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The Western Balkans


There is a growing risk that multi-ethnic states in the Western Balkans will disintegrate, reigniting conflict in the region.



Photo: Getty Images

Several countries in the Balkans are at long-term risk of disintegration. The root cause of this is the mismatch of ethnic and political boundaries in the region, combined with the lack of a strong tradition of human and political rights, and a poisonous legacy of inter-ethnic conflict. No group wants to be a minority in what is seen as another group’s country and most have made a violent bid to separate themselves in the recent past.


For the last two decades, states such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Kosovo and Serbia have held together largely due to political pressure from the West; its refusal to countenance any changes to international borders; and the enticement of membership of the EU in return for accepting the current political boundaries. In the case of Bosnia, the integrity of the state has required a permanent international presence with powers of veto over attempts by Serbs and Croats to challenge the current territorial settlement. However, none of these states is consolidated, and recent developments put the region at increasing risk. The West’s ability to impose its will on southeastern Europe is waning due to the internal crisis in the EU; Russia is shoring up its traditional Orthodox alliances in the region; and Turkey is supporting Muslim nations which hold to their maximalist positions.


The state at greatest risk of disintegration is Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the Serb and Croat minorities have never accepted their place in an integrated Bosnian state. The most serious challenge is coming from the Bosnian Serb leadership which is pushing for a new settlement with the centre. Last year, the government successfully held a referendum, ostensibly on the question of Republika Srpska’s national day, but more fundamentally on the Dayton settlement on which the division of powers in the country is based. The absence of serious international resistance prior to the ballot and any sanctions in its aftermath, along with the support which Russia gave to the whole process, is likely to encourage the Bosnian Serbs to hold further referenda that weaken the power of the central state institutions on the territory of Republika Srpska, and potentially on full independence. Meanwhile, Bosnian Croats are pressing for the creation of their own ethnic entity, comparable to Republika Srpska, in a further challenge to the integrity of the Bosnian state. This demand is supported by various nationalist politicians in Zagreb, including the Croatian president but sympathy for their cause is widespread. In a leaked recording last year, the former Croatian prime minister stated that, if Republika Srpska seceded from Bosnia, then Croatia would help Bosnian Croats to make a similar break.


Macedonia is also under increasing stress as demands grow among Albanians for a reconstitution of the country as a binational state, with greater powers of self-determination for Albanians. This follows widespread discontent with the conditions of life sixteen years after the signing of a peace agreement, which was supposed to give Albanians full cultural and political rights and a proportional share of the resources of the state. Much depends on the complicated outcome of elections held last December. Although the main opposition party, the SDSM has formed a coalition with three Albanian parties which are collectively calling for a partial reconstitution of the state, the president has refused to grant them a governing mandate on the grounds that they threaten the integrity of the Macedonian state. This sets the stage for a potential breakdown in the power-sharing agreement between Macedonians and Albanians which has held the country together for the last decade and a half.


Kosovo is at increasing risk of fragmentation. The EU has mediated a deal between Belgrade and Prishtina, in which Kosovo’s Serbian enclaves gain far-reaching autonomy over their own affairs, as well as the institutions and symbols of statehood, such as a president, parliament and flag. This formalises a de facto separation which has existed since Kosovo’s rupture from Serbia in 1999 and, in the long term, simplifies any future attempt by Kosovo Serbs to reunite their territory with Serbia proper. However, the parliament in Prishtina is refusing to ratify this agreement fueling an escalation of tensions, which has seen the Serbian president threatening to take up arms against Kosovo, and the Kosovan president threatening to turn the country’s civil guard into a properly-constituted army. 


Meanwhile, in Serbia, violent groups within the ethnic Albanian enclave of Presevo Valley in Serbia have demanded the same degree of autonomy as their Serb counterparts in Kosovo, risking a fracturing of the state. This demand has recently been echoed by the foreign minister in Kosovo, who has called for discussions on the Presevo Valley to become part of discussions over the status of Kosovo Serbs.


While these problems formally exist in separate theatres, developments in one state are inextricably linked to those in all others. A bid for separation by Bosnian Serbs would reopen the question of Serbia’s borders, and potentially encourage Kosovo Serbs to break with the rest of Kosovo, fueling the creation of a unified Albanian state that included western Macedonia. Equally, a bid for separation by Macedonian Albanians could start a chain reaction in the opposite direction. Nor can developments in the Western Balkans be isolated from potential fracturing in the ethnically-divided former Soviet states of Moldova and Ukraine, especially if Russia uses its political power to allow one theatre of conflict to set a precedent for the other.




In the short term, there is unlikely to be significant movement towards disintegration. The EU and US retain sufficient coercive power to hold the region together, as evident in the hesitation of the Bosnian Serb leadership to call a referendum on independence. Instead, the region faces a period of continued stasis, characterised by a set of unresolved local frustrations that perpetuate low-level interethnic violence and economic stagnation, while avoiding a full-blown conflict.


In the longer term, however, the fragile states of the Western Balkans will probably disintegrate along ethnic lines, driven by the desire of minority groups for security, rights and economic opportunity – a process that will eventually result in the creation of larger Serbian, Albanian and Croatian states at the expense of Bosnia and Macedonia, which will lose territory and population. The West is losing its coercive power as a result of the political crisis inside the EU and the end to any real hope that the Western Balkans will join the union. Local separatists are highly sensitive to this and are already escalating their demands. In this respect, the key tests to the integrity of the region in the short term will be the proposed referendum on independence in Republika Srpska in 2018; and the outcome of the political crisis in Macedonia, which could see ethnic Albanians demanding greater separation from the central government.



Immediate Impacts


  • The persistently febrile political atmosphere across the region raises the risk of demonstrations, terrorist attacks and low-level outbreaks of violence.


  • Ethnically divided governments in Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo will struggle to implement reforms and or leverage international finance.


  • Private enterprises will exercise caution in making spending and investment decisions, slowing economic growth.



Potential Impacts


  • A bid for independence by Republika Srpska would create intense legal and political uncertainty for investors and other businesses in the country.


  • Political turbulence could generate spillover effects into the rest of Europe, including capital flight, outward migration and contraband.


  • Outside powers could be drawn into a renewed crisis in the Balkans, raising the potential costs of renewed conflict.

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