongoing EU accession talks hinge on its relations with Kosova. This does not mean that Belgrade must recognize Kosova’s statehood but it must finally treat it as a separate territory and stop interfering in its internal affairs.

With an economically weak France, Italy, and Spain, and a withdrawing UK, Germany is becoming Europe’s reluctant hegemon among a Union of medium sized states. Each EU aspirant looks toward Berlin to push forward the process of accession and Belgrade desperately wants Merkel’s help to open the first chapters of the acquis communautaire by the end of this year.

However, Kosova will remain a stone around Serbia’s neck unless Belgrade follows the Czech Republic in 1993 when a forward-looking Prague simply cut Slovakia loose and was quickly propelled toward EU entry as a result. The latest EU-led Serbia-Kosova talks at the end of June failed to produce an agreement on several key issues, including the powers of four majority Serb municipalities and the status of the KLA (Kosova Liberation Army). Merkel has called for a compromise agreement that would seal the Brussels process launched in April 2013.

Albanian officials also pressed Merkel to support Tirana’s EU membership talks after the country gained candidate status last year. In addition to noting that Albania first needed to effectively combat organized crime and corruption, Merkel also warned the President and Prime Minister not to stoke the pan-Albanian demons that generate regional instability.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Merkel urged the government to pursue social and economic reforms that would create employment and bring the country closer to EU membership. Although Bosniak, Serb, and Croat leaders signed a joint declaration in January expressing their willingness to implement all reforms that were proposed by Germany and Britain, Banja Luka largely revoked its commitment in June. For instance, RS leader Milorad Dodik has stated that his government will refuse to privatize the energy sector.

Serbia is moving toward the third rung of the EU ladder, after working through its Stabilization and Association Agreement, gaining candidate status, and planning accession talks. Albania also wants to move upward from the second rung over the coming year. And although Bosnia has finally reached the first rung, it lacks sufficient unity or determination to continue climbing.

ALBANIA AS REGIONAL STABILIZER0808-0710-1617-3136-150x150

Janusz Bugajski, June 2015

Once viewed as Europe’s poorest and most isolated distant cousin, Albania is assuming a more prominent regional role and is increasingly considered a Balkan linchpin by Western capitals. The current Socialist Party government has registered a number of successes since its election in June 2013, which recently culminated in a meeting of regional Prime Ministers in Tirana.

The granting of EU candidate status to Albania a year ago is only the first step toward the long process of Union accession. However, it also indicates that senior officials in Brussels and Berlin see Tirana as an increasingly serious player.

The days of dictatorship, international isolation, collapsing pyramid schemes, and social chaos have long passed. Albania is no longer threatened by a political civil war, has a largely homogenous population, and faces no ethnic divisions or separatist claims.

Of course, much progress still needs to be accomplished in reforming key institutions, particularly the judiciary, and rooting out official corruption. But a significant measure of political and institutional continuity has been achieved and Albania’s inadequacies mirror those of its immediate neighbors.

Paradoxically, in a still volatile and unpredictable region, the EU and NATO view Albania as a vital generator of stability that should be more actively supported. Conversely, there are understandable fears that a more aggressive foreign policy by Tirana could contribute to severe regional dislocations.

Albania’s foreign policy priorities are both bilateral and regional. The most important recent achievement has been the breakthrough in relations with Serbia. In November 2014, Prime Minister Edi Rama was the first Albanian leader to visit Belgrade for nearly seventy years, and likewise for the visit of Prime Minister Aleksander Vucic to Tirana in late May.

This breakthrough was of course stimulated by the prospects of EU integration, in which both leaders have staked their countries future. Despite openly disagreeing on the status of Kosova, one could not imagine just a few years ago that Serbian officials would acknowledge that Albania is an important regional player and state partner.

Tirana has not pushed for any pan-Albanian project even while defending its kindred in Kosova, Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro. On occasion, Rama like his Democratic Party predecessor Sali Berisha, has issued strong statements in support of ethnic Albanian rights throughout the region, but this has not damaged Tirana’s bilateral relations with its neighbors.

Washington plays an important role in counseling the government in Tirana against statements and actions that could be viewed as provocative. In particular, the incendiary idea of territorial separatism in bordering states has been studiously avoided.

At the multilateral level, Albania is becoming a focal point and stimulator of practical regional projects. This was evident in the presence of all regional Prime Ministers in Tirana at the end of May for the Vienna Forum meeting despite the absence of any top Western leader. Regional leaders usually flock for photo opportunities with Chancellor Merkel or President Hollande but not with Rama.

The Vienna Economic Forum was founded in 2004 as a platform to promote economic cooperation among countries between the Adriatic and Black Seas. It aims to assemble all regional Prime Ministers, including Kosova’s, in order to discuss practical multi-national projects. The Tirana session focused on regional infrastructure and set the stage for the summit in Vienna at end of August. Instead of simply listing numerous proposals, a few key priorities were highlighted to better interlink the region.

These included the construction of two major motorways – a north-south track linking Albania with Austria and Germany through Montenegro and Croatia, and an east-west track linking Albania’s Adriatic coast and Tirana with Nis and Belgrade in Serbia. Proposals for a modern railway linking Albania and Montenegro were also voiced.

On the energy front, Albania can become an important transit country for natural gas supplies through the planned Southern Corridor between the Caspian Basin and Southern Europe. The Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), to be constructed by 2019, can in future include branches along the Adriatic coast to Croatia and inland to Bosnia-Herzegovina. This assumes of course that the project is not sabotaged by a desperate Greek government, which is seeking funds from Russia as a counterbalance to the EU and could conceivably block the Southern Corridor at Moscow’s behest.

