Selim Ibraimi- The optimists of European integration believe that the era of identity politics is over. They were convinced that, following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, identity issues would become a thing of the past, and the integrated peoples of Europe would enjoy decades of peaceful coexistence. However, recent events such as the war in Ukraine, disputes among EU member states, and growing tensions in the Balkans suggest that certain groups are still grappling with identity formation.

Media reports indicate that absolute peace is not achievable in the EU, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, or other parts of the world. The U.S. Directorate of Intelligence (ODNI) predicts in its 2024 annual report that tensions will increase and authoritarian governments will seek to manipulate and incite international conflicts. These projected events are familiar patterns in the long history of conflicts experienced by European nations. The challenges faced by the EU, the Balkans, Russia, and Ukraine are recurring issues driven by national and security interests. In the past century, political, national, and individual identity has been a central theme not only for governments. It must be acknowledged that after the First World War, the struggle for identity kept alive the desire for freedom and liberation from the ideologies of the 20th century. It is unsurprising that during this time, identity played a decisive role in the policies of nationalist governments in the Balkans, following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.

The main geopolitical actors were Russia, England, France, and the U.S., with vassal states serving the interests of the Great Powers. For these actors, the construction and negotiation of identity was not uncommon. Previously, they had negotiated the fate of the Middle East, thereby changing the political map of states after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Consequently, identity geopolitics historically dominated European and Balkan politics. Ethnicity, nation, and other social categories are closely linked to regional and global geopolitical processes, with ideologies profoundly rooted in the Balkan region. They shape internal identities and significantly influence government policies.

The interconnection of identity categories has continued to expand, especially in the EU and Balkan countries after 2022. However, the experimentation with the power of identity has caused significant damage to states in volatile regions. The misuse of identity is seen as necessary to enhance a nation’s global position and counter adversaries. However, constructing identity through weaponized rhetoric can lead to new conflicts, as evident in the cases of Bosnia and Kosovo. Disputes over national identity have far-reaching consequences, as demonstrated in the recent war between Russia and Ukraine. The violation of others’ identities hampers the establishment of diplomatic relations and impedes understanding between states.

The regional situation in the Balkans and the security environment in Europe, following the Russian attack and the new NATO memberships, will shape the geopolitical objectives of governments. This will force states to build bilateral relationships based on the strengthening of national identities, rather than long-term understanding (as seen in the case between Bulgaria and North Macedonia). Another example is the relationship between Russia, the U.S., and Serbia, which highlights the role of historical, political, and religious ties in preserving the identity of Balkan states connected to the Orthodox world.

In 1774, Catherine the Great (1729-1796) secured certain rights for Russia to represent the Orthodox population in the Balkans through a treaty with the Ottoman Empire. This historical event illustrates how identity creation in a specific territory has been influenced by external support and internal violence. Additionally, the involvement of the U.S. in the strengthening of Serbia has had consequences for the geopolitical and identity redefinitions of some Balkan states. This relationship can be examined in the context of events after the Congress of Berlin (1878), developments after 1914 and 1953, and the new shape of Serbian-American relations since 2000.
Cases of identity strengthening will continue to influence the Balkans for the next two to three decades. As Russia experiences a resurgence in Ukraine and utilizes other means of influence, identity politics will remain one of the additional tools in the geopolitical war between states. Considering the American-Russian case with Serbia, specifically regarding former identity strengthening, territorial expansion, and current military reinforcement, we better understand how identity politics has shaped the Balkans for over a century. Moreover, it highlights how it will continue to shape the region in the coming decades, potentially causing new misunderstandings between people.

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