Storm clouds are gathering again in the Western Balkans. If escalating grievances and national disputes are not resolved, the region could again be engulfed in a spiral of conflict that degenerates into violence. Several interlinked generators of instability need to be urgently addressed by elected leaders as well as by Western governments and international institutions.
Economic frustrations: Although GDP growth has been registered across the region in recent years, the impact on living standards is uneven and public expectations remain unfulfilled. Moreover, youth unemployment remains high and public frustration with corrupt and incompetent governments is rising. Conversely, economic growth is contingent on political legitimacy, social stability and investor confidence – all of which are undermined by public protests sweeping across several states.
Political polarization: Partisan battles are so intense in some countries that opposition parties boycott the parliament, block legislation and even refuse to participate in elections. This is currently the case in Albania, which faces general elections in June but where the opposition Democratic Party claims in advance that the vote will be rigged.
Creeping authoritarianism: Serbia and Macedonia are at the forefront of accusations that ruling parties are appropriating the state for their benefit and eliminating any viable opposition. After his election as President on April 2, Aleksandar Vučić’s Progressive Party now controls Serbia’s executive and legislature, with the next parliamentary elections only due in 2020. Attempted state capture has been even more blatant in Macedonia where the outgoing VMRO-led government was caught in various abuses of power including wiretapping its opponents.
Growing public protests: Serbia is in the midst of extensive protests against the election of President Vučić. Social networks and student organizations have mobilized tens of thousands of young people with different political and ideological beliefs calling for the ouster of a government viewed as increasingly authoritarian. The protests are an outpouring of years of frustration with pervasive official corruption, controlled media and political manipulation. The protests could spread to workers dissatisfied with low wages and poor conditions.
Ethnic escalation: Where political divisions become ethnified the prospects for conflict rapidly increase. This is the case in Macedonia where the formation of a new bi-ethnic government with Albanians has been blocked and where the President and outgoing administration claim that Albanian leaders aim to fracture the state. Separatism is also exploited by leaders of the Serbian entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina amidst widespread frustration with political institutions and economic stagnation.
Border disputes: Conflicts over borders and the non-acceptance of statehood for some countries persist in the region. For instance, tensions are periodically ratcheted up between leaders of Serbia and Kosova, while Serb nationalists do not accept the permanent independence of Montenegro. Even where borders are not disputed, ethnic clashes in one state can precipitate demands to incorporate a minority territory in the “mother state.” In other cases, the removal of borders is seen as a threat, as between Albania and Kosova. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama recently raised the question of unification and aggravated fears of pan-Albanianism that would violently break up several countries.
Foreign scapegoating: Governments facing growing social or ethnic unrest could stage a crackdown and seek to discredit protesters as traitors in the pay of foreign powers. Instructively, the George Soros-funded Open Society organization has become a major scapegoat for nationalists and ultra-conservatives throughout the region, from Hungary to Macedonia. Media disinformation and public revolts foster political radicalization and can propel anti-Western sentiments.
EU blockage: EU entry remains a receding ambition in much of the region despite the benefits that this provides new members, including accession funds and investments. Although several countries are candidates for the Union, progress has been stalled because the EU is preoccupied with internal problems and public opinion opposes further enlargement. There is also disillusionment among citizens in the Balkans that the Union has been complicit in upholding corrupt government in exchange for a measure of stability. In this vicious circle, failure to reform the state precludes EU membership. As an example, Serbian citizens complain that Brussels has supported Vučićs election while ignoring his role in stifling a free press.
Russian provocations: In this cauldron of unrest, Russia’s uses its “soft power” tools to entrap local politicians with financial and diplomatic support, impregnate the local and social media with disinformation, stir inter-ethnic animosities and threaten pro-Western governments. The coup attempt in Montenegro in October 2016 involving Serbian nationalists led by Russian intelligence operatives against a pro-NATO government may have been a trial run for further acts of violence. Moscow’s next attempt may be more sophisticated and broad-based, whether by inciting Serbian minority leaders in Bosnia against the Muslim Bosniaks, engineering ethnic clashes in Macedonia, or provoking Serbian-Montenegrin conflicts.
If it serves his interests, President Vladimir Putin would not be averse to pursuing a regional war to test NATO resolve and undermine the process of Western integration, while camouflaging Kremlin involvement. To this end, Moscow favors a military buildup in the region, as evident in recent talks between Putin and Vučić in which Belgrade looks set to purchase Russia’s S-300 air defense system in addition to MiG-29 fighter jets and T-72 battle tanks. The reaction among Serbia’s neighbors is unlikely to be passive.