Despite these vital regional plans, all Balkan countries are too starved of cash to begin major infrastructure programs. EU involvement and funding is essential if any road building initiatives are to come to fruition. And without EU resources, there will be limited economic stimulus in the region.

As Albania matures into a major regional player, its symbolism for the EU project is also growing. Once it joins the EU after completing the arduous road of conditions, it will become the first Muslim majority state in the Union, even though religion plays no discernible role in politics or in national identity for Albanians. But the example will be important for the wider region, particularly for Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In an indication of Albania’s wider influence, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recently visited the country. Tirana made it clear that it is open to investments and closer connections with Ankara, but it rejects being embroiled in some neo-Ottoman sphere of influence that could pull it away from its pro-Western destination. And of course, Albania is one of the few countries in Europe’s east where Moscow has practically no influence. For Albanians, the U.S. remains their closest ally, a bond that is considered stronger than any of their European connections.


BALKAN TERRORIST THREATS0808-0710-1617-3136-150x150

Janusz Bugajski, May 2015

A recent attack by a gunman on a police station in Zvornik, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and a clash between police and gunmen in Kumanovo, Macedonia has raised fears about escalating religious radicalism and terrorism in the Balkans. The bloody incidents have also revived theories that Bosnian jihadism, the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, and “Greater Albania” form part of a grand conspiracy.

Since the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., Islamophobes and political manipulators promote the idea of extensive and coordinated networks of radical Islamists in the Balkans. In addition to whipping up public frenzy, this can justify moves toward dividing Bosnia, reversing the independence of Kosova, and cracking down on Muslim believers.

Rumors abound that maps of the IS caliphate include Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sandjak, Kosova, Albania, and Macedonia, while the number of Islamist recruits for the IS from the region has dramatically increased. The reality is less sensational. Caliphate maps also include the Iberian peninsula and other European territories once controlled by empires in which the government was Muslim. And intelligence sources estimate that the IS has attracted many more volunteers from Western Europe than from the Balkans, with France, Germany, Belgium, and the UK being the largest contributors.

According to some calculations, about 20 terrorist cells are active in the Balkans. But a “cell” may simply consist of one or more individuals with a grievance. Open societies unlike police states are always vulnerable to terrorist attacks. It only takes one individual with a cause and a weapon to murder innocent civilians, as Western Europe has periodically witnessed.

To put recent events in perspective, there have been three small terrorist attacks in Bosnia in the past five years, with two police officers and one terrorist killed, and a dozen policemen injured. There may be a few thousand dogmatic Wahhabis and Salafists in the country but not all are terrorists. And although some radicals may have ambitions to manufacture religious and ethnic conflicts and turn Bosnia into a religious state, their capabilities are limited.

The attack in Zvornik may have been a delayed revenge attack on security forces in Bosnia’s Serb entity, Republika Srpska (RS), by an individual whose father was murdered in 1992. Vendettas are a long Balkan tradition. The real surprise is that despite the brutal anti-civilian war inflicted primarily by Milosevic’s proxies, misguided revenge attacks are extremely rare. Nonetheless, leaders in the RS will use the incident to push for a separate intelligence and security sector, claiming insufficient protection by Sarajevo.

Statements claiming that the Zvornik attack is a blow to the stability of the entire region are counter-productive. They play into the hands of terrorists who can claim success and encourage others to emulate them. They reinforce those in the EU who assert that the Balkans are unprepared for EU membership. And they encourage separatist forces to use religious militancy for political goals.

The Bosnian and Albanian terrorist bogeyman periodically resurfaces in the Western press. For some commentators with scant knowledge of the Balkans it is difficult to accept that a moderate Islamic majority population can have their own European state. Sensationalist commentaries conflate Muslim identity with political radicalism and Islamic conservatism with indiscriminate terrorism, ignoring the fact that Muslim-majority states, like their Christian counterparts, are secular and pro-Western.

The most far-fetched arguments contend that an Islamist “Greater Albania” project is being implemented in Albania, Kosova, and Macedonia. Some policymakers seem genuinely concerned that jihadism among Albanians is on the rise and presents a long-term danger to Balkan security. The recent violence in Kumanovo supposedly vindicates their warnings.

It is worth remembering, however, that Albanians have a strong tradition of religious tolerance. Islam, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism have co-existed in Albanian societies for generations and are not the anchors of identity or nationhood. Simultaneously, pro-Americanism is openly promulgated, as the U.S. is credited for helping to create two Albanian states in the last one hundred years.

Given their recent history, Albanians would be the last people in Europe turning to anti-Western jihadism. Nonetheless, some 300 Albanian fighters, from Kosova, Macedonia, and Albania, have joined groups linked to IS and several recruiters and known militants have been arrested. But a few misled and indoctrinated individuals do not speak for the vast majority of the nation.

Dogmatic Islamic pockets are more visible among Albanians in Macedonia where “missionaries” from Saudi Arabia have been active, preaching a conservative brand of Islam. Militants make inroads through charitable, humanitarian, and educational work among the poorest sectors of society. This must be carefully monitored, as it could constitute a creeping danger to moderate Islamic traditions and inter-confessional tolerance.

However, the armed unrest in Macedonia is only tangentially related to Islam, as Albanian guerrilla groups have traditionally been secular. Speculations about the motives, organizers, and beneficiaries of the bloodshed in Kumanovo are spreading in the country, with some fingers pointing at the Prime Minister who may be trying to distract attention from public protests against allegedly widespread government wire tapping and other abuses. Alternatively, this may the work of criminal organizations or genuine nationalist militants.

