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Photo: BETA/AP


Were you surprised with so many reactions to your Foreign Affairs article, so many of them being negative?


Not really. I wrote a hard-hitting article because it is vital to start a debate about the future of the Balkans that gets beyond the tired mantras about Euro-Atlantic integration. Had I wanted to play it safe, I could have repeated what every other Western commentator says – that the Balkans must be multiethnic, get on with reform and join the EU. However, this position is naive at best and dishonest at worst because, if the political crisis in the EU continues, the union won't enlarge any further and may not even survive at all.


Resistance to the article came from three main groups, all of which want to maintain the status quo. The first, most obviously, are those nations in the region that stand to lose territory to which they are sentimentally attached if, as I forecast, the Balkans moves towards the formation of nation states. The second are those commentators who are opposed to the idea of nation states in the Balkans for ideological reasons. And the third are those who accept in principle that nation states are a viable long-term settlement in the region but think the status quo should be preserved because of the risk of conflict involved in any transition.


My argument is essentially a Realist one which posits that the status quo is no longer a sustainable option because the process of EU enlargement is deadlocked. I don’t wish to exaggerate the dangers: for the moment, the Balkans is peaceful and there is no immediate risk of conflict. However, if we accept the logic which has underpinned Western policy for the last decade - that stability comes through integration with the EU - then we must also accept that, when this integration ends, there is a risk that instability begins.


Already, there is some evidence of the effects which the breakdown of the EU enlargement process is having, namely a wave of popular unrest that has swept across the region, starting in Bosnia and then moving to Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia. It is no accident that all these states are simultaneously experiencing political turbulence, even if there are local factors at play in each country. People sense that there is no miracle European remedy to the day-to-day problems which they experience – poverty, corruption, injustice and so on. No one from outside is coming to help them and there is no light at the end of the tunnel, unless they create it themselves. As a result, they are now turning on their governments who they hold responsible for the problems in their lives.


More importantly, the breakdown of the enlargement process is also reviving the spectre of separatism as minorities try to take control of their destiny in countries where the central government always seems to prioritise the interests of the majority group. Since they cannot have the EU and the guarantees it once offered, Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats, Macedonian Albanians, Kosovo Serbs, Serbian Albanians and Montenegrin Albanians are all, in one way or another, demanding the right to have an autonomous territory run by their own politicians who can deliver the security, economic opportunity and rights which they desire. In the past, their scope to have this was limited. But with the controlling influence of the EU in decline, groups are now explicitly starting to challenge the status quo in order to exert more control over their own affairs.


So, it is high time that those who care about the stability of the region start to think seriously about alternatives to the existing policy. I’m not suggesting that my proposal - a transition to nation states - is the final word on the matter, although I do think that in the long term this will probably happen because of the powerful hold which nationalism has on the region. However – and I can’t stress this strongly enough – it is vital to have a proper debate, at both the local and international level, about the alternatives to Euro-Atlantic integration. Stability is not served by pretending everything is fine on the ground when the tectonic plates are shifting just below the surface.


To this end, I’m glad to note that after an initial emotional outburst, some people in the region are now starting to take my analysis seriously. In the last week, I have read some thoughtful commentaries, in the Bosnian press in particular, by writers who recognise that the Balkans is adrift, that there is a risk of renewed instability in the future and that there is a need for some fresh thinking about how to prevent this from happening. So, if the article has provoked people in both the Balkans and the West into recognising that a new approach is required, then it has served its purpose.



How well do you understand the situation at the Balkans?


As well as any outsider is likely to. I have worked on the region professionally for over fifteen years. I have lived in three of the countries: Albania, Macedonia and Bosnia, the last two as a diplomat. I have studied Balkan history to PhD level. I know two of the local languages – Serbian and Albanian. And I have thought hard about the politics for many years, especially when I was in Bosnia where things were obviously not going to plan.    


As a foreigner, what I cannot claim is to feel the emotions felt by the locals – their sense of history and collective identity, their likes and hates, their fears and hopes for the future, and so on. However, in one respect, that is an advantage when trying to understand the region because it gives me a detachment that, I hope, allows me to see things more dispassionately than those involved in the drama.  



Your thesis states that in order to bring peace and introduce stability in the Balkans, Great Serbia, Croatia and Albania would have to be founded. I presume you know that similar ideas led to 1991-1995 wars?


