Balkan communities have little hope of escaping the treadmill they are on unless the turn away from the EU, US, Russia, and other outside “helpers” and treat each other as partners instead of enemies.
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By David B. Kanin
The latest violence in Bosnia and Macedonia blurred the narratives of “terrorism” and traditional Balkan communal rivalries, as is to be expected. Bosniaks accused Bosnian Serbs of using what happened in Zvornik to arrest innocent citizens. The authorities in Banja Luka worried about radicals making their way back to Bosnia from the Middle East. Meanwhile, Macedonia stressed the dangers posed by the participation of radicals from Kosova in the shoot-out in Kumanovo, while in Pristina the President and Prime Minister said the violence was an attack against Kosova. The Kosova Serb former minister who called an unruly crowd in Gjakova “savages” got arrested for “hate speech.” Serbia beefed up its security presence in the Presevo Valley.
None of this changed the basic condition in the region. The fragments of former Yugoslavia and the pieces of the Albanian communal universe continue to squabble internally and with each other, to the benefit of no one except for those who profit from patronage. Western officials issue the usual demands for “reform,” a slogan that masks the lack of useful ideas from Western overseers determined mainly to convince Balkan clients that tattered European and American teleologies crafted to celebrate their creators’ myths of centrality still matter. The good news—that the region is quieter than the Middle East—is in greater danger of turning bad than at any time in the past decade and a half.
The politicians continue to behave as usual. In Bosnia, the question of which groups of thieves can fleece public companies—a far more important aspect of politics than artificial exchanges among academics, ambassadors, and party hacks over constitutional reform, elections, legalisms, or “transparency—threatens to bring down what passes for central and “Federation” governments. In Macedonia, the ongoing taping controversy (there is no point in calling politics as usual a “scandal”) underscores the fecklessness of the opposition as well as the cynicism of the government. Politicians in Kosova, Albania, and Montenegro mainly pursue informal financial and political activities (the record of the last twenty years suggests the businesslike Montenegrin elites are better at this than anyone else in the region).
The local patronage bosses, their payoff networks, political parties (which serve only formal tips of patronage icebergs), legal and constitutional fictions, and the internationals are not going to fix any of the problems. These local networks and external kibbitzers also are going to prove incapable of managing any muscular jihadist or nationalist violence that develops in the Balkan security vacuum.
Like it or not, Serbia is by far the best-governed country in the region. Prime Minister Vucic is successfully steering between East and West while he scores serial diplomatic points against Kosova’s (and Washington’s) faltering effort to reverse the decisive opposition by a critical mass of EU members to Pristina’s independence. Meanwhile, he manages the country’s internal economic problems and continues to marginalize political opponents inside and outside his government. He has accomplished the more difficult task of minimizing the appeal to old guard barbarians of Vojislav Seselj.
This does not mean Serbia will have smooth sailing, but Vucic’s competent administration and considerable political skills enable Serbia’s representatives abroad—and Foreign Minister Dacic, who also has proven his competence first as head of government and now as chief of diplomacy—to portray Belgrade as the only adult in the region. The Serbs get little in return from Washington or Brussels, but the EU so far is cooperating with the Vucic/Dacic coalition by avoiding instructing it to recognize Kosova as a price for entering the Great Club.
Meanwhile, let us not forget that Slovenia and Croatia have accomplished Hans Dietrich Genscher’s goal of getting them out of the Balkans without having to do anything to help former fellow Yugoslavs from whom they profited (Slovenia) or helped pull into debt (Croatia). Their problems adjusting to being relatively poor EU members rather than relatively rich Yugoslav republics should give their former compatriots pause.
Protests? Who? How? To What End?
Periodically, frustration, economic desperation, agitation by Western NGOs, or hectoring from internationals leads someone somewhere in this shattered region to attempt to organize a popular movement against a status quo that many in the region know cannot last. Some of these last only a few hours or days, some are no more significant but—like the so-called “Plenum” movement—spark breathless rhetoric and short-sighted hope. In my view, the most significant development to date was the outpouring of anger a couple years ago from veterans in both of Bosnia’s entities who believed they were being cheated. The fact that—for a moment—people who had fought each other could share a common stage against prevailing patronage bosses could provide a model for future action.
It better. Inertia south of the Sava and west of the Drina will embolden what for now is a marginal movement that will feed off the continuing success of ISIL in what used to be Iraq, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere, as well as from economic fragmentation and lack of opportunity outside the patronage networks. The mix of nationalist and religious motivations for serious violence incubating inside the Bosniak and Albanian universes is currently miniscule, but the rhetoric apparently emanating from one or two of the perpetrators of the violence in Kumanovo should not be ignored.
Whether any new non-violent, constructive protest movement would be more effective than what has come before would depend on its popular depth, communal breadth, and quality of leadership. It would need to be regional in scope, deep in strategic planning, and marked by clear-headed organization. To be effective, it would have to cross state, entity, and communal lines, ignore claims of leadership from the usual political activists and NGOs.
That is a large agenda, but possible to implement if those doing the heavy lifting craft specific goals for action and changes in policies and procedures. Sometimes it is hard to tell how many people really are committed to taking the risks necessary for change, but there does appear to be growing disgust with a situation that clearly is not going to end on its own, and for which Europeans and Americans have little to offer.
Wherever a set of future leaders come from, it would do well to ignore those among the student activists and NGO mavens who use such movements to further their own claims to leadership. It would be important to avoid the Otpor model, where the brand and personalities overstate their accomplishments and the credit they deserve and so distract from the vigilant and careful follow-through that was lacking in Belgrade after October 2000 (and so enabled old-style politicians like Kostunica and Djindjic) and among those Egyptian student activists who made the mistake of listening to Otpor before replicating the errors made in Belgrade in 1996 in the much more dangerous context of Tahrir Square.
The Balkans, like the Middle East, is a former periphery of the Ottoman Empire that still is coming to terms with the end of that arrangement. In the Middle East the settlement of 1919 has come apart, and the mix of issues related to religion, resources, and identify is going to work itself out very violently for years to come. In the Balkans, the latest in the serial security arrangements outsiders have imposed since 1878 is struggling to hold together and eventually will come apart. How violent is the struggle to replace it will depend on whether—this time—those who live there can hold the outsiders at arms’ length and overcome internal rivalries and break the patronage treadmill.
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).