Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is preparing for a trip to the Balkans. The current political moment there presents the nation’s top diplomat with many challenges. Yet U.S. and EU influence in the region is on the wane, and other interested powers such as Turkey, Russia and Israel are becoming increasingly active in the Balkans.
Greece, the first Balkan country to become a member of both NATO and the EU, is the great success story of Southeast Europe—and it’s all downhill from there. Moreover, the problems and uncertainty in the region are more than just spillover from the euro-zone crisis; the Balkans are undergoing an unstable transition from one relatively well-defined security architecture to an as-yet-undetermined one, with new forces playing increasingly important roles as old actors lose interest and influence.
The period lasting roughly from the signing of the Dayton peace accords in late 1995 to Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence in February 2008 defined the Balkans’ Pax Americana, during which all the major actors in European politics accepted Washington’s outlines for Balkan security. Importantly, even Moscow endorsed key elements of the U.S. vision for Balkan stability, such as the Dayton accords, UN Security Council Resolution 1244 ending the Kosovo conflict and the 2001 Ohrid accords in Macedonia. This international consensus on the Balkan political and security structure, however, broke down after Kosovo declared independence, something Moscow had repeatedly insisted it would not accept. Even the EU remains divided on this issue, with five EU members refusing to recognize Kosovo’s independence.
With this breakdown in the international consensus over what a legitimate Balkan political and security architecture should be, since 2008 Washington’s influence in the Balkans essentially has become nugatory; while the United States no longer possesses the diplomatic, economic or military means with which to promote positive change in the region, amateurish diplomacy and outdated understandings of the region’s difficulties mean that Washington can create more problems in Southeastern Europe than it can solve.
Compounding the loss of U.S. leadership in Southeastern Europe has been that it coincides with the euro-zone crisis, as a result of which Brussels has been unable to provide the region with a clear path for future integration or the incentives for major structural political and economic reform. Macedonia has been waiting in vain since 2005 to get a starting date for accession negotiations, and throughout the region the great fear is that after Croatia joins the EU in mid-2013, further EU enlargement will be off the table for at least the coming decade. A clear example of the loss of EU influence in the region is Bulgaria’s recent decision not to join the euro zone.
The end of the Balkan Pax Americana and the EU’s preoccupation with its own problems has created a vacuum in Southeastern Europe, and, as politics always abhors a vacuum, a number of powers are rushing in to fill the political and security void. Over the past few years, the influence of Russia, Turkey and even Israel has been increasing as U.S. and EU leverage wanes. Moreover, repeated rounds of free and fair elections have given local politicians, processes and institutions immeasurably more legitimacy, and with it the independence to defy arbitrary dictates by international bureaucrats.
The Office of the High Representative (OHR) in Bosnia, created by the parties to the Dayton accords, is the primary example of the West’s decreased influence. A generous evaluation of the OHR would say that it long ago became completely irrelevant in Bosnia. A more realistic assessment would openly admit that the neocolonial OHR has become the main stumbling block to Bosnia’s transition to democracy and interethnic consensus.
In Kosovo, the OHR’s relative equivalent, the International Civilian Representative, was recently shut down altogether, revealing (perhaps admirably) that the international community doesn’t want to even pretend in Kosovo anymore.
The vacuum in Southeastern Europe is being filled primarily by two neighboring powers—Russia and Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has decided to adopt an aggressive Islamist/neo-Ottoman agenda at the expense of Turkey’s EU-accession ambitions (not that those ambitions were ever very realistic, given Turkey’s poor human-rights record, persecution of its own Christian and Kurdish minorities, and continuing occupation of Northern Cyprus). Turkey has been increasingly supporting Muslim coreligionists in the region it sees as the inheritors of the Ottoman legacy. As Erdogan himself said after his party’s parliamentary electoral victory in June 2011, “Sarajevo won today as much as Istanbul.” Over the summer, Erdogan even claimed that Bosnia’s late Islamist leader, Alija Izetbegovic, had bequeathed Bosnia to him from his hospital bed.
Russia, meanwhile, has been making inroads of its own. Whether offering Cyprus a financial bailout or making advances to Greece about using the port of Piraeus for the Russian fleet, Russian influence in the Balkans has been growing significantly over the past few years. Russia is now the main source of foreign investment in both Bosnia and Serbia (by way of comparison, the main U.S. investor in the region, U.S. Steel, last year decided to sell off its Serbian operations). The cornerstone of Russia’s growing influence in the Balkans will be the South Stream gas pipeline, which will extend to most of the countries in Southeastern Europe. President Putin himself is expected to participate in ceremonies marking the beginning of construction in Serbia this December.
Meanwhile, one of the most interesting Balkan developments in recent years has been Israel’s increasingly active role in the region. To compensate for the downturn in the Israeli-Turkish relationship, Israel has been actively seeking out new Balkan allies. Israel’s military cooperation with Greece, for instance, has accelerated and expanded over the past few years, driven in no small part by the two countries’ joint interest in developing the large Leviathan gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean. Israel also has begun developing close relations with the Serb entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Republika Srpska (RS). In the near future, expect to see Israel deepening its ties with Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia as well.
Unfortunately, there is also a more sinister force complicating the Balkan security equation—the growing Islamist and Wahhabi threat in Southeastern Europe. The July 18 terrorist attack on a bus full of Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria, is only the latest example. In April, alleged Islamists murdered five people on the outskirts of the Macedonian capital of Skopje. In October 2011, a Wahhabi attacked the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo. Take your pick of the major terrorist actions of the past fifteen years—9/11, the Khobar Towers bombing, the USS Cole bombing, the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the Madrid Train bombings, etc., and they all have Balkan connections. Unfortunately, Washington and Brussels have consistently refused to recognize the severity of the problem.
Thus, with no international consensus on the proper outlines of a new Balkan security structure, Washington increasingly focusing on problems in the Middle East and challenges along the Pacific rim, the EU struggling with its own existential crisis and new regional players supporting their own local allies, Balkan problems will henceforth last longer and be less manageable than they were from 1995–2008.
Bosnia is still struggling with the same political and constitutional dilemmas it was dealing with twenty years ago, and it is becoming increasingly obvious that Bosnia’s main problem is the Washington Agreement of 1994, which established a fundamentally and chronically unworkable federation between the Muslims and Croats. Kosovo remains internally divided and externally unrecognized by much of the international community (including two members of the UN Security Council and the BRIC countries). Interethnic relations in Macedonia are deteriorating, and the Macedonian name dispute with Greece continues to stymie Skopje’s hopes for full integration into various Euro-Atlantic structures. The new Serbian government has a lot to prove to skeptical neighbors in the region and to Washington and Brussels. Not to mention that the all of the countries in the region are suffering from levels of unemployment ranging from 20–50 percent.
The challenge for U.S. policy as Secretary Clinton visits the Balkans is whether Washington policy makers will understand the changes taking place in Southeastern Europe and adjust their policies accordingly. The U.S. strategic goal for most of the past decade has been having Southeastern Europe firmly anchored in the EU and NATO. While such a goal is still attainable, achieving it will require much more than occasional visits by American officials with empty pockets or the strident lecturing American diplomats often give the locals. It will require a far more sophisticated and subtle American policy that realizes that Balkan stability requires regional consensus and compromise amongst a growing group of international actors with their own vested interests in the region.
Gordon N. Bardos is a Balkan politics and security expert based in New York.