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Avoiding the next Ukraine: How Europe can prevent implosion in the Western Balkans

27 May 2022

Avoiding the next Ukraine: How Europe can prevent implosion in the Western Balkans

27 May 2022

The Russian reinvasion of Ukraine is the third bloody conflict on European soil in the last 30 years. During the 1990s war broke out in Bosnia and Kosovo, and in 2001 fighting erupted in Macedonia. The potential destabilization of the Western Balkans and the ongoing war in Ukraine are not directly connected, however, watching the devastation of Ukraine brings back fresh memories of these past conflicts and raises the fear that the Western Balkans might become the next front of conflict in Europe.

Precarious regional affairs began to move towards a boiling point before the Ukrainian war. Bosnia and Kosovo have long-running statehood issues, and there is continuous political instability in Albania, Montenegro, and Macedonia. Bulgaria’s veto of Macedonia’s accession talks with the European Union in May 2021 added to the vulnerability in the region, as it affected Albania, which could not start accession talks because the EU considers Albania and Macedonia a package. The Ukraine crisis has exacerbated tensions in the Western Balkans. Serbia, for example, driven by emotions from the controversial NATO air strike missions in 1999,[1] gave support to Russia.[2] This support could spill over to Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was divided into the Serb-populated Republika Srpska and a Croat- and Bosnian-populated Federation during the 1995 Dayton Accords. Many observers assume that in the same way Russia rejected the idea of Ukrainian nationhood, they could use the Republika Srpska’s intention to separate and the Serbian denial of Kosovo independence to instigate conflict in the Western Balkans.

The potential conflict in the Western Balkans is not likely to be incited by the war in Ukraine. It could implode instead because of the nonfunctional political systems in Bosnia and Kosovo, the EU’s double standards regarding expansion, and the region’s lack of self-development to strengthen its internal political and economic systems. Likewise, Russia can use the strategic gap that the United States and EU left in the Western Balkans, though it is less likely that Russia will overreach because the region does not bring direct strategic advantage to Russia in managing the ongoing war in Ukraine. Europe needs to stir itself from its current conformism and take leadership to secure prosperity and transform security in the region.

Background on the Balkans: Where great powers collide

To further understand this situation, we should scrutinize conditions in the region before the Ukrainian war. The Western Balkans is the collateral damage of the Crisis of the Liberal International Order (LIO). It is also a region where the interests of many powers — Russia, the U.S., and the EU — have collided and continue to collide.

After the Cold War, the U.S. played a power game, creating a new world order (or LIO) that looked to vigorously spread liberal democracy and establish an open and inclusive worldwide economy. Consequently, Harvard economist Dani Rodrik argues, the LIO gained “considerable maneuvering space to build customized versions of capitalism around distinct approaches to corporate governance, labor markets, tax regimes, business-government relations, and welfare state arrangements.”[3] While the U.S. and the EU were building an international system to promote democracy and prosperity, the Balkans was a place of wars and conflicts. The Bosnian war in 1992-1995 was followed by the Kosovo crisis in 1999-2000, and the Macedonian conflict in 2001. This was the exact opposite of what the U.S and EU wanted to establish. To bring the region into line with their goals, the LIO tried to use peace enforcement as a shortcut to fix the conflicts. The result was agreements such as the Dayton Accords and the Kosovo protectorate project. For the EU and the U.S. brokering such peace deals seemed like a good strategy since they kept the Western Balkans stable and allowed them to focus on geopolitical competition with Russia and China.

In hindsight, however, simply keeping the peace was not enough. Instead of incentivizing the Western Balkan states to overcome differences through development and prosperity, the accords looked to avoid setting off what the U.S. and EU saw as a powder keg. The current precarious situation in the Western Balkans is a result of forestalling the difficult decisions for creating a sustainable solution to prevent destabilization. An immediate response is needed.

The year 2008 was a critical year for both Ukraine and the Western Balkans. Both got an opportunity to join NATO. Both ended in crisis. In that year, Ukraine was already in deep political crisis when Russia invaded Georgia. Russia viewed Ukraine’s condemnation of the attack as pro-Western and provoked them to target Ukraine and call its sovereignty into question. The ensuing debate ended with the collapse of Ukraine’s governing coalition and the country’s third election in three years.

Macedonia had fulfilled all requirements for NATO membership in 2008, but Greece refused to recognize their constitutional name, claiming Macedonia was Greek territory. A few years later, Macedonia started a retrograde process that produced prolonged political instability from 2014 until 2017. In 2018 the Macedonian people voted in a referendum on the Prespa agreement between Greece and Macedonia, which would allow the latter to join NATO and resolve the name change issue. Though 94% voted “Yes,” the opposition argued that turnout for the vote was only 35%, below the 51% threshold that would constitute quorum[4]. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev pushed for the agreement to be ratified anyway, and at the NATO Summit on 6 February 2019, the newly named Republic of North Macedonia was finally given membership. The country, however, has never fully recovered from the deep political polarization and volatility that started in 2008 and the country’s inability to join an international organization and secure prosperity.

The situation in Ukraine, while not the same as the Western Balkans, is illustrative of some of the problems the region faces. The war in Ukraine will also require the EU to review its priorities and reorganize the security system and expansion process, which should benefit the Western Balkans. Since 2008 there have been too many statements from high EU officials that the Western Balkans is a priority, and that they seek to reinvigorate the EU’s “transformative power.” Yet, the Western Balkans is still in purgatory. In comparison, the previous rounds of expansion to East-Central and Southeastern Europe in 2004, 2007, and 2013 were effective only because the EU was committed to broaden its reach.[5] The EU now needs to show that they care for their first neighbors. Otherwise, Western Balkan countries will turn into failing states.

Identifying the problems: A region in need of direction

The Western Balkans are stuck in limbo. On the one hand, NATO and EU membership is a pipedream; on the other, conflict has been proven not to bring prosperity. There are three critical drivers that could lead to implosion in the region:

  1. Bosnia and Kosovo’s internal issues such as high corruption, a non-functional political system, economic stagnation, and complex regional relationships make it a potential conflict zone.
  2. For over two decades, the EU has kept Western Balkan countries waiting, constantly asking for reforms without a clear progression to membership. This lack of transparency has had a destabilizing effect.
  3. Western Balkan countries still lack the political will to implement basic democratic rules to build a stable political atmosphere and minimize high corruption to allow economic development.

If the current Bosnian and Kosovo internal deadlock continues, implosion is inevitable. Both countries ended up as international protectorates after ending their conflict during the ’90s. Bosnia kept its statehood based on the Dayton Accords of 1995. Kosovo, which was a territorial part of Serbia, unilaterally proclaimed its independence in 2008. They have struggled to secure international recognition, and their independence was not recognized by Serbia, which supports parallel government institutions in Kosovo.[6]

The Dayton Accords were designed to bring a truce between belligerents rather than a resolution for prosperity, and 27 years later are associated more with dysfunction than peace. The agreements brought a ceasefire, but they also kept the warring parties frozen in their respective zones: Republika Srpska in the north and east, and the Federation of Bosniaks and Croats in the south and west. The current government architecture allows for high levels of corruption and has kept kleptocratic politicians in power rather than ensuring prosperity for all Bosnians.[7]

The significant challenge for Bosnia is how to produce its own solution to the internal governance system instead of copying solutions from historical conflict resolutions. For the Dayton Accords, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richards Holbrooke tried to apply to the Western Balkans the approach that President Jimmy Carter used to negotiate the famous Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt in 1979.[8] Today, most Bosnian experts and the public are urging to reform the Dayton Accords. There is also an opportunity for the U.S. and the EU to understand that they need to step back in generating and enforcing solutions and make space for the Bosnians to produce their own mutually acceptable resolution. Otherwise, the process could end up with Dayton 2.0.

Since Kosovo proclaimed independence, they have struggled to establish a functional government. Under pressure from the EU since 2011, Serbia and Kosovo started a dialogue to find an acceptable solution for both sides on Kosovo’s independence with an eye to negotiating a membership path to the EU. Yet, dialogue is not moving ahead