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The political settlement in the former Yugoslavia is unravelling and will not survive. In Bosnia, both Serbs and Croats are directly challenging the Dayton Peace Agreement, the delicate set of compromises which holds the country together. In Kosovo, the Serb minority is insisting on the creation of a network of self-governing enclaves that give them effective independence from the central government. In Macedonia, Albanians politicians are calling for the federalisation of the state along ethnic lines. In Montenegro, Albanians are downgrading their links with Podgorica after successfully negotiating a self-governing municipality in Tuzi. In the Presevo Valley, Albanians are agitating for greater autonomy, comparable to that of Serbs in Kosovo. And in Kosovo and Albania, where Albanians have their independence, nationalist politicians are now explicitly calling for the creation of a unified Albanian state.


It is easy to dismiss all this as irrelevant noise, coming from opportunistic politicians whose real interest - making money - is bound up with the status quo. But this is complacency. The electorates who ultimately drive politics in the region have persistently shown their dissatisfaction with the existing order and are responding to a radically shifting external environment with demands for change. The question now is whether Western powers recognise the direction of events and take control of the process; or cede the initiative to the locals and risk renewed conflict.





When Yugoslavia collapsed at the start of 1990s, there was nothing pre-determined about the settlement that followed. The communist state had been one of the most complex entities in Europe, comprised of ten ethnic groups living in six federal republics, and two autonomous provinces. Each of these units had one dominant national group; but all contained sizeable minorities, usually living in territory contiguous to their titular republic. This reality presented two possible models for the post-Yugoslav order. The first was the emergence of nation states, comparable to those in western and central Europe. And the second was the emergence of multi-ethnic states based on the existing republican and provincial boundaries.  


For a while, both settlements were possible and the Western powers, whose recognition was necessary to give reality to the post-Yugoslav order, were willing to accept whatever the locals could agree among themselves. The problem was that the locals could not agree. Serb nationalists wanted to create an expanded Serbian state by annexing parts of Bosnia and Croatia. Croat nationalists similarly wanted to forge a unified Croatian state by annexing parts of Bosnia, but without conceding any of their territory to Serbia. And groups such as Bosniaks, which stood to lose territory in any reconfiguration of borders, resisted both. After failed negotiations, discord eventually turned to conflict.


Confronted with this reality, the West made the decision to recognise the Yugoslav republics within their existing borders – initially Croatia and Slovenia, then later all the rest. In doing so, they were guided by a number of considerations. In part, it was a decision to end the fighting: for as long as the borders were open to challenge, Serbs were able to create new ‘facts on the ground’, by murdering and expelling other nationalities from areas identified for annexation. In upgrading the old republican borders to international ones, the Western powers hoped to create a fait accompli that nullified these efforts. Moral considerations also played a part, above all, an aversion to rewarding ethnic cleansing by the Yugoslav National Army. There were also practical problems in drawing clear national boundaries in a multi-ethnic patchwork.


However, there were precedents for such things. Only four decades earlier, the victors of World War II had consented to a radical redrawing of borders and the mass movement of peoples to create the modern states of Central Europe. What changed in the interim was a new conviction that nationalism was the source of instability in Europe and that multi-ethnicity was a viable, even desirable, organising principle. This sentiment was embodied in the creation at that very moment of the European Union, an entity founded on the notion of civic identity and transnational citizenship.


This conviction set the stage for the Post-Yugoslav settlement that exists today: seven states, each occupying the territory they possessed in the former Yugoslavia. When Macedonia and Montenegro declared their independence, Europeans and Americans recognised them within their existing borders, despite the presence of a large Albanian minority in the former and multiple minorities in the latter. So too did they eventually recognise Kosovo, even though its independence constituted a division of Serbia’s integral territory along roughly ethnic lines. But even here, the West chose to preserve Kosovo’s Yugoslav-era provincial borders, despite a large enclave of Serbs in the north. In the end, the last man standing was Serbia, which gained independence by default in shrunken borders, with an unhappy enclave of Albanians in its south and a large diaspora spread across its various neighbours. 





With Kosovo’s independence, the Western powers were quick to declare that the process of disintegration in Yugoslavia was complete and that, after eighteen tortuous years, they had finally ‘finished the job’. Had the locals been willing to accept the new reality of multi-ethnicity, this confident proclamation might have been true. The problem is they were not. On the contrary, the various minorities which the new settlement created took violent exception to an international order which, as they saw it, condemned them to second-class status in someone else’s state and jeopardised any chance of realising their most basic political goals as a community - their security, rights and prosperity.


