Moscow’s dispatch of a high-level envoy to Serbia not only comes amid the diplomatic crisis over Russia’s expected invasion of Ukraine; it also follows efforts by France, the UK and other western powers to rethink their strategies and ramp up engagement with the Western Balkans region.
The news that Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Kremlin’s Security Council, is expected in Belgrade for talks with President Aleksandar Vucic in the coming days hasn’t yet been formally confirmed, but was widely reported by pro-government media in Serbia. According to those reports, the talks will focus on a Russian warning that mercenaries could be getting recruited in Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Kosovo to fight in Ukraine, a claim that has been denied by officials in the three states.
As Nato has expanded in the Western Balkans, Serbia, along with Hungary and Bosnia’s Serb entity Republika Srpska, is now one of the few states in Europe that is friendly towards Russia. Despite the vociferously pro-Russian stance of many Serbian media outlets, Belgrade has declared its neutrality in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Vucic has steered the country closer to EU accession, while also maintaining friendly relations with Russia, China, the US and a variety of second-tier powers such as Turkey.
As states including Montenegro and North Macedonia have decisively quit the Russian sphere of influence and joined Nato, Russia has sought to hold on to its allies in Belgrade and Banja Luka, staunchly backing Serbia in its campaign against the recognition of Kosovo’s independence and offering financial support to the secession-minded Serb member of the Bosnian presidency, Milorad Dodik.
At the same time, for the last few years there have been mixed messages for the Western Balkans from western leaders, as the EU accession process for states in the region has stalled. Under the Trump administration in the White House there were efforts by US diplomats to revitalise the normalisation process between Serbia and Kosovo – arguably launched for the sake of a quick foreign policy win ahead of the 2020 US presidential election – but this came at the cost of a disconnect between US and EU policy in the region.
Since then, however, there have been some significant changes on the part of the main western powers with an interest in the Balkans. The new US administration under President Joe Biden has returned to a multilateral foreign policy approach, including close co-operation with the EU on issues such as relations between Serbia and Kosovo. The current holder of the EU Council presidency, France, has sought to re-engage with the region, while the UK is seeking to redefine its foreign policy role post-Brexit. It remains to be seen how Germany’s relations will change following the departure of former chancellor Angela Merkel, who is widely respected in the region, where she was seen as one of its key supporters.
On top of these factors related mainly to political changes within the western powers, the need for international engagement in the region has become increasingly pressing. The eyes of the world are on the threat of war in Ukraine, but the Western Balkans has its own looming crisis: the potential breakup of Bosnia that could – in a worst-case scenario – lead to a new conflict in the region.
Following years of incendiary secessionist rhetoric from Dodik, MPs in Bosnia’s Serb entity, Republika Srpska, voted at the end of last year to withdraw from the Bosnian army and other state-level institutions. The move was roundly condemned by the international community, but since then further steps have been taken, such the adoption of a law on the entity’s own medicines agency.
The EU’s foreign policy chief highlighted the significance of developments in Bosnia ahead of the meeting of EU foreign ministers on February 21. He named it as one of two hot spots along with Ukraine, and stressed: “Do not dismiss the importance of what is happening in Bosnia & Herzegovina … the nationalist and separatist rhetoric is increasing in Bosnia & Herzegovina and jeopardising the stability and even the integrity of the country.”
Along with staunchly backing Serbia over Kosovo, Russia has fuelled the fires of secessionism in Bosnia, where Dodik claims to have the backing of both Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, and challenged the authority of the high representative appointed in the country by the international community.
Rather than the lone wolf approach of the Trump years, the US is now working closely with the EU, as shown by the recent joint trip to Belgrade and Pristina by US envoy for the Western Balkans Gabriel Escobar and the special representative of the EU Miroslav Lajcak.
“The Western Balkans is unique among opportunities for transatlantic co-operation because the EU has the lead and accession remains the key policy. While the United States and EU sustained strong working-level co-operation on the Balkans throughout the Trump administration, there was a disconnect with the White House. Under Biden, the transatlantic allies are again synchronised to the very top,” wrote Allison Carragher, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, in a commentary by Carnegie scholars on US-European cooperation.
Carragher also noted that “concerning developments have prompted a transatlantic response”. Along with the Republika Srpska parliament vote on withdrawing from Bosnian state institutions these included the spat over the appointment of a new high representative for Bosnia and the increase of tensions between Serbia and Kosovo after Pristina imposed new rules for vehicle licence plates.
She also stressed the concerning situation in the region: “Today, the issues in the Western Balkans carry a sense of urgency not felt since the 1990s. Any escalation on the Serbia-Kosovo border or within BiH that could spark armed conflict is of primary importance.”