Yes, I’m well aware of what drove the wars of the 1990s which led to appalling violence and brutality. However, I would argue that the failure to establish properly-constituted nation states is the reason why the region is still at risk of instability.


I do not see the basic conditions in place in the Balkans for establishing successful multi-ethnic states, the test of which is that all citizens, regardless of their nationality, enjoy security, equal rights and economic opportunity. The region lacks a strong tradition of democracy and constitutional liberalism, which might otherwise give minorities confidence in shared institutions. A history of violence and atrocities has destroyed trust between the various national groups. And poverty and endemic corruption conspire to keep the people on edge.


From what I have observed in multi-ethnic states such as Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia, the lot of the minority is not a happy one. At a grassroots level, minorities face an uphill struggle to find work outside their own community, and risk insults, intimidation and even physical attack if they reside in the wrong areas. And the political institutions are dominated by the majority national group which discriminates against minorities when making policy and allocating resources. Underlying this daily reality, minorities express real fears that, if circumstances take a turn for the worse, the majority population will send its army into their villages, destroying property and murdering the inhabitants, as has happened repeatedly in the past.


Unsurprisingly, minorities have resisted multi-ethnicity from the moment Yugoslavia collapsed, taking up arms to avoid becoming trapped in what they see as someone else’s state. Subsequently, wherever these attempts at separation failed, minorities have struggled to secure as much autonomy as they can within their adopted state, in the form of a separate territory and separate political institutions. Unfortunately, since this aspiration runs contrary to the wishes of the majority population, the effect has been to build tension, dysfunctionality and the omnipresent risk of organised violence into the very structure of these multi-ethnic states.


For the last twenty years, the West has tried to contain the risk of a relapse into violence by imposing itself on fragile states such as Bosnia and Kosovo, while promising the locals membership of the EU and NATO and all the attendant benefits this brings - work, prosperity, good governance, and so on – providing they accept the current political arrangements. However, the West’s ability to discharge this role has started to decline markedly this decade because of the effective end of enlargement, as I mentioned, and the increasing hollowness of the EU’s claims to be the bearer of peace and prosperity. At the same time, new external powers, such as Russia, Turkey and China are pushing their own self-interested agendas in the region. As a result, separatist groups which never accepted their place as minorities in someone else’s state, are starting to revive their demands for greater separation in the form of decentralisation or even, in the case of Republika Srpska, threats of full independence.


In my view, the West cannot stop minority groups from cutting their links with the rest of the state, if they are determined to do so. Last September, the Bosnian Serbs successfully held a referendum on a Dayton issue which was endorsed by Russia and met no effective resistance from the West. Now, we see Bosnian Serbs and Croats demanding the expulsion of foreign judges from Bosnia’s Constitutional Court on pain of withdrawing their personnel from the state institutions within six months. Events are moving in a consistent direction, and seem to be accelerating


Elsewhere in the region, Albanians in Macedonia are talking more vocally about the idea of a binational state and Albanian parties in Montenegro, which have just entered the new government, have demanded that Tuzi becomes a separate municipality. Meanwhile, in Kosovo, Serbs are threatening to establish a community of self-governing municipalities without the agreement of the Kosovo parliament.


All this points to a situation, perhaps early next decade, in which territories such as Republika Srpska have broken some, if not most, of their links from the centre and done so against the wishes of the majority population, risking a combustible situation on the ground. That is why I argued in Foreign Affairs that the West should take pre-emptive action to steer the region towards a stable outcome.


I suggested there were three approaches which the West could adopt – increasing the rewards to disaffected minorities to abandon their demands for decentralisation; sanctioning politicians who threaten separation; and overseeing a process that gives minorities  some of what they demand. I suggested that, in fact, only the third approach was viable because there is not much the West can offer the region and it has limited coercive power. Accordingly, I suggested that the West should put diplomatic pressure on majority groups such as Bosniaks, Macedonians and Kosovo Albanians to reach a new settlement with their minority populations that recognises not only their desire for greater separation but also their ability to seize it unilaterally if there is no negotiated solution. This would constitute a significant shift in policy, particularly in Bosnia, where talk of constitutional reform has always been about centralising the state, rather than decentralising it.


If all this happens, and it proves acceptable to minorities on the ground, then matters could rest there. However, if minorities decided that, for reasons of security or economic opportunity, they wished to establish shared institutions and common citizenship with their kin states across the border, I do not believe that the West should stand in their way simply for the sake of upholding the ideal of multi-ethnicity.


