Predicting the sequence of events that could cause
this instability is impossible, not least because incidents in one
country would reverberate in neighboring areas. Nevertheless,
several flash points or triggering incidents are plausible:
An independence referendum in Republika Srpska.
An entity within Bosnia and Herzegovina that has had a Serb majority
since the ethnic cleansings of the 1990s, Republika Srpska could
vote on independence as its president, Milorad Dodik, has promised.
International recognition would be limited, as even Serbia would not
want to ruin relations with the United States and European Union.
Russia, though, could be tempted to repeat its successful promotion
of secessionist regimes as it has in parts of Georgia, Moldova, and
Ukraine. A referendum could precipitate a Bosniak Muslim military
move to seize the northeastern town of Brcko that links the two
“wings” of Republika Srpska and is vital to its survival. Serbia
would then have to decide whether and how to intervene (as it did in
the 1990s with only a thin veneer of deniability) to sustain
Republika Srpska. The referendum could also trigger an attempt at
secession by Croat communities along Croatia’s border, embroiling a
NATO ally in conflict.
Serb or Albanian moves affecting the remaining
Serb population in Kosovo. Albanian rioting against Serbs in Kosovo,
as occurred in March 2004, could precipitate Serbian military action
to protect the Serb-majority municipalities in the north, perhaps
even with NATO concurrence. Serb nationalist provocations—such as
blocking Albanians from access to Serb-majority areas or
ostentatious displays of nationalist symbols—could trigger an
Albanian effort to seize the north by force (even now, the area is
only loosely controlled by Pristina). The risk of these
contingencies will increase if NATO presence diminishes further, as
some members think it should.
Renewed fighting between Albanians and
Macedonians. In Macedonia, Albanian paramilitaries like those that
rebelled in 2001 (and appeared suddenly again in April 2015) could
seek union with Kosovo or Albania, forcing the Macedonian government
to choose between repressing the rebellion or allowing Macedonian
paramilitary forces to respond. Skopje, the Macedonian capital, is
the center of gravity for Albanians and Macedonians, as it is the
largest city for both ethnic groups. Rioting, as occurred in
parliament in April, or paramilitary clashes could generate pressure
for broader military responses.
A terrorist attack or political assassination.
An attack by the self-proclaimed Islamic State or al-Qaeda targeting
Christians in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, or
Serbia could trigger revenge attacks against Muslims and even
cross-border fighting that could spread to other countries.
Assassination of political leaders could precipitate intervention by
a neighboring state.
Russian destabilization of Montenegro or
Macedonia. Moscow has backed ethnic Serbs concentrated in northern
Montenegro who were loyal to Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic,
resisted Montenegro’s independence, and opposed its NATO membership.
Moscow is also courting Bosniak Muslim politicians in Montenegro,
encouraging their contacts with the Chechen leadership to wean them
from their long-standing allegiance to Montenegro. In Macedonia,
Russia-backed nationalists associated with former Prime Minister
Nikola Gruevski could attempt a comeback using force, provoking an
Ethnic politics in the Balkans are interconnected.
If Republika Srpska tries to leave Bosnia and Herzegovina, some
Serbs in northern Kosovo will try to leave Kosovo, and some
Albanians in southern Serbia will try to leave Serbia. Some Muslims
in Serbia could also want to unite with what remains of Bosnia and
Herzegovina. If Macedonia is partitioned, its Albanians could want a
union with Kosovo and potentially with Albania and Albanian-majority
municipalities of southern Serbia, which would trigger the ethnic
partitions of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Serbia.
Violence could erupt quickly and over an event
that would not otherwise seem catalytic, including:
Growing extremist hate speech, recruitment, and actions: parading,
exercises, or attacks by armed ethnic paramilitaries in any Balkan
country; violent attacks on parliaments; enhanced Islamic State and
al-Qaeda recruitment among Balkan Muslims; a mass casualty jihadi
Internal political developments: scheduling a Republika Srpska
independence referendum; growing pan-Albanian sentiment and
agitation in Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, or southern Serbia;
increased political friction within or between Macedonians and
Increased Russian meddling: expanded cooperation with or financing
of Serbia or Republika Srpska; interference in elections in Bosnia
and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, or Serbia; further expansion
of Russia Today and Sputnik News; another assassination or coup
Worsening of diplomatic relations: breakdown of EU-sponsored
Serbia/Kosovo talks on normalizing relations; worsening of Serbia’s
relations with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia,
or Montenegro; breakdown of cooperation among regional defense and
Implications for U.S. Interests
The potential unraveling of the U.S.-induced peace settlements in
Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Macedonia would reverse
significant U.S. diplomatic achievements, risk tens of thousands of
lives, add weight to the notion that the West is in retreat, and
undermine those who seek peaceful democratic outcomes worldwide.
