Leveraging weakness

Faced with outstanding conflicts over sovereignty in the Western Balkans, the EU’s most efficacious strategy depends upon acknowledging and leveraging its own considerable limitations as an international actor.

By David B. Kanin

The EU’s institutions have grown in parallel with its efforts to manage the Balkans.  Yugoslavia fell apart at about the same time as the high-flown rhetoric associated with the Maastricht Treaty raised hopes for the gradual, but inexorable, development of a unified, influential, prosperous “Europe.”  The ability of European paladins to pronounce solutions – and have local protagonists follow their instructions – quickly became an indicator of whether this would-be entity could be taken seriously regarding security problems in its backyard and farther afield.  In a sense, the headlines accompanying each new Balkan horror helped European politicians distract critics who, from the outset, questioned the project of a common currency and financial system which did not take seriously the fact that several of its members never met the criteria established for joining the club.

Two decades on, the record is not good.  EU missions in Bosnia and Kosovo have the respect neither of Balkan communities, nor of an American partner the Europeans so much wanted to avoid having to rely on.  Europe’s failure to manage its own financial affairs and Europe’s irrelevance in the Middle East have reinforced its diminished influence in southeastern Europe.

The trajectory of communal relations in Mostar serves as a good indicator of the larger problem.  In the early nineties the Europeans focused on the town as a place they could use to prove the EU’s efficacy as a security actor.  They proposed a solution that (in effect, not on purpose) would have favored Bosnjak over Croat interests.  The latter objected, of course, and the Europeans found themselves engaged in a tussle they had not thought through between communal authorities increasingly involved in a zero-sum game.  Bosnjak-Croat fighting in 1993, the Washington Agreement signed the following February (in which the US not Europe, played the central role), Dayton, and subsequent ad hoc diplomacy led to the current rickety municipal arrangement—which will work until it does not.  Regarding Mostar and the broader Balkan trajectory, the Europeans at best can be credited with stumbling into a stalemate that has done little to demonstrate their ability to effectively practice conflict management.

Still, no matter how feckless its performance, EU membership remains the central goal of every state in the region (albeit in the context of considerable public skepticism over the value of being inside the Union).  Without the European mantra, most Balkan politicians would lack anything approximating a vision with which to convince constituents to trust their future to them.  Without this brass ring, no matter how far it remains out of reach, many in the Balkans would feel what philosophers call aporia, the sense that there is no direction they can go, no constructive future they can hope for.

This gives the Europeans a significant opportunity to redirect their approach to a region in which their current policies cannot succeed.  The EU should declare that membership is possible only for those Balkan countries not saddled by outstanding conflicts over sovereignty.  It should stop demanding one solution or denouncing another – and should definitely kill the rhetoric that tells the locals the only possible way forward is whatever the Europeans or Americans are demanding at a particular point in time.

Further, the EU should declare they will resume discussions about possible membership with Serbia, Bosnia, Kosova and Montenegro only when all sides to contested sovereignty have forged deals agreed to by relevant parliaments and/or publics.  It would no longer favor the usual Wilsonian teleology.  Whether new status quos involve “civic” or “ethnic” arrangements based on inertial, Tito-era borders, new partitions, population swaps or hybrid combinations of some or all of these would be solely the choice – and responsibility – of the protagonists.  Simultaneously, the EU would reduce its regional footprint drastically, consolidating a residual presence into a single monitoring mission (call it EU-Zen) that would give technical advice when asked, but otherwise stay out of local squabbles.  (In this context, the closure of the European police mission and ongoing reduction of the European force in Bosnia would become positive, strategic developments).

The Europeans would make it clear they would not consider offering membership in cases where violence is used to force a solution.  They also would underscore that they are not promising in advance to accept automatically any solution reached by parties in disputes over sovereignty.  Otherwise, the EU no longer would claim authority to meddle in the Balkans and would turn its attention to much more important internal problems.  In short, the EU would serve notice that, from now on, solutions to Balkan disputes would depend on these becoming more important to those directly involved than to outside powers’ pretensions to international leadership.

There should be one exception to this minimalist turn.  One country in the Balkans has worked hard to manage inter-communal problems and (no matter Western claims that there are no military solutions in the Balkans and despite local violence in 2001 and 2004) so far is perhaps the only Yugoslav successor state to avoid the use of force as a central determinant of its current status quo.

