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COLUMN-As Western interest waivers, Balkans turn dangerous again: Peter Apps

·5 min read

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)

By Peter Apps

LONDON, Nov 4 (Reuters) - A quarter of a century after the Dayton Peace Agreement brought an end to Bosnia’s civil war, the top international official in the country warned this week that it might be on the brink of breaking up once again.

United Nations High Representative Christian Schmidt said that if Serb separatists carried out their warning to create a separate Bosnian Serb army, the international peacekeeping mission might have to be expanded.

In a report, Schmidt described threats from Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik to pull out of Bosnia-Herzegovina's state-level institutions including the military and create new ones for Republika Srpska as "tantamount to secession without proclaiming it". But the worsening face-off in Bosnia is only one of several across the Western Balkans this year.

In September, Serbia sent troops and armoured vehicles to its border with Kosovo following a dispute over licence plates and cross-border access, one of the most serious confrontations since the 1999 war between NATO and Serbia. Political strains have also been rising within Montenegro, with regional powers accusing Serbia and Russia of once again deliberately fanning ethnic tensions.

How close the region genuinely is to conflict is unclear – although “special police” exercises by Bosnian Serb forces have prompted alarm, as they have conducted “counterterrorism” exercises on hills from which Serb forces shelled the Bosnian capital Sarajevo throughout the civil war that ended in 1995.

What is clear, however, is that Western states – particularly the European Union – still lack a clear plan for a region in which Russia, Serbia and increasingly China are becoming increasingly assertive, and where long-promised expansion of the European Union and NATO to include multiple Balkan states seems stalled.

EU MEMBERSHIP GOING NOWHERE?

In early October, EU states recommitted themselves to Balkan nations joining the bloc but rejected more specific calls from current EU president Slovenia to admit Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Albania by 2030.

NATO membership for Bosnia and Kosovo appears similarly going nowhere, despite September’s Kosovo face-off prompting calls for its accession process to be prioritised.

For some European leaders, that is seen as opening up opportunities for Moscow and Beijing, as well as for an increasingly confident Serbia to again look to grow its regional influence with Russia’s backing.

"Either Europe extends the hand and pulls these (Western Balkan) countries towards us, or someone else will extend a hand and pull these countries in a different direction," Latvian Prime Minister Arturs Krisjanis Karins told the October Western Balkans summit.

Serbia, which long made a virtue of simultaneously wooing the European Union, Russia and China, appears increasingly to be siding more with Moscow and Beijing as it abandons its EU hopes. During the pandemic, it was able to effectively use this position to get Western, Russian and Chinese vaccines and in some cases then use them to support allies in the region. Now, both Belgrade and Moscow appear to be toughening their stance.

PEACEKEEPING IN DOUBT

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Gabriel Escobar told Congress last week the United States was working with European Union states to "make sure there are consequences for any illegal or destabilising actions" in Bosnia. Russia, however, looks increasingly likely to use its UN Security Council veto to block the extension of a current 700-strong European Union peacekeeping force and smaller NATO headquarters tasked with overseeing peace in Bosnia.

Whether the United States or European states would have the appetite to increase their own military presence on the ground remains unclear in the extreme. That uncertainty, some believe, is fuelling more ultranationalist ambitions in Belgrade, backed by Moscow and – as in the 1990s – fuelling particularly dangerous rhetoric in Bosnia.

In July, Serbian Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin made a speech in the presence of Serb President Aleksandar Vucic arguing that the current political generation should create a "Serbian world" to unify all Serbs, wherever they might live. Although he later moved on to say he believed this would happen peacefully, "when conditions allow for it", his words were compared to the nationalist "Greater Serbia" rhetoric of the 1990s.

Efforts by then Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic to turn such talk into reality sparked conflicts estimated to have killed 130-40,000 people in the course of a decade, bringing open warfare to a Europe that had hoped for peace following the Cold War.

As well as acting to encourage Serb separatism in Bosnia, the comments were also seen a direct threat to Kosovo, Montenegro and North Macedonia, all of which have significant ethnic Serb populations and where both Serbian and Russian media outlets have long been accused of fanning ethnic tensions.

For now, most signs suggest neither the United States nor European powers have much appetite to plunge themselves back into the Balkans. But as in the 1990s, they may ultimately find that they have little choice. *** Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Paralysed by a war-zone car crash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party. (Editing by Giles Elgood)