Going Backward In the Balkans
Going Backward In the Balkans
The Western Balkans: Fragile Majorities
The Western Balkans: Fragile Majorities

Going Backward In the Balkans

Once again violence is making policy in the Balkans. This week's ethnic fighting in Kosovo is the worst since the 1999 war there, and makes it more likely that Kosovo will ultimately be partitioned between Serbs and Albanians.

The United States and its European allies apparently never take wake-up calls in the Balkans but end up responding only to violence. They put pillows over their ears and declare that everything is going well in that part of the world. In fact, things have not been going well for years. Sustainable peace and progress in the region are impossible until the Kosovo issue, however difficult, is resolved.

The failure to establish Kosovo statehood creates massive uncertainty in the Balkans, exacerbates tensions between Albanians and Serbs, delays investment and growth, and keeps Serbia focused on the past. The main effort of the European Union in recent years has helped keep the past alive by insisting that Montenegro remain joined to Serbia and by holding out to Belgrade the prospect of a connection to Kosovo. In both the Clinton and Bush administrations the United States has followed this EU line.

In Kosovo itself, an often hapless U.N. administration guided from New York has resisted turning over power to the Kosovars, who despite their inexperience eventually became frustrated with colonial administration. The United Nations established a weak government and insisted that it meet impossible political and economic goals before Kosovo's final status can even be considered. The U.N. administration failed to generate any serious investment, leaving Kosovo with unemployment of roughly 60 percent -- a potential tinderbox. Equally important, the U.N. administration, with Security Council blessing, allowed Serbia to establish a dual administration in Kosovo for the Serb population there, in effect giving Serbia control over a significant portion of territory in northern Kosovo, where Albanians were kept out, and establishing a de facto geographical basis for partition.

Finally, the U.N. administration pursued the worthy goal of maintaining Kosovo as a multiethnic state by pressuring Kosovars to support the return of Serb refugees, even as the international community refused to make clear that Kosovo would be an independent state run by Albanians and not by Belgrade. The notion of a multiethnic state went out the window this week. Why would Serbs now return to any state run essentially by Albanians, whatever the promised safeguards?

As for Serbia, internal economic and political reform had largely slowed after Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was assassinated last year. The country has not yet moved beyond the criminal society set up by Slobodan Milosevic or even rid itself of the socialist bearings of Tito's days. It is in serious economic trouble. A poor, unreconstructed Serbia moved toward nationalist parties in December's elections. The events of the past few days are likely to further their influence. Dark forces are at work in Serbia and in Kosovo. Nevertheless, freeing Serbia from Montenegro and Kosovo is essential to Serbia's fundamental reform and to reducing instability in the Balkans.

This week's violence has exposed the failure of Western policy in Kosovo. We will see in the next few days whether the West recognizes that or, more likely, continues its blather on Kosovo's needing to meet unrealistic standards and on the indispensability of continued U.N. administration. The Albanian violence -- some or even much of it preplanned -- cannot be condoned and must be stopped. More U.N. forces will be needed for an indefinite time as the forces in Kosovo are stretched thin.

But the violence is not likely to end until the West stops relying on failed assumptions about a multiethnic Kosovo, a united Serbia-Montenegro-Kosovo and the power of the EU to resolve all difficult political issues in the Balkans. That requires the West to focus now on the final status of Kosovo before extremists of all stripes take over.

The notion of a multiethnic Kosovo has regrettably become totally unrealistic, and the stage may have been set for Kosovo's partition. The issues in achieving a settlement need careful sorting and may come down principally to where the partition line is drawn, what receives international recognition and how the international diplomatic process proceeds.

By its caution, inattention and lack of candor the West has allowed events in Kosovo to get out of control and has raised the prospects of violence not only in Serbia but also in Bosnia and Macedonia. Reducing the number of Western forces in Bosnia and Kosovo has become harder. Resolving the problem of Kosovo has become urgent. The way forward needs to be made clear.

The Western Balkans: Fragile Majorities

Political instability keeps growing in the Western Balkans amid geopolitical contests and increased tensions with Russia. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – First Update early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to engage intensively to ensure the political space for avoiding more serious crisis does nto entirely vanish in the Western Balkans.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2017 – First Update.