This should not have come as a surprise. Almost anywhere in the world, it is difficult to accommodate distinct and divergent national interests in a single political entity. But in the Balkans, the most basic conditions for such an accommodation are almost entirely absent. Not only does the region lack any real tradition of democracy and constitutional liberalism, which might otherwise give minorities confidence in shared institutions. But a history of discrimination, violence and wartime atrocities has destroyed any trust between the various national groups; while poverty wrought of endemic corruption and the destructive legacy of socialism conspires to keep the people on edge.


As a result, the lot of the minority is not a happy one. At a grassroots level, its members 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. Meanwhile, the political institutions are dominated by the main national group which routinely discriminates against minorities when making policy and allocating resources. Underlying this daily reality is minorities’ fear that, if circumstances take a turn for the worse, the majority population will send its army into their communities, destroying property and murdering the inhabitants, as has happened repeatedly in the past. At its worst - in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia – the situation of minorities is egregious.


Their opposition to co-habitation was made obvious from the outset. Rather than bringing peace to Croatia and Bosnia in the early 1990s as the Western powers had assumed, the decision to recognise these states within their Yugoslav-era borders only fuelled the determination of their vulnerable minorities to fight. The same went for Kosovo’s Albanian population when their demands for independence from Serbia were initially rejected by the West. Likewise, the Albanians of Macedonia and the Presevo Valley also resorted to arms in 2001 to separate themselves from their Slavic compatriots.


Subsequently, wherever these attempts at formal separation failed, minorities have struggled to secure as much autonomy as they can within their adopted state. This has angered majority groups like Bosniaks, Macedonians and Kosovo Albanians, the winners in the Western-imposed settlement, who either consider the question of borders and territory settled, or actually want to downgrade whatever autonomy their minorities have. The effect is to build tension into the very nervous system of these multi-ethnic states and create an omnipresent risk of organised violence.





Accordingly, for the last two decades, the West has been compelled to enforce the settlement it imposed on the former Yugoslavia. In Bosnia, it established a huge civilian mission, the Office of the High Representative (OHR), run by the UN under the auspices of the United States, to coerce Serbs and Croats into accepting their place as minorities. In its most activist phase in the early 2000s, OHR resembled a colonial administration, intervening in the minutiae of Bosnia’s internal politics, purging the political class of separatist elements and avenging their wartime atrocities by forcibly centralising the Bosnian state.


These efforts were buttressed by the hard power of NATO, which deployed troops en masse to take charge of the local military forces and act as a regional policeman, detaining those who incited separatism along ethnic lines. And below OHR and NATO was a panoply of other international organisations including the OSCE, the EU Monitoring Mission and various UN agencies whose collective ‘capacity building’ mission was directed towards forging a unified Bosnian state. Meanwhile, in Kosovo, a similar mission, UNMIK, was created after the Western intervention in 1999, bolstered again by the power of NATO on the ground. Ostensibly, UNMIK’s purpose was to create the local institutions needed to make Kosovo self-sustaining; but implicit in this was the need to keep at bay both Serbia and the local Serbs who rejected Kosovo’s independence.


As the US downgraded its presence in the Balkans in the middle of the last decade, primary responsibility for enforcing the Post-Yugoslav settlement passed to the European Union, which substituted the soft power of enlargement for the hard power of the American military. The centrepiece of the EU’s approach was an implicit compact with the locals, and specifically the region’s disaffected minorities, known as ‘conditionality’: accept the Western settlement, knuckle down to political and economic reform; and, in return, get to join the EU, with all the benefits that this entails, including security, prosperity, good governance and the chance to unite with ethnic kin inside a borderless Europe.


In offering this compact, the EU extrapolated from its experience in Central Europe which had abandoned communism and adopted liberal democracy, enticed by the prospect of joining the EU. In the Balkan context, Europeans believed that, in the act of preparing for EU membership, the very nature of the region would similarly change, transforming poor, authoritarian and non-consensual states into the kind of prosperous, democratic, law-bound polities where minorities would be permanently content to live.


In the meantime, international diplomats clamped down hard on separatism, insisting there could be no changes to borders in the region and publicly censoring any politician who sought to revise the status quo. They also intervened pro-actively in the continual disputes that arose between different national groups. Sometimes, the weapon they used was to freeze the process of EU integration for bad behaviour, and advance it in return for good. At other times, they advocated more permanent changes, such as upgrading the rights and autonomy of minorities, or transferring certain powers from the region to the centre.


