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
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
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