Security in the Balkans is not just Europe’s business
Today, we hear a lot about European autonomy, even if its precise definition remains elusive. As Bismarck reminds us, politically speaking, Europe is only a geographical notion, nothing more. In addition, organizations that claim to speak for Europe, such as the European Union (EU), present a continuous spectacle of failure, incompetence, indecision and inaction.
The EU’s energy policy has clearly failed, it has no agenda for the immigration challenge and it is struggling with members who increasingly reveal a democratic deficit in their governance. Brussels also has no idea how to tackle Russia’s multiple challenges, especially in Ukraine where, despite statements from the highest level that Ukraine has no rights or basis for independent existence, it persists in trying to engage Moscow in false and futile diplomatic relations. talks on archaic formulas on Ukraine.
The EU’s failures also encompass what is perhaps the most pressing issue in European security and which could easily spark another round of conflicts, namely unresolved Serbo-Kosovar and Bosnian tensions. These issues are part of a larger mosaic of unresolved Balkan issues that offer Moscow and its supporters too many opportunities to undermine regional peace and security.
But apart from the centuries of incitement to the Balkan intrigues of Moscow, the failure of the EU and the common American-European neglect also incites the local actors to undertake unilateral actions and to provoke new ethno-religious crises there. The danger here lies in the fact that 300 years of European history shows that the crises and conflicts in the Balkans inevitably endanger the entire European state system. It is also true that the suspension or resolution of these potential crises only occurs when the main European governments or institutions take the initiative to manage or resolve them. Once these institutions begin to neglect the Balkans or shirk their responsibilities, they inadvertently open a Pandora’s Box or allow local power seekers to do so with well-known local and continental consequences.
So the latest outbreak between Belgrade and Pristina sparked by a clash over the seemingly inconsequential license plate issue highlights Brussels’ continued failure in the Balkans and the urgent need for a strong US diplomatic presence here. This commitment is essential to prevent local players from succumbing to the temptation to play at national galleries and provoking new crises, such as the recent license plate crisis.
This crisis, probably no coincidence, materialized just before the local elections in Kosovo when the authorities in Pristina unilaterally instituted a new license plate policy affecting the Serbian minority there, apparently to mobilize their base of support. for these elections.
Such arousal of ethnic passions only benefits Moscow and ultimately harms Pristina’s own interests. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell correctly assessed this crisis when he said that “unilateral and uncoordinated actions that endanger stability are unacceptable”. Indeed, neither Pristina nor Belgrade can unilaterally change the status quo. Thus, if Pristina wants to advance its international status, it will have to come to terms with Belgrade lest half the world will continue not to recognize it and thus refuse entry into international organizations.
At the same time, the current and unresolved status quo between Belgrade and Pristina benefits Moscow. Russia is using its influence over the two sides’ dispute to preserve Serbian dependence on it. Therefore, maintaining this status quo is dangerous for Serbia, Kosovo and the Balkans as a whole. Kosovo, which depends on the West, must give due consideration to Western interests in the peace and security of the Balkans before acting simply to serve its own narrow interests.
The unilateral crisis generated around the license plate issue was short-sighted, forcing Serbia to rely on Russian support, thus consolidating Russia’s presence and influence in the Balkans. This result does not benefit Pristina, Europe or the United States. On the contrary, to help each other and the West and rid Serbia if not the Balkans of Russian influence, Pristina and Belgrade must jointly negotiate the normalization of their relations.
This will, however, require increased engagement from the United States. The participation of Belgrade and Pristina in a US-led (and EU-backed) diplomatic process benefits both sides. If this project can progress or even successfully resolve the outstanding issues between them, it will end their isolation and facilitate their mutual integration into Europe. This, in turn, will bring both sides under the auspices of the EU and NATO, improve their democratic governance, significantly reduce Russia’s ability to interfere and corrupt their politics and, most importantly, will facilitate ever more peaceful relations between them over time. The precedent for this is Washington’s success over time in reducing and gradually dissipating Arab-Israeli tensions.
Clearly, left on its own, the EU cannot make progress on these thorny security issues in the Balkans. And its inability to pronounce on membership and to pacify Serbo-Kosovar and Serbo-Bosnian relations provides immense water to the mills of local actors and those in Russia who want to escalate tensions.
This fact leaves Washington as the only possible mediator who can bring the process to fruition. Only Washington has the resolute will to gain the confidence of both parties if it decides to pursue new initiatives. And only Washington can offer, with EU backing, what analysts call “side payments” to help resolve outstanding issues and overcome domestic obstacles to peace talks.
Otherwise, if we and our allies simply abandon the Balkan security agenda to simply drifting down the stream, sooner or later that stream will again overflow its shores and seep into European security. While we and our allies take European security and autonomy seriously, we cannot ignore nearly three centuries of European history. Balkan security is European security, and European security is vital to American security. The unassailable logic of this intuition, validated by a tragic story, should galvanize Washington to act now rather than wait for the next crisis, which could then be irreparable.
Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI). He is also a former professor of Russian national security studies and national security affairs at the Institute of Strategic Studies at the US Army War College. He is also a former MacArthur Fellow of the US Army War College. Blank is an independent consultant specializing in the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia.