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Never waste a crisis: The war on Ukraine as a catalyst in the Balkans

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“The difficulties and the wounds of the past have to be overcome in order to build a better future for everybody in this country.” So said Josep Borrell, the EU High-Representative on Foreign Policy, on a recent visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH)


Never waste a crisis:
The war on Ukraine as a catalyst in the Balkans

“The difficulties and the wounds of the past have to be overcome in order to build a better future for everybody in this country.” So said Josep Borrell, the EU High-Representative on Foreign Policy, on a recent visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) – and he is correct. BiH, as well as Kosovo and Serbia, need to be yanked into the present and pushed into a better future. The war in Ukraine should be a catalyst for this.

There has been deep instability in the Western Balkans for some time, with open tensions between the ethnicities and entities in BiH, and unfinished business between Serbia and Kosovo. More significantly, Russia has been meddling in the region for at least a decade, seeking to undermine it by courting Serbia with funds, fuels and friendship, while also inciting the Serb entity in BiH, the Republika Srpska (RS), to reject the unitary state. As is now more than evident, Russian actions can lead to great harm.

Over the years the EU has offered relatively little pushback to both the Russian moves and the generally deteriorating situation in the region. This started with the Balkan fatigue that set in after the wars of Yugoslav succession in the 1990s, and continued with enlargement fatigue following the 2004 and 2013 waves that expanded the EU across most of the continent, including to Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria. These intakes effectively encircled the Western Balkans, or the more problematic successor states of the former Yugoslavia, which to many policymakers seemed like a cordon sanitaire – and an opportunity to ignore the problems.

Underpinning this fatigue and disinterest was a belief that there was a residual regional policy moving matters along, based upon the Dayton Agreement that ended the Bosnian war in 1995, and the Unilaterally Declared Independence (UDI) of Kosovo in 2008 as a de facto full stop to that conflict. Add in a constant military presence – an EU force in BiH, NATO in Kosovo – plus a lot of EU money and vague promises of membership one day to all remaining successor Yugoslav states, and the belief became elevated to the catechism of Western Balkan policy these past decades.

But the policy has failed. There are five EU member states that do not recognize the independence of Kosovo – let alone Serbia, or Russia. The ever more brazen leader of the RS, Milorad Dodik, has led his entity to openly defy the Dayton Agreement and the Bosnian Constitution, attempting to withdraw it from various of the federal state’s institutions. The Croats of Herzegovina are also demanding more autonomy, backed by the President of Croatia who recently defined BiH as “an aberration and deviation” these past 25 years. Above all, both Kosovo and BiH remain poor, badly governed, and with many of the younger generations seeking to leave.

In both situations there is a near identical core problem: the absence of a political settlement.

The UDI in Kosovo may have been useful, and even necessary, but there was no proper prior negotiation with Serbia on the matter and while ever since there have been discussions, usually after local flare-ups around the Serb areas in Kosovo, they have never been sufficient to either resolve the issue or indeed remove it as a perpetual dog whistle to every Serbian nationalist seeking to preserve the monasteries and the original Field of Blackbirds as part of Serbia. To these constituencies the lure of Russian words on Slav unity, alongside backing in international fora such as the UN and the OSCE, have been a fundamental part of their positioning.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina the problem is even more profound. The Dayton Agreement was sold as a peace treaty, but it was and remains an excellent ceasefire agreement: it has kept the sides from returning to war, but it has never enabled a move on to a true settlement. This is largely because the main beneficiaries of the Agreement were exactly the same nationalist politicians who started the war in the first place, and their successors now continue to rule. Worse still, the international community enabled this, first by holding elections in 1996 that entrenched the power of the nationalists, then by overruling the impasse this caused by empowering successive international High Representatives to effectively govern BiH. This allowed the local politicians to focus upon their individual nationalist agendas while releasing them from any serious responsibility for their actions – or the functioning of the state. Here too, Russian backing for the RS alongside consistent efforts to first badmouth then undermine the Dayton settlement have been integral to the continuing instability.

A core tenet of nationalism is the past, be it glorious or horrendous, just or unjust – and the past clearly haunts Kosovo, Serbia and BiH: the essence of all their disputes is events committed in the past, and grievances as to how they were – or were not – resolved. Given the context is wars and bombings, deaths and sieges, the pain of the past is understandable, but it can no longer be allowed to be the guiding logic of either the three states themselves, or of the EU and international response to them. As Vesna Pusic, a former minister of foreign affairs in Croatia recently put it: “The children of the siege of Sarajevo are approaching middle age now. They need a new narrative.” In the same article she noted that Russia would have to be part of a negotiation in the region. However, the horrendous war in Ukraine turns that logic on its head.

Russia is now a pariah state; it is also broke. No matter how much Serbia or the Republika Srpska wish to cling to it for support on their various conflicts, it is no longer in a position to aid them. Indeed, with every day that passes, reverting to Russia as a backer becomes more toxic. Conversely, for the first time in years the EU is showing resolve in its foreign affairs policy. This is therefore the time to cut new deals: to demand a proper political settlement between Serbia and Kosovo – and one that fully respects both the independence of Kosovo and the rights of the Serb minority and the Serbian heritage. In Bosnia-Herzegovina it is no less time to demand that the three ethnicities and two entities finally agree on a full political resolution in which the state institutions become fully functional, and a new election law is passed that allows cross ethnic and cross entity parties.

As against these core demands to attain political resolution, the EU must present a realistic prospect of membership within a clear timetable. It must also work with all three states to create economic opportunities for youth. If the sides fail to meet the timetable, the prospect ends.

The horrors of the Yugoslav wars are being echoed and amplified many times over in Ukraine. This should serve as a warning to the leaders in the Western Balkans, and a catalyst for the EU. For the sake of the young people in the Western Balkans, and for the sake of all people in the EU, it is time to move on.


Dr Ilana Bet-El, a Senior Associate Fellow of the Egmont Institute, is a strategist and historian, and a former Senior Advisor on the Balkans in the UN DPA.



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