Behind the Europeans, American diplomats remained heavy-hitters on the ground, enforcing the EU’s strategy of stabilisation through integration and championing the project of NATO enlargement, even if the benefits of this were limited in a region where the risk is less external attack than fracturing from within. In short, the West did everything it could to make a success of multi-ethnicity in the Balkans while assiduously avoiding any discussion about the desirability of multi-ethnicity itself.





For a short while at the end of the last decade, the policy appeared to be working; but events eventually made clear that the EU’s approach was profoundly misapplied to the problems created by multi-ethnicity. Its central misconception was that disaffected minorities would park their grievances about territory and security, and focus on second-order issues such as political and economic reform, long enough for those first-order issues to become immaterial. Unfortunately, while such assumptions made sense to Europeans living in the Kantian, post-historical paradise of the EU, they did not for minorities in the Hobbesian realm of the Balkans who had not yet achieved the most primary needs of any political community.


Predictably, issues of governance, the economy, and even more peripheral concerns like education and the environment, were pushed to the margins as the EU asked the locals, in effect, to construct the walls and the roof of their house while ignoring the foundations. Instead, the political institutions remained gridlocked by intractable questions about the nature and identity of the state, and the division of power between the centre and the regions. In place of reform and prosperity, the day-to-day reality in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia was political dysfunctionality, economic stagnation and their natural bedfellow, institutional corruption. All this stood in stark contrast to the progress which their more homogenous neighbours, such as Croatia, Albania and even Serbia, were starting to make.


More recently, the policy of integration through stabilisation has been further jeopardised by the deepening political crisis in the EU which has brought an effective end to the policy of enlargement. With the EU struggling to hold itself together, few Europeans have any real interest in accepting into their ranks a set of poor, fractious and corrupt Balkan states whose problems can only add to their own. A Eurobarometer poll last year suggested that only 39% of EU citizens favour further enlargement and 49% are opposed, while an absolute majority opposes enlargement in 19 of the EU’s 28 members. As referendums become the new mode of political expression in Europe, this has effectively destroyed any chance of enlargement. Earlier this year, voters in the Netherlands decided by two to one to block Ukraine’s integration with the EU, before its journey had even begun, and it can reasonably be assumed they would also block those of an aspiring Balkan state. So too would electorates in France and Austria, whose governments have both previously pledged to make further enlargement conditional on approval by referendum.


A similar reluctance exists in the political institutions. Thirteen years after a summit in Thessaloniki launched the process of Balkan enlargement, four of the six non-EU states in the region have yet to open negotiations on EU membership. Serbia has only just done so after rounds of spontaneous, new conditions. And Montenegro, the region’s most advanced state, has only, provisionally, closed two of the 35 negotiating chapters, four years after starting. By contrast, peers in Central Europe completed the entire negotiating process within the same time frame. At the end of November, the reality of permanent exclusion was made clear when the German President, Joachim Gluck, announced that the integration process should formally be suspended.


Worse still, there is no imminent prospect of any turnaround in this situation because of the inability of Europeans to solve the EU’s internal crisis. Much has been written about the matter but a mass of complexity ultimately boils down to a single issue: Europeans no longer care enough about the EU to make the compromises needed to preserve it. Instead, they are reclaiming the powers they need to tackle the problems they face, either by leaving the EU or by ignoring its precepts when it no longer suits them. In such circumstances, there is serious reason to doubt whether the EU will survive at all, at least as a meaningful organisation. And with the EU’s demise, so goes the cornerstone of the West’s policy for stabilising the Balkans.


To complicate matters yet further, other external powers are increasingly active in the region. Russia is using its influence to frustrate the process of westward integration, while promoting an alternative political model based on a strong state and conservative social values. It is also playing strategic games in the region, encouraging disaffected minorities such as the Bosnian Serbs to pursue their goal of independence in order to create difficulties for the West. Turkey is similarly offering an alternative locus for disaffected Muslims such as Bosniaks and Macedonian Albanians. And China is enthusiastically providing governments across the region with no-strings funding for investment in infrastructure, undermining the West’s attempts to promote conditions-based internal reform.





