INTERVIEW WITH EXPRESS
Photo: 7 Themes
You've said that the EU replaced American hard power with soft power. Did that policy fail? Was the EU supposed to enforce policies by force?
Yes, EU policy has failed and the most compelling evidence for this is the mounting risk of instability in the region.
The Americans managed to contain separatism in the 1990s and early 2000s with the use of ‘hard power’: that is, the establishment of quasi-colonial civilian administrations and the deployment of thousands of NATO troops on the ground who could forcibly remove separatist politicians from power.
By contrast, the EU has relied on the ‘soft power’ of enticement to stabilise fragile multiethnic states, mainly because the EU doesn’t have an army. Instead, its instrument of choice has been EU enlargement. Its idea was that poor, authoritarian and non-consensual states would be transformed into the kind of prosperous, democratic, and inclusive societies where minorities would be permanently content to live.
However, there were two basic problems with the EU’s approach. The first was that the US never actually defeated separatism, but only suppressed it. And the second is that the EU did not have a Plan B to fall back on in case the policy of enlargement failed.
These problems are now becoming concrete since, with the EU in a state of seemingly endless crisis, the process of enlargement has come to an effective end at the same time as separatism has returned to the region.
This has created the absurd and tragic situation in which European diplomats are imploring the locals in a place like Bosnia to focus on reform and integration with the EU, even as the state falls apart.
The conclusion I draw from this is that multi-ethnicity in the Balkans can only be upheld by authoritarian means, whether enforced internally, as was the case in Yugoslavia, or enforced externally, as was the case during the period of American hegemony. Once enforcement ends, fragile, illegitimate states inevitably begin to unravel, which is what we are seeing now.
Seeing as how Dodik is completely ignoring the EU and the US, what can the West do to preserve peace in Bosnia? Can the West, or should the West preserve peace in Bosnia?
The West should certainly try to preserve the peace in Bosnia, which has been its strategic goal since the early 1990s. In theory, it has three options, although I think only one is really viable.
The first is to continue as now with its policy of ‘stabilisation through integration’, intended to create a viable multiethnic state by promising the prize of membership if the locals succeed. The problem, however, is the one I just described: enlargement is effectively over, and there is no longer any prize to be won that could compensate Serbs and Croats for the lack of dignity and security they must bear as minorities living in someone else’s state.
The second option is to sanction the Serbs for challenging the status quo. Again, however, there is a fundamental problem since the Europeans are too disunited to agree on such a step and the mild American sanctions on Milorad Dodik imposed last week have proven themselves to be counter-productive, simply galvanising separatist sentiment in RS.
So, the third option, and the only one I now see as viable, is for the West to support a process of negotiation in which Bosniaks consent to a loosening of the Bosnian state, which satisfies the desire of both Serbs and Croats for greater autonomy from the centre. That is not a permanent solution but it would avoid a worst-case scenario in the short term.
Whether this will happen is another matter. Izetbegovic is under immense domestic pressure and cannot easily reverse the SDA’s long-standing policy of centralising the Bosnian state. Instead, he seems to be hoping that he can hold Bosnia together by sheer political will.
Also, the stance of the United States so far is not supportive of a loosening of the state. Its decision to sanction Dodik rather than support a negotiated loosening suggests it remains wedded to the old policy of pressurising the Serbs to do what they are told. Whether this will change under Donald Trump is an open question. I fear that a policy of flawed engagement will be replaced by a policy of general indifference.
As a result, I see an increasing risk that RS declares independence next year, with the Croats making moves to leave Bosnia after that, creating a dangerously combustible situation on the ground.
You've said that it's reasonable to merge parts of Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro with other countries. What are the greatest dangers in doing so? What would happen with, for example, Bosnia or Bosniaks?
To be precise, the danger is not in the outcome, which would be more stable than the present arrangements. Rather, it lies in the transition process leading to this outcome. And, specifically, the risk is that Bosniaks, Macedonians and Kosovo Albanians use force to resist the fracturing of their states in a process that draws in Great Powers like Russia and Turkey and regional states such as Serbia, Croatia and Albania.