Ethnic tensions tensions lurk beneath the surface in Macedonia and they can be fueled by an assortment of radicals hoping to provoke a police crackdown. In the midst of a political crisis with blocked NATO and EU integration because of the Greek veto over the country’s name, Macedonia may demonstrate how simmering grievances can be exploited to deepen ethnic and religious divisions and raise recruits for militant causes.

Nonetheless, claims that there is a master plan involving a vast network of terrorists coordinated with jihadists in Bosnia and Syria simply adds to a long list of Balkan conspiracy theories. Interested parties can of course exploit such theories to raise their regional influence. Assertions by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on a visit to Belgrade on 15 May that the region faces instability from Islamic extremism indicate which party is particularly interested in increasing fear and profiting from conflict.

NEXT ACT OF MACEDONIAN DRAMA0808-0710-1617-3136-150x150

Janusz Bugajski, April 2015

Macedonian has entered a dangerous stage in its development. Not only is the country blocked internationally by Greece, but its internal stability is now challenged by a bitter dispute between government and opposition. Both hazards could precipitate an inter-ethnic confrontation and unsettle the wider neighborhood.

Prime Minister Nikolai Gruevski and his ruling VMRO party has charged Social Democratic opposition leader Zoran Zaev with planning a coup d’état. Rumors abound that foreign intelligence services, most probably Greek, are seeking to destabilize Macedonia by providing Zaev with evidence of the government’s abuse of power.

Zaev has charged the VMRO administration with numerous violations, including nepotism, widespread surveillance and wiretapping, pervasive corruption, and blatant vote rigging, to name but a few. The opposition claims that confidence in the government has been been broken and Macedonia must hold early elections to restore popular legitimacy.

Critics of Gruevski, both inside and outside Macedonia, charge him with democratic backtracking, especially in the avowed “state capture” by VMRO of the country’s major institutions, as well as its manipulation of the justice system and unrelenting pressure on the mass media.

There is one other factor that causes uneasiness – the reaction of the Albanian population to conflicts between Macedonian parties. Despite the Ohrid Framework agreement signed after their brief insurgency in the summer of 2001, Albanians are far from integrated in Macedonia’s political and economic structures. Their representatives claim they are under-represented in state institutions and do not benefit sufficiently from the state budget.

As a solution, some Albanian leaders have pushed for the creation of a bicameral parliament, with a chamber of deputies and a chamber of nations that can more effectively represent Albanian interests. Such a scheme is vehemently opposed by all Macedonian parties as a recipe for blockage, paralysis, and division similar to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Albanian leaders have also proposed the proportional allocation of the state budget between the two major ethnic communities.

Prime Minister Gruevski has warned that the political opposition could spark an inter-ethnic conflict if it succeeds in bringing down the government and breaking up VMRO’s coalition cabinet with the largest Albanian party, the Democratic Union of Integration.

Even more ominously, Macedonia’s stalled progress toward NATO and EU membership is alienating the Albanian community. It feels it has no stake in the dispute between Athens and Skopje, and unlike the Macedonia’s Slavs Albanians have no nationalist outlets. This could change if the governing coalition collapses and the two major Albanian parties start to compete over proposals to federalize or even partition the state.

Such a prospect, initially feared when Yugoslavia began to splinter 24 years ago, is now in the realm of the possible and it could rapidly draw in neighboring states. Albania would seek to defend its ethnic kindred, Bulgaria would offer assistance to its related Slavic ethnos, Serbia would appeal to Macedonia as an alleged fellow victim of Albanian separatism, while Greece and Turkey could manipulate the dispute to revive their traditional rivalries.

Macedonia, the EU, NATO, and the US all stand to lose in disputes within Macedonia or between Athens and Skopje. But there is one power that gains from this “frozen conflict” – President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Moscow is playing both sides of the Greek-Macedonian controversy, as it helps block NATO and EU enlargement and increases Kremlin influence with both governments.

In challenging Macedonia’s constitutional name, Athens has consistently played Moscow’s tune by vetoing Macedonia’s path into NATO and the EU. The election of the ultra-leftist Syriza movement can intensify anti-NATO and anti-American sentiments in Athens. As a reward, Putin has personally invited the new Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to Moscow.

Syriza’s leaders have displayed an avidly pro-Moscow line throughout the Russia-Ukraine war and they continue to view Russia as a bastion against American “global hegemony.” Close links between Syriza and Moscow’s chief quasi-fascist and imperial “Eurasian” ideologist Aleksandr Dugin have recently come to light, indicating how intimately the far left and far right collaborate against liberalism and democracy.

Given its ideological predilections, the new Greek government will oppose NATO enlargement to obstruct Macedonia’s progress with a Marxist slant, arguing that NATO is the arm of global capitalism. Syriza may also exploit nationalist sentiments, as its economic policies look doomed while its ideologues will not want to be seen as betraying Greek national interests.

Additionally, Panos Kammenos, leader of the government’s coalition partner, the Independent Greeks, and the new Defense Minister maintains a hard-line position on Macedonia. In return for Kammenos supporting Syriza’s “anti-austerity” economic policies, Tsipras may freeze any negotiations over Macedonia’s name. This will perfectly suit the Kremlin’s containment policy toward the West.

Simultaneously, Moscow is cozying up to Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski following the government charges against the opposition. Putin is hoping that Gruevski can become another Viktor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister ostracized by the EU and the U.S. for backtracking on democracy. This will also strengthen those who argue against Macedonia’s membership in either NATO or the EU. Moscow will then act as Macedonia’s protector as it pursues its expansive interests in the Balkans.

The Kremlin’s primary objective throughout the region is to obstruct the West. In addition to exploiting divisions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and capitalizing on Serbian-Albanian disputes, it will increasingly play the Greek and Macedonia cards to preclude any resolution to the name dispute. Ultimately, Greek intransigence over the country’s name unsettles the neighborhood by inflaming political and ethnic tensions and providing opportunities for the derailment of Western institutional enlargement.