This heady cocktail of factors is already starting to destabilise the Balkans. Almost every state in the region has experienced serious unrest in the last couple of years as people lose faith in the EU’s power to deliver them from their current state of hopelessness, poverty and corruption. Instead, they are turning on their governments, first in Bulgaria, then Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro and most recently Serbia. In response, political leaders, who must steer their countries to safety in increasingly testing conditions, are becoming progressively more authoritarian in character.


More seriously, as crisis deepens, the spectre of separatism is returning to the fore as minorities try to take control of their destiny in countries where the central government inevitably prioritises the interest 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 a separate territory run by their own politicians who can deliver the security, prosperity and rights which they desire. And they are co-opting outside powers such as Russia and Turkey to help them achieve this goal, as well as regional powers such Croatia, Serbia and Albania whose own disillusionment with the EU is reviving nationalist politics. These minorities may not be working to any master plan or even be aware of where their demands will lead. But the effect of their actions is clear: the fracturing of the states in which they live, and with it, the Post-Yugoslav settlement.





For the moment, the West’s ability to preserve the status quo in the Balkans is not completely spent because of its collective veto on changes in borders. This puts a block on attempts by would-be separatists to create independent states or to merge their territory with an adjacent polity. If the alternative to existing as an autonomous region inside a legally-recognised state is life in an unrecognised territory which cannot trade or borrow, then disaffected minorities will continue to accept the status quo, at least for the time being. In the meantime, the EU is continuing to squeeze the last bit of leverage out of its policy of stabilisation through integration. In the last couple of years, Brussels has pushed all the region’s laggards - Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania - one step along the path towards membership. This comes despite democratic backsliding, civil unrest and the absence of any real progress in reform.


In reality, however, the EU is struggling to impose its authority and losing control on the ground. Diplomats have been unable to resolve a two-year long political crisis in Macedonia which is set to conclude after elections in December exactly as it began, with the ruling party, neck-high in corruption but still firmly in power. The EU has also failed to conclude the Brussels Agreement intended to normalise relations between Serbia and Kosovo. On the contrary, with mass demonstrations in Pristina and severely strained relations between the two governments, hopes of implementation are fading. Perhaps most seriously, the EU failed to prevent a referendum in October in Republika Srpska that poses a direct challenge to the Dayton constitution which holds Bosnia together. To compound its impotence, the EU then failed to impose sanctions on the Bosnian Serb leadership, clearing the way for further referenda including, potentially, a promised vote on independence. All this stands in stark contrast to the situation a decade ago when international governors enforced their will by whipping separatists into line.


What happens next is, of course, a matter of speculation. In all probability, the international veto means the Post-Yugoslav settlement will continue to hold in law. However, this does not mean that facts on the ground cannot change. Instead, separatist groups can easily gain a kind of functional independence simply by asserting their sovereignty in areas of vital national importance without formally seceding, just as states in the EU like Poland and Hungary are doing without incurring the costs of leaving the union. All separatists then need to do is wait for opportune circumstances to formalise this separation.


Such circumstances arise rarely but are now potentially within sight. History suggests that changes in borders in the Balkans invariably follow a shock to the European system such as the World War I, which led to the creation of Yugoslavia, or the downfall of the Soviet Union, which brought it to an end. If the EU were to suddenly collapse – by no means an impossible scenario - then the repercussions would quickly spread to the Balkans where a breakdown in external control and a groundswell of nationalism would provide a unique opportunity for separatist groups to make a decisive break.





If this is the danger, then how should the West respond? The key consideration they should keep in mind is that the existing policy of stabilisation through integration, to the extent that it ever worked, has finally run out of road because of the end of EU enlargement. The question, more specifically therefore, is how long the West should persist with a policy that is now, in effect, redundant.


Certainly, there is a case for doing so as long as circumstances do not compel a rethink. But the difficulty is that, increasingly, they do. By labouring onwards with an obsolete policy that relies on an elusive reward and no accompanying sanctions, the West is handing the power of initiative to local revisionists and their external sponsors, Russia and Turkey, which are pursuing self-interested polices that cut across the West’s objectives. The consequences are only now starting to reveal themselves but the possible, even probable, outcome of this process is the collapse of the Western settlement and the risk of uncontrolled violence as majority populations fight to maintain the integrity of their states.


