Tension in the Western Balkans, which has been troubled by ethnic tensions since the wars of the 1990s, is becoming an increasing concern for the EU and NATO.

U nited Nations member states including the US, France, Germany, Albania and Rwanda will submit a resolution to the general assembly on April 17 which could have significant implications for the future of the Western Balkans. The vote will call on the UN to declare July 11 the “International Day of Reflection and Remembrance of the 1995 Srebrenica Genocide. It’s significant, because the issue of the massacre of 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men at Srebrenica remains a bitterly contested memory in the region.

The move has prompted fears that it will lead to a break-up of Bosnia and Herzegovina. After the war which followed the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, the Dayton Accords peace deal established Bosnia and Herzegovina as a federation of two separate entities: the Serbian Republika Srpska, and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The three main ethnic groups – Bosniaks, Serbians and Croats – are represented by a rotating presidency. Currently, the chairman of the presidency is Zeljko Komsic, a pro-EU Croat politician.

The UN resolution plan has been strongly opposed by Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska. He reportedly stated on a visit to Belgrade in neighbouring Serbia that “Bosnia and Herzegovina may not survive” if the resolution is passed. The Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić, has urged Russia and China to vote against it.

Vulnerable to malign influence

It is this instability in the Western Balkans as a whole that is focusing minds in the European Union, given the tensions in the region following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The EU opened accession talks with Bosnia and Herzegovina on March 12. It laid out minimum requirements on progress in implementing the 14 key priorities that were set out in the European Commission’s opinion in 2019, concerning the country’s candidacy for EU membership.

Bosnia and Herzegovina was identified as the most vulnerable country in the Western Balkans by a “permeability index” developed by NATO in 2020. The report said: “The deep divisions between Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (the two constituent entities) is evident in the lack of clarity over the country’s strategic orientation.” It added that the two entities were deeply split over issues such as NATO and EU membership, with ethnic Serbs bitterly opposed to both.

Meanwhile, Russia is known to have engaged in a range of disinformation operations and cyberattacks across the Western Balkans since before it invaded Ukraine in 2022. It has sought to influence media there through outlets such as the Sputnik Srbija news service in Serbia, an outpost of Russian state media. Russia Today (RT), widely recognised as a Kremlin mouthpiece, launched services in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina at the end of 2023.

Both Sputnik Srbija and RT have the potential to reach a large audience in the Western Balkans, and are used for spreading Kremlin narratives against the EU and NATO. Their content is frequently republished in regional media.

Separatist sentiment on the rise

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Dodik has stirred up separatist sentiment. He ignored the constitutional court’s ban on the January 9 annual celebration of the foundation of Republika Srpska, and blocked Bosnia and Herzegovina from joining the EU sanctions against Russia.

Dodik has also threatened to take Republika Srpska out of Bosnia if the new UN resolution is adopted, denying that the genocide had ever happened.

The West sees Dodik’s nationalist aspirations as a major threat to the 1995 Dayton Accords. In January 2022, the US imposed sanctions on him, stating: “Dodik’s actions threaten Bosnia’s stability, sovereignty and territorial integrity and undermine the Dayton Peace Accords, thereby risking wider regional instability.”

The 2024 Annual Threat Assessment, published by the US intelligence community on February 5, suggested that nationalist leaders in the Western Balkans are highly likely to escalate ethnic tensions in an effort to destabilise the region.

— Western Balkans.

Meanwhile in Kosovo

The delicacy of the situation in the Western Balkans should be seen in the context of last September’s attack by Serbian nationalists on the village of Banjska in northern Kosovo.

Kosovo formally applied for EU membership in December 2022, but simmering conflict involving ethnic Serbians in the north, stoked by Belgrade – such as the attack on Banjska – is complicating the accession process. The other major obstacle to Kosovo’s EU accession is the fact that several EU member states – Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus, Romania and Greece – have yet to recognise Kosovan statehood. This has effectively blocked the country from joining the EU and NATO.

Significantly, the Council of Europe will vote on April 18 on Kosovo’s application to join, following a recommendation from the Council’s Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy. Vučić has threatened that Serbia will leave the Council if it votes to admit Kosovo.

The West — as in NATO and the EU — clearly wants to promote more stability and reconciliation in the Western Balkans in light of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and fears of its further territorial ambition. But if this is the case, then its treaty organisations need to unify with respect to the future membership of both Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In doing so, it must treat Vučić’s most recent threats towards Kosovo with the same gravity with which it appears to regard Dodik’s secession threats in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

With the war in Ukraine at such a critical point, the last thing the West needs is the further destabilisation and even possible secession of parts of Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, with the possibility for violence that this presents. You’d have to imagine that, as he sits in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin is anticipating this possibility with great relish.



▪ This piece was originally published in The Conversation and re-published in PUBLIC SQUARE UK on 16 April 2024. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
Cover: Dreamstime/Dudlajzov.

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