I do not believe that the process of disintegration can be stopped because it is being driven by elemental geopolitical forces. However, it may be possible to manage the process in some kind of negotiating forum and prevent conflict rather than cede the initiative to local separatists who drive the process forward in an improvised, uncontrolled manner, outside any kind of political framework.
That is why I have recommended that the United States forms an international coalition, which includes all the important external powers and regional states, to negotiate changes to the current political arrangements rather than handing the initiative to local separatists, with all the attendant risks of violence.
In my view, the outcome should be an agreed adjustment to international borders in the region which reflects demographic realities on the ground. This would uphold the desire of today’s vulnerable minorities for security and rights, and eliminate the main source of instability in the region.
In the meantime, the priority must be to slow down the internal fragmentation of the region long enough to resolve contentious issues like the status of Brcko and Srebrenica, to determine how to compensate groups which are set to lose territory, and to restrain their natural urge to fight.
I recognise that others dispute this approach, arguing that any attempt to open up the question of borders will automatically trigger conflict. I do not deny the risk, but I see greater danger in refusing to open up this question because the locals are already doing so. If, as seems to be the case, the Bosnian Serbs are determined to break their links with the rest of Bosnia, then the West needs to accept this reality and take pre-emptive action to manage it.
As for the future of Bosnia, if the Serbs and Croats leave, then a new Bosnia would emerge, a Muslim-Slav state with its capital in Sarajevo, and borders defined by the demographic realities on the ground today.
I say this as a fact, and recognise that the loss of territory would be traumatic for Bosniaks. However, after an initial period of adjustment, I see no reason why this new Bosnia could not be a successful state, provided it established functional relations with its neighbours that allowed it access to the outside world. The local people are talented and entrepreneurial and, without the burden of their disaffected minorities, they would be free to create whatever kind of state they liked, without continually having to compromise their interests and identity as they do now.
With Donald Trump in the Oval Office, would the US even intervene in peacekeeping efforts after proposed territorial mergers?
In the article I wrote , I called on international policymakers to wake up to the risk of instability in the Balkans and be ready to deploy peacekeepers to the region in order to uphold what I believe is a necessary transition to properly-constituted nation states.
However, I have no great confidence that the US will respond to this. We heard on Friday that Donald Trump intends to pursue a foreign policy which puts ‘America First’. And since there is no clear American interest in the Balkans, I am pessimistic that a Trump administration will have much interest in inserting itself in the internecine conflicts of the region. On the contrary, I think Trump is more likely to withdraw the existing American deployment from Kosovo. This stands in contrast to the 1990s when President Clinton pursued an explicit policy of using American preponderance to promote stability in Eastern Europe.
At the same time, the EU as an organisation is too weak, divided and distracted to play any kind of substitute role. This points to a number of broad scenarios.
The first and best-case scenario is that a coalition of powerful European states, perhaps the old Contact Group, takes a leading role in stabilising the region. The second is that the US and the Europeans abandon the Balkans to Russia and Turkey, who promote the interests of their respective local clients. And the third is that, as the Western commitment declines, Russia and Turkey also lose interest in the Balkans, creating the kind of void that emerged at the end of the 1980s. The effect of this would be to cede power to local separatists who would effectively be free to pursue their goal of separation, constrained only by the willingness of majority populations and whatever regional allies they could find to prevent them from doing so.
Are the Dayton Agreements in danger after Dodik forced his referendum last year?
Yes, I think they are. Apart from anything else, the referendum was a test of the West’s willingness to defend the Dayton arrangements. The Europeans have been passive in their response, suggesting they are either not willing or not capable of doing so. And the response of the Americans, to sanction Milorad Dodik, has simply invigorated the Serbs’ desire for separation.
I detect a real change in the mood and rhetoric in Republika Srpska this year, especially following the decision by the Bosnian prosecutor to investigate key politicians and the High Representative’s comparison of RS to the Independent State of Croatia. My sense is that the Bosnian Serb elites are increasingly unanimous and resolved in their goal of breaking away from the rest of Bosnia, and will make a bid for independence next year.