The European Union should admit Macedonia to membership as quickly and with as little scrutiny as it did Romania and Bulgaria.  If they have any backbone, EU decision makers will steamroll the Greek objection, informing Athens that its silly attitude toward Macedonia’s name poses a security threat and no longer will be tolerated.  The pain Greece has helped inflicted on Europe justifies making further financial aid – and conditioning continued Greek membership in the Club – on Athens conceding what never should have been an issue in the first place.  Greece, like other Balkan states, would have to focus on taking responsibility for its own problems.

There is no question that the Ohrid Agreement – which is as much the country’s basic law as is its constitution – has its flaws and remains at risk.  Further, Macedonian prime minister, Nikola Gruevski, is often tone deaf regarding legitimate complaints from the country’s ethnic Albanian community, and – as leader of that community – Ali Ahmeti faces serious challenges on his nationalist flank.  Skopje’s own silliness regarding airport names and statue-building has not helped its cause.

Nevertheless, alone among the pieces of the former Yugoslavia south of the Sava, politicians in Macedonia have forged a consociational system that since the early nineties has held together a place surrounded by states either questioning aspects of its identity, or else serving as an alternative Albanian Homeland.  This constructive context made it possible for the small Nordic and American military presence to serve a successful – lower case – peacekeeping role while the rest of the region was in turmoil.

The Western diplomatic record in Macedonia also is unique in the region.  Rather than attempting to force civic ideology, most Americans and European on the ground (there have been some imperious exceptions) have taken a properly zen-like approach in support of a generally constructive situation, albeit marked from time-to-time by security threats and frustrations.  Fast-tracking Macedonia’s admission to the EU would reinforce a changed European approach, which would reward countries that do the work of forging their own futures, rather than those skillful at manipulating larger powers into taking over those responsibilities (including becoming the lightening rod for blame more properly placed on local politicians, Big Men cum “businessmen,” and other Balkan actors).

The EU should relocate its smaller, redesigned monitoring and mentoring mission to its new Macedonian member.  Politicians from supplicant Balkan states should have to swallow coming ‘hat in hand’ to a place that would have leapfrogged them by doing the work others have studiously avoided.

It may be that communities choose the option of discarding their candidacies for EU membership in favor of some alternative.  Serbia, for one, could choose Russia.  If so, the West should let it do so.  The Russo-Serbian relationship is not as close as sometimes advertised, and – in the absence of a Western foil – Serbs soon would learn the limits of subsuming their interests to the whims of a power interested mainly in pursuing a narrow, late 19th century-style strategy directed solely at opposing whatever appears to be the preferences of the United States.

For too long, the Balkans has been a region where local actors are able to lure larger powers into interventions inimical to those outside players’ own interests, unsuccessful regarding the management of local disputes and sometimes dangerous to everyone involved.  The EU has a chance to break free of this pathology, but only if it overcomes its rhetoric (which masks a version of strategic aporia) and accepts that its most efficacious strategy depends on acknowledging and leveraging its own considerable limitations as an international actor.

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

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0 Response

  1. On the principle of “first do no harm,” it would indeed be better for the EU to step back from micromanaging how the post-Yugoslav republics resolve their disputes: Encouraging them to do so by offering membership but allowing them to do it however they agree and without attempts to use force. Making Macedonia the exception makes sense since with the help it received, it has made its internal peace. This should be consolidated asap with EU membership. But can the EU act more rationally in the Balkans in the context of its deepening debt crisis and without getting fouled by continuing American pressure to do things Washington’s way?

  2. It was due time Macedonia received a friendly pat on the back for surviving in this rough neighborhood. It is also about time a credible source reminded EU Balkan observers that the “name issue” is a charade and a solution to this charade should not be made into a condition for entry. The EU can prove its grit in dealing with issues in its own yard right here, right now, by recognizing Macedonia’s progress and contributions to democracy.

    For Macedonians, what is happening to this nation and state is history repeating. Exactly hundred years ago Macedonia’s neighbors managed to sideline and silence the call for a Macedonian state and eventually carving up the country and people in three parts.

    We can not believe Europe is again allowing to be deluded by those who are on the inside. A case in point is European MP Jorgos Chatzimarkakis who was born in Germany but is very clearly Greek. Someone of this background should have not been allowed to chair the Delegation of the European Union to Macedonia. I can decisively conclude that Macedonia’s ascension to the EU is being botched by those with access to decision-makers in the non-existent EU foreign policy. If there had been a sound mechanism instead of reactionary snap decisions the EU could have had this all sorted out and then concentrate on far more serious questions such as Bosnia and Kosova.