Mounting political instability in the Western Balkans has the potential to spark new crises on the EU’s immediate borders. Political tensions are particularly high in Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and Kosovo. Many EU policymakers are concerned that Russia aims to exacerbate this disorder, a worry that has intensified since elements of the Russian intelligence service were implicated in a failed coup in Montenegro last year. But the region’s crises are rooted in a prevalent winner-takes-all party politics and flaws inherent in the political settlements forged to end the Yugo­slav wars. While Russia has deep-seated interests in the Balkans, its interventions are more opportunistic than strategic.

[T]he EU [...] should concentrate on local sources of instability, which often are linked to ruling parties’ refusal to give up power despite losing elections.

The Balkans are a part of the ongoing geopolitical contest, but local sensitivities are much stronger drivers of events and risks in the region than geopolitics: the EU therefore should concentrate on local sources of instability, which often are linked to ruling parties’ refusal to give up power despite losing elections. Regional states – including those discussed below – have endured on-and-off political tensions since the 1990s, so far without sliding back into secessionist wars. But the political space for avoiding more serious crises is narrowing, and the EU must engage intensively to ensure it does not entirely vanish. This will play out differently in each context but at its core the EU should seek to impose meaningful financial costs on, and slow down the pace of EU accession for actors who violate basic norms, and in particular on parties that obstruct a peaceful transfer of power.


The risk of a serious crisis is highest in Macedonia. National elections in 2016 failed to restore stability after a period of political turmoil and sporadic violence. The incumbent right to far-right VMRO-DPMNE party has refused to cede power to a majority coalition of parties led by the Social Democratic SDSM party. A central point of contention is the SDSM’s willingness to make some political concessions to the Albanian minority, which VMRO claims threaten the state’s existence. This invalid claim has resulted in daily anti-Albanian rallies in the capital, Skopje, as well as in growing alienation among ethnic Albanians. While the Macedonian Albanian minority’s leaders generally have remained committed to working within Macedonia’s political structures since the country came close to civil war in 2001, the current crisis could undermine this uneasy bargain.

Civil society groups have called for targeted sanctions against senior VMRO officials, and the European Parliament’s rapporteur has echoed these calls. The EU should use the threat of possible sanctions to press the VMRO to accept its electoral defeat and play the role of responsible opposition. Leaders of the European People’s Party (EPP), of which VMRO is a member, should use their contacts in Skopje to insist that VMRO stop blocking the transfer of power; if it does not the EPP should consider suspending VMRO.


The political climate in Kosovo has been poisonous since the ruling PDK party refused to cede power after losing elections in 2014. The nationalist opposition party – VV – has responded with public protests and accusations that the PDK is too generous to the ethnic Serb minority. The PDK subsequently reached a power-sharing arrangement with another part of the opposition, the centrist LDK, though this political deal failed to bridge deeper societal divides. While the EU previously coaxed Belgrade and Pristina into constructive talks, relations have worsened and there were tensions this winter over a Kosovo Serb plan to build a wall in the divided city of Mitrovica. Although EU officials keep a close watch on the situation, inter-ethnic tensions are liable to recur if the PDK and opposition exploit them as part of their standoff.

Domestic and international civil society groups have launched a dialogue between the PDK and opposition, and the EU should continue to support this. In particular, it should encourage these civil society efforts to bring ethnic Serb minority parties and representatives into the dialogue, while using its leverage with Belgrade to persuade Serbia not to obstruct the process.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

BiH potentially faces a decisive test of its sustainability as a state in 2018-2019. The country could be unable to replace the current legislature and executive when their terms expire in October 2018. The constitutional court has struck down elements of the electoral law, and all major Bosniak, Croat and Serb parties will have to agree on amendments to the law if state-wide polls are to take place next year. Given the polarisation of BiH politics, there is a significant danger that this will prove impossible.

Failure to hold elections in 2018 would result in the state’s gradual paralysis. In a worst-case scenario this would allow Republika Srpska to press anew for its secession from the federal state. The EU, supported by BiH’s neighbours Croatia and Serbia, should use the leverage of the accession process and related assistance to push all sides to amend the electoral law as quickly as possible, and emphasise its long-term focus on the country by, for example, committing to keep in place EUFOR, the small EU-led peacekeeping force, for as long as necessary.

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