Whenever political instability looms in the Balkans, the habitual response is to call for more E.U. and U.S. engagement. Like many War on the Rocks authors before me, I too have been guilty of penning pieces that presented Western attention as the best hope for charting a productive way forward in the region.
Sadly, the time has come to confront the fact that calls for the European Union and United States to reinvest in peacekeeping and engage in brokering major political reforms in the Balkans are likely to be futile. The cottage industry of “asking the West to do more” needs to face two inconvenient truths. First, the Balkans are far from the top of the priority list for the European Union and United States, which makes the potential resources they could dedicate scarcer. Second, competitors for regional influence, such as Russia and China, are more active and assertive than before, making it harder for the European Union and United States to act. This means that sustained engagement is most likely to occur when crises are framed through the prism of great-power competition, which is now the dominant security paradigm in both Washington and Brussels.
The path forward leaves little space for optimism regarding the potential for major breakthroughs. As the region marks three decades since the outbreak of the wars that followed the collapse of Yugoslavia, the time is more than ripe to reckon with the limits of foreign interventions and state-building efforts. Where there are openings for deals to be struck, it is imperative that both the European Union and the United States understand the consequences of lofty rhetoric combined with underwhelming actions. Even more importantly, the West should be aware of the perils of engaging with the region in a manner motivated solely by major power rivalry. As can already be seen, this approach risks undermining democratic progress and, ultimately, Western interests in the region.
Old Crises, New Paradigm
The Balkans are currently facing a new spiral of instability. The most dangerous flashpoints, somewhat predictably, involve unresolved issues stemming from the breakup of Yugoslavia. In September, there were violent flare-ups in Kosovo over the most mundane of matters — license plates. Ethnic Serbs in the north of Kosovo instigated a blockade as retaliation for a policy mandating that drivers entering Kosovo with Serbian plates needed to replace them with temporary Republic of Kosovo plates or else turn around.
Further north, the Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik recently threatened to end Serbian participation in Bosnian state institutions. Most perilously, this would involve the withdrawal of Bosnian Serb forces from the national army, built up with international assistance over the past quarter-century, leading to the creation of an exclusively Bosnian Serb force. As a result, the new high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina warned that the country was on the precipice of violence.
There have been other issues, as well. In September, amidst already strained political relations following the 2020 parliamentary elections, dozens of people were injured in protests against the enthronement of the new head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro. Many Montenegrins support the independent Montenegrin Orthodox Church and Montenegrin President Milo Đukanović accused Serbia of instrumentalizing the church to interfere with his country’s sovereignty.
In response to these crises, the European Union and United States have sent their envoys to help mediate talks and broker deals. This is to be expected. The Balkans are still a region where both the European Union and the United States can exert influence to a much greater degree than elsewhere. Yet more often than not they have declined to use this influence, preferring instead platitudinous expressions of concern and vacuous calls for dialogue that do little to influence the situation on the ground.
As a result, with each new crisis, it becomes clearer that the United States and European Union’s fixation with engagement is increasingly out of touch with the changing nature of interstate relations. Rival states are now competing for influence in the region just as domestic constraints on both sides of the Atlantic are undermining prospects for a more ambitious regional policy. Neither of these two trends is likely to change in the near to medium term, meaning the West is unlikely to devote long-term attention or substantial resources to the region moving forward.
While the European Union has even more at stake in the Balkans, it faces an even greater credibility deficit than the United States. The prospect of an unstable Balkans has direct spillover effects for the bordering states, all of which are E.U. member states. Yet even in its rhetoric, the European Union has little left to offer the region.
It talks the talk of engagement and keeps on dangling the membership carrot over the so-called Western Balkans Six (WB6): Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia. However, it has not been able to deliver on its promises due to contentious intra-E.U. politics, enlargement fatigue, and a whole suite of other, more pressing issues on the agenda that have chewed up the European Union’s bandwidth.
In October, the Slovenian presidency of the Council of the European Union organized the European Union-Western Balkans Summit, which was expected to give a jolt to the accession process. Despite the European Union’s “unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans,” all references to dates and timelines were dropped from the ensuing joint declaration.
The European Union’s meager military power makes it much harder for it to deter those intent on destabilizing the region or act whenever security begins to deteriorate. But greater military assets have not made the United States more effective. Regional strongmen are certainly more inclined to listen when Washington speaks.
Thus, it is not surprising U.S. President Joe Biden’s election elicited reactions that ranged from warm welcomes to habitual hostility, depending on where one stands on U.S. interventions in the 1990s. Those in the region who were cheering for the United States “being back” hoped the Biden administration would help break the political impasse in their countries.
Meanwhile, those who opposed those interventions believe that Biden represents the continued assertion of U.S. might. Yet, so far, despite pockets of interest in the Balkans in both the legislative and executive branches, the United States has not prioritized the region. And there is little evidence it will do so with enough commitment to break the prevailing political deadlocks or prevent the escalation of crises.
