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Notes from the Balkans

Notes from the Balkans

Mini Teaser: The United States should not balk at getting more deeply involved in the volatile Balkans: a well-crafted foreign policy could yield real results.

by Author(s): Gordon N. Bardos

LOST BENEATH the bloody headlines from Afghanistan, Darfur, Iraq and Lebanon is the fact that the Balkans are undergoing their most profound period of change since Slobodan Milosevic's overthrow in 2000. Last June, Montenegro declared its independence, and the process to determine Kosovo's future status has entered its last stages. New governments are also in power in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

All of these changes are taking place at a time when strategic uncertainty in southeastern Europe is increasing because Washington and Brussels are consumed by problems elsewhere, while Russia is increasingly asserting its political and economic interests in the region. Balkan stability over the past seven years has rested on three pillars: a significant U.S. military presence, the foreseeable prospect of EU accession for the Balkan countries and the fact that political elites in Belgrade, Banja Luka, Skopje and Zagreb support the political and territorial status quo in the region. Two of these three pillars-the U.S. military presence and the foreseeable prospect of EU accession-are either being withdrawn or pushed back to an increasingly distant future. The few remaining U.S. troops in Bosnia were pulled out in 2006, and a similar withdrawal is planned for Kosovo in the near future. Both moves reveal the mindset of bureaucratic planners who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Meanwhile, the Europeans are suffering from too many of their own problems to guide the Balkan states successfully through the transition process, so the EU is unable to provide firm assurances as to when the next round of enlargement that would include the Balkan states might take place. Hence, there is a significant danger that international policy toward the region could founder for the next couple of years.

The third pillar of Balkan stability-the status quo elites in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Serbia-is somewhat wobbly as well. Political forces challenging the existing state of affairs in the region-whether in the form of politicians in Sarajevo demanding a radical revision of the Dayton Peace Accords, revanchists in the Serbian Radical Party who still dream of creating a "Greater Serbia" or militant Albanian movements threatening to destabilize Macedonia, Montenegro or southern Serbia-all to greater or lesser degrees are waiting on the sidelines to see how quickly changing facts on the ground may play to their advantage.

Additionally, an important new variable has been introduced into the Balkan strategic equation-the re-emergence of Russia as an important economic and political player in the region. In Montenegro, Russians have bought the republic's largest industrial enterprise; in Bosnia, the largest oil refinery; in Macedonia, Lukoil is planning a major expansion of its operations; in Serbia, Russia is providing the capital to refurbish the hydroelectric plant at the Iron Gates of the Danube, Serbia's main source of electricity; and President Vladimir Putin has signed an agreement with his Bulgarian and Greek counterparts to build a new pipeline to carry Russian oil from the Black Sea to the Aegean.

Given all of these developments, the current political moment in the Balkans bears a disconcerting resemblance to the situation in 1991 when the Yugoslav crisis first began. Then, as now, rapidly changing political realities in southeastern Europe came at a moment when Washington and European capitals were distracted by problems elsewhere, and belated American and European reactions to the accelerating dynamic of disintegration and violence were unable to keep the lid on a volatile situation.

To be sure, there is little danger that the large-scale violence of the 1990s that ravaged Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo will erupt again in the western or southern Balkans. New security mechanisms and instruments are now in place, and there is greater recognition of the need for quick, preventive diplomacy in the early stages of a crisis than there was in the early 1990s.

Nevertheless, the problems facing the region should be neither underestimated nor dismissed, and after 15 years of intensive international engagement, there is no excuse for Washington and Brussels to be behind the curve. Moreover, it is not at all clear that the newly implemented security structures will be strong enough to counteract the powerful forces now being unleashed in the region. Maintaining peace and stability and promoting economic and political reform in the Balkans while simultaneously re-drawing borders and creating new states will be a tall order. Accomplishing this task will be especially difficult because Washington's and Brussels's ability to control developments on the ground is decreasing in direct relationship to their drawdown in troops and financial aid. Furthermore, the only carrot on offer is the increasingly distant prospect of EU accession.