  3. Miki

    Great idea, but one should ask the question why wasn’t that suggested in 1991, to avoid all the wars and sufferings. The answer is simple: U.S. was more interested in suppressing legitimate Serbian claims than keeping peace in the region.

    That is why this is unfeasible: American foreign policy is still deeply against any solution that would allow Serbs outside of Serbia to exercise right of self-determination. The same right that was granted to Slovenes, Croats, Bosniaks and Kosovo Albanians, even with help of U.S. military muscle. They militarily helped ethnic cleansing of Serbs from Croatia, they torpedoed Cutillero’s plan, they occupied Kosovo in order to create Greater Albania and they continuously turn the blind eye on criminal activities of Montenegrin government in exchange for their anti-Serb policy.

    And while Kosovo Albanians are allowed to secede, Republika Srpska is not. In (very) hypothetical case where your idea is implemented, Republika Srpska must be allowed to secede from Bosnia, and Serbs would probably have no other claims, but I think that this possibility would cause numerous heart attacks among State Department’s personnel…

  4. In my opinion Republic of Macedonia was progressing quite well up to the moment when Greece opposed having in mind the name issue. Afterwards, Macedonia offered Greece a chance to have two names- one for the Greece and the other for all the other countries. Still, Greece said no. It made Macedonia slow down the pace of making progress towards NATO and EU.This situation needs to get some settlement god enough for all the actors. About other things mentioned, I do think that EU is a must for Serbia firstly for the Serbia’s sake. Some progress was made although some things ought to be efficiently having in mind the time dimension and the fact that we are way beyond schedule. Certain issues should be watched as if we are talking about the solution of some situation in a company in due time- strategic management

  5. Demetri

    @David B. Kanin

    Your patronizing analysis of the name dispute is not only “silly”, incredibly superficial, but so one-sided it stinks of prejudice.

    Where is your mention your own country of America used to officially claim there is no such ethnic Macedonians? Are you accusing Americans of attempted genocide in 1944?….. when Americans supplied Greeks the weapons to expel IMRO Communist terrorists and claimed no such ethnicity as “Macedonians” exists.

    Where is the mention of the recent past claims of FYROM’s politicians about their identity?

    ‘We do not claim to be descendants of Alexander the Great.’ – FYROM’S Ambassador Ljubica Acevshka, speech to US representatives in Washington on January 22 1999

    ‘We are not related to the northern Greeks who produced leaders like Philip and Alexander the Great. We are a Slav people and our language is closely related to Bulgarian.’ – FYROM´s Ambassador to Canada Gyordan Veselinov, Ottawa Citizen Newspaper, February 24 1999

    “We are Slavs who came to this area in the sixth century … We are not descendants of the ancient Macedonians” – Kiro Gligorov, FYROM’s first President, Foreign Information Service Daily Report, Eastern Europe, February 26, 1992

    “The creation of the Macedonian nation, for almost half of a century, was done in a condition of single-party dictatorship. In those times, there was no difference between science and ideology, so the “Macedonian” historiography, unopposed by anybody, comfortably performed a selection of the historic material from which the “Macedonian” identity was created. There is nothing atypical here for the process of the creation of any modern nation, except when falsification from the type of substitution of the word “Bulgarian” with the word “Macedonian” were made.” -former FYROM foreign minister Denko Maleski

    Where is the mention of the rampant irredentist “united Macedonia” rhetoric in FYROM and FYROM’s rampant usurption of Greek history?
    “On November 4, 2004, two days after the re-election of President George W. Bush, his administration unilaterally recognized the “Republic of Macedonia.”  This action not only abrogated geographic and historic fact, but it also has unleashed a dangerous epidemic of historical revisionism, of which the most obvious symptom is the misappropriation by the government in Skopje of the most famous of Macedonians, Alexander the Great.”


    As long as FYROM apologists pretend not to know these things and only say half the story… I sincerely say it comes across as prejudice.

    The EU and NATO might chose to just on the current Greek-bashing bandwagon and take the easy root of betraying Greece on this issue but if it does so I think Greece should exit both Nato and the EU (which some in the EU already want because of the mess Grece made of our fiances).

    What good is a “security” organization where our allies causally ethnically erase our very identity like IMRO Nazis and communists once tried and had it over to the former self-identifying ethnic Buglarians currently living in the ancient Kingdom of Paeonia..

