The Balkans Powder Keg

3 February, 2022

The situation in the Western Balkans is increasingly inching toward a showdown in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) sparked by separatist tendencies in the Serb entity of the country, Republika Srpska. This would most likely drag the rest of the region into a wider confrontation and would also most certainly have implications for the rest of Europe. Adjacent to this is also the EU, US, UK, and Russia whose decisions or the lack thereof will also greatly impact its outcome. Tantamount to this is the need for the West, especially the EU, to take decisive action to prevent a return to the tensions felt in the 90s and to maintain stability in a wider region that aspires to European integration.

Recently, the Bosnian Serb member of BiH’s tripartite presidency Milorad Dodik has threatened to create his own army. He has also started breaking down federal state institutions to create exclusive Republika Srpska institutions in a gradual attempt to break away from national ones. For example, Dodik has pushed through a bill that has created a parallel medical agency, and plans to further withdraw BiH’s military, judiciary, and tax administration are slowly materializing. This is an increasingly disturbing trend that could potentially lead to the breakup of BiH as a federal state.

The chief international envoy to BiH, High Representative Christian Schmidt, indeed warned the UN that if such actions were taken it would cause the breakup of the federal state and the possible resumption of inter-ethnic tensions ameliorated by the 1995 Dayton Accords. This specifically leaves Serbia and their President Aleksandar Vučić at a crossroads between the aspirations of European integration, and it’s traditional support for their fellow Serb President Dodik also hinted to the fact that he would be backed by the Kremlin, but to what extent remains unclear.

What remains even more unclear is what steps the US and the EU would be willing to take to prevent the disintegration of BiH. The same malaise from the West from my view was partly responsible for the atrocities of the 90s, and many scholars and authorities point to the fact that effective preventive diplomacy could have averted the ethnic genocide that occurred on all sides. Besides the obvious tensions between Bosniaks and Serbs, this would also very likely drag in Croatia who would act to protect Bosnian-Croats, the oft little spoken of minority in BiH. Croatia for its part has also supported nationalists in the tripartite government and has had no reservations in not taking a neutral stance. 

The main actor in preventing another major escalation must be the EU. Given that the countries in this region all aspire for EU membership, it is imperative that Brussels and its member states take the initiative to put water on a burgeoning fire, and thereby preventing provocateurs from dousing it with gasoline. They should leverage their integrated approach and use every conflict prevention tool in its arsenal to avoid an escalation of the situation and should immediately convene emergency diplomatic consultations with the stakeholders in the region. Concurrently, the bloc must also create a clear path for the states in the region for EU accession.  

This will require the political will that the EU and its member states have previously lacked, and it will also likely encounter backlash from the Kremlin and others. Nonetheless, if the EU dithers, then it will assuredly open the door for increasing tensions, but also for Putin to further divide Europe and create another possible entry point of Russian military personnel under the guise of “peacekeepers.” If the countries of the region are not given a viable alternative future to look forward to, they might look increasingly to Moscow and Beijing for political and financial support, as has been the case with Serbia. Serbia indeed seems to be splitting the middle in desiring accession into the former and keeping close ties to the latter. In the end, the Western Balkan countries will have to decide what’s more important, but the lack of clarity for integration helps nothing. 

After acquiescing to Russian and Chinese demands to strip any language of the Office of the High Representative in its latest report, the UN Security Council has agreed to extend the 600 member European Force (EUFOR) peacekeepers presence on the ground for another year. This is only a small win but a positive step forward, yet the insistence of undermining the High Representative goes back to the Kremlin’s attempt to undermine European unity and find another entrance point to maximize its influence in Southeastern Europe. In essence while the Kremlin is playing chess the rest of Europe is playing checkers. 

The US for its part is best placed supporting Brussels taking the initiative to lower the temperature but given history it must also be prepared to stand beside its European allies and act in unison with them if necessary. With the US facing multiple geopolitical tests from a rising China to the fallout of the disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal, the reticence to act will be high. However, the cost of not acting could be much higher if preventive diplomacy fails and the region is thrown into chaos with the disintegration of BiH and renewed ethnic tensions on all sides. They have a vested security interest ensuring this doesn’t get out of hand, because the destabilization of Southeastern Europe not only creates another potential flashpoint for NATO, but it also gives the Kremlin another entry point into Eastern Europe.

If all diplomatic measures fail and BiH disintegrates the last option on the table should be swiftly inserting a robust NATO peacekeeping force to take immediate control of the situation until a viable diplomatic resolution can be met. While an increase in EUFOR would be ideal, it is highly unlikely to pass the UNSC given the volatility between the West and the duet of Moscow and Beijing. Therefore, the aim should be two-fold in nature: the first one being taking control of the situation on the ground before another major escalation occurs, and secondly to prevent Moscow from creating another on again and off again hybrid conflict that it will exploit to gain leverage over the rest of Europe. Some will worry about direct confrontation and Russian threats; however, the Kremlin would be wise not to seek direct confrontation with NATO and if the West calls their bluff, it is my resolute opinion that they will cut their losses, at least temporarily.

It is true that this conflict runs much deeper than the geopolitical designs of Moscow, or of EU hopes of integrating these countries. However, on a macro level it is the perfect opportunity for the Kremlin to put a dagger into Europe’s chest and create more chaos and disunity in its own backyard that only serves to further divide it. Some will say potential decisive action by NATO is lighting a match to the powder keg; however, it’s the opposite as doing nothing and letting revisionists control the narrative is the match that will do so. For this reason, the West must be both resolute and agile in responding to the evolving dynamics on the ground. The last thing Europe needs right now is growing instability and greater leverage for Russia. The ball is in your court DC and Brussels so act accordingly.

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