CROATIA-BOSNIA-SERBIA TRIANGLE 0808-0710-1617-3136-150x150

Janusz Bugajski, February 2015

Policy makers and analysts have naively assumed that the era of European wars has been consigned to history. In a future of continental integration, international treaties and institutions will supposedly contain or resolve all potential conflicts. But the bloody battles in Ukraine should have awoken everyone to the prospect that this is merely an inter-war period and the Balkans are not immune to future wars.

Policy makers and analysts also assumed that twenty years after the signing of the Dayton accords, reconciliation between Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia would have achieved significant successes and that all three states would become functional democracies. Some even believed that they would all be EU members by the middle of this decade. Instead, without greater international commitment peace could again unravel and precipitate new crises.

It is not difficult to outline scenarios of instability that can escalate into armed conflicts in various corners of ex-Yugoslavia. In such scenarios, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Kosova are the most vulnerable to systemic breakdown where political, ethnic, and social confrontations can spiral out of control.

Prolonged economic decline, polarized politics, ethnic scapegoating, and nationalist ambitions can drive these societies toward uncontainable conflicts at a time when the international presence and military deterrents have been scaled down. The breakdown can also be generated from outside the region, including a spreading East European war between Russia and several of its neighbors that can suck in nearby states.

No country can shield itself completely from conflict and potential fracture, but measures can be taken to improve the chances of state integrity and national survival. In particular, more intensive regional cooperation is essential to preclude countries being embroiled in the internal conflicts of their neighbors.

In the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the political ambitions of nationalist politicians can provoke an institutional meltdown in the midst of growing economic distress, escalating public frustration, and stalled progress toward EU entry. As the Bosnian people learned over twenty years ago, an inter-ethnic or anti-civilian war can be rapidly manufactured where grievances are exposed and democratic institutions remain hollow.

Preventative action must therefore be taken not only by ethno-national leaders in Bosnia itself, but also by state leaders in Serbia and Croatia. The Croatia-Bosnia-Serbia triangle is key to regional security but has been neglected by too many previous governments as well as by international players who have relied primarily on the pulling power of EU accession. As an EU member, Croatia carries a primary responsibility to make its neighborhood as secure as possible in preparation for further EU enlargement. And in seeking to qualify for EU accession, Serbia has a direct interest in stabilizing Bosnia.

It is evidently too late for Croatia’s current government to engage in any major regional initiatives. It has not only lost public support at home but its regional reputation has also suffered. Zagreb’s recently organized business forum in Moscow has demonstrated that the Social Democrat leadership is not only economically desperate but also strategically ignorant at a time when EU sanctions on Russia may be intensified for its ongoing attack on Ukraine and the Russian economy is rapidly sinking.

The next Croatian government, most probably formed by the HDZ after parliamentary elections later this year, will have a much better opportunity to work with both Serbia and Bosnia. Despite the initial missteps of the new Croatian President, HDZ leaders are developing productive relations with both states in preparation for potential breakthroughs.

Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic has been criticized for her post-election statement that the establishment of a third entity in Bosnia was acceptable if Croat residents so desired. Serb Republic President Milorad Dodik may view her as a valuable opportunity to further weaken the state through the creation of a third entity. But initial appearances often prove deceptive.

Grabar-Kitarovic’s comments were poorly timed. In reality, she is a political moderate and was evidently expressing gratitude for the votes of Bosnian Croats and support from the nationalist wing of the HDZ. It seems highly unlikely that she or her HDZ colleagues in Zagreb would purposively destabilize Bosnia or the broader region. Any support from Zagreb for the creation of an autonomous Croat unit would make the Bosnian state even more unmanageable and divorced from Europe.

Grabar-Kitarovic will certainly come under intense EU and U.S. pressure to support an integral Bosnia and exert her influence over the Croat community to transform the country into a credible contender for EU entry. But even more importantly, Croatia’s next Prime Minister will be making the key decisions because the President’s powers are restricted by both government and parliament.

Simultaneously, the Aleksander Vucic government in Belgrade has already made positive steps in regional cooperation with Albania and is reaching out to Zagreb to help stabilize the rest of the region and prepare it more effectively for EU membership over the next decade. He has already met with the HDZ President Tomislav Karamarko in an effort to establish a productive working relationship.

All three states must forge a regional forum to accomplish three key tasks. First, the separatist ambitions of some Bosnian Serb and Croat leaders must be finally sidelined, and both Belgrade and Zagreb have the influence to accomplish this objective. Second, constitutional and administrative changes must be initiated to streamline decision-making and enhance government functionality at the central level in Sarajevo. And third, a program for economic development needs to be pursued that will attract private investment and EU funding and involve triangular collaboration with Zagreb and Belgrade.

Both Croatia and Serbia will suffer substantial damage from the impact of an increasingly conflictive Bosnia. The prospect of renewed war should sober up national leaders in all three national groups. What once seemed unimaginable is now in the realm of the possible. And the best form of prevention is not to expect the status quo to continue indefinitely but to start building a constructive alternative to conflict.

CROATIA RETURNING TO HDZ 0808-0710-1617-3136-150x150

Janusz Bugajski, February 2015

The inauguration of Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic as Croatia’s new President looks like the first stage in returning the HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union) to power after the scandals linked with previous party leaders. It can also signify a new turn in regional politics, either through an escalation of tensions or progress in resolving grievances with Belgrade and Sarajevo.