Some in the West argue that the existing policy could be made to work if only governments tried a bit harder, backing up a credible pledge of EU membership with greater effort in promoting regional co-operation, democracy, transparency, economic development, and so on. But this is simply wishful thinking. The promise of EU membership is broken and every one of these initiatives has been tried in spades for the last twenty years. Others argue that the West should get tough with politicians who advocate separatism, as used to be the case. Perhaps this would be possible if the West were willing to get stuck in on the ground and stay there, forever. But the political context has changed radically since last decade. No one wants another civilian mission and threats against a group such as the Bosnian Serbs would simply drive it into the arms of a waiting Russia.


Instead, the West should adopt a new approach that forges a durable peace by addressing the underlying source of instability in the Balkans, namely the mismatch of political and national boundaries. The experiment in multi-ethnicity has had two decades to prove its viability and been found desperately wanting. If the West is to stay true to its long-standing goal of preserving peace in the Balkans, then the moment is arriving when it must put pragmatism before idealism, accept that multi-ethnicity is not working and plan for a graduated transition to properly-constituted nation states whose populations can satisfy the most basic interests of any community – their security, prosperity and rights.


The key to achieving this is to ensure that the United States, which alone has the power to act decisively, takes control of the process and implements it incrementally, allowing groups on the ground the time to adapt to a changing reality. In the short term, Washington should support the internal fragmentation of multi-ethnic states where minorities demand it by, for example, accepting the Albanians’ bid for the federalization of Macedonia and Croats’ demand for a third entity in Bosnia. In the medium term, the United States should allow these various territories to form close political and economic links with their larger neighbors, including dual citizenship and shared institutions, while formally remaining a part of their existing state.


In the final phase, the US should endorse demands by these various territories to merge with their larger neighbours, perhaps initially as autonomous regions. A Croat entity in Bosnia would merge with Croatia; Republika Srpska and the north of Kosovo with Serbia; and the Presevo Valley, western Macedonia, and most of Kosovo with Albania. Meanwhile, Montenegro, which may lose its small Albanian enclaves, could either stay independent or coalesce with an expanded Serbia. Eventually, these unions could pool their sovereignty, creating normal, centrally-governed states, which are recognised internationally. In pursuing this plan, the US would not be breaking new ground, but simply reviving the Wilsonian vision of a Europe of self-governing nations in the one part of the continent where this vision has never been applied.


Inevitably, there would be difficulties and risks - although not as serious as those inherent in the existing failed policy approach. Serbia would have to let go of Kosovo, minus the north, but the compensation would be the realization of a Serbian national state on the territory on the Balkans where Serbs predominate. Albanians would similarly have to give up northern Kosovo. More problematically, Bosniaks and Macedonians would need to accept the loss of territory to which they are sentimentally attached without any significant territorial compensation.


In reality, this would be a formalisation of the existing reality since neither group will never again wield sovereignty over territory where they no longer have significant population. But the U.S. and Europeans would need to smooth the transition by investing heavily in their economic development and by involving a range of international partners – including Russia, Turkey and the key regional states of Serbia, Croatia and Albania - to commit to their security. For a transitional period, the U.S. and others may also have to deploy peacekeepers on the ground to uphold the borders of the expanded Serbian, Croatian and Albanian states. But this would only be temporary commitment, in contrast to the current deployment of nearly 5,000 troops needed to uphold an illegitimate status quo. Ultimately, it is easier to enforce a separation than a reluctant cohabitation.


This conclusion will be rejected by those in the West who are heavily invested in the current policy of multi-ethnicity. However, for too long, debate on the Balkans has been dominated by Western diplomats and academics who deny what is obvious to almost everyone on the ground: that multi-ethnicity is a beautiful idea and a miserable reality. There is no question that undoing the existing settlement would be complicated and a realignment of borders would not be an instant panacea. At the end of the process, the region would probably still be poor, authoritarian and corrupt. However, freeing up groups with divergent interests to pursue their separate destinies rather than forcing them to co-exist for the sake of an abstract ideological goal would at least give places such as Bosnia and Kosovo a chance to develop in the longer term. Even more importantly, it is eminently preferable to the probable consequences of the current policy, namely uncontrolled disintegration and potential armed conflict.


After many wasted years, the US must have the confidence to embrace a new approach that cuts through hardened assumptions. With a new administration in Washington, there is now an unprecedented opportunity to rethink a policy that has been flawed since its very inception. In a final act of service to the Balkans, it is time for the United States to now finish the job it started, this time once and for all.

This article first appeared in a modified form in Foreign Affairs on 20th December 2016.

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