It is not too late to preserve Bosnia, at least for a while. Dodik has been clear that he is willing to put his plans for independence on hold if Sarajevo returns to RS the powers which were transferred to the centre in the early 2000s. Frankly, though, I don’t expect Bosniaks to agree to this since they will consider Dodik’s demands to be a form of blackmail. As a result, I don’t see Bosnia surviving much longer.
Same question could be applied to the Balkans region in general. Are facing imminent wars in the region? Can they be stopped?
I think there is a growing risk of conflict, driven by a fundamental shift in the geopolitics of the region which is tipping the local balance of power in favour of revisionists.
Revisionism is being driven by Serbs who are simultaneously the strongest and the most embittered group in the Balkans. They have always resented the political arrangements put in place after the collapse of Yugoslavia which severed Kosovo from Serbia and artificially divided the Serbian nation.
They are also the group most affected by the shifting geopolitics. With the decline of the EU and the end of enlargement, the Serbs have lost their main reason to co-operate with the West on the question of borders. With the absence of the US, they have lost their main external opponent. And with the arrival of Russia, they have gained an important strategic ally.
Alongside this, they have a window of opportunity to change matters right now while Turkey, which is traditionally supportive of Bosniaks and Albanians, is distracted by Syria and in a temporary alliance with Russia.
In this respect, alongside Bosnia, Kosovo is emerging as a serious flashpoint for conflict. My sense is that Belgrade is tired of talks with the Albanians and wants to bring matters to a conclusion. This probably means the reintegration of northern Kosovo with Serbia, if necessary, by deploying Serbian security forces. Ideally, they would also secure autonomy for Serbs south of the Ibar river although that may not be possible.
Meanwhile, in Macedonia, Albanians are currently refusing to participate in government except on terms which are unacceptable to Macedonians. This risks a situation in which interethnic power-sharing comes to an end. Potentially, the country could split along ethnic lines, leading Albanians to establish parallel institutions in the west of Macedonia and provoking some kind of backlash by Macedonians. This is a risk, not a forecast, because the process is still at an early stage.
But one of the remarkable features of this drama is how it is drawing in Kosovo and Albania which are similarly responding to the shifting geopolitics of the region. As their hopes of joining the EU fade, Edi Rama, Hashim Thaci and others who are heavily vested in this failed policy are now starting to champion diaspora issues as part of a new national mission. What this means is that, if there is trouble in Macedonia, it is unlikely to be contained within its borders and could accelerate the creation of a unified Albanian state – especially since Albanians in Serbia and Montenegro are also restless.
Can the current multiethnic states continue to survive? Would it be better to create predominantly monoethnic states?
No, I don’t think that the current multiethnic states will survive. Minority populations in Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo have never accepted the legitimacy of these states and many of them took up arms after the collapse of Yugoslavia not to be any part of what they see as someone else’s state.
For the last few years, minorities have been forced to accept the status quo by a hegemonic West which has vetoed any changes to the post-Yugoslav arrangements. However, as I have said, the international environment is now changing and disaffected minorities are starting to exploit this new reality to press for greater separation.
I may, of course, be entirely wrong in my analysis. Perhaps the EU will recover, enlargement will resume, the US will return to the region, Russia and Turkey will pull back, the Bosnian Serbs and others will accept their fate in multi-ethnic states and the current arrangements will prove durable. In truth, however, I think this is an impossibly optimistic view of the future.
In answer to your second question, my view is that the only kind of polity which can properly guarantee the rights and security of its inhabitants and end territorial competition in the region is the nation state. Since no one wants a profusion of new micro states in the region, such as Republika Srpska, Herzeg Bosna or Illirida, this logically implies the merger of breakaway territories from states such as Bosnia and Macedonia with kin states across the border.
And you are right to emphasise that these would be ‘predominantly’ rather than absolutely mono-ethnic states. Bosniaks in RS, Serbs in southern Kosovo and Macedonians in western Macedonia should be encouraged to stay where they are after any change in borders, and all efforts made to uphold their rights.
This is not an impossible goal. Most states in the region have demonstrated their ability to accommodate small numbers of a minority group for the simple reason that they do not pose any threat to the territorial integrity or identity of the state.
This interview with the director appeared in the form of an article in the Croatian journal Express on 1st February 2017