Grabar-Kitarovic won the presidential elections after two rounds to become the first female head of state in Croatia. She narrowly defeated incumbent Ivo Josipovic, a symbol of the increasingly unpopular center-left government. The ruling Social Democrats are blamed for the economic recession, high unemployment, and numerous corruption scandals, including Zagreb mayor Milan Bandic. The stage is now set for the HDZ to win the parliamentary elections later this year.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic attended President Grabar-Kitarovic’s inauguration with a message of “peace and cooperation.” This was the first time that a Serbian premier attended the inauguration of a Croatian President. Vucic seems committed to improving bilateral relations and demonstrating that Serbia has become a factor for regional stability. Moreover, Serbia needs Croatia’s support to make progress toward EU membership.

Grabar-Kitarovic made an ill-advised statement about Croatian citizens after her election, which was exploited as evidence that she was turning the country toward ethnic exclusivism. In her words: “Citizens of Orthodox faith and Serbian nationality are also Croats in terms of Croatian citizenship.” Her likely intention was to underscore that all citizens of Croatia were equal including the Serbian minority. But given the historical sensitivities sometimes it is preferable to remain silent.

Her statement was vigorously attacked by Serbian government officials; some even claimed that the new President was promoting ethnic assimilation or expulsion. Such hyperbole is so commonplace in the Balkans that no one really notices it anymore. Grabar-Kitarovic seemed determined to ruffle even more political feathers in Belgrade, by speaking out for greater minority rights for Croats “in Serbia and Vojvodina.” Critics interpreted the comment as deliberately promoting the separation of Vojvodina from Serbia.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serb Republic President Milorad Dodik may view Grabar- Kitarovic as an ally and a valuable opportunity to further fracture the state through the creation of a third entity for Bosnian Croats. Several Bosnian leaders criticized the new President’s statement that the establishment of a third entity in Bosnia was acceptable if the Croats there desired it.

The comments were poorly timed and potentially inflammable. The new President, who is a political moderate, was evidently expressing gratitude for the votes of Bosnian Croats and support from the nationalist wing of the HDZ. It seems highly unlikely that she or the potential next HDZ government would purposively destabilize the region. Any support from Zagreb for the creation of an autonomous Croat unit would make the Bosnian state even more unmanageable and divorced from Europe. Grabar-Kitarovic will certainly come under intense EU and U.S. pressure to support an integral Bosnia and her influence over the Croat community to transform the country into a credible contender for EU entry would benefit both Zagreb and Sarajevo.

MACEDONIA’S GREEK OPPORTUNITY0808-0710-1617-3136-150x150

Janusz Bugajski, February 2015

The change of government in Greece has reopened the Macedonian question. A radical left administration in Athens may open new opportunities to settle the name dispute and allow Macedonia to join NATO and the EU. Regardless of the outcome, Skopje needs to use the post-election phase to push ahead with a resolution.

The name dispute between Macedonia and Greece has dragged once since the collapse of Yugoslavia and became more polarized when Skopje was on the verge of an invitation to join NATO in 2008. Since that time nationalist passions on both sides have stalled the negotiation process conducted under UN auspices.

But whereas previous Greek governments have been adamant against compromises, Syriza has a split position over Macedonia. It contains a fraction that wants a quick resolution of the dispute and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras himself has not previously exploited the Macedonian question to his political advantage.

Syriza prides itself on its anti-nationalism and is not influenced by the Greek Orthodox Church. Some Syriza deputies have blamed Greek capitalists for the impasse in the name dispute. However, there are countervailing trends in the party. Nadia Valavani, head of Syriza’s foreign policy committee, conceded that its position on changing Macedonia’s name to one with a geographic qualifier remains the same as that of previous administrations.

Syriza is also staunchly anti-American and anti-NATO and has displayed an avidly pro-Moscow line throughout the Ukrainian war. It may therefore oppose NATO enlargement on principle and block Macedonia’s progress with a leftist rather than a nationalist explanation. It may also exploit nationalist sentiments if its economic policies fail and will not want to be seen as betraying Greek national interests.

Additionally, Panos Kammenos, leader of the government’s coalition partner, the Independent Greeks, and the new Defense Minister has a hard position on Macedonia. In return for Kammenos supporting Syriza’s economic policies, Tsipras may need to freeze any negotiations over Macedonia’s name.

While Greece, Macedonia, the EU, NATO, and the U.S. all lose in the Greek-Macedonian dispute, there is one power that gains from this “frozen conflict” – Putin’s Russia. Moscow is playing both sides of the Greek-Macedonian dispute. By blocking further NATO enlargement in the Balkans, Athens has played Moscow’s tune. Putin is elated by the Syriza victory because of its anti-NATO and anti-American positions and has invited Tsipras to Moscow.

At the same time, Moscow is cozying up to Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, following government charges against Social Democrat opposition leader Zoran Zaev for allegedly planning a coup d’état. Suspicions abound that Greek secret services sought to destabilize Macedonia by providing Zaev with evidence of the government’s alleged mismanagement which led to the official clampdown.

Putin is hoping that Gruevski can become another Viktor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister ostracized by the EU and U.S. for avowedly backtracking on democracy. This will also strengthen those who argue against Macedonia’s membership in either NATO or the EU. Moscow will act as Macedonia’s supporter and protector as it pursues its expansionist interests in the Balkans.

ARM UKRAINE TO AVOID ANOTHER BOSNIA0808-0710-1617-3136-150x150

Janusz Bugajski, February 2015

Ukraine needs effective weapons to defend itself against a separatist war engineered by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The resistance of the Obama administration against arming a country determined to protect its independence and territorial integrity will prove ultimately counterproductive, as the tragic case of Bosnia-Herzegovina demonstrated over twenty years ago.

