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

Serbia's neighbors certainly understand the importance of such pragmatism. As Kosovo's Prime Minister Agim Ceku recently noted, "[T]he international community needs to find a way to stimulate democratic Serbia while sidelining the radicals." Sidelining the "radicals" in this case most especially means that Washington should reconsider its policy of avoiding all dealings with the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), whose leader, Vojislav Seselj, is currently on trial for war crimes in The Hague. The SRS is known for its extremist rhetoric and little else, but in a country with so many refugees and a devastated economy they can count on the support of anywhere between 30-35 percent of the electorate. The SRS is not monolithic: It has extreme and moderate factions, and initiating even low-level contacts with the party will move the moderates into a more responsible, mainstream direction and marginalize the extremists, which will be of considerable benefit to domestic Serbian politics.

Stabilizing Serbia-and, by extension, southeastern Europe as a whole-requires a new approach to dealing with Belgrade. Just like generals fighting the last war, however, far too many policymakers in Washington and some European capitals have yet to recognize that Slobodan Milosevic is dead. The challenge is no longer to contain a malevolent dictator but to foster an international environment that will guarantee the success of the democratic transition in the strategically most important country in the Balkans. The assassination of former-Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in March 2003 should be a tragic reminder of the dangers post-Milosevic political forces face.

WESTERN ENGAGEMENT in the Balkans is about more than altruism. Problems in southeastern Europe quickly become European problems, and European problems, sooner or later, create problems for America. To take but one example: Several of the 9/11 hijackers had been trained or fought in Bosnia in the 1990s.

Getting the western and southern Balkans through a successful democratic transition, however, will require devoting more attention to the region than either Washington or Brussels currently seem willing to do. Former-Macedonian Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski echoed the concerns of many Balkan political leaders when he noted that absent a clear timetable from the EU as to when the various countries of the western Balkans may join, "It will be very difficult for us pro-Western and pro-European reformers to continue the political fight."

At the moment, many regional leaders are closely watching to see how the EU deals with Croatia's membership bid. Croatia is by most measures a more suitable candidate for EU membership than either Bulgaria or Romania, so the problem of integrating Croatia is more a matter of internal EU politics than of Croatia's political or economic suitability. All of these things combined-making Croatia an example for the region that quick EU accession is still possible, despite the EU's own internal difficulties, stabilizing Serbia and providing support to its democratic forces and continuing to provide strong security guarantees to all the states in the region-will go a long way to ensuring that the transition process in the Balkans is successful.

While much can still go wrong in southeastern Europe, the current political moment also presents a very rare historical opportunity. For the first time in centuries, the region is not divided between rival empires or power blocs, and all the Balkan states share the same domestic- and foreign-policy goals-internally, political democratization and the creation of market economies and externally, integration into NATO, the EU and other Euro-Atlantic institutions. Whether these efforts succeed or fail largely depends on decisions that will be made outside the region. What is clear, however, is that this is a rare political moment when historical change can be accomplished in the Balkans for a relatively modest price.

Gordon N. Bardos is the assistant director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. He recently returned from a fact-finding visit to the region.

1 See Timothy William Waters, "Why Insist on the Surrender of Ratko Mladic?", The New York Times, May 12, 2006.

Essay Types: Essay