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The Western Balkans: Europe’s Forgotten Region

The Balkans are still posed to plague the 21st century.

March 22, 2015

Credit: djstanek -

This summer sees the 20th anniversary of the massacre of Srebrenica. Eight thousand Europeans were taken outside, their hands carefully tied behind their backs and Serbian soldiers shot them all in cold blood.

The mass graves had been dug, the exact amount of ammunition to carry out the executions given out, and food and drink brought for the soldiers carrying out this mass murder.

It was the worst single massacre by armed security forces of unarmed prisoners since the days of Katyn or the mass killings by Germans in World War II.

Twenty years after 1945, Germany was at peace with its neighbors, had normal diplomatic relations with the countries it once occupied or had annexed like Austria, and was at the heart of both NATO and the European Economic Community.

Thanks to bold political leadership, the dreadful crimes of 1940-1945 faded into history, even if vivid in memory. Compare the 20th anniversary of 1945 to the 20th anniversary of 1995 in the Western Balkans, the region from Croatia to Greece, where no final settlement is in sight.

Greece’s counter-productive diplomatic policy

Greece’s current Eurozone problems need no elaboration but Greece has not helped itself with its counter-productive diplomatic policy of refusing to give normal diplomatic status to its two northern neighbors, Macedonia and Kosovo.

Croatia remains plagued by accusations of corruption and clientelism. Sixty thousand Croatians took out mortgages in Swiss francs. They now face a crippling increase in repayments following the dramatic revaluation of the Swiss franc, when the Swiss National Bank decided to abolish the peg of €1:CHF1.20 at the end of January.

Bosnia remains without common state institutions, as its Serbian community in the Republika Srpska simply refuses to live jointly under a common nation-state rule with Bosniaks and Croatians.

Massive air and ground NATO intervention, following the decision of President Bill Clinton to reverse his 1992 election pledge not to get involved in the Balkans, stopped the Serbian assault on Sarajevo in 1995.

Four years later, in Kosovo, NATO planes and soldiers intervened when Serb militias ran amok in a rampage of murder and ethnic cleansing of Albanian Kosovans.

No violence, but no settlement either

But if full-on violence is a thing of the past, there is no settlement to produce open borders or regional economic integration, or to oblige nations to accept their war crimes, as Germany did after 1945.

Five European member states – Spain, Slovakia, Romania, Greece and Cyprus – refuse to recognize the independent status of Kosovo. Each may have its own reasons.

Spain has enclaves in Morocco, resents British presence in Gibraltar and frets over the idea of Catalan secession. Slovakia and Romania are angry at Hungarian insistence that Hungarian minorities owe a loyalty to Budapest, not to the nations of citizenship.

Greece and Cyprus have Orthodox Church loyalties to orthodox Serbia.

Russia and Serbia spend significant diplomatic resources trying to stop Kosovo from being recognized as a UN member state, despite 120 of the world governments now accepting Kosovo’s status as an independent nation.

Macedonia is plagued by bitter political division with credible reports of vote rigging to keep the current government in power. The idea of alternating governments or power sharing is unknown in the Western Balkans where winner-takes-all clientalist politics rules.

The only hope appears to be EU integration. Yet Serbia’s Prime Minister Alexsandar Vucic gave an aggressive interview to the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on March 10, 2015, in which he said, “We are not ready to recognize Kosovo as an independent state. I hope Brussels is not waiting for any concessions from Serbia.”

Precisely what the EU wants

Prime Mnister Vucic could not be more wrong. That is precisely the concession that the EU wants. An acceptance that Kosovo is no longer a province or region of Serbia, as the surreal Serbian constitution asserts, would prove that Serbia is serious about accepting the responsibilities of being a normal EU member state.

Vucic rejected the view that Kosovo was de facto an independent state. He showed a flash of anger that the Swiss journalists would even ask him.

Yet in the same interview, he offers no support to Serbian hardliners in Bosnia stating, “We respect the territorial integrity of Bosnia-Herzogovina with no if’s or but’s. Republika Srpska belongs to Bosnia.”

There is clearly a contradiction between Vucic telling Serbs in Bosnia that they owe allegiance to the post-Yugoslav state, but refusing to do the same to Serbs in Kosovo.

Under EU pressure, relations between Belgrade and Pristina have improved. Kosovans can now travel into and out of Serbia using Kosovo identity papers but not a Kosovan passport.

There is regular dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade. But as long as Kosovo is unable to join major international institutions like the UN because of Serb opposition, the country cannot seek investment and foreign trade as the post-1950 countries of Western Europe could.

Meanwhile, the Russians are hovering

Of course, the Serbian opposition is backed by the Kremlin, which has still not forgiven the 1999 NATO intervention that ended the power of the client Slobodan Milošević.

The Western Balkans continue to have too many fault lines – three religions with a dreadful history of war and treating other faiths as mortal enemies combine with no clear distinction between government and business, so that money-making is as important for politicians as good government.

The Greek crisis is the most visible problem plaguing Europe. Russia hovers, waiting to exploit opportunities by offering political and diplomatic support to Greeks, Serbs, and Montenegrins, as well as dangling energy and banking concessions to anyone who will switch from the EU to Putin.

Greece and Serbia could transform their negative image in the main EU capitals as well as in Brussels by promoting grown-up diplomacy and recognizing Kosovo.

There is no evidence this will happen. The 21st century will be as plagued by the Western Balkans as were the 19th and 20th centuries.


On the 20th anniversary of Srebrenica, in the region from Croatia to Greece, no final settlement is in sight.

Greece and Serbia could transform their negative image in EU capitals by promoting diplomacy and recognizing Kosovo.

Russia dangles energy and banking concessions to anyone who will switch from the EU to Putin.

The 21st century will be as plagued by the Western Balkans as were the 19th and 20th centuries.