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Some mainstream media, politicians and analysts are trying to create artificial tensions in the Balkans. Although the region has been living in peace for more than 20 years, certain structures seem to long for destabilization. How likely is a new conflict in Southeastern Europe?
In Bosnia and Herzegovina – Europe’s forgotten semi-protectorate – none of the three constituent peoples (Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats) are ready for a new round of confrontation. Older generations remember quite well all the tragedies the 1992-1995 war brought. Many young people, faced with lack of perspective and low wages, plan to leave the country and move to the West. It is estimated that half of the nation’s 3.5 million population already lives aboard. Thus, it is rather questionable if there is a potential for a new war. Still, Christian Schmidt, the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, claims that the Balkan country is in danger of breaking up. A former German government minister warns that Bosnia is facing “the greatest existential threat of the postwar period”. He blames the Serb member of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s tripartite presidency, Milorad Dodik, for alleged separatist plans.
Although Dodik sees Bosnia as a “failed country” and a “Western experiment that does not work”, he never took any practical steps that would lead to secession of Republika Srpska – the Serb dominated entity – from Bosnia and Herzegovina. If he really posed a serious threat to Bosnia’s existence, the High Representative would have already removed him from the office, just like Carlos Westendorp removed Nikola Poplasen from the Office of President of Republika Srpska in 1999. Thus, the Western powers and Bosnia’s leaders do not seem to take Dodik’s anti-Bosnian rhetoric too seriously, although there are indications that certain Western structures firmly support Drasko Stanivukovic – Dodik’s major political opponent in Republika Srpska. On the other hand, the recent meeting between Dodik and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban indicates the Serbian member of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s presidential troika also has allies in the West. His political fate, as well as the fate of Bosnia and Herzegovina, will likely depend on wider deals between various policy makers in the West.
“Many westerners think that there is hostilities going on in the region and they think there is a conflict going on. What ends up happening is businesses don’t move here because of a perceived conflict”, said Richard Grenell, former US President Donald Trump’s special envoy to the Balkans, calling on the Joe Biden administration to be “more aggressive” in the region.
Grenell is seen as an architect of “mini-Schengen” initiative formed in 2019, named in an ode to the Schengen Area – the European Union’s passport-free and duty-free zone. It is believed he strongly pushed for economic integration between Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania. The three countries later renamed the project to Open Balkans, and have agreed to abolish border controls starting January 1, 2023.
Although the former American diplomat is not part of the new US administration, he appears to wield influence in the Balkans. During a recent visit to Albania, he reportedly said that Kosovo — which is the subject of a long-running political and territorial dispute between the Serbian government and ethnic Albanian authorities in Pristina — made a mistake by not joining the Open Balkans initiative. More importantly, on November 11 Trump sent out an email that seemed to claim he sent Grenell to discuss foreign policy with leaders at the Kosovo-Serbia border. In a news conference with local journalists, Grenell said he came as a private citizen due to being frustrated with the Biden administration’s handling of the economic agreement between Belgrade and Pristina.
“Many of the Trump administration and many Americans are frustrated because we saw a historic agreement, an economic one, which we agreed on for the people of Kosovo and the people of Serbia is not respected,” Grenell told journalists.
Indeed, in September 2020, leaders of Serbia and Kosovo signed a “historic” economic agreement in Washington, although the document they signed looked more like a list of US demands that was addressed to its Balkan client states. The major points in the document involved normalizing relations with Israel, as well as designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. The deal also clearly demonstrated who “the real boss” in the Balkans is, given that its goal was to additionally strengthen the American positions in the region.Now that Trump is no longer in office, and Germany pushes for Balkan nations to more deeply integrate into the Common Regional Market, the fate of the Open Balkans initiative remains uncertain. One thing is for sure –given that none of the Balkan countries will join the European Union any time soon, if at all, Washington and Brussels will try to find a model that will preserve stability in the region and keep the Balkan states in the Western geopolitical orbit.