A review of the bidding in the Balkans

Save one, conflicts in the region are frozen, EU accession process or not.

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By David B. Kanin

Lacking any strategy or conceptual framework, EU and US diplomacies in the Balkans continue to consist largely of versions of the same rhetorical script that has held place since the end of the collapse of Yugoslavia. The latest EU strategy for the region includes nothing of substance; it is as insignificant as the pile of Western formulas tried out during the wars of the 1990s and will fail to make a dent in flawed regimes of Dayton and UN Security Council Resolution 1244. As with previous posturing, any document or oration that mentions “transition, “democracy” (or “democratic backsliding,”) “rule of law,” “corruption,” “transparency,” or other well-trod slogans can be safely ignored.

The Balkan Conference in Sofia on May 1 will not produce anything substantive, even though it will give Bulgaria a pulpit from which to declare the success of its turn at the EU presidency. This get together should be compared to the similar sorts of regional Balkan conclaves in the 1930s that also were much touted but had minimal impact on regional and international security. Its most important result already is in the books – the five EU members that do not recognize Kosova as a sovereign state demonstrated by the conditions under which they agreed to attend that they have no intention of changing their position, no matter more than a dozen years of American demands that they do so and promises to Pristina that this will happen. Serbian denials of any willingness to grant Pristina even a non-voting status in the UN (much less diplomatic recognition) in return for EU membership suggests another failed effort to move Belgrade off its bedrock position. President Vucic’s rejection of the EU spokesperson’s statement that the association of Serbian municipalities in Kosovo called for by the much-overrated Brussels agreement of April 2013 will be formed in accordance with Kosova’s legal system is a further demonstration of his government’s strong diplomatic position.

I have heard some former US officials say influential Serbs have told them privately Belgrade will wait until just before they qualify for EU membership to recognize Kosova’s sovereignty; those officials say Serbia should do this now. These colleagues make the common mistake of believing private assurances to them are more authoritative than public commentary meant for mass domestic and/or foreign audiences. Comments from Vucic, Prime Minister Ana Brnjabic, Foreign Minister Ivic Dacic, and others down the food chain should be taken at face value unless those public positions change. Make no mistake – Serbia is working toward getting into the EU without having to recognize Kosova and, as things stand, has a real shot at making this happen. The key to the eventual success of this goal will be achieving a “normalization” agreement under Brussels’ auspices while maintaining international acquiescence to the idea that there is something called “status neutrality” (the US failure to achieve universal EU recognition means the existence of any neutral national positions on this issue reinforces Pristina’s lack of an international status).

A recent New York Times article relegates problems in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Kosova/o, and throughout the region to great power rivalry, and so has things backwards. The US and Russia, much like the Powers of earlier eras, are drawn into local disputes in the Balkans and elsewhere they cannot force into conclusion. Moscow, by choosing sides, (like in Syria), is more skillful than Washington, but Putin’s setback in Montenegro reflects the same limitations on that outsider that have frustrated serial Western initiatives in the region.

As always, regional patronage bosses and governments (the two overlap as part of the largely informal economic and political actors that dominate the region) will adapt to changes in the correlation of forces existing among the larger powers they have to contend with. The ongoing shift toward illiberal politics with democratic veneers reflects gradually weakening Western influence. Growing Russia-China cooperation to weaken the US, which only partly results from the current chaos in Washington, is not unnoticed in the region. It stands in sharp contrast to US-Chinese cooperation against Soviet power that contributed to weakening Moscow’s geopolitical stance in the final decades of the Cold War – an arrangement that affected Tito’s adjustments to his non-alignment and contributed to the Western tack of his immediate successors during the 1980s.

In this context, determining what the Tito-era Macedonian republic should call itself has taken on outsized importance (whether it joins NATO is a much less important issue). The “name” problem, unlike other disputes regarding Macedonia and the rest of the region, does not intrinsically involve competition over borders, ethnicity, religion, or resources, even though all those things come into the argument. It is possible to settle on a name without changing anything else.

The contrast between the behavior of behavior of Zoran Zaev’s government and that of its proto-authoritarian predecessor has lifted hopes for a solution. Press reports suggest to two sides are closing in on some formation of “Upper Macedonia.” Whether the new name will only be used internationally or will be embedded in the country’s constitution remains unresolved. Coming to closure on this issue would provide at least a small reason for cheer among the current and former Western diplomats who have presided over the series of negotiating impasses noted above.

Even such a cosmetic success would also provide rhetorical ballast importance in the wake of Vojislav Seselj’s latest victory in The Hague. Sure, he was found guilty of a limited set of war crimes in Vojvodina, but his acquittal related to brutalities committed in Croatia and Bosnia and the Tribunal’s gift of a sentence, in effect, of time served ensures that Seselj’s narrative of patriotic heroism remains intact. He joins the pantheon of nationalistic icons in all the shards of former Yugoslavia whose memories will be nurtured by the current and future agitators who will serve as the entrepreneurs of the next round of regional conflicts. These figures, and sectarian elements ranging from clerics and intellectuals to figures in popular culture and grass-roots football fans continue to prove themselves more durable and deeply rooted than the sliver of people attached to waning Western notions of multiculturalism and liberal institutionalism.

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).

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.

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