Are the Balkans falling apart...again?
The waning influence of the West has created an opening for new
external powers, such as Russia, which has adopted a more active policy
in the Balkans since the onset of the “new cold war”. Unquestionably,
Russia is now a major influence on the region, especially in the
Christian Orthodox countries of Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bulgaria
and Greece. But its most significant involvement is in Bosnia.
In the past couple of years, Russia has feted Republika Srpska’s
President Dodik, shielded Bosnian Serbs from accusations of genocide,
called for an end to international supervision and, if media reports are
correct, encouraged Bosnian Serbs to press their demands for
Russia is not overtly trying to overturn the regional order. Instead,
its aim is to bolster its alliances, deter the expansion of Nato and
defend its economic interests in the Balkans. But regional disorder
could still be the outcome. If Russia is cornered by the West over
Ukraine, Moscow could trigger a serious regional crisis that embroils
the EU and Nato, simply by giving a green light to the Bosnian Serbs.
A domino effect would then take hold. The departure of the Republika
Srpska would open up the question of Serbia’s borders and encourage
Kosovo’s Serbs to separate themselves completely from their country’s
Albanian population. This would provoke Serbia’s Albanian minority, who
live in an enclave adjacent to Kosovo, to make a similar break from
Belgrade. Macedonia’s Albanians would then try to separate from their
Slavic compatriots, fuelling the creation of a “Greater Albania”.
Bosnian Croats would seek to integrate their territory with Croatia. And
many in Montenegro would seek close relations with an expanded Serbian
state. The West would undoubtedly refuse to recognise any of this to
prevent the onset of violence but the facts on the ground would speak
Any new Balkan conflict would draw in a wider cast of players. Russia
would not sit by and let others determine the outcome of events; too
much is at stake. The plight of Muslim Bosniaks and Albanians would draw
in foreign jihadists, as happened in the wars of the 1990s – only in
much greater numbers, given the upsurge in Islamism in Europe and the
Meanwhile, several EU states would struggle to avoid entanglement.
Croatia, which has recently adopted a more nationalist posture, would
inevitably intervene in Bosnia on behalf of the Croat population.
Bulgaria and Greece would take a keen interest in the fate of rump
Macedonia after the departure of the Albanians.
All this leads to a sobering conclusion. As the EU loses its dominance
in the Balkans, so the region’s unresolved nationalisms are returning to
the surface on a bed of popular discontent. The Balkans have the
potential to blow their problems back into Europe, entangling the EU in a
new, potentially violent regional crisis. This may not happen tomorrow
but, as the EU’s influence wanes, the day of reckoning draws ever
Ideally, the EU would avert this possibility by fixing its internal
problems, reviving the goal of enlargement and stabilising the region by
means of integration, as has long been the plan. Yet, as matters stand,
that looks like wishful thinking.