    This should not be an idle threat. Greeks everywhere should listen carefully to the words of foreign politicians for cues on their positions on this issue. If our NATO allies have now decided they wish to play the role of the ethnic engineers of the Soviet Union and attempt to ethnically erase Greeks – the logical course of action would be substitute NATO bases with Russian or Chinese ones. (in exchange for security guarantees to protect us from people like Mr. Kanin)

    “It is no wonder that, in matters of politics in the Balkans, Greece feels misunderstood. It cannot understand why, after it stood alone with the United Kingdom against the forces of fascism between 28 October 1940–Ohi day, as it is still called–and 27 April 1941, when Athens finally fell, its former allies now appear to be taking the part of forces against which it stood, especially when, after the second world war, it endured those further four years of civil war to hold the line against the communist advance to the Aegean. That was done for the United States and for the United Kingdom especially–the world powers of the time–and those Governments objected, in 1944, to Tito’s change of the name of Vardar Banovina.” – Edward O’Hara, House of Commons Hansard Debates for 9 May 1995, Column 602)

  6. Demetri

    If Mr Kanin was remotely interested in justice (rather than matching the stereotype of a loud mouthed pretentious American playing checkers with sovereign countries.)… he would spend more time at home making sure Mr. Bush was prosecuted for war crimes and less time preaching ethnics to people in other nations.

    For an alleged “intelligence analyst” he seems to have had great difficulty analyzing the fact Mr.Bush went to war in Iraq under false pretenses. How is the search for WMDs coming along Mr. Kanin? You know, the ones 100K+ Iraqis lost their lives for.

    And at last check waterboarding is a war crime under the Geneva conventions isn’t it? You know… the document your government signed.

    So where is the war crimes trial for Mr. Bush Mr. Kanin? Do you believe Americans have a right to kill and torture foreign nationalists at will? How is it possible so many like you have developed slective amnesia over this issue?

    Let me suggest for all Greece’s mistakes with it fiances… they pale in comparison to the recent nasty behavior of your government. (ask anyone of the Iraqis that lost family member to American bullets) A preachy self-righteous tone to a country handling its current foreign disputes without the use of F-22s and Tomahawk cruise missiles hardly comes across as authentic.

  7. Demetri

    @any Americans (other han Mr. kanin)

    I just reread my post and just want to clarify I don’t negative stereotype all Americans as sharing Mr. Kanins views or think every American is an apologist for unjustified wars and torture. My goal was not to offend Americans as whole only to point out that “intelligence analyst” Mr. Kanin isn’t a particularly attentive analyst.

    Lectures on Greek fiances from from those on high moral ground I could understand (say Germany). However, Mr. Kanin clealry know next to nothing about the name dispute and being an intelligence analyst from a country that just unnecessarily killed 100K people, resorted to torture, and now spys on its own citizens…. is hardly in a position to be giving ethnic lectures to foreigners. I would recommend Mr. Kanin focus on cleaning his own bloodstained back yard first.

    US politicians like Ron Paul have principles and a spine to speak the truth about the wrong his country has committed. On the other hand Mr. Kanin is a self-righteous political pundit that prefers to point fingers at the motes in other people’s eyes.

  8. Pingback : Kosovo - sharing a conundrum | TransConflict | Transform, Transcend, Translate - TransConflict Serbia

  9. Mike

    A sad and obviously bitter cow taken out to pasture, who is mooing savagely, trying to attract attention. What’s the matter, did your brilliant opinions contribute to the US diplomatic isolation under G. W. Bush? Did your magnificent masterminding backfire, alienating key allies, and yet you are still too stubborn to admit it?

    Your advice to the EU “The European Union should admit Macedonia to membership as quickly and with as little scrutiny as it did Romania and Bulgaria. If they have any backbone, EU decision makers will steamroll the Greek objection, informing Athens that its silly attitude toward Macedonia’s name poses a security threat and no longer will be tolerated.” would lead to exactly the same mess your contributions to US politics helped create: Entry of FYROM to the EU with the name question unresolved would certainly lead to the total estrangement of the Greek population toward the EU and its policies, contributing to internal social unrest that would most certainly boost the nationalists to power. They in turn would most certainly withdraw from both the EU and NATO, and follow hostile policies to all neigbours and especially FYROM.

    Great advice for “reinforcing regional stability”!

    It is sad to see people who once wielded power choose to vindictively take sides in any conflict. Your experience, at least, should have taught you that any conflict not resolved with a compromise is not resolved at all, but just a festering wound waiting to resurface and cause more pain…O

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