NATO—which still has troops in Kosovo (including about six hundred
Americans) and is regarded as a guarantor of Bosnia and
Herzegovina’s territorial integrity (even though the troops there
now are under EU command)—would be exposed as a paper tiger.
Violence anywhere in the Balkans could spread to Albania, Croatia,
Montenegro, and even to Bulgaria and Greece, all NATO members, in
addition to causing refugee flows into the European Union and
eventually the United States, as well as radicalizing some Balkan
Muslims. This would distract U.S. allies in Europe from higher
priorities the Donald J. Trump administration needs their support to
confront, including Iran and North Korea.
Regional instability would enable Russia to
strengthen its foothold among the region’s Orthodox populations. Its
influence would grow in Macedonia, Montenegro, Republika Srpska, and
Serbia. Moscow, which already cites Kosovo independence as precedent
for its aggressive behavior in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, would
treat any future Balkan partitions as post-facto validation of
Russian claims in Abkhazia, Crimea, Donbas, South Ossetia, and
The United States has three strategic options to prevent a violent
unraveling of existing peace agreements: continue its current policy
of following the European Union’s lead, work with Russia to draft
new borders for the region, or initiate a major diplomatic effort to
resolve remaining Balkan problems.
Continue to Support Active EU Leadership
This first option would be a variant of existing U.S. policy.
Avoiding any more responsibility than it has taken over the past
decade, the United States could increase bilateral assistance and
encourage the European Union, especially Germany, to beef up
existing Balkan commitments. The European Union has launched a
Bosnia and Herzegovina reform initiative, a dialogue between Serbia
and Kosovo, and an effort to repair Macedonia’s damaged democracy,
but implementation often lags. The United States could use
diplomatic leverage, including sanctions targeted against
recalcitrant politicians, more widely to ensure that progress on EU
The United States could also selectively enhance existing Balkans
assistance, which the Trump administration has proposed sharply
reducing. Reversing proposed cuts would maintain U.S. credibility
and leverage with recipients. Further exploiting close and
productive military relationships with Kosovo, Macedonia, and
Serbia, which cooperate respectively with the Iowa, Vermont, and
Ohio National Guard, would help ensure restraint in regional crises
and encourage stabilization if violence breaks out.
This option may be inadequate to ensure that the peace agreements do
not unravel, which would have dramatic consequences for the region.
None of the current EU initiatives, even if fully implemented, would
eliminate the underlying drivers of conflict. All aim to relieve
pressure rather than overcome the main remaining obstacles to NATO
and EU membership. If one or more Balkan states failed, the costs to
the United States for the ensuing financial and humanitarian
response would be significant.
Work With Russia to Implement New Territorial Arrangements
As its second option, the United States could cooperate with Russia
to design and implement new territorial arrangements with ethnically
determined borders. This would be a major departure from
long-standing U.S. policy. Concluding that state-building within
existing borders is impossible, Washington and Brussels could embark
on negotiations of peaceful ethno-territorial partition, with the
resulting states having the right to join their neighbors. Moscow
would welcome and cooperate with such an initiative.
The result would be partition of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo,
Macedonia, and Serbia. Bosnia and Herzegovina could be partitioned
three ways, with the Croat portion joining Croatia and the Serb
portion joining Serbia, leaving one or two small, mostly Islamic
republics, one near Sarajevo and possibly one in western Bosnia and
Herzegovina surrounding Bihac. The majority-Serb Kosovo
municipalities (north of the Ibar River) would join Serbia and the
majority-Albanian portion of southern Serbia (Presevo and Bujanovac)
would join Kosovo, while the majority-Muslim municipalities of
Serbia’s Sandjak could join Bosnia and Herzegovina. The
majority-Albanian northwestern part of Macedonia would join Kosovo,
with the Macedonian-majority remainder either independent or joined
to Bulgaria. Skopje would be divided.
Kosovo, enlarged by the addition of Presevo and Bujanovac as well as
the northwestern part of Macedonia, could then choose to join
Albania, precipitating the movement of most Kosovo Serbs (who live
south of the Ibar River) to Serbia and abandonment of the Serb
monuments and monasteries south of the Ibar.
