Some colleagues asked that I talk yesterday about
outside influences on the Balkans, where things have gotten shaky
lately, with a risk that the peace settlements of the 1990s might
unravel. Here are the notes I prepared for myself:
1.Renewed attention to the Balkans, which has all
but dropped off Washington’s priorities in recent years, is most
welcome. The region has made a lot of progress, especially in the
first ten years after the Bosnian war, but right now it is in
2.I’ve been asked to talk about “outside
influences”: Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
3.It is important at the outset to say that none
of these countries would have much influence in the Balkans except
for the decline in American engagement and the weakening of the EU.
4.The US has tried for a decade now to get the EU
to lead, as it has the main carrots for political and economic
reform as well as more compelling interests in the region.
5.The Europeans have done some good things: the
Brussels dialogue has led to real improvements in Belgrade/Pristina
relations, even if many specific agreements remain unimplemented.
6.The 2014 British-German initiative for economic
reform in Bosnia—undertaken to forestall a renewed U.S. initiative
to change its constitution—has made little real progress, largely
due to European reluctance to stick with its own conditionality.
7.The best that can be said for EU efforts in
Macedonia is that they have so far avoided the worst, with US
support. The EU there seems unable to overcome a monumental level of
8.But in the past two years the refugee crisis,
Brexit, surging nationalism in many EU countries, and the congenital
inability of the EU to speak with one voice has undermined the
credibility of EU accession, which in any event won’t happen before
2020 and more likely not before 2025.
9.That’s a long time to wait in the Balkans, where
we’ve spoiled people with Stabilization and Association, Schengen
visas, candidacy for EU accession, pre-accession funds, and other
goodies. What we haven’t done is invest: the US and EU have risked
little private money in the Balkans.
10.Russia and Turkey—whose influence is far
greater than others I’ve been asked to discuss—are moving into
relative vacuums: the Russians find ethnic Serbs easy pickings and
the Turks find Islamists, especially in Bosnia but also in Kosovo,
friendly to their interests.
11.The Russian influence is overwhelmingly
pernicious from a Western perspective. Moscow is doing its best to
make NATO and EU membership as slow and as difficult as possible,
especially in Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia, and Serbia. Its
influence in Albania and Kosovo is minimal.
12.The attempted coup in Montenegro is just the
tip of iceberg. Moscow contributes to ethnic tensions, political
polarization, and regional instability in many ways: opaque
financing for Republika Srpska, Russia’s so-called humanitarian
center, overt military aid and investments in Serbia, support to
Russophile politicians as well as media onslaughts throughout the
13.Quite apart from these Slavic connections,
Moscow has strong leverage over Belgrade because its UNSC veto is
essential to blocking Kosovo’s General Assembly membership.
14.Moscow’s goal is clear: to prevent Balkan
countries from entering NATO and even the EU.
15.Turkey is a different story.
16.For more than twenty years after the Bosnian
war the Turks were disciplined Western-oriented contributors to
peacekeeping and development in the Balkans, trying to maintain good
relations with Serbs and Croats as well as with Balkan Muslims.
17.This has been described as a “gentle version”
of the Ottoman Empire, one associated with the “no problems with
neighbors” policy and aimed at the region’s Christians as well as
18.Many Croats and Serbs may have been nervous
about Turkish cultural inroads, as parts of the region lived for
centuries under Ottoman domination, but most welcomed Turkish
investment and contractors, which are evident throughout the region.
19.As Erdogan turned in a more authoritarian
direction and relations with the US strained, Turkey began a more
Islamist push, especially with Bosnian Muslims and President Bakir
20.The Muslim Brotherhood connection is a more
visible and explicit one for Bakir than it was for his father,
though it existed for Alija Izetbegovic as well.
21.The recent Turkish-Russian rapprochement has
had an undesirable impact with some Bosniak leaders in Montenegro.
They are taking Erdogan’s hint, viewing Moscow in a more positive
light and connecting with the Chechen leadership. That development
may warrant monitoring, especially if it spills over to Bosnia.
22.Turkey has also had notably good relations with
President Thaci in Kosovo, but more based on commercial
opportunities than religion.
