The dangerous Balkan standstill
23 Aug 2021|

With two decades of war in Afghanistan coming to the grimmest of possible ends, it is worth remembering that three decades have now passed since war came to the Balkans. Both are case studies in how the mismanagement of war can have devastating effects that linger for decades.

In the Balkans, a small war between the disintegrating state of Yugoslavia and one of its constitutive republics, Slovenia, was followed by a bigger conflict in Croatia. Within a year, a savage conflict was raging in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well. Suddenly, Europe’s ‘post-war’ period had ended.

The Balkan wars raged for a decade. The Dayton Peace Agreement ended the conflict in Bosnia in 1995, but then came the Kosovo War, which continued until 1999 and was followed, in 2001, by a serious outbreak of violence in what is now North Macedonia.

All told, the Balkan wars claimed more than 100,000 lives, displaced millions of people and set back the region’s economic and social development by decades. Though it had been living largely on credit, the old Yugoslavia had given its citizens a better standard of living than those of its socialist peers. The country’s long, violent disintegration changed all that.

The peace agreements that were cobbled together at the time were merely stopgap measures. Everyone understood that lasting stability would require a wider and much more comprehensive framework. And so, in 2003, European Union leaders declared that all the region’s countries should work towards a future of stability and lasting peace within the EU.

No one expected that to happen overnight; but nor did anyone think the integration process would be as drawn out as it has been. Since Slovenia and Croatia’s accession in 2004 and 2013, respectively, the EU’s Balkan enlargement has effectively stalled.

The reason for this is twofold. First, political and economic reform in non-EU Balkan countries has been painfully slow, while corruption and nationalist sentiment has become ever more entrenched. Second, support for further enlargement has faded within many EU countries. Though politicians still pay lip service to the idea, new hurdles and delays tend to be greeted with relief in several key member states.

Moreover, the problems within Balkan countries are severe. A quarter of a century after the Dayton Agreement, the international community has deemed Bosnia to be so politically dysfunctional as to warrant a new high representative with wide-ranging powers (I was the first to hold such an office, serving from 1995 to 1997), effectively derailing the country’s EU-accession agenda.

Meanwhile, Serbia has come under the boot of an autocratic regime that flirts with China one day and kowtows to Russia the next, all while its representatives continue to put on a good face at the European Commission in Brussels. Despite enormous efforts by both the EU and the United States, the outstanding issues between Serbia and Kosovo are nowhere close to being resolved.

Finally, after being blocked from joining the EU by Greece (owing to a dispute over its name), North Macedonia now finds itself being blackballed by Bulgaria for reasons that go far back in the region’s history (but that lack any contemporary relevance).

Further complicating matters, the EU’s struggle to rein in the Hungarian and Polish governments’ attacks on the rule of law and independent media has dampened its appetite for taking a risk with potentially illiberal new members. When Hungary offers its enthusiastic support for Serbia’s accession bid, many others in the EU see a hidden agenda that must be blocked.

The EU’s overture in 2003 was a courageous and wise strategic step. But now that the prospect of Balkan integration is fading, the charade cannot continue. Instead, political leaders must accept reality and start mapping out realistic interim steps that could improve conditions in the region without abandoning the final goal.

A good starting point is the Open Balkan initiative, which was designed to increase trade between Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia. But it’s not enough. The EU should take the lead by proposing a new arrangement, one that includes an offer of membership in its customs union and single market.

Three decades ago, the Balkan wars started with a small 10-day conflict on Slovenia’s borders. Now, it’s Slovenia that holds the Council of the European Union’s rotating chairmanship. Its leadership agenda includes a summit between all the Western Balkan countries and EU member states in October. That occasion should prompt clear and realistic thinking from all parties.

The alternative for the Western Balkans is a slide backward into violence. It has happened before. It is happening now in Afghanistan. It must not happen again in Europe.