Regional partition would require heavy diplomatic lifting on the
part of the United States and deployment of tens of thousands of
U.S., European, Russian, and other troops to guard and enforce
population movements and reduce the likelihood of violence. Costs to
the United States for these deployments could run into the billions
of dollars. NATO and EU membership would be postponed indefinitely
and reforms would stagnate. Washington would need to accept one or
more explicitly Islamic ministates with no prospect of NATO or EU
membership as well as potential for generating extremists. It would
also need to accept a Greater Serbia allied with Russia and
uninterested in NATO or EU membership. Accepting Balkan border
changes would greatly strengthen Russian arguments for border
changes in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine and undermine U.S.
opposition to independence for Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan.
Launch Major U.S.-Led Diplomatic Efforts to Resolve Remaining Balkan
As a third option, the United States could recommit to leading an
effort to construct viable democratic states governed in accordance
with the rule of law and eligible for NATO and EU membership. None
of the available diplomatic tools requires commitment of major new
financial resources, but they would need heightened political
attention to the region to prevent far more costly commitments in
the future, ensure that the European Union continues to carry most
of the Balkans burden, and hinder Islamist radicalization.
Accelerate NATO and EU membership. Washington and
Brussels could remove obstacles to faster progress in NATO and EU
accession or find other ways of increasing their influence on Balkan
behavior. Montenegro’s NATO accession was an important signal to the
region that the door is not slammed shut, and NATO could continue to
use its Partnership for Peace program and Membership Action Plan to
good effect. The United States could give additional resources and
visibility to its National Guard cooperation with Balkan states.
Washington could encourage the Organization for Security and
Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which maintains an extensive Balkan
democracy promotion network, to redouble its efforts, as well as
take on reconciliation among ethnic groups. The European Union could
be encouraged to create a new category of “associate” membership or
something similar that brings Balkan candidate countries further
inside its decision-making process without giving them the votes
associated with full membership.
Develop and use better carrots and sticks. While the European Union
has exhausted many economic incentives, the United States has not.
It could consider bilateral agreements to provide Balkan countries
with market access as a reward for meeting NATO and EU requirements.
Washington could also encourage the non-EU Balkans countries to form
a free trade area among themselves, which could then negotiate
market access with the United States. The U.S. Department of the
Treasury has sanctioned some Balkan individuals, blocking their
access to the U.S. financial system and preventing them from
traveling to the United States because of the obstacles they pose to
peace, security, and democracy. While the sanctions may have few
practical consequences, the symbolism has seriously affected the
political calculations of some of those individuals. A similar
sanctions scheme throughout Europe, whether implemented by the
European Union or individual nations, could strengthen Brussels in
dealing with recalcitrant political leaders and their cronies.
Blocking them from accessing the European banking system would be
Focus on rule of law. Corruption, trafficking in drugs and people,
and other illicit activities are major sources of grievance
throughout the Balkans. They undermine government legitimacy and
make it difficult to qualify for NATO and EU membership, which
further feeds discontent. Extremists both profit from illicit
activities and exploit them to criticize governing authorities and
recruit cadres. European and American assistance programs could be
reoriented to focus primarily on rule of law.
Enhance U.S. diplomatic efforts to resolve specific problems. In
several Balkan countries, distinct issues could be resolved through
enhanced U.S. diplomatic efforts. This could require appointment of
a special envoy responsible for mediating and resolving hot spots in
close cooperation with the European Union, in particular in Bosnia
and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Macedonia.
In Macedonia, the unresolved issue with Greece concerning
Macedonia’s name (which has, in turn, stalled the country’s NATO
membership bid) persists. Ethnic tensions have increased between
Albanians keen on NATO membership and Macedonians more concerned
with preserving the country’s name. U.S. pressure on Athens and
Skopje to allow Macedonia into NATO as “The Former Yugoslav Republic
of Macedonia” (as required by the 1995 interim agreement validated
by the International Court of Justice in 2011) would require
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the United States could relaunch the
constitutional reform initiative, which came close to success in
2006, or an electoral reform effort. It could also encourage the
European Union to be much stricter in requiring implementation of
agreed reforms. The United States could press the Europeans to move
their troops—now scattered in militarily insignificant numbers
throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina—to Brcko, signaling to both Serbs
and Bosniaks that this center of gravity will not be allowed to fall
to either should violence recur. If Republika Srpska schedules an
independence referendum, the United States and European Union could
prepare and publicize their vigorous response to forestall the vote.
This response could include using the high representative’s “Bonn
powers”—that is, the power to enact binding decisions—to declare the
referendum legally null and void. It could also include diplomatic
nonrecognition and ineligibility of an independent Republika Srpska
(or any country it joins) for EU membership or loans from the
International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank.