When Serbia’s dictator Slobodan Milosevic embarked on carving out a Greater Serbia from a collapsing Yugoslavia in 1991 by supporting proxy separatists, the West imposed an arms embargo on all the Yugoslav republics, arguing that fewer weapons would mean less fighting. But the impact proved the exact opposite. While Belgrade and Serbian separatists already possessed every variety of heavy weaponry inherited from the Yugoslav army, the newly emerging states of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina were denied an effective means to defend themselves.

The consequences were dire, as Milosevic’s proxies murdered and expelled tens of thousands of civilians in a policy camouflaged as “ethnic cleansing.” The Bosniak Muslims suffered the full force of this brutal assault on their territories and people. In effect, the arms embargo on Yugoslavia escalated and prolonged the armed conflict, precipitated attempted genocide, and eventually pulled NATO into the crisis through air strikes and a subsequent peacekeeping operation.

The anti-civilian war and Alliance intervention culminated in the November 1995 Dayton accords, which established a divided Bosnian state that remains dysfunctional and unreformable to this day. All these negative developments were a direct consequence of state vulnerability, military weakness, and Western miscalculation at the outset of the Yugoslav conflicts.

The failure of the West to aid Bosnia militarily also served to radicalize some elements of the Muslim population and introduced foreign mujaheddin units into the war because the government in Sarajevo was desperate for any assistance it could muster. Some of these fighters stayed on to proselytize among Bosnia’s moderate Muslims and were suspected of generating anti-Western jihadism. In Ukraine, a lack of weaponry to resist Russia’s violent assault and the escalating slaughter of thousands of civilians will also embitter sectors of society and raise opportunities for nationalist radicalization.

Contrary to conventional official wisdom in the U.S. administration, arming Ukraine will not automatically lead to an escalation of the war. On the contrary, it is the inability of the Ukrainian government to fully resist the Kremlin-sponsored rebellion that will embolden further land grabs by Moscow and its local proxies. This will increase civilian casualties, already estimated in the thousands, force tens of thousands more to flee their homes, destroy more of the country’s infrastructure, further damage an already precarious economy, and undermine the reformist pro-Western government that Washington and Brussels have fully endorsed.

The basis of statehood, reform, and economic development is national security and social stability. Without effective self-defense against foreign-generated secessionism and outright invasion a country cannot build and consolidate its democratic institutions, pursue deep structural reforms, modernize its economy, or attract desperately needed foreign investment. The case of Yugoslavia needs to be carefully studied by our policy makers so that the same mistakes are not repeated in contemporary Ukraine.

There is also a larger strategic consequence of disabling Kyiv from fully defending its national independence. It sends two troublesome messages to the wider region. First, other vulnerable states along Russia’s borders will wonder whether they will also be left alone to face an aggressive Moscow if their sovereignty and territory is violated. And second, it signals to Putin that the West lacks unity and willpower and the Kremlin can reach for other potential prizes such as the Baltic states without fear of punishing military consequences.

For the past year, Ukrainian forces have demonstrated their determination to defend their country against superior Russian firepower. What they lack is the means to pursue a concerted defense of Ukrainian territory that would become a deterrent to further military aggression. With rebels pursuing new offensives in eastern Ukraine and Russia pouring in more troops and weapons across the porous eastern border, the time is ripe for arming Kyiv with more effective and lethal defensive weapons.

The list is readily available and includes anti-tank rocketry, sophisticated radars, secure communications equipment, and other items that would help deter and deny further territorial gains for Moscow. A program of Western training for Ukraine’s military will also enable better coordination and tactical expertize in confronting Moscow’s invasion.

There is another important element in this military equation that the White House seems to be neglecting. While Ukrainian casualties can be borne by a determined nation that is resisting Moscow’s offensives, climbing losses among rebels, many of whom are Russian citizens, and among Russia’s military forces will challenge Kremlin denials of direct involvement in the Donbas.

The war in Ukraine will become increasingly unpopular among Russia’s population, which is already facing a collapse in living standards because of Moscow’s economic incompetence. A bloody nose for Russia’s Milosevic in Ukraine may actually embolden the Russian people to call for an end to Putin’s imperial restoration project. Surely, our administration would welcome that?


GREECE ON THE PRECIPICE0808-0710-1617-3136-150x150

Janusz Bugajski, February 2015

The future of the EU project is again under question, as the unresolved Greek tragedy has resurfaced. The victory of the ultra-leftist Syriza movement has unearthed fears that Athens will renege on the country’s massive debts, undermine Europe’s currency union, and stimulate populist radicalism around Europe.

Syriza won Greece’s snap general elections and formed an “anti-austerity” government with the right-wing Greek Independents. It is riding on a wave of public resentment against six years of enforced austerity that was necessary for Greece to receive over 240 billion Euros of aid to rescue its failed economy.

In the past five years, Greece’s economy has shrunk by 25%, thousands of businesses have closed, wages and pensions have been slashed and unemployment among youth stands at over 50%. But despite the massive cuts in government spending, the public debt has climbed from 146% of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) in 2010 to 175.5% in 2014. At 320 billion Euro, this is the second highest national debt in the world.

During the election campaign, Syriza declared that it would reverse commitments to the terms of the international bailout and raised the prospect of defaulting on repayments. It pledged to unwind many of the reforms imposed by Greece’s creditors — the “troika” of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the EU, and the European Central Bank (ECB).

Syriza also announced that it would cut taxes, increase state aid and public services, raise the minimum wage, and reverse public sector pay cuts. It would simultaneously freeze major privatization projects, including the port of Piraeus and the main power company, the Public Power Corporation of Greece. If implemented, such policies will rapidly bankrupt the country. Although Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras pledged to keep Greece in the eurozone he appointed radical leftist ministers to manage the economy.