A new role for the UK
In December 2021, the UK appointed Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach as special envoy to the Western Balkans, as part of its commitment to stability and prosperity in the region, the government in London announced. The appointment came as the British government seeks to redefine its foreign policy role post-Brexit.
In a debate in the British parliament on December 2, politicians from both government and opposition benches rued the loss of interest in Bosnia in particular, and warned of Russian influence in the region.
“The world lost interest in the western Balkans. We did as well – Labour, Coalition and Conservative governments – and, as the High Representative said recently, 10 years have gone by without our paying attention to the situation in Bosnia,” said Tony Lloyd of the Labour Party. Fellow opposition MP Wayne David agreed that the UK has “not been as proactive in the situation in Bosnia & Herzegovina as it might have been”, and warned of Russia “destabilising the situation for its own ends”.
Alicia Kearns of the ruling Conservative Party honed in on the role of Dodik, saying the Bosnian Serb leader feels emboldened because of his friends “Russia, Serbia, China, and even a handful of EU member states. Some of those hostile states are using their influence to foment instability and ethnic tension, to distract from their own heinous actions at home, to secure their own territorial ambitions, or to feed instability in Europe’s near neighbourhood,” Kearns added.
The emboldened secessionist mood in Bosnia has also been encouraged by the flagging support for EU enlargement within many west European capitals in recent years. Distracted by issues such as the migrant crisis and Brexit, politicians’ appetites for taking in new members from Southeast Europe has waned. Awareness of this within the Western Balkans in turn resulted in a drop in effectiveness of the EU ‘carrot’ to encourage reforms and a degree of democratic backsliding. The discouragement among the Western Balkan nations reached its peak in December 2020, when EU leaders failed to give the go-ahead for the start of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, despite the two countries meeting all the conditions set, as Bulgaria unexpectedly decided to veto North Macedonia’s progress.
France, which had previously had concerns about the accession of Albania in particular, had by that time withdrawn its objections to the two countries progressing. Yet Paris’ earlier opposition continues to damage perceptions of the country within the Western Balkans, as shown in a survey by think-tank Institut Francais des Relations Internationales (IFRI), where 25% of respondents believed that France has not been a reliable partner for their country’s EU aspiration. 51% of respondents called the French approach to the region ‘hesitant’, and only 6% saw France as a leading power in the Western Balkans, despite the vast majority acknowledging French leadership in EU affairs.
However, a report from IFRI published earlier this month argues: “After years of lower interest, France has signalled its ambition to re-engage in the Western Balkans.” It lists France’s hosting of the Berlin Process summit in 2016, the 2017 initiative co-launched with Germany against firearms trafficking in the Western Balkans, the expansion of the mandate of the French Development Agency (AFD) to all Western Balkan countries and the adoption of the national Strategy for the Western Balkans in 2018.
The programme for the French EU Council presidency talks of “engagement in the Western Balkans”. On enlargement, it elaborates: "The Presidency will ensure continued negotiations with candidate countries in keeping with the new methodology endorsed in the Council conclusions of 15 March, 2020. It will support the EU’s work in the Western Balkans, promoting far-reaching, transformative reforms in key areas such as rule of law, democratic institutions, freedom of the press and economic reforms, which will facilitate the incorporation of the European acquis.”
In a speech to the European Parliament in January, President Emmanuel Macron talked of giving the region a “clear accession perspective”.
The IFRI paper argued that to make its engagement “genuinely strategic and credible in the region”, France needs to assuming constructive leadership on enlargement issues. Specifically it listed overcoming the current blockade on the opening of Albania’s and North Macedonia’s accession negotiations as an area where “French re-engagement could have strong political impact”.
“Any failure in sustaining the Western Balkans’ European trajectory could have dramatic consequences for the countries of the region and the EU alike, including in terms of security and migration,” warned the report.
Previously, internal French politics were seen as holding back the governments from allowing enlargement to the Western Balkans to progress. 2022 is an election year, with presidential elections – that Macron is expected to win comfortably in the second round – coming up in April. Among his closest rivals are two far-right politicians, Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour. However, more recent polls have shown that while French voters are not particularly enthusiastic about the Western Balkan countries joining the EU, this is not an issue of great concern within the country. Thus increased French engagement with the region is unlikely to be derailed ahead of the upcoming election.
This is fortunate, because events of the last few days have shown that two decades into the 21st century a major land war in Europe cannot be ruled out – though there is hope it may yet be avoided. The gradual elevation of tensions within Bosnia and between Serbia and Kosovo mean that create engagement by the international community in the Western Balkans cannot come too soon.