I also talked about a potential third and final stage, in which ethnic regions broke with their notional state. This is obviously a radical step, and there is no immediate calling for it anywhere in the region, because it seems such an elusive goal. However, it would be foolish to rule out such an outcome in principle because, for reasons I have already stated, nation states are the only form of polity in the Balkans which can genuinely uphold the long-term security and rights of their inhabitants. There are also practical limits to how far the Balkans can fragment before it needs to be reassembled in accordance with the nation state model, which still forms the basic organising paradigm in Europe.


I should emphasise that, nowhere in this framework am I suggesting that the emergent states need to be pure ethnic states. If Bosniaks have chosen to live in Republika Srpska because they have ancestral roots there, or Macedonians have chosen to remain in the Albanian-dominated parts of the country, then of course they should be allowed to stay and all efforts should be made to ensure their security and rights. Balkan states such as Serbia, Albania, Montenegro and Croatia have all demonstrated their ability to accommodate small numbers of another national group because these do not threaten the territorial integrity or identity of the state. However, this is a completely different proposition to the situation which exists in Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo today where large, disaffected minorities living in compact territories adjacent to their titular state harbour separatist ambitions, generating a state of a permanent tension and political dysfunctionality.



In essence, you believe that because the Balkans nations do not wish to live in multinational states, the international community is conducting a wrong sort of politics?


Yes, that is basically my position. I think that the West’s intentions towards the Balkans are benevolent but are based on an unrealistic premise, namely that different national groups with divergent interests and identities can be moulded against their will into a single political community if the West, as the hegemonic power in the region, can  construct the right balance of rewards and sanctions. 


To my mind, the West’s approach to the Balkans took a wrong step at the start of the 1990s when it chose to recognise the republics of the former Yugoslavia within their existing borders, regardless of their ethnic composition.


The reasons for this are well known. Western policymakers believed that recognising the Yugoslav-era borders would end the fighting that broke out in 1991. They were averse to rewarding the Yugoslav People’s Army for murder and ethnic cleansing. Recognition of states within their Yugoslav-era boundaries was consistent with the Badinter Committee’s interpretation of international law. And there was the practical problem of how to draw international boundaries in a region without clear ethnic boundaries. Alongside all this, the creation of multi-ethnic states was consistent with the prevailing ideology of the time, namely that nationalism was the source of instability in Europe and that the future lay in transnational citizenship – a sentiment embodied in the parallel creation of the European Union. This combination of factors set the stage for the Post-Yugoslav settlement that exists today: seven states, each occupying the territory they possessed in the former Yugoslavia.


The problem is that the states created by this settlement lack legitimacy in the eyes of most of their minority populations, who have resisted their belonging ever since. As a result, the West has struggled to realise its basic goals in the region, above all a permanent end to conflict. At first, it was compelled to take a coercive approach, deploying troops on the ground and establishing intrusive civilian missions in Bosnia and Kosovo that exercised authoritarian power over the locals. Subsequently, it has chosen to adopt a policy of enticement by offering the region membership of the EU and NATO.


Diplomats make a rational case for this: if disaffected minorities can park their grievances about security and territory long enough to address second-order issues such as political and economic reform, then these first-order issues will, theoretically, become irrelevant. NATO will provide the security they desire and the EU will allow disaffected minorities to unite with their ethnic kin inside a borderless union.


Unfortunately, this theory makes little sense on the ground where minorities remain fixated on unresolved issues of security and territory for the simple reason that these are the precondition for their survival as a community. By insisting that the locals focus on political and economic reform while ignoring the issues of territory and security, the EU is effectively asking them to construct the walls and the roof of their house while deliberately ignoring the foundations.


Unsurprisingly, things have not worked out as the bureaucrats in Brussels intended. Instead of reform, the political institutions in places like Bosnia have been gridlocked by intractable questions about the nature and identity of the state, and the division of power between the centre and the regions. Meanwhile, the normal development of the state has been seriously retarded. Democracy is stifled since the West has vetoed the most basic political demand of the various minority groups, namely their physical security. And this is turn has retarded the development of the economy since unresolved fears about security crowd out virtually every other political issue, allowing nationalists and strongmen who promise to protect their populations to run the economy corruptly in their own interests.