Those who are calling for the European Union and United States “to do something” to prevent the Balkan’s descent into violence have put forward a number of proposals ranging from more diplomatic engagement and fast-tracked E.U. and NATO membership all the way to deploying troops. Their best-case scenario is premised on the belief that E.U.-U.S. coordination can halt negative security trends and restart positive democratic developments.
In theory, these are all sound propositions. However, the reality leaves little grounds for optimism. The worst-case scenario is probably one in which we see more muddling through, as it is hard to imagine a complete disinvestment from the region by either of these parties.
Regrettably, doing more of the same is only likely to add to the deterioration of security, as conditions on the ground might indeed become ripe for violent exchanges. Namely, by continuing to promise membership while at the same time moving goalposts for accession and legitimizing the leaders contributing to instability, the European Union is compounding the problems the region is facing.
Washington’s selective attention has also proved counterproductive, as past U.S. administrations swung from advocating constitutional reforms that would create more centralized states to supporting partition and “peaceful ethnic cleansing.”
The Consequences of Competition
In contrast to the 1990s interventions and the early 2000s post-conflict reconstruction period when the dominant security paradigm revolved around crisis management, the European Union and United States are increasingly converging on the language of strategic competition.
Consequently, the Balkans are being seen through this prism, as both sides of the Atlantic more frequently mention Russia’s and China’s influence in the region. This means that moving forward, E.U. and U.S. engagement will be motivated more by the desire not to yield space to competitors than by a commitment to resolving the deeper problems plaguing the region.
Historically, in times of great power rivalry, expedience and pragmatism often superseded lofty ideals. In other words, some crises might be resolved but potentially through bargains that compromise democratic development.
The problems with the strategic competition paradigm can already be seen in Biden’s upcoming Summit for Democracy, specifically the prioritization of geopolitics over principles in crafting the invite list. Preliminary reports suggested that Serbia would not be included, a reflection of the fact that under President Aleksandar Vučić’s leadership the country can no longer be considered a liberal democracy. Now it seems this decision has been reversed. An invitation to the summit serves as an important source of legitimacy for the Serbian government and undermines Western support for democracy in the largest of the Western Balkans Six countries.
Geopolitical competition has also driven recurring interest in the idea of “border adjustments.” For outside observers frustrated by the lack of progress in the region, or nationalist politicians eager for their own “Nixon in China” moment, redrawing national boundaries along ethnic lines has always proved tempting. The Trump-era activism expanded the Overton window on the acceptability of this approach, much to the chagrin of Washington’s European allies. With the issues at the core of the Dayton Agreement still unresolved and the recognition of Kosovo still incomplete, talk of secession, partition, and irredentism continue to grow. If the West decides that building multiethnic societies is hopeless and prefers to court hyper-nationalist regional leaders in pursuit of short-term geopolitical interests, the region’s people will pay a heavy price.
Ironically, having abandoned state-building for strategic competition, Western powers have nonetheless failed to compete effectively with Russia and China when the health of the region’s states was at stake. This was on display during the recent U.N. Security Council session on Bosnia-Herzegovina. Russia and China have for some time now been advocating scrapping the role of international high representative overseeing the implementation of civilian aspects of the 1995 Dayton Agreement and limiting the peacekeeping mission. After considerable contentious debate, the most recent U.N. Security Council vote on Bosnia extended the mandate of the 600-strong European Union Force Bosnia and Herzegovina (EUFOR) peacekeeping operation. However, all mentions of the Office of the High Representative were removed from the text of the resolution. The reason? To secure support from Russia and China. Such bargains, while seemingly minor, signal changes in the West’s investment in the region and willingness to stare down competitors. There is little doubt the Office of the High Representative’s legitimacy will be further eroded as a result.
The Paradox of Insufficient Instability
Overall, the Balkans suffer from what could be best described as the paradox of insufficient instability. Their citizens are hostage to systemic corruption and nationalist politics that have arrested economic development, halted democratic consolidation, and contributed to the negative security conditions. Yet, the region is also not unstable enough to warrant renewed and sustained involvement from the European Union and United States to address these matters. The attention they were granted was a product of a different era when externally assisted nation-building was thought to be positive both in theory and practice. Regrettably, those efforts have left a lot to be desired.
The best those in Washington and the European capitals can do now is to be wary of the promises they make, as well as the consequences of the bargains they strike. Given the changed security paradigm and the management of relations with revisionist powers, it is critical the European Union and United States do not take the bait of engaging in a bidding war with their strategic competitors to win over regional states. Prioritizing stability and accommodating illiberal leaders for fear of pushing them into the competitors’ fold is, in the long run, damaging to democratic rule and the West’s reputation. Ultimately, this is yet another reminder than any positive and durable political change will have to come from within the region. Sadly, such hope is dim.
Gorana Grgić, Ph.D., is a jointly appointed senior lecturer at the Department of Government and International Relations and the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. In 2021, she was the Partners Across the Globe Fellow at the NATO Defense College.