The Great Unfinished Business of Southeastern Europe
The Great Unfinished Business of Southeastern Europe
The Western Balkans: Fragile Majorities
The Western Balkans: Fragile Majorities

The Great Unfinished Business of Southeastern Europe

Last Sunday's election in Montenegro leaves the rump Yugoslavia in limbo. With the electorate so evenly divided for and against independence, the Serbia-Montenegro union will live to limp on a little longer, but the relationship between the two remaining Yugoslav republics stays unviable and perhaps unreformable.

Slobodan Milosevic's demise has not solved the underlying structural problem in Yugoslavia. The constitution he imposed in 1992 cannot meet the needs of any modern, democratic state. More starkly, it cannot accommodate the legitimate aspirations of 2 million ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, which is still part of Serbia al-though administered now as a United Nations protectorate.

Resolving the status and interrelationship of Serbia, Kosovo and Montenegro is the great unfinished business of southeastern Europe. Until it happens, politics will remain plagued by extremist nationalism. Ownership and other basic legal rights will remain clouded, and foreign investors will certainly be deterred.

Nor has life after Mr. Milosevic meant the end of crises elsewhere in the Balkans. With Bosnian Croats in open revolt, and Bosnian Serbs pinning their hopes on new nationalist leaders in Belgrade, the future of Bosnia remains wide open. Even Macedonia, for so long the dog that didn't bark, lurched close to civil war last month, with the army in action against ethnic Albanian rebels.

These crises feed on a perceived loss of international nerve and stamina. In Bosnia, the talk is of troop drawdown. There is, unhappily, a growing sentiment in some key Western capitals in favor of partition, on the basis that the multiethnic poultice invented at Dayton has not healed Bosnia's wounds and can never do so.

For Kosovo, viability must mean formalizing, in some principled way, the break with Serbia. But the sheer difficulty of achieving this has paralyzed the international community. Unless there is an accelerated move to genuine self-government, with this in turn laying the foundation for serious final status discussions, the UN-led mission will find itself more and more dangerously at odds with the ethnic Albanian majority - and just as unable to protect Serbian and Roma minorities as it is now.

All these issues are addressed in a book-length report from the International Crisis Group, "After Milosevic: A Practical Agenda for Lasting Peace in the Balkans," being launched this Thursday in Brussels. It argues that lasting peace depends crucially on institutional change, that future and final status issues have to be addressed sooner rather than later, that each country situation has its own unique dynamics, and that international policy cannot continue to drift, nervous and unfocused. Hopes that Yugoslavia can somehow be reconstituted as a loose federation or confederation, with next to no central authority, are popular in Belgrade and Western capitals but painfully detached from political realities. Both Montenegro and Serbia are reluctant to enter any revised federal arrangement, while Kosovo wants nothing to do with Belgrade at all.

There are multiple constitutional models available for Montenegro and Serbia to find some common ground. The two have to sort out monetary policy, and tax and environmental policy, and find ways of cooperating over pensions, health care and education.

The international community should be helping them reach a settlement - and should be totally relaxed if that involves independence.

Fears that Montenegrin independence moves would generate civil war in Montenegro, unstoppable domino effects elsewhere in the region, political instability in Belgrade and an adverse impact on the authority of the civil administrator in Kosovo have all been greatly overstated.

Kosovo is a much bigger challenge. As long as Albanians fear, and Serbs hope, that Belgrade's rule might return, each side will be preparing both psychologically and practically for the next war, deflecting attention from other political, economic and social problems. Three steps forward should now be taken. The first is quickly to establish, on the basis of elections held this past autumn, a full system of democratic and autonomous self-government, as promised in Security Council Resolution 1244. The second is to establish a focal point for the "political process to determine Kosovo's final status" envisaged by 1244. The most obvious candidate here is an international meeting of the kind that the Rambouillet negotiators wanted for 2002, with the Group of Eight or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe taking the lead.

The third is serious consultations on principles for a final settlement. Border adjustments should not be ruled out if they are peacefully agreed upon. (There would be no relevant parallels with ethnic-cleansing-based demands for partition in Bosnia.) The most appropriate status for Kosovo would be "conditional independence," which could involve a period of international trusteeship and some permanent limits on sovereign action.

In Bosnia and Macedonia, the critical needs are to preserve territorial integrity and the principle of multiethnicity.

The challenge of building up state institutions, and systematically destroying the power bases of extremist nationals, has at last been faced in Bosnia, but international commitment is more than ever needed now to see this through. Here as elsewhere in the Balkans, lasting peace won't come by default.

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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