So, a quarter of a century on from the establishment of these multiethnic states, the West can take credit for having preserved the peace in the Balkans. There has not been any wide-scale organised violence in the region since the end of the conflict in Macedonia in 2001. However, the West has failed to resolve the underlying source of tension, namely, the mismatch of national and political boundaries, meaning the peace the West has created rests on shaky foundations. All this calls for an open discussion and radical rethink of Western policy towards the region which is the reason why I wrote the article.



Still, if your ideas were realized, that would mean the division of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia. In my opinion, such a scenario might cause more negative than positive consequences?


Well, the first thing to say is that these states are already de facto divided, so the division that you talk of is not conditional on realising my ideas. But I sense your question is really about the dangers implicit in moving from the current settlement based on multi-ethnicity to the formation of nation states. And to answer your question, we have to distinguish between processes and outcomes.


To take outcomes first, I think that the eventual emergence of nation states would be more positive than negative because, in the Balkan context, a territorially-defined nation state is the only form of polity than can properly guarantee the rights and security of its inhabitants. I explained earlier the reasons why I think this is the case: the weak tradition of liberal democracy, the lack of trust between different national groups and the tension created by poverty and social injustice, all of which work against the interests of minorities.


I also think that, at the international level, the creation of recognised nation states would end the territorial competition that blights the region. Diplomatic relations between Croatia and Serbia, or Serbia and Albania, or Albania and Greece are basically functional because, except for minor border disputes, none of them makes a formal claim on the territory of any of the others, and the inhabitants generally feel secure from external interference behind hard international borders.


This contrasts with the current reality in states such as Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo where the territory occupied by the minority group is implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, claimed by the majority group, leaving the minority group feeling profoundly uneasy. So, in arguing for the creation of nation states in the Balkans, I am responding to the desire of minorities on the ground for the kind of security that only comes with living behind an internationally-recognised border. In this respect, I am confident that, if those Serbs, Albanians and Croats who currently live in a state of vulnerability in someone else’s country were able to live securely in a properly-constituted nation state, the main source of tension afflicting the region would end.


However, I am not naïve about the difficulties involved in achieving this outcome, which I have traced back to the decision by the West to recognise the former Yugoslav republics within their existing borders. A great deal has happened since then: peoples have been ethnically cleansed from their homelands, raising profound moral questions about the right of Bosnian Serbs, in particular, to any kind of independence from the rest of Bosnia. And majority groups such as Bosniaks and Macedonians have obtained a right under international law to prevent the secession of their disaffected minorities.


That is why, as one of the possible solutions, I have suggested a graduated approach to the formation of nation states, which involves both minority populations, majority populations and various international partners in discussions, and which can be halted at any time if minorities express their content with the status quo.


I don’t claim to have all the answers. Far from it. These issues are profoundly difficult and policymakers have not even begun to think them through. But the point that must be kept firmly in mind is that, with the effective end of the policy of EU enlargement, the West’s existing approach is no longer viable and there is a growing risk of a breakdown in security. In this respect, the challenge for Western policymakers is no longer to work out how to make a success of multi-ethnicity. Rather, it is to decide whether to let the Balkans fragment in an improvised and uncontrolled manner; or to work with the locals to address the unresolved grievances of minorities and prevent a return to violence. It is vitally important to begin this discussion, based on realism not idealism.



How would a new Balkans reality look like? West Herzegovina in Croatia, Kosovo in Albania with Serbia stretching to Banja Luka?


If the region was reorganised on the basis of nation states in which the international political boundaries corresponded with the national boundaries, then the new map of the region would be as you describe. However, there is certainly scope for adjustments to the existing administrative boundaries, especially in Bosnia, with parts of Republika Srpska and the ‘Croat' cantons potentially included in a reconstituted Bosnian state. And, I will emphasise, you are taking the long view here. I am not proposing that the Balkans passes from the existing arrangements to the creation of consolidated nation states in a single leap.



I have a feeling this plan might suit Russia and Putin best?


I agree that the West needs to be cautious about Russian involvement in the Balkans although I don’t agree with your conclusion that Russia would automatically gain from any transition to nation states.


At the moment, Russia is able to exert influence in the region by exploiting ambiguity and discontent with the current political settlement. The Kremlin has managed to establish itself in Serbia because of its endorsement of Belgrade’s campaign to prevent international recognition of Kosovo. Since this endorsement can be withdrawn at any time, Serbia finds itself in a dependent relationship with Russia that gives Moscow significant leverage over Serbia’s internal affairs. That suits Russia well.