Kosovo’s progress toward meeting the military requirements for NATO
membership has stalled due to Serbia’s opposition, stemming partly
from concerns about how Kosovo’s army might be used. The United
States could help resolve this quandary by urging Belgrade to accept
Kosovo UN membership and exchange ambassadors with Pristina, in
return for a Kosovo army designed not for territorial defense but
rather for deployment on international missions. Serbia has
preferred to wait until just before its EU accession to accept
Kosovo’s sovereignty, but that is a mistake because Serbia’s
leverage would then be weak. NATO could draw down its forces once
relations between Belgrade and Pristina are normalized.
In addition to resolving country-specific issues, which provide
openings for Russian meddling, enhanced U.S. diplomacy could focus
on ensuring that the Balkans, much of which depends on Russian
natural gas imports, has alternative sources: U.S. liquefied natural
gas, Azerbaijani gas, or eventually eastern Mediterranean gas from
Cyprus or Israel. The United States and European Union could
consider sanctions on Russian individuals or companies that provide
financing to sanctioned Balkan leaders. The United States could also
use its influence with NATO members to block Russian air and ground
access to the Balkans, especially to its “humanitarian” base in
Serbia if that is used for nefarious purposes. A portion of the
democratization resources that the U.S. Congress is making available
could be used to beef up U.S. broadcasting through the Voice of
America and social media efforts in the Balkans to offer a more
positive image of the United States, European Union, and NATO.
Consultations with Washington and Brussels on countering Moscow’s
meddling in Balkan elections could be useful too.
This option requires high-level political
commitment to risky state-building enterprises of a sort the Trump
administration wants to avoid. They could fail, as efforts to fix
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s constitution and to get Macedonia into NATO
have in the past, causing high-level political chagrin. Moreover,
this option would not resolve all Balkan conflicts. It could,
however, address the most salient issues that block progress. It is
also the most cost-effective preventive option, as the expenditures
that the first two options require surpass those of the efforts
In the event of renewed violence and serious instability, the United
States could do the following:
Sponsor with Russia and EU members a UN Security Council resolution
condemning any outbreak of large-scale violence in the Balkans,
naming and sanctioning parties that have contributed to it, cutting
off assistance to any aggressor, and imposing an immediate cessation
For a Bosnia and Herzegovina contingency, convene with EU members
and Russia an emergency meeting of the Peace Implementation
Council—the body that oversees the Dayton agreement—to authorize
action by the high representative, who still has powers to block or
dictate legislation and fire officials.
In the event of a Republika Srpska declaration of independence or
any such unilateral effort at partition, refuse recognition,
withhold assistance, and make it clear that IMF and World Bank aid
will also be blocked, in cooperation with the European Union.
Redeploy some or all U.S. troops in Kosovo and NATO troops from
neighboring countries to northern Kosovo, Brcko, Skopje, or any
other location of instability to assist in reestablishing a safe and
secure environment as well as warning off any perpetrators.
Block Russian use of the base in Nis, Serbia, to resupply or
otherwise aid Balkan belligerents by getting friendly countries to
deny overflight permission.
Seek OSCE monitoring of any cease-fire and mediation of disputes.
Reject any territorial changes and pursue negotiation of an
unconditional return to the status quo.
The Trump administration needs to act urgently to preserve Balkan
peace and stability, prevent unraveling of the region’s peace
agreements, and seek to complete peace processes already begun by
leading a major diplomatic effort to resolve the remaining issues.
This approach will necessarily involve deeper U.S. diplomatic
involvement in Balkan issues and state-building than this
administration would like, but the alternative is to risk further
Muslim radicalization, refugee flows, and Russian troublemaking that
would distract European allies from higher U.S. priorities.
Preventive diplomacy is the lowest-cost option, even if it requires
political commitment at a high level. Continuation of business as
usual (the first option) risks returning the Balkans to instability
and opening the door wide to Islamist radicalization.
Ethno-territorial partition in the Balkans (the second option) would
be inconsistent with American values and interests and would require
heavy military lifting and expense by Washington as well as
resources from Moscow and Brussels that are not available. While
continuing to rely on EU cooperation, leverage, and resources, the
United States should selectively retake the lead in the Balkans with
the following steps:
Reiterate with the European Union, and if feasible with Russia, the
United States’ irreversible commitment to existing Balkan borders
and states. Nothing can be gained from continued speculation about
border changes in the Balkans, which would unravel the peace
established in the 1990s and incur massive diplomatic, political,
economic, and human costs. The United States should encourage the
European Union to state explicitly to Serbia that complete
normalization of relations with Kosovo, including UN membership and
exchange of ambassadorial-level diplomats, as well as respect for
the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Bosnia and Herzegovina,
are conditions for Serbia’s EU accession.