Athens is due to receive seven billion euros in new loans, but this will be tied to government commitments to loan repayments and financial discipline. Greece only has enough cash to meet its funding needs for the next couple of months and faces 10 billion euros of debt repayments by the summer. Without fresh loans, it will be unable to meet these payments, leading to financial default and no additional bailout funds.

EU funds do not grow on trees but are paid by taxpayers in other Eurozone countries. If Athens refuses to pay back its debts then the pressure to push Greece out of the Euro area will escalate. And unlike a few years ago, the EU may be prepared to act. Europeans who were once determined to keep the eurozone intact at any cost now feel they can manage without Greece. It has a population of only 11 million in a Union of 500 million and constitutes less than 1.5% of its GDP.

Syriza will most probably try to blackmail the EU to forgive much of its debt by warning that it it defaults on its loans this will encourage other countries in southern Europe to backtrack on their financial debts and budgetary commitments. This could seriously undermine the wider EU economy. However, the ECB has removed much of the threat of contagion and the fear that a Greek default could spread to Spain and Italy. It has announced a program of bond-buying worth €60bn per month which may shield other eurozone economies. Many investors are convinced that the eurozone would actually be stronger without Greece, so long as no other big country follows it out of the Eurozone.

If Syriza is serious in its campaign pledges, ejection from the Eurozone and a return to the drachma is the only sensible solution and will send a strong message to other governments not to live beyond their means. Without a Thacherite capitalist reformation Greece will continue to sink while Europe will no longer want to pay its bills.

In order for Greece to register real economic recovery, it needs an overhaul of its ossified clientelistic and quasi-socialist economic structure. The government must be streamlined, the closed shop powers of labor unions need to be ended, bureaucratic red tape needs to be expunged, and business competition must be allowed to flourish to attract desperately needed foreign investment. In addition, there needs to be a strong enforcement of domestic tax collection policies.

In addition to a potential financial meltdown in Greece, the ultra-leftist government will generate two further negative consequences for European security. First, it will encourage radical leftist parties across Europe to believe their moment has arrived. This would pose a direct political challenge to the principles of liberalism and pluralism by increasing the role of the state and undermining market economies in parts of the EU.

Many of Europe’s struggling countries have launched their own versions of Syriza, while Tsipras visited Italy, Spain, and Portugal in recent months.  Syriza’s victory could boost other existing populist parties, such as Beppe Grillo’s anti-euro Five Star Movement in Italy and the Podemos Movement in Spain.

And second, Syriza will contribute to undermining any coherence in EU foreign policy. It is unlikely to resolve the name dispute with Macedonia that would allow that country to enter NATO and the EU. It is also staunchly anti-American and anti-NATO and has displayed an avidly pro-Moscow line by supporting Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

Greece is fast becoming Putin’s Trojan Horse inside the EU and NATO and will enable him to make further inroads into European politics. Syriza could block any unified EU position toward Russia and thereby contribute to further destabilizing Europe’s east.

Greece itself could experience a spiral of conflict. If Syriza succeeds in implementing its policies living standards will plummet and the government will need to curtail democratic institutions to ensure its control. But if it fails to satisfy voters and is ousted, this will open the space to the ultra-nationalists of Golden Dawn, which emerged as the country’s third largest political force. A second Greek civil war could then loom on the horizon, with the country veering between two political extremes.


THE SESELJ EFFECT0808-0710-1617-3136-150x150

Janusz Bugajski, December 2014

The release of indicted war criminal Vojislav Seselj for cancer treatment in Serbia has revealed two radically different Western Balkan realities. While EU officials believe that the region is no longer vulnerable to nationalist conflicts, the impact of Seselj’s rhetoric has demonstrated that suspicion, resentment, and instability lurk just below the surface.

For the past decade, EU and U.S. officials have operated on the assumption that ethno-nationalist projects have been confined to history. Instead, each country that emerged from Yugoslavia is now allegedly following the mainstream European path of reform and integration. Naturally, there are numerous obstacles to EU membership, but these can be overcome by smart governments committed to meeting EU norms.

In addition, Brussels and Washington continue to highlight the progress that has been achieved in recent years. For instance, both Croatia and Slovenia are members of the EU and NATO; Montenegro, Serbia, and Albania are candidates for the EU; and Kosova has been recognized by over a hundred states.

But in the middle of this positive narrative, a ghost from the past has suddenly exposed many of the region’s unexorcised demons. The Seselj effect cannot be dismissed as a temporary aberration that will disappear once he is back behind bars. Ethnic identity and nationalism always rise to the surface during difficult economic conditions or where there is profound uncertainty about the future. With Europe facing more economic downturns and with populism, nationalism, and EU-skepticism on the rise even in Western Europe, the Western Balkans are not immune from renewed conflicts.

Seselj’s unapologetic support for ethnic division and expansive Serbian nationalism has an impact both inside and outside Serbia and it can exacerbate existing disputes and divisions. In Belgrade, Seselj is deliberately undermining the ruling Progressive Party. President Tomislav Nikolic, once Seselj’s deputy in the Radical Party, has avowedly put aside his pan-Serbian sentiments for the promise of EU membership. Nikolic is now condemned by Seselj as a traitor who has been corrupted by power and money.

Seselj is mounting a public campaign to impeach Nikolic for violating the constitution and betraying Serbia. Although he has little chance of succeeding, his sensationalist statements make him a media star and can raise ultra-nationalist voices against the government. Nikolic and Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, another ex-Radical, cannot afford to lose the nationalist constituency and in response may raise their own rhetoric in “defense of Serbian national interests.”

