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Balkans tensions escalate as West sits idle

Washington Examiner logo Washington Examiner 7/20/2022 Janusz Bugajski
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The stage is set for a new crisis in the Western Balkans. It could turn violent.

A combination of European Union incompetence, American detachment, and mounting local grievances are empowering Serbia's nationalist government to escalate claims to neighboring territories. Russia's attack on Ukraine has distracted Western attention from a region brewing with unresolved disputes that provide a treasure trove of opportunities for Moscow.

The Kremlin views the Balkans as a strategic asset where it can undermine the role of Western institutions and claim that NATO has failed to ensure stability. Moscow's primary ally in the region is Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. Putin and Vucic have a symbiotic relationship. Moscow assists Belgrade in building the "Serbian world," according to which all Serbs should live in one enlarged state. In return, Serbia enables Russia to expand its regional reach through energy deals, military cooperation, and disinformation. In recent moves, Belgrade has signed a new gas supply deal with Russia's Gazprom.

Putin also works closely with the head of the Serbian entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik, whose stated ambition is Bosnia's partition and the creation of another Serbian state. Moscow provides him with various forms of economic, military, and propaganda assistance. Half-hearted EU sanctions have failed to deter Dodik, while the ambitions of Croatian nationalists to create a third ethnic entity in Bosnia have also helped him and his patrons in Moscow.

Vucic makes regular threats against Kosovo and refuses to accept its independence while engaging in fruitless EU-mediated talks. Unless Brussels and Washington issue a firm deadline for mutual recognition between Serbia and Kosovo and specify the economic and diplomatic consequences of nonrecognition, Vucic and Putin will continue to play the Kosovo card to rally nationalists and generate conflicts.

At the same time, Montenegro is being destabilized through an assault on its independent institutions by Serb nationalists and the Serbian Orthodox Church, allied closely with Russia. Unfortunately, a naive U.S. approach that believed anti-corruption campaigners would make good officials has backfired. The current Montenegrin prime minister appears to be out of his depth in countering attempts by Belgrade and its proxies to undermine Montenegro's independence and integrity.

Claims by some EU leaders for "strategic autonomy" seem absurd when they are incapable of ensuring security in a region that wants to join the EU. The union has dragged its heels on accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania, while membership for Bosnia and Kosovo is a distant prospect. Stability in North Macedonia has been undermined by EU member Bulgaria, whose government remains stuck in unresolvable historical disputes with Macedonia and is unwittingly helping Moscow to unsettle the region further. The EU also placates Vucic instead of asserting that it will terminate any pre-accession funds to Serbia unless the government abides with the EU consensus in sanctioning Moscow for its attack on Ukraine.

The Biden administration is also allowing Russia to infiltrate the region by accepting Vucic's assertions that he is pro-Western and does not want to alienate his supporters by sanctioning Russia. This is reminiscent of how Washington was initially fooled by Slobodan Milosevic when he claimed to be a guarantor of peace and Yugoslavia's integrity. To avoid a new war, the targets of Serbia's aggressive policies need to be better defended.

Both Bosnia and Kosovo need a pathway to NATO membership, and the pro-Western forces in Montenegro need firmer support that would sideline the pro-Moscow nationalists promoted by Vucic. Without such a comprehensive approach to ensure regional security, Washington and Brussels will find themselves trying to put out more fires instead of disarming the arsonists.

Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C. His new book, Failed State: A Guide to Russia's Rupture, has just been published.

 

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Tags: Opinion, Beltway Confidential, Blog Contributors, Russia, Balkans

Original Author: Janusz Bugajski

Original Location: Balkans tensions escalate as West sits idle

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