Rethinking (In)Security in the Western Balkans

By Dr. Muhidin Mulalić

The great powers often exercise the power over the Balkans by using the constructed notions of “balkanism” and “balkanization.” Particularly “balkanization”, which implies the parcelization and divisiveness, (re)connects the Balkans with ethnic and nationalistic tribalism. For Eric Hobsbawn the term “balkanization” refers to “the system of mini-states.” Therefore, since the 1900s the Balkans started to be viewed as a region that is far away from the Western worldview. A brief comparative view of the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) and violent disintegration of former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, projects the violent dimensions of the Balkans. The West as “arbiter” in these conflicts usually deals with violence, border disputes, and (in)security. In this regard, in the past century, the Balkans failed to make any significant change. Radical Ethno-nationalist ideologies that focus on a nation, nation-state, and borders left very small space for the development and flourishing of liberal democratic values. After the 1990s the Western Balkans became a major “fault line” between democratic states and undemocratic fragile nationalist states. Today the Western Balkans is “the epicenter” of major political changes and transformations and a source of potential instability and insecurity. The Western Balkans states such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Kosovo are “unfinished” and “disputed” states that grapple with same century-old questions of ethnic rights, conflict, violence, and border-disputes.

Since the 1990s, in the Western Balkans, the ethnopolitics has prevented the development of liberal democratic values, whereby the citizen is at the center regardless of ethnic, religious, racial, linguistic and national identification. Ethno-politics is the driving force that has seriously affected the sovereignty and functioning of the Western Balkans states. A good example of exclusive and harmful use of ethnopolitics is Mr. Milorad Dodik who advocates the secession from Bosnia and exclusive ethnic political divisions. Besides, from the security point of view, he is a strong Russian supporter and objects Bosnian NATO membership. His actions in the past ten years have seriously undermined the peace-building and security in the Western Balkans. Therefore, the Western Balkans nationalist leaders, who mostly use ethnopolitics, keep the people in a continuous mental state of war.

The US has recently appointed a Special Representative to the Western Balkans, Matthew Palmer and Richard Grenell as a Special Envoy to Serbia and Kosovo. These appointments imply that the United States is concerned with the security challenges in the Western Balkans, which the European Union cannot manage alone. Thus, the strategic approach of the United States and the European Union towards the Western Balkans could tackle the security concerns, enlargement, economic reforms, and migrations. The EU and the US must oppose extreme nationalist ideologies if they want to prevent the region from sliding into another catastrophe like during the 1990s. There is resurgence of the Serbian hegemonic nationalist ideology that negatively affects all Western Balkans states. Serbia is using the Serb minorities in Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and North Macedonia as a diplomatic and negotiating tool. Aleksandar Vučić has done nothing visible for the political stability of the region. On the contrary, his support and misuse of the Serb minorities in the Western Balkans countries constantly undermine peace, stability, and security in the region.

There is overall apathy in the Western Balkans, shaped by the economic decline, insecurity, unresolved conflicts, disputes, and dependency. Today, even the EU is turning back to the Western Balkans region, whereby the EU doesn’t plan seriously further enlargement. Then, in the Western Balkans semi-autocratic governments are in power that rules through party apparatus, patronage, and media. They use the EU accession to strengthen their domestic control. These countries are declared as hybrid regimes where democracy is at a very low level. The Western Balkans countries have moved away from becoming consolidated democracies. The institutions, the legal framework, and democratic infrastructure tend to be subjected to the autocratic governments. In this regard, the Western Balkans countries do not progress and two decades have been lost in the democratization process. Some Western Balkans states are dysfunctional, whereby their institutions don’t function. In addition, the ruling elites use the policy of divisiveness/polarization to gain and control the power. In this regard, Bosnia is a good example. Some critics question even the Western Balkans countries’ process of moving towards the EU. Long negotiations, endless reports, and recommendations, artificial reforms have not delivered the promised progress towards democracy and higher living standards. The Western Balkans state institutions are in crisis as they don’t function independently from autocratic leaders. Bosnia is a good example whereby key EU representatives and party leaders reach agreements in restaurants, not in state-institutions. The Western Balkans leaders skillfully used the Western support to gain the power, once they gained the power they turned back to democratization and reforms and instead began using nationalistic rhetoric to hold the power. A good example is Milorad Dodik, who was considered as the Balkans hope but today is one of the strongest Western Balkans nationalist hardliners.  

From the security point of view, the Western Balkans will continue to be the European backyard as all potential world disputes and problems between Russia, China, the US, and Europe will be traded over the Western Balkans. In this regard, the Balkans countries have accepted to be the tool of the great powers. The Western Balkans region is at risk of autocratic governments, whose overthrowing could lead to more chaos and violence. There is a threat that unresolved ethnic tensions could lead towards ethnic violence in Serbia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Western Balkans is at a crossroad/periphery because of losing the support from the EU. The EU membership is under big question mark because of the EU internal problems. All this is being reflected in the Western Balkans.Although the citizens in the Western Balkans are committed to the EU membership, they are pessimistic as they don’t believe that their countries will join the EU.

The international and domestic democratic forces must invest more in democratization, state-building, and institution-building to reduce and eliminate the power of nationalist autocratic leaders and political parties. Then, the EU should involve civil society, NGOs, Parliaments, and all state institutions in the reform process and fulfilling the criteria for the EU membership. The EU should empower the democratic forces in the region as a whole instead of focusing on separate countries. The Western Balkans democratic forces should cooperate more beyond their nation-states. It is important to promote the EU membership in the public and articulate benefits from joining the EU in terms of stability, prosperity, democracy and the rule of law. The region is in need of a credible partnership between the EU and the Western Balkans countries, whereby the focus should be placed on the reforms, the rule of law, fight against corruption, security, resolving border-disputes and boosting economic growth and development.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Balkan Studies Center (BSC).