Seselj’s impact on Serbia’s relations with neighbors has been disturbing largely because the Belgrade government has failed to strongly condemn Seselj’s statements for fear of alienating nationalist voters. It has also failed to extradite him back to The Hague despite Seselj breaking the terms of his parole by spouting hate speech against Croats and Bosniaks. Government avoidance indicates fear and weakness and can also be interpreted as latent support for radicalism. Cognizant of official confusion, Seselj vowed that he would not return to the Hague Tribunal and challenged the Vucic administration to return him by force.

The Seselj effect is most evident with Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, but it will have ripple effects elsewhere the longer he is out of jail. Statements about Vukovar’s “liberation” and the “heroism” and “patriotism” of convicted war criminals Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic are provoking outrage and anger not only against Seselj but against a government in Belgrade that has failed to comprehensively condemn and atone for the crimes of Slobodan Milosevic and his nationalist accomplices.

Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic criticized Belgrade’s unwillingness to extradite Seselj back to the International Criminal Tribunal and warned that this could gravely affect bilateral relations. Bosniak war victims groups have denounced Seselj’s statements and Belgrade’s lukewarm response. In both countries, a host of unresolved issues including missing persons and war compensations will now come to the forefront, and in Bosnia it can provoke further radicalism, polarization, and potential separatism.

Undoubtedly, Seselj will also want to restoke the conflict with Kosova. After being accused of treason, the Vucic government may need to respond with even stronger statements against Kosova’s statehood. This could retard the progress that has been registered in recent months between Belgrade and Prishtina. Indeed, Seselj now resembles the remote controlled drone that carried a pan-Albanian emblem and terminated the football game between Serbia and Albania, thus exposing the deep-rooted tensions between the two nations. Seselj often expresses what remains unsaid in polite society, much like soccer fanatics are incubators of political radicalism.

EU bodies are belatedly realizing the Seselj effect and his mistaken release. The European Parliament passed a resolution condemning Seselj for “warmongering, incitement to hatred, encouragement of territorial claims, and attempting to derail Serbia from its European path,” and demanded that the Hague tribunal revoke his provisional release. Prosecutors at The Hague Tribunal filed a motion demanding that his release be reversed. However, the effect of such statements is to make the EU and other institutions appear confused and reactive rather than smart and proactive, which suits ultra-nationalists everywhere.

A final troubling impact of the Seselj factor is its exploitation by Vladimir Putin’s imperial Russia. The Balkan Peninsula is viewed by Moscow as Europe’s “soft underbelly“ where the Kremlin can capitalize on local conflicts to undermine Western objectives and promote its geopolitical ambitions. Russian officials exploit ethno-national divisions to gain political leverage and fund politicians, parties, media, and NGOs that can serve their interests.

Seselj must appear as a godsend for Putin because he can whip up tensions and raise questions about Western credibility, thus increasing Russia’s leverage in the region. Seselj is clearly welcomed by the Kremlin as part of Putin’s “Russia World“ where the cancer of ethnic extermination has not been eradicated.

ENERGY BATTLES IN THE BALKANS0808-0710-1617-3136-150x150

Janusz Bugajski, December 2014

Russia’s cancellation of the South Stream natural gas pipeline can reduce Moscow’s influence in the Balkans. It will also make Ukraine less vulnerable to energy blackmail because a key objective of South Stream was to deliver gas directly to the EU and bypass Ukraine. However, the Kremlin will continue to disrupt Europe’s energy security and undermine the capabilities of alternative suppliers.

Russia abandoned the 63 billion cubic meter (bcm) pipeline project designed to traverse Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Austria. Although Moscow cited EU opposition to South Stream as the reason for cancellation, it was primarily a result of escalating costs and Russia’s declining revenues because of falling oil prices. Gazprom already spent $4.66 billion on South Stream, with projected costs far exceeding $29 billion.

By assigning blame on the EU Commission, Moscow wants to put the EU under pressure from member states seeking to soften its anti-monopoly rulings. South Stream would have violated EU legislation contained in the “Third Energy Package,” stipulating that a single company cannot both produce and transport oil and gas across the Union.

By abandoning South Stream, Moscow will damage political ties with some of its partners in the project. Hungary and Serbia in particular expanded substantial political capital in defying the EU by supporting the pipeline’s construction. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has also accused Moscow of blackmailing Bulgaria, which is entirely dependent on Russia for gas.

However, Russia is not simply surrendering the Balkans. Putin announced an alternative strategy to build a major gas pipeline to Turkey with potential branches into the region. It would cross the Black Sea and deliver 14 bcm to Turkey and 50 bcm to a hub on the Turkish-Greek border. In 2013, Russia supplied Turkey with nearly 60 percent of its total natural gas needs and the figure is rising, although Ankara is growing concerned about its over-dependence on Moscow.

Moscow already possesses pipelines that deliver gas to Europe, such as Nord Stream and Yamal. An additional route through Turkey would give Russia greater flexibility to move gas supplies from one route to another, targeting specific European countries for politically motivated cutoffs or price hikes.

The proposed Russian pipeline could also complicate other energy projects involving Ankara. The Trans-Anatolian Pipeline and the trans-Adriatic pipeline are due to move Turkmen and Azerbaijani gas across Turkey to Europe. Putin’s proposal will compete with these plans and can undermine the prospect of a Trans-Caspian Pipeline from Central Asia. The Kremlin has calculated that if it cannot indefinitely dominate the EU market then it can undercut Europe’s energy diversification by challenging non-Russian supplies from the Caspian Basin to Europe.

The Balkans must learn from the experience of losing South Stream by diversifying its sources and focusing on alternative energy, thus further reducing Russia’s 30% share of Europe’s total gas supplies. The EU must also boost interconnectors between EU members and aspirants to reach energy-poor areas throughout Southeastern Europe so that Russia’s energy games no longer impact negatively on European customers.