Is the Next EU Crisis the Balkans, Again?
NATO announced yesterday that it plans to build its first air base in the Western Balkans, according to the Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama.
The word ‘Balkan’ comes from the Turkish balken or chain of woods, sometimes better translated simply as, swampy forest. Of course after the dissolution of Yugoslavia in June of 1991 the term Balkan gained a rather negative meaning, even in the casual usage as the verb—to balkanize, and all that term has come to imply.
In part, as a result of the historical and political connotation of the term Balkans due to various military conflicts of the 1990s, the new term ‘Southeastern Europe’ has been initiated. But it doesn’t cover up the realities. It only papers them over.
The peninsula surrounded by the Adriatic Sea to the west, the Mediterranean Sea to the south, the Black Sea to the east, and the Danube River to the north, is a landmass roughly the size of Spain and has a population of over sixty million people and it has known chaos and discord for some time. Europe’s next crisis is again The Balkans.
Historically known as the ‘cross roads of cultures’, it has been a juncture between the Latin and Greek traditions of the Roman Empire; the destination of an influx of pagan Bulgars and Slavs; and an area where Orthodox and Catholic Christianity met, as well as a melding point of Christianity and Islam. That has made life difficult with so many crosscurrents, ethnicities and cultural affinities. It is the seam in the “clash of civilizations.”
Since the middle ages the Balkans have been the stage for a series of nearly endless wars between empires. Most of the Balkan states emerged, as we know them today in the 19th and early 20th centuries as they gained independence from the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian Empires. In 1912 already, the world witnessed the First Balkan War. The First World War was itself sparked in the Balkans in 1914. You all know the gory details and outcome of that incident.
With the start of the Second World War all the Balkan countries, with the exception of Greece, were allies of Nazi Germany. At the close of that devastating war in 1944, the Soviets entered Romania and Bulgaria, forcing the Germans out. What was left was largely an area of ruin and wartime exploitation.
The thrust of the long Cold War meant most of the Balkan countries were governed by communist governments and found them in the Soviet sphere of influence. Greece and Turkey, the exceptions, were, and still are of course part of NATO.
The post-Cold War period has not been easy for the Balkans as they found independence and the move to democracy and market-based economies difficult.
The long lasting wars after the dissolution of Yugoslavia led to a UN operation and NATO ground and air forces to bring about the tumultuous peace.
This history serves as a thumbnail and cursory sketch of the backdrop we face today. The question for this troubled region is: will the area be the place of the next crisis? One might realistically ask has the region ever stepped out of crisis mode?
At a recent closed think-tank meeting, a well-informed German official was asked what problem in Europe caused him the most worry.
His answer came without hesitation: the Western Balkans, where a new crisis is brewing as Turkey and Russia stir the pot, he said.
In his worst-case scenario, Russia and Turkey would encourage their proxies in the Balkans, Serbia and Albania, to help them redraw the region’s borders.
The Serbian government, with Russian support, could annex large portions of Bosnia populated by ethnic Serbs. Turkish support could help Albania pull off a similar maneuver, not only in heavily Albanian Kosovo but also in Macedonia, where much of the large Albanian minority would like to reunite with the motherland.
As the historian Russell Mead said, this course of events might seem unlikely. Since some of the territory claimed by Greater Albania partisans is in Serbia, it would be difficult for the two countries to agree on a new map. But it’s not an impossible outcome, even as he said, if the idea more likely would inspire a James Bond villain than a foreign minister. And increasing numbers of wannabe Bond villains seem to be popping up in world politics these days.
There is a grave reality underlying these concerns.
The Balkans are unraveling, and the West now must worry about more than overt Russian meddling. And despite deep Turkish suspicions of Russia, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is cooperating more closely with President Vladimir Putin. The West it appears is pushing him into willing and open arms.
Their opposition to Germany and the European Union has brought Turkey and Russia together. Russians don’t just hate NATO; they see the EU as a barrier against Russia’s historical great-power role in European affairs. Turkey has also turned against the EU and is looking for leverage against Germany. For Russia and Turkey, the ability to cause Europe troubles in the Balkans with relatively little risk and cost may be too good to pass up.
The prospect of EU membership for countries like Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Bosnia has done more than anything to keep the fragile peace in the Western Balkans. Every Balkan country would rather be part of the EU than be allied to Russia. But will the EU have them?
Hopes of near-term EU membership are fading. Europe has lost Britain and has had a hard time managing relations with more nationalist members like Hungary and Poland. The 28—soon to be 27—EU members have little desire to take in five obstreperous new Balkan states that would make the union even more ungovernable, and would expect financial aid at a time when the post-Brexit EU budget will already be stretched.
Serbs and Albanians are both signaling that if the West walks away, they will have to look east, and that will mean shifting to a nationalist agenda with Russian and perhaps Turkish help.
For the EU, a new round of Balkan chaos would be a near disaster: refugees, crime, and radicalization among Balkan Muslims, greater opportunities for hostile powers to gain influence at Europe’s expense. But the EU doesn’t think it can manage the Balkans on its own. The U.S. will have to be part of the solution, Germans say. But will they under President Trump who has already noticeably said why give American lives for Montenegro?
Will the U.S. play ball? Engaging in distant Balkan quarrels to make Germany’s life easier isn’t exactly Donald Trump’s idea of smart foreign policy. Even as Atlanticist a president as Bill Clinton struggled for two years to keep the U.S. out of the post-Yugoslav wars.
Mr. Trump is more skeptical of intervention and treats the possibility of a new round of Balkan wars with the chilly aloofness that Barack Obama displayed in Syria.
Although the quarrels in the Balkans may be trivial compared with larger problems elsewhere, such as on the Korean peninsula, what happens in the Balkans doesn’t always stay in the Balkans, and NATO as well as the EU countries could be shaken to the core by another war of Balkan bloodletting. The crisis even has the potential to redefine U.S.-European relations for decades to come.
Europeans argue that relatively small, short-term American investments—active diplomacy, nation building, and building up U.S. forces in Kosovo—could go a long way. But we have a president who does not find that argument very convincing. An ‘America First ‘stance dissuades him from over-involvement in Europe’s battles.
Mr. Trump’s core foreign-policy conviction seems to be that the U.S. has let its allies enjoy a decades long ‘free ride’. Europeans who worry about Balkan peace need to think about how they can persuade a skeptical White House to engage. The old appeals—to NATO solidarity, defense of freedom, and fear of Russia—may not, will not be enough.
The next crisis in the Balkans is very much going to be a European affair but dragging in NATO amplifies the issue.
According to Foreign Affairs, much of the region is in danger of becoming a ‘new grey zone’: “an area beyond the EU’s reach, vulnerable to Moscow’s influence, and at risk of domestic breakdown.”
To prevent the Western Balkans from deteriorating further, Europe should reinvigorate its efforts to integrate the region, encouraging its leaders to fight corruption and demonstrating to ordinary citizens the benefits of reform and closer ties with Western Europe. But the EU recently balked at this prospect.
Will Europe act before it is too late.
That is the looming question.
Is Europe too preoccupied with its own demise, cultural relativity, and inability to muster action, militarily, politically or economically to see the next crisis already on the horizon?