Daniel Server: The Balkans are coming apart

Daniel Serwer – April 25, 2023 –

I’ve been too committed to book-writing to comment much lately, but the deteriorating situation in the Balkans prompts this post.

Bosnia faces the risk of secession

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Serb member of the state presidency, Milorad Dodik, is reiterating his intention to declare independence. He nominally seeks incorporation into Serbia. His current issue is that the state judiciary won’t allow him to expropriate public land in Republika Srpska (RS), which he needs as collateral for the loans he will be refinancing from Russia and other dubious sources this summer.

But that contingency should not distract from the main objective. Dodik has long aimed to be free of the scrutiny that comes from both the state and the international community. His theft of RS resources and abuse of the funds Russia supplies make him vulnerable to prosecution. Dodik needs to free himself from Bosnia and find a home where he won’t risk arrest. It is unlikely Serbia will open its doors, as that would offend Brussels and Washington too much. But Dodik will be content with an independent RS.

Kosovo does too

In Kosovo, the situation has gone from bad to worse. Serbian President Vucic has demonstrated in two ways that he controls the Serbs who live north of the Ibar River. First, Sunday’s elections were peaceful. That could not have happened without his orders. Take it as confirmation that Belgrade ordered all the rioting there in the past. Second, the overwhelming majority of Serbs did not vote. Vucic ordered that too. Those citizens who did vote elected four Albanians as mayors in Serb-majority municipalities. Vucic and his prime minister reacted with the fury of ethnic nationalists offended that the minority decided the outcome, because of the boycott they ordered.

I wouldn’t want to be one of those mayors. They will get little or no cooperation from either local Serb officials or the majority populations. Vucic’s fury is intended to hide the fact that he will continue to de facto govern the four northern Serb-majority municipalities from Belgrade, using its network of security agents and organized criminals. Pristina will have a hard time getting anything done there.

Montenegro has already fallen

Vucic has already captured Montenegro. He has used savvy hybrid means with Russian support to elect a new president. Jakov Milatovic claims to be pro-EU but is more than affectionate towards Serbia. The Serbian Church, pro-Serbian political parties, and populist mobilization against corruption combined to chase from office Milo Djukanovic. He had held power for most of the last three decades, governing with ethnic minority group support. Upcoming June 11 parliamentary elections will give Milatovic a deeply pro-Serb, anti-minority majority in parliament.

Montenegro is a NATO member. Serbia claims militarily “neutral” status. This should be enough to prevent any annexation, but it also weakens the Alliance, inserting in its midst another spoiler like Hungary.

No accident

It is no accident that parallel efforts at removing Serbs from non-Serb governing authority are occurring in three countries. President Vucic is pursuing the “Serbian world,” that is a state for all Serbs that incorporates territory that lies in neighboring countries. This is “Greater Serbia,” Milosevic’s goal, by another name. In Bosnia, he needs only allow Dodik to do his thing. In Kosovo, he is taking advantage of Prime Minister Kurti’s reluctance to begin negotiations on a “self-management” mechanism for the Serbs in Kosovo. In Montenegro, elections have delivered what Vucic wanted.

While the Americans and Europeans continue to avow that Serbia is embracing the West, in fact Vucic has turned his country definitively to the East. For the “Serbian world” to become a reality, Belgrade needs to hope Russia will win in Ukraine. That would provide the precedent Vucic needs for annexing parts of Kosovo and Bosnia. He will also need China to provide the financing Greater Serbia will require. Montenegro he needn’t annex–just remarry to recreate the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, which existed 2003-06. Or cohabitate with lots of bilateral agreements an inch short of amalgamation.

The weak-kneed Americans and Europeans

Vucic knows the Americans and Europeans won’t want to accept de jure a Greater Serbia. But he hopes they will learn to live with a de facto one. They in turn are proving soft. Washington has been trying to ignore Dodik and mollify Vucic. American diplomats vigorously advocate for the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities he sees as the vehicle for Serb “self-management.” The Americans have also revivified military cooperation and provided lots of financing through multilateral European development banks. Complaints about corruption in Serbia are few and far between. This appeasement has gotten no positive results.

Splits handicap the Europeans. Hungarian Prime Minister Orban acts as a protector for both Vucic and Dodik, preventing sanctions against both. France and the Netherlands have slowed enlargement prospects for Macedonia, Albania, and Bosnia. That diminishes the EU’s appeal also in Serbia and Montenegro. The five EU member states that have not recognized Kosovo prevent a real consensus in its favor, even in the relatively non-controversial vote this week at the Council of Europe to Pristina’s membership process.

A change of direction is needed

The US and EU are failing in the Balkans. They need to change direction. Their basic analysis is flawed. They have been relying on Serbia as the pivotal state in the region to bring stability, in cooperation with Croatia and Albania. But Serbia is a revisionist power. It wants to govern all Serbs in the region. Croatia and Albania have lesser ambitions, but in the same direction: to control their compatriots in neighboring Bosnia and Kosovo.

Washington and Brussels need a far more vigorous, united, and principled approach. That would support the rights of individual citizens, whatever their ethnicity. It would counter ethnic nationalism wherever it abuses minorities. It would reinforce the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all the region’s states. And it would welcome to the West only those who demonstrate real solidarity with the West.