War fears in the Balkans

Today’s important but not so cheery read is a report from Roland Oliphant in the London Telegraph, reprinted here in the Channel Nine papers, on increased tension in the Balkans – and particularly on a warning from Albin Kurti, Kosovo’s prime minister, that Serbia was on a path that could lead to war.

Referring to Serbia’s military buildup and increasingly confrontational rhetoric, “Kosovan officials insist,” according to Oliphant, “that the policy has produced inter-linked crises across the region that are designed to stoke chaos and force the West to accept increases in Belgrade’s influence and power inside neighbouring former Yugoslav republics.”

I think this is something that should be taken very seriously. The peace settlements that ended the Balkan wars of the 1990s, creating the complex federated state in Bosnia & Herzegovina and the international protectorate over Kosovo, did not solve the fundamental issues. Like most such settlements, they were concerned primarily to stop the fighting and to ensure peace for the short term, leaving the long-term questions to be addressed – or not – in the future.

We are now living in that future, and while people have not gone back to killing one another, it otherwise isn’t going well. Bosnia & Herzegovina remains an artificial construct with no genuine national government and no consensus about its status; Serbia remains unreconciled to the loss of Kosovo, and Kosovo itself still has a northern Serb-controlled area where the writ of the government runs feebly if at all.

Last week, the high representative in Bosnia (the agent of the international community who theoretically holds ultimate power there) warned that increased separatism on the Bosnian Serb side was heading towards fracturing of the country and possible armed conflict. In a vicious circle, the geopolitical impasse paralyses the country’s ability to deal with more mundane problems, and that failure in turn feeds public discontent that plays into the hands of the separatists.

Kurti and other observers see the work of Russia’s Vladimir Putin in much of this, pointing to an increase in Russian and Serbian military co-operation. But Serbia is a long way from Russia’s borders; while Putin no doubt would love to see the west distracted by a Balkan crisis, it seems unlikely that he would want to push it to a point of open warfare in a place where direct Russian influence is so severely limited.

Personally I would accord a larger share of blame to the European Union: not from any deliberate ill-will, but from negligence and a warped sense of priorities that have led it to keep the region in a state of limbo, refraining from measures that might have led to a reduction in tensions.

The obvious thing is the stalling of the EU’s enlargement program, which we’ve talked about before. Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia have been candidate countries for EU admission for between seven and 16 years, but Europe’s leaders consistently refuse to make this a priority. A summit a month ago on the subject again failed to produce progress: Politico called it “a showcase of duplicity and double talk.”

Leaders such as Serbia’s Alexander Vučić have taken from this the moral that they have nothing to gain from adhering to Europe’s standards, so they have decided to pander to their own nationalist voters instead.

Another problem is the opposition of the EU to any revision of boundaries within the region, and particularly the troublesome Serbia-Kosovo boundary. That boundary is clearly in the wrong place; it should be redrawn along the Ibar River to put ethnically-Serb districts back in Serbia. The refusal to consider such a move not only perpetuates a trouble spot, but sends the Serbs the message that their grievances are not being taken seriously.

It also creates a situation where the only proponents of basic common sense are the allies of Serbia and Russia, thus giving them an undeserved and dangerous credibility.

Opponents of border revision talk darkly about precedents like partition in Northern Ireland and the Munich agreement of 1938, just as Kurti last week likened Serbia’s behavior to that of Germany between the two world wars. But Serbia is not a great power; it is not about to embark on a program of European conquest. The relevance of Munich is that it involved a real geopolitical grievance that had been papered over as a short-term measure – not unlike the status of Bosnia – and therefore was ripe for exploitation by a power-mad demagogue.

So I would take the opposite lesson: fundamental issues need to be addressed before they spiral out of control. Kosovo’s boundaries should be revised, and all parties need to sit down for a serious rethink about what Bosnia is and where it is going. If as a result Serbia emerges as a somewhat bigger country, that seems a small price to pay for a sustainable peace with its neighbors.

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