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The Return of the Balkan Question

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PARIS – “One must Europeanize the Balkans, in order to avoid the Balkanization of Europe.” I wrote those words with the French political scientist Jacques Rupnik in 1991, just as war was breaking out among Yugoslavia’s successor states. The fighting would last until the end of the decade, claim thousands of lives, and twice require the intervention of NATO (in Bosnia in 1995 and Serbia in 1999).

Nearly a quarter-century later, the Balkans continue to constitute a threat to European peace, just as they did on the eve of World War I and at the end of the Cold War, when Yugoslavia’s implosion led not only to Europe’s first war since 1945, but also to the return of genocidal murder. The recent fighting in Macedonia, which left eight police officers and 14 Albanian militants dead, raises the specter of renewed violence. It is difficult to know whether the bloodshed represents the festering of an old, unhealed wound or something new, a backlash against a majority-Slav government that seems bent on embracing ethnic chauvinism.

What is clear is that the region remains an explosive and confused reality, one capable of threatening Europe’s stability, already on a knife’s edge following Russia’s adventurism in Ukraine. The region is a volatile mix of rising nationalism, deep economic frustration, and disillusionment about progress toward membership in the European Union. The potential for a plunge into chaos obliges us to consider once again how best to handle the Balkan tinderbox.

When I was in Belgrade recently, the gunplay in Macedonia was the talk of the town. Some of my Serbian interlocutors decried the West’s blindness.

In particular, they criticized the EU, NATO, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe for describing the upsurge in violence as a series of “isolated incidents.”From the Serbs’ perspective, attacks by Albanian nationalists were more likely the beginning of an attempt to enlarge their territory at the expense of their Christian neighbors, beginning with the weakest.

It is views like these that, along with the violence, risk reinforcing the deep ambivalence within the EU about the prospect of any new enlargement. The precedent of Greece, hardly a poster child for European accession, seems especially relevant when applied to its northern neighbors, which are similarly plagued with high rates of corruption and unemployment. And some in the EU are put off by the seeming affinity of the Orthodox Church and its adherents toward Vladimir Putin’s Russia, or by the region’s large Muslim population.

These European apprehensions partly reflect failure by the continent’s leaders to capitalize on the sometimes-spectacular successes of enlargement, Poland being the most notable example. Instead, the exigencies of domestic politics have induced many European leaders to underscore the difficulties and accentuate the failures of expansion.

With such a cold wind blowing from the West, it is little wonder that Europhilia has begun to give way in places like Belgrade to a pining nostalgia for the Yugoslav era. “At that time, we were respected,” was how a retired Serbian diplomat put it to me. “We were one of the Great countries of the Non-Aligned Movement.”

Similar sentiments are evident in Bosnia, and even in Croatia, an EU member since 2013. During the communist era, Yugoslavia provided a sharp contrast with the Soviet bloc.

Economically and socially, its citizens were far better off than those of Central Europe. Today, their fortunes have flipped. Poland is booming, while Yugoslavia’s successor states (with the exception of Slovenia) are struggling, victims of the unhealed wounds of the distant and recent past – including former Yugoslav and Serbian President Slobodan Milošević’s cynical atavism in winning and maintaining power.

It has been years since the EU looked so distant, so aloof. The decision by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to abolish the post of Commissioner for Enlargement has been seen as highly symbolic, leaving many in search of an alternative model.

The Russian re-conquest of Crimea provides a gleeful talking point for ultra-nationalist Serbs bemoaning the loss of Albanian-majority Kosovo. Meanwhile, the Gazprom office in central Belgrade offers a large, visible proof of Russia’s energy presence in the country.

The truth, of course, is that there is no “Russian model” for the Balkans beyond the use of brute force. Ever-closer ties with Europe remain the best way forward for the region’s residents and the EU alike. In a time of severe economic crisis, European ideals remain, in spite of everything, the only efficient antidote to virulent nationalism. For the Balkans, as for the rest of Europe, the EU is the only alternative to a future as bad as the worst of the past.

Dominique Moisi, a professor at L’Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), is Senior Adviser at the French Institute for International Affairs (IFRI) and a visiting professor at King’s College London.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.

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