23.Iran and Saudi Arabia both have long histories
in the Balkans.
24.They supported the Republic of Bosnia and
Herzegovina during its war with Republika Srpska from 1992 to 1995.
Iran sent weapons. The Kingdom sent money. Neither was much
interested in the secular, pro-democracy Albanian rebellion in
25.After the war in Bosnia, most of the foreign
mujahedeen fighters were expelled at US insistence, and Iranian
influence there declined sharply under pressure from Washington.
26.Saudi Arabia provided humanitarian relief and
rebuilt a lot of mosques, many of which are poorly attended.
Nevertheless, Bosniaks are unquestionably more aware of their
religion than before the war and more inclined to identify as
27.Now Saudis, Emiratis, Kuwaitis and other Gulf
investors are buying a lot of real estate, especially in Bosnia and
Montenegro, causing heightened concern among Croats and Serbs.
28.Post-war, Iran focused more attention on Kosovo
than Bosnia, where it planted some Shia preachers and has sought to
establish Shiite practices, with modest success among a small number
of people. Most Kosovars, like their president, are notoriously
secular and pro-Western.
29.The Islamic State has however had some success
in recruiting fighters from both Bosnia and Kosovo, by some accounts
disproportionately large numbers relative to population. [I left it
to a deeply knowledgeable colleague to discuss that aspect of
30.Finally: the Chinese.
31.They have toyed with expanding their presence
in the Balkans, which consists mainly of tourists and infrastructure
projects, including construction of a major road in Montenegro. The
Balkanites welcome this Chinese presence gleefully.
32.But with no oil or other significant natural
resources, the region is far from a priority for the Chinese, even
if the Chinese are a priority for the region.
33.Chinese political influence so far as I have
detected is minimal to negligible. Multiparty illiberal democracy is
firmly implanted in the Balkans, even if liberal democracy is not.
34.Influence might be more important in the other
direction: the Kosovo secession is a precedent the Chinese dislike,
because of its implications for Tibet, and they would resist any
independence move by Republika Srpska.
35.So to make a long story short: the decline of
US and EU engagement in the Balkans has opened space for Russian
troublemaking and for some Islamicization, both in the more moderate
Turkish version and in the more problematic Saudi and Iranian
versions. The Balkanites’ fondest hope is for more Chinese
investment and tourists, which most treasure far more than religion.
36.What is to be done? I’m afraid I have nothing
new to offer. We have no choice but to use what carrots and sticks
37.Sanctions on recalcitrant Balkan politicians
are important: the US designation of Milorad Dodik was a good first
step, but what about Macedonian President Ivanov, who is refusing to
allow a parliamentary majority to form a government? What about
those whose malfeasance is amply documented in published wire taps?
38.Targeted sanctions would be far more effective
if the EU followed suit, which it has so far not done. Strict EU
conditionality in the accession process is also important, but it is
also legitimate to ask whether getting countries into that process
more quickly might be a good idea, as was done for Serbia.
39.As for other carrots, the admission of
Montenegro to NATO shows the way. Getting Kosovo and Macedonia into
the Alliance in the next five years would give the region some
positive momentum, even if Serbia and Bosnia stay out.
40.That of course is no slam dunk. For Macedonia,
Alliance membership will require the President of the United States
to tell the Greeks that we won’t put up any longer with their
failure to abide by the Interim Agreement and allow The FYROM to
41.For Kosovo, Alliance membership will mean
upgrading its security forces to a real if small army. Rather than
slowing Pristina down, we should be speeding it up by helping them
to get the Serb support they need either for a constitutional
amendment or for the required legislation.
42.As for Serbia, the big issue there is Russian
influence. If Prime Minister Vucic really wants to take his country
into the EU sometime soon after 2020, he needs to end his reliance
on the Russian veto in the UN Security Council to block Kosovo’s UN
membership. That would be better done sooner rather than later, as
leverage just before EU entry is not on the side of the candidate
43.Bottom line: the cure for what ails the Balkans
right now is more NATO and EU, not less. That means less Russia,
which the Alliance and the EU need to learn to counter much more
effectively than they are doing now.