Western Balkans: Leveraging Weakness – Analysis


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).


TransConflict was established in response to the challenges facing intra- and inter-ethnic relations in the Western Balkans. It is TransConflict’s assertion that the successful transformation of conflict requires a multi-dimensional approach that engages with and aims at transforming the very interests, relationships, discourses and structures that underpin and fuel outbreaks of low- and high-intensity violence.

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