What will trigger the next Balkan conflict?

Look past the usual noise emanating from EU-sponsored meetings and the panic of former diplomats and pundits.

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By David B. Kanin

The current security cap imposed on southeastern Europe is no more durable than predecessors that have come and gone along with their great power overlords since 1878.  However, this does not mean that the latest public squabbles in Bosnia and Kosovo are immediate existential threats. Since it became clear that Western policies there were not working well, officials and public intellectuals periodically have issued jeremiads about new conflicts and issued demands for the outsiders to club local miscreants into submission.  The prevailing dogma is that approved transatlantic institutions, norms, and behaviors constitute the only possible path forward and that Western “help” is necessary because the ill-intentioned nationalists and benighted populations inhabiting the region cannot do “it” (the bundled Western fantasies of democracy promotion and nation-building) by themselves.   The botched Butmir initiative of 2009 that capped serial failures to force constitutional reform on Bosnia was one notable example of this diplomatic and rhetorical pathology.

So, once again, Milorad Dodik’s ritual secession threats antinomian tantrums and a kerfuffle over license plates and sovereignty in Kosovo have tripped liberal institutionalist alarm bells.  Calls once again issue forth for someone to take a hammer to Dodik.  One pundit demands that the EU and NATO take out Aleksandar Vucic for the sake of Democracy in Serbia and regional security [1] – even though there exists zero evidence Vucic and his party have not been the genuine choice of most Serbian voters in every election since 2012.  Vucic is engaged in a level of support for his country’s perceived regional interests typical of any state leadership. Once again, current events are proving not to lead to outbreaks of major violence even as they do remind everyone that the status quo does not enable stability, does spur demographic outflow, and, eventually, will implode.

It is time to break the pattern of rhetorical hyperbole, diplomatic and academic hectoring, and convening of endless meetings in support of the phantom “European perspective” supposedly existing for Balkan EU supplicants.  These rituals of banality have deepened a dangerous regional sense of being numb.  It is becoming increasingly likely that everyone is getting so used to this inertia that in the event some provocation actually does lead to renewed fighting locals and international overseers will be caught by surprise – as in 1914 and 1991. 

It would be useful for practitioners and analysts to compile sets of indicators that in their view would indicate something dangerous is afoot.  I offer a preliminary list for consideration and invite readers to propose their own.

  • Dodik draws up a referendum on the secession of the Republika Srpska from Bosnia that actually speaks of secession and sets a date certain for it within a year of the vote.  Unless he does this his threats and rants can safely be ignored.
  • Bosniak leaders begin a determined effort (again, including dates certain and practical kinetic steps) to force Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats to succumb to Bosniak and Western demands to “improve” Dayton by creating a functioning central Bosnian government.
  • Serbia escalates its noises about the eventual re-integration of “Kosovo and Metohija” and backs them up with actions resembling the military exercises and forward deployment of kinetic power associated with China’s preparations to eventually retake Taiwan.  
  • Governments in Pristina and Tirana become aligned in personality and policy and make practical moves toward a greater Albanian state or confederal association involving those entities and, perhaps, claims by them to have the right to protect the interests of ethnic Albanians in North Macedonia and Montenegro.
  • Poland and Hungary either leave the EU or – more plausibly – create an informal but functional economic and security association to which they could invite Serbian participation.  This would resemble somewhat the Italian-led security system in interwar eastern Europe involving Albania and the regional losers of World War I that undercut France’s arrangements with Poland, Romania and what first was called the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes and then Yugoslavia.

Of course, no set of indicators can preclude surprises or provide a paint-by-the-numbers handbook for a mechanical, reflexive event and response feedback loop.  There always is the chance of a Balkan event that would spark a reaction like that following the self-immolation in Tunisia that sparked the paroxysm of regime removal and counter-revolutionary reaction in the Middle East and North Africa in 2011.  As with this mis-termed ”Arab Spring” a next round of fighting in the Balkans would inspire premature hopes for a progressive turn.  It also would raise fears of a replay of the sanguinary violence of the 1870s, 1940s, and 1990s.  There is no way to know if renewed conflict will happen soon or whether – as during the late Ottoman period – the current rickety security structure will last longer than some fear and others hope.

Whatever the case, nothing is decided south of the Sava, where –- unlike in much of the rest of Europe —  World War II did not settle border and identity disputes.  No one knows when or how the patchwork arrangement of  post-Yugoslav successor states will collapse or face major adjustment.  Nevertheless, three decades of dithering in Washington and European capitals have greatly undercut the prospect that fading Western power and norms can overawe diachronic trust-based and conflict-laden regional economic, social, and security patterns.  It is not too soon to drop our rhetorical hyperbole and start thinking systematically about what happens next.

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.


  1. Jasmin Mujanovic, “Serbia’s Threat to Balkan Security Requires Coordinated Response,”  Balkan Insight, September 30, 2021.

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