Nation Building Fails in the Balkans

Despite decades of Western intervention, the former Yugoslavia seems to stay the same.

The latest news from the Balkans sounds strangely familiar.

In Bosnia, the three leading nationalist parties have won the elections, and the country is mired in political and constitutional disputes over how power should be divided between the main ethnic groups. Newspapers and airwaves are filled with stories of crimes and atrocities committed during the latest hostilities, and public ceremonies exhuming the victims of the previous war are frequent occurrences.

In Serbia, the government is led by a prime minister from the Socialist Party, and one of the main items on the political agenda is how to handle the Kosovo problem. In Kosovo itself, an aggrieved ethnic group has created parallel institutions to protect its interests. In Montenegro, the prime minister is Milo Djukanovic. Further south, Greece refuses to accept its northern neighbor’s right to use the name “Macedonia.” An ethnic group that finds itself divided amongst a number of states is increasingly pushing for a “greater” solution to its national question. And for most people, the hope for EU accession seems like a far off dream.

The year is 1991 or 2012: take your pick.

How much substantive progress has actually been made in the Balkans over the past twenty years? How much things have really changed? Although Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007, by most accounts EU accession has done little to promote fundamental change in those countries. And while Croatia will join the EU next year, the far bigger and more important story is the fact that Greece might well become the first Balkan country to leave the eurozone. How remote the prospect of EU integration is for most people is evident from a quip making the rounds in Belgrade, which predicts that Serbia will join the EU during the Turkish presidency.

Moreover, it is of little comfort to the Balkan countries that the EU itself is now facing the same political and economic debates about revenue transfers and the appropriate levels of centralization and decentralization that the former Yugoslavia itself was undergoing in the 1980s—and we know how that story ended. Together with the rise of regional separatism in Belgium, Spain, and Britain, these developments only reinforce the feeling one frequently hears in the region that the multinational EU may be going the way of multinational Yugoslavia. Indeed, instead of talking about the Europeanization of the Balkans, we could now be staring at the Balkanization of Europe.

Those who like to see the Balkan glass as half full optimistically point to the fact that most Balkan countries are either full NATO members or members of NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, yet NATO itself is a military alliance whose very raison d’etre—deterring a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, in less politically correct terms, “to keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down”—has ceased to exist. And there is considerable grumbling throughout the region about the relative costs and benefits of NATO membership. In Croatia, for instance, skeptics wonder why they should be forced to buy F-16s when the planes can’t even reach maximum speed and altitude within Croatian airspace.

When there has been palpable change in the region over the past two decades, much of it has been for the worse. It now takes more time to cross the borders of the former Yugoslav republics than it does to cross what used to be the Iron Curtain, and Mostar and Mitrovica have replaced Berlin as the divided cities of Europe. By almost anyone’s measure, corruption in all of these countries is even worse now than in the waning years of communism, and for a disconcertingly large percentage of the population, living standards are only now getting back to pre-1989 levels.

In Bosnia, the Office of the High Representative is probably the world’s last extant remainder of 19th century colonial supervision. (Perhaps this explains why international administrators for Bosnia tend to come from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.) And one of the international community’s most important initiatives in the region, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, whose express purpose was to individualize guilt and promote ethnic reconciliation, has done little of either.

All told, instead of southeastern Europe becoming better integrated as a region—and with the 21st century idea of Europe itself—it is starting to look more like it did in the 19th century, with small, poor statelets competing for the attentions, favors and support of the various great powers. The danger, of course, is that in the 19th century the Balkans were known as “the powderkeg of Europe.”

Fortunately, it is practically impossible to imagine a scenario in which problems in the Balkans could again lead to conflagration in Europe. But people fond of political and social engineering should take little encouragement from the facts: some of the most well-funded international efforts in nation- and state-building in history have in many ways gotten us right back to where we started from two decades ago. Perhaps even further back.

Gordon N. Bardos is a Balkan politics and security specialist based in New York.

Image: Flickr/Belgraded.com.