By Héloïse Bertrand
In the Western Balkans, the inter-ethnic tensions since the explosion of the former Yugoslavia in the 90s have not vanished despite almost twenty years of relative stability. Worried about Trump’s tumultuous rise to power and the Eurosceptic wave engendered by the Brexit speculative phenomenon in the United Kingdom, the West has completely overshadowed the tensions in this region that, in Churchill’s words, “produce more history than they can consume”. Why are we seeing these nationalist tensions again in the region? Could the unstable situation degenerate again today? Are the Balkans becoming the new arena of the arm wrestling game played by the great powers of this world?
The Western Balkans are experiencing renewed tensions. Those tensions are unlikely to “lead to a real blaze equivalent to the 1990s one, but they “marks a significant deterioration of the situation” reckons Cvete Koneska, a Control Risks’ analyst in her report. (Koneska, 2015)
Source: 2009, encyclopaedia Britannica
Last January, a train from Serbia covered with the nationalist message “Kosovo is Serbia” was stopped near the Kosovo border, inflaming tensions between Belgrade and Pristina. Some accused Russia of blowing on the embers via Serbia, the only non-NATO member of the region, with Montenegro in the process of ratifying its membership this year. The Kosovar President has qualified this incident of “conscious provocation”, but President Nikolic has replicated by affirming that Serbia does not want war, except if “Serbs are killed, we’ll send troops in”. (RT, 2017). Officially, Serbia is seeking EU membership but has been sliding towards the Kremlin and its policies to increase its influence in the Balkans. For this reason, Serbia faces a dilemma: either the nation recognises its split from Serbia, losing its Russian support and thus, power in the Balkans, or the nation could increase its influence in the Balkans by staying away from Brussels and Washington. Thus, US and Russia will not find common ground on this issue, given its parallelism with other wars in which the two powers are currently confronting each other. The desire of the Russians to build a gas pipeline across the Balkans and NATO’s willingness to oppose it greatly increases the chances of a new conflict in the Balkans.
In October 2016, on the eve of the legislative elections in Montenegro, a mysterious “putsch” is foiled. About twenty Russian nationalists are accused of wanting to kill Milo Djukanovic, the outgoing prime minister. Last December, Montenegro was on the brink of civil war because the population was strongly opposed to an eventual NATO membership. Thousands of protesters beat the pavement in Montenegro against a possible access to NATO, and were asking for a referendum. The referendum was not granted which only exacerbated tensions. (Tomovic, 2017). Thus, on the 29th of March, the American Senate has approved the accession of Montenegro to NATO without giving Montenegrins the choice. Montenegro will therefore lose the support of their protector which was a real asset in their economy: Russian entrepreneurs and tourists have contributed billions of dollars to the country’s budget in the last few years. Montenegrin tourism is largely backed by Russian visitors. Joining NATO would be a huge blow to this source of income.
As in all the Balkans states, the situation in Croatia remains critical since the wind of nationalism blew across the country. Last September, Croats went to the polls in a snap election, returning the ruling nationalist party HDZ as the biggest party, but changing nothing. Plus, some members of the government in Zagreb made ambiguous statements about the Nazi past of Croatia. This tendency towards revisionism is rooted not only in the history of the country but also in the present day: the European Union, of which Croatia is the newest member, is accused of weakening the Croatian identity, particularly in the management of Refugees who enter through the Balkans and who pass through the country. On the face of it, the country faces the same old problems. Unemployment at 16%, rising to 40% among the young; debt at 90% of GDP; the coast-dependent on tourism, the interior sending migrant workers to Germany and Austria by the coachload (The Guardian, 2016). The bad relationship between the nation-state and his neighbours has enhanced this nationalist revival and EU gradually lose the control of the situation.
Meanwhile in Bosnia peace is weakened since the country must face a new threat of disintegration. Indeed, the federation is divided between those who want to join the EU and those who want to be part of an independent state. The 25th of September, a referendum realised by the Republika Srpska – the Autonomous Serbian State embedded in Bosnia-Herzegovina- took place about the recognition of the Independence Day as a bank holiday. This referendum seems insignificant but both sides agreed that it was a trial run for another referendum, which would involve a real declaration of independence. Bosnia has been undermined by corruption since its independence in 1995 that followed the Dayton agreement, suffers from structural and coordination difficulties due to the multi-confessional executive of the federation. A referendum on a genuine independence could take place at any time between now and 2018. The precise date will depend on the speed which NATO pushes this fragile multi-ethnic and confessional state towards the integration process.
The two last years were rich in elections for the Balkans countries. The legislative of December 2016 has lead the only country which left Yugoslavia without war, to an impasse. Indeed, four months following parliamentary elections, Macedonian political parties have still yet to form a government. This can be explained by the fact that none of the two largest parties obtained the majority in Parliament. The VMRO-DPMNE (the conservative nationalist party) won 51 of the 120 seats, against 49 for the social democrats of the SDSM. Albanians constitute about 25% of the population of Macedonia. The three Albanian parties won 20 seats in the new parliament. The ethnic Albanian parties have collectively played the role of “kingmaker” for the formation of the new government, and they have decided to create a common platform by positing as a first condition that the Albanian language and the multi-ethnic symbols are officially recognised. Negotiations with the outgoing VMRO-DPMNE government failed at the end of January. Consequently, they went to see the social democrats and since the country is blocked under the American and Russian sphere of influence.
With all these issues, a feeling of Yugo-nostalgia has emerged in ex-Yugoslavia countries, and it constitutes a reflection of contemporary problems. The idea that people were living with higher standards in that period is strengthened by the bad demographic balance of the Balkans states, the high employment rate in those countries and the several constitutional crises. To Balkans insights, the percentages of people regretting the break-up are much bigger in other post-Yugoslav states: 68.2 per cent in Bosnia and Herzegovina for instance. (Ipsos, 2011). Unsurprisingly, Serbian citizens are the most Yugo-nostalgic, with 70.9 per cent regretting the fact that Yugoslavia no longer exists, according to the survey.
The resurgence of nationalism induced the re-emergence of the “Great countries” ideal (e.g the Great Albania with Macedonia). This desire to create a confederation engendered an arm race supported by Russia in the region: the Balkans countries feel insecure about the current circumstances. For this reason, it remains important to do not underestimate the potential trouble-making of the nationalist ideologies. In Croatia and Serbia, there is a talk of returning to compulsory military service. If a great international power wants conflict, it will take place without any doubts. The depots can quickly be filled with murderous weapons, propaganda and demagogy are ready to unleash the sirens of war.
In 2017, the Balkan region is a volatile mix of rising nationalism, deep economic frustration and disenchantment over the lack of progress in the process of accession to the European Union. Therefore, the international community must wake up to prevent the region from slipping into new conflicts. It must also prevent the creation of so-called Great States (such as Greater Serbia, Greater Albania, Greater Croatia). There is an urgent need to deal with the current plight. However, against a backdrop of geostrategic rivalries between Washington, Brussels and Moscow, and even Ankara, these tensions are not surprising, “especially as the countries of the region no longer have a real perspective to curb their nationalist position, accession to the European Union entangled in the crisis of the euro and migrants “, underlines a specialist from the Control risk agency. (Koneska, 2015). Given the economic and geopolitical situation, is there a serious alternative to Europe and its model of modernization for the Balkans? The answer is probably not, however the EU remains the best alternative, regardless of how painful it may be. It also remains possibly the only viable solution for the Balkans.
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