Develop in cooperation with European partners new incentives for
Balkan countries, including enhanced access to U.S. markets and
accelerated EU membership. Accelerated candidacy for EU membership
worked in getting Serbia to negotiate with Kosovo as well as Bosnia
and Herzegovina to initiate economic reforms. Accelerating
membership negotiations would have a similar mobilizing effect, as
would opening U.S. markets.
Jointly sanction Balkan leaders who threaten democracy, peace, and
security by blocking individuals from traveling in the European
Union and United States or utilizing their financial systems. Past
legal challenges have made Europe hesitant, so new procedures are
needed. Republika Srpska President Dodik, already sanctioned by the
United States, should be the first target, but other Balkan leaders
who stoke ethnic tension should also be targeted. Joint U.S.-EU
action would amplify the political impact.
Publicly enunciate a planned joint response to
Republika Srpska’s independence referendum, if it is called. This
step should include both invalidation of the referendum by the high
representative and a U.S./EU statement that no bilateral, IMF, or
World Bank assistance or recognition will be provided to an
independent Republika Srpska or to any country of which it becomes a
Establish a region-wide truth and reconciliation effort that would
seek a common understanding of what happened during the conflicts of
the 1990s as well as compensation for victims. This should include
citizen-to-citizen exchanges like those that laid the basis for
French-German reconciliation after World War II as well as joint
work on history textbooks throughout the region to ensure they are
not teaching hatred that will generate future violence.
Reorient assistance to the rule of law, with a focus on fighting
corruption, trafficking, and extremism. U.S. and EU assistance
should focus more on building independent judiciaries as well as law
enforcement authorities that both observe international human rights
standards and vigorously pursue wrongdoing, including the capture of
state institutions by corrupt politicians and the radicalization of
Enhance democratization resources and activities. The OSCE spends
$47.2 million per year in Southeastern Europe (former Yugoslavia
plus Albania), the lion’s share in Kosovo. This and U.S.
democratization aid should be doubled to provide resources for
region-wide democracy promotion and reconciliation.
Consider redeployment of U.S. and EU troops to maximize their
deterrent effect. European troops are sprinkled throughout Bosnia
and Herzegovina in militarily insignificant “presences.” They should
be redeployed to Brcko and other potential hot spots. Some U.S.
troops in Kosovo should be moved to the north, the most problematic
Appoint a U.S. special envoy for the Balkans. This person would seek
to resolve specific issues in close consultation with the Europeans,
as well as ensure high-level U.S. government visits to cooperative
Balkan countries, several of which have been neglected in recent
years. This exception to the Trump administration’s limits on
special envoys would be justified on the basis that risks in the
Balkans require more attention than the State Department’s current
part-time effort. The special envoy should seek to ensure high-level
U.S. government visits to Balkan countries, several of which have
been neglected in recent years. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the
special envoy should focus on reforms to enable functional and
effective governance at all levels, including a central government
able to negotiate and implement the requirements of NATO and EU
membership. In Kosovo, he or she should help foster the creation of
an army that poses no threat inside the country and is capable of
substantial contributions to international missions, including by
the United Nations and NATO. Efforts in Serbia should put an end to
the Russian veto on Kosovo UN membership and Serbian opposition to
Kosovo’s army. In Macedonia, efforts should promote transparent and
accountable governance and NATO membership at the next summit.
Strengthen U.S. efforts to counter Russian hybrid warfare. Prospects
for cooperation in the Balkans with Russia will only improve once
Washington pushes back against Moscow’s troublemaking. The United
States should make a major commitment, on the order of $20 million,
to Balkan broadcast and social media, making it harder for Moscow to
spread its propaganda. Brussels should match this commitment. The
United States should also be prepared to use its diplomatic
influence to deny overflight permission into the Balkans by Russian
aircraft if they fly missions incompatible with NATO interests.
Resources for National Guard cooperation with Balkan countries, as
well as its visibility, should be increased. Washington and Brussels
should consult with Balkan governments on how to block Russian
election interference as well as promote creation of economically
viable natural gas networks to minimize dependence on Russia.
Washington should let Moscow know that once relations between
Belgrade and Pristina are fully normalized, the remaining NATO
troops in Kosovo will be withdrawn, but all Balkan countries will
still have the option of joining NATO if they meet the membership
These recommendations, if implemented, would serve
to preserve peace and stability, protect U.S. interests, and limit
Russian troublemaking in the Balkans. They would also complete peace
processes that have the potential to make the region secure,
prosperous, and friendly to the United States and Europe.
The Council on Foreign Relations
acknowledges the Rockefeller Brothers Fund for its generous support
of the Contingency Planning Roundtables and Memoranda.