Similarly, Russia has managed to gain a foothold in Republika Srpska because it has backed the Bosnian Serbs’ attempts to distance RS from the rest of Bosnia. For what it’s worth, my reading is that Russia is content to keep Bosnia on edge to increase its room for manouevre in Ukraine. If the West ratchets up the pressure, Moscow can trigger a crisis in the Balkans that distracts the West and consumes its energy simply by promising the Bosnian Serb leadership Russian support for any independence bid it might make. In this respect, anything which can be done to reduce the underlying source of tension would diminish Russian influence in the region.


But there is another way to answer your question, which is to recognise that Russia sees the Balkans as a region of strategic interest, that it is not going to disappear and that the task is to try and harness Russian influence, especially over the Serbs, in a constructive rather a destructive way. If, as I suspect, the Bosnian Serbs continue to push for greater autonomy from the rest of Bosnia, then it is important to have Russia sitting at the negotiating table.


Russia’s greatest yearning in international affairs is to be treated seriously as a Great Power, and I suspect that, if the West were willing to involve Russia, it could turn out to be a helpful partner. There are precedents for this, especially in 1999 when Russia played a vital role in bringing the Kosovo conflict to an end. This, it would seem to me, is much better than engaging in a forlorn power struggle with Russia for influence in the Balkans in which it encourages the Bosnian Serbs to pursue its campaign for greater separation outside of any negotiating forum.



Do you believe the international community will change its policies towards the region in the next few years?


In the short term, I think it is unlikely. Foreign policy is impervious to revision once it has been made and only really changes when a serious and dramatic event renders the existing approach untenable. I don’t therefore expect a decisive shift in Western policy towards the Balkans in the absence of some major disruptive development, either in the Balkans or the EU. Instead, I expect that Western diplomats will continue to implore regional governments to prepare their countries for membership of the EU while engaging in ad hoc interventions to contain any crises that do break out. The one caveat to this is that, in private, the new administration in the United States may start to think through some different scenarios and policy approaches - at least, I hope it does.


However, in the medium term, I think events will force the West to change its approach because the policy of ‘stabilisation through integration’ is rapidly running out of road. If the West is to stay true to its long-standing goal of maintaining peace in the region, it must modify its policy.


Ideally, this would involve some recognition that the root cause of conflict is the mismatch of national and political boundaries in the region, and the formulation of some solution that addresses this. I have offered various suggestions, which can be quite subtle at first – above all, putting diplomatic pressure on reluctant majority groups to reach an accommodation with their disaffected minorities. Initially, this can be done without abandoning the underlying commitment to multi-ethnicity and the inviolability of borders. In time, the West could pursue a more explicit policy of nation state formation, ideally by means of an international conference on the Balkans that works out a new settlement for the region.


But the question of the West’s approach to the Balkans is not only about the policy it formulates but its willingness and ability to pursue it. And here the situation is very unclear. The Balkans has not been a policy priority for the US since last decade and its long-standing view is that the Europeans should take the lead in the region. Even though I have called on the new administration in the US to re-engage with the Balkans in a new way, I don’t see any immediate prospect of this happening. At the same time, the EU as an organisation is too weak, divided and distracted to play any kind of decisive leading role.


This points to a number of broad scenarios. The first and best-case scenario is that a coalition of powerful European states, working outside the structures of the EU, pursues a new policy in a more vigorous way. The most obvious candidates are the old Contact Group members – the UK, France, Germany and Italy, plus Russia and Turkey, with the US playing a supportive external role.


The second is that the US and the Europeans abandon the Balkans to Russia and Turkey, who treat the region as a proxy battlefield in a strategic dispute over the future of the Middle East and the Black Sea region, once their current marriage of convenience ends. This could happen if the EU starts to collapse, distracting Europeans from events in their backyard. And the third, and most worrying, is that the Great Powers all leave the field, creating the kind of void that existed at the end of the 1980s when the United States and the Soviet Union lost interest in Yugoslavia. This would cede all 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 external allies they can find, to prevent them from doing so.


I hope that neither of these latter two scenarios comes to pass. But the possibility should serve to focus attention on the need to reduce tensions in the short term, while the region is stable and the West retains some authority. It is high time for fresh thinking in the West and for majority populations in the region to start talking to their respective minorities in order to get beyond the current political impasse.

This interview with the director appeared in an abridged form in the Croatian newspaper Jutarnji list on 8th January 2017

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