Tuesday, April 24, 2018

No Balkan Holiday

Only a fool thinks there will be peace in the Balkans forever. Especially with the patchwork of frozen conflicts left by NATO through the 1990s, it is only a matter of time until it heats up again. As always, the concern is who else will get caught up in it?

Over at WOTR, Michael Carpenter and Mieczysław P. Boduszyński are tapping us on the shoulder to remind us that history is a jealous mistress;
With nationalist-populist forces threatening to reverse decades of European integration across the continent — from Brexit in the United Kingdom to Catalan separatism in Spain to Lombard regionalism in Italy — European and American policymakers can no longer take for granted the security and stability of the Balkans, or Europe for that matter. The Balkans are too often ignored in the West on the naïve assumption that the region has permanently transitioned from a net “consumer” of security assistance to a net “provider.” However, history is not linear, and the region’s security troubles are not permanently behind it. The ghosts of the past — ethno-nationalism, admiration for strongmen, a belief in illiberal democracy — are appearing with greater frequency across Europe, and the Balkans are no exception.
Throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, Russian influence in the Balkans was relatively weak. Moscow may have backed Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević in the 1990s, but when push came to shove it was unwilling to go to bat for the embattled dictator, who was ousted in popular protests in 2000 and eventually tried in an international criminal court. Russia opposed the 1999 NATO air war over Serbia and Kosovo, but after initially trying to contest the U.S. military presence in Kosovo during the famed standoff at the Pristina airport, the Russians eventually backed down. In 2003, Russia pulled its “blue helmet” peacekeepers from Bosnia and Kosovo, removing a potential source of leverage. Afterward, Moscow seemed content to limit its Balkan engagement to energy diplomacy, such as pushing for the ill-fated South Stream pipeline.

What a difference a decade makes. By 2015, an assertive Russia, led by an increasingly emboldened Vladimir Putin, feeding off resurgent Balkan nationalism, local victimhood narratives, frustration with stalled E.U. enlargement, and historical ties to Orthodox Slavs in the region, was actively undermining democracy in the region. Moscow’s well-honed propaganda and disinformation campaigns have become a staple in Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, and the Serbian regions of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Drawing from a playbook it has tested in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and the Baltic states, and bolstered by its successes backing Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Moscow has sought to sow mistrust of Western motives and internal divisions among Balkan publics.
We should ask ourselves this question; what is in the American interest?

We are now in an alliance with Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Albania - with other bits begging to get in - so the odds of getting pulled in are larger than some think. On balance though, this is an European issue and they should be in lead, if anyone.

I don't claim to know what direction this will go. I do respect its instability. I've participated in attacks in the Balkans, I've spent a couple of weeks there, and my daughter a couple of months. I've served with a few Croatians and Macedonians. I work with and live around Bosnian refugees. I have no illusions that the story there is not over.

War in the immediate future doesn't have to take place. Plenty of off ramps and the authors do see hope. Sadly, their plea at the end has more hope than promise;
The time to focus on the Western Balkans is now, while the European Union and United States still have the combined resources to incentivize reforms and strengthen rule of law. On the Macedonia name issue and the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue, deft diplomacy and the right incentives can steer these seemingly intractable problems towards lasting resolutions. Containment of separatist threats in Republika Srpska and ultimately reform of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s governing institutions can stem and even reverse a slow slide towards ethnic fragmentation.

As we learned from the Balkan wars of the 1990s and from Russia’s more recent wars against Georgia and Ukraine, it is better for the West to deal with looming issues before they devolve into dangerous security dilemmas and conflicts. Finally, it is important to remember that the overwhelming majority of Western Balkan citizens want to be part of the West. The European Union and United States can harness those aspirations with a credible Euro-Atlantic perspective for the countries of the region, keeping alive the postwar dream of a Europe whole, free, and at peace.

No comments: