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.
UPHEAVAL IN THE BALKANS
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.
AMERICA’S BALKAN CONTROVERSIES
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.
SERBIA’S NEW YEAR MANEUVERS
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.
BALKANS ADRIFT IN 2017
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.
MACEDONIA CLOSER TO SHOWDOWN
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.
MONTENEGRO ON TRACK
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.
RS REFERENDUM MANUEVERS
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.
REVIVAL OF CROATIA-SERBIA CONFLICT
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.
SERBIA’S SLOW EU PATH
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 MONTENEGRO
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.