For these reasons, many implicit assumptions about Balkan policy currently holding sway on both sides of the Atlantic are seriously flawed. In Washington, the prevailing sentiment is that we can grant Kosovo independence, revise Bosnia's constitutional structure, declare victory and pull out of southeastern Europe. In Brussels, many quarters believe that southeastern Europe's EU-integration aspirations can wait until the EU settles its own internal difficulties. But the new political dynamics of the region unleashed by the changes of the past year means that at this moment the Balkans cannot afford benign neglect. The International Commission on the Balkans warned in 2005 that we are as close to failure in southeastern Europe as we are to success.

The judgment still holds true, but the good news is that maintaining stability and promoting reform in the Balkans can be done for a fraction of the cost of the Afghan and Iraqi operations, and in a region where Americans are popular, and everyone wants to join the European club. Stability and progress, however, will not emerge by themselves, which is why understanding the unstable political situation in the region is so crucial.

Start with Montenegro

FOR THE past 15 years, Montenegro has prided itself, with some justification, as being an exception to the general Balkan rule that ethnic diversity leads to conflict. Paradoxically, however, the thesis of Montenegrin exceptionalism faces its greatest challenge now that Montenegro has become independent. In May 2006, Montenegrins approved an independence referendum by a 55-?45 percent margin, but a glance behind the 45,000 vote difference suggests the future of Montenegrin politics will be anything but smooth. Voting was strictly along ethnic lines, with Albanians, Croats, Muslims (recognized as a distinct ethnic group in many parts of the Balkans) and ethnic Montenegrins voting overwhelmingly in favor of independence, while Montenegrin citizens identifying themselves as Serbs (over 30 percent of the population) voted just as strongly in favor of maintaining the state union with Serbia.

Independence, however, significantly changes the political game that all of these groups have been playing in recent years. Most of Montenegro's ethnic minorities supported independence not out of any particular loyalty to the Montenegrin state itself, but primarily to break Montenegro's ties with Serbia. Now that that has been achieved, Montenegro's various ethnic groups have already begun to up the ante in Montenegrin politics by demanding more autonomy and greater collective group rights. And as repeatedly seen in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia, such ethnically based politics make it extremely difficult to achieve the consensus needed to adopt and implement political and economic reform.

Several recent events sharply bring into focus this lack of consensus in Montenegrin society. In September 2006, on the eve of parliamentary elections, Montenegrin security forces arrested over a dozen ethnic Albanians for planning an alleged terrorist attack. Two of those arrested were local municipal council members, revealing the relatively shallow support even some Albanian government officials have for an independent Montenegrin state. At the inaugural session of the Montenegrin parliament on October 2, 2006, Serb members of parliament refused to stand for the singing of the Montenegrin national anthem. Finally, in April 2007, Montenegrin security forces had to break up attempts by extreme Montenegrin nationalists to take over holy sites belonging to the Serbian Orthodox Church. All of these events reveal the lack of consensus in Montenegrin society, the numerous potential cleavages for violence in the republic and the relatively weak foundations on which Montenegrin independence rests.

Apart from the most basic question of the new state's legitimacy in the eyes of many of its citizens, Montenegro faces enormous economic difficulties. Less than a fifth of the population is officially employed, governmental corruption is high even by regional standards and there is a serious debate within the country over the wisdom of relying so heavily on Russian investment in the republic. Adding to all of this uncertainty is Milo Djukanovic's decision to step down as prime minister and retire from politics. To his credit, Djukanovic achieved many things during his 17 years in power. His decision to break with Milosevic in 1997 was an important blow to Milosevic's aura of omnipotence, and he kept his cool during NATO's air campaign against the former Yugoslavia in 1999. Crowning these achievements was his role in peacefully guiding a deeply divided state to independence.

But the price of many of these things has yet to be paid. Putting together a coalition of groups with convergent short-term tactical goals but contradictory long-term strategic goals can win an independence referendum, but it will not make for a stable state. Similarly, the costs of Djukanovic's struggle to keep himself and his party in power, in terms of the significant criminalization of the state and society, is something that Montenegro will continue to pay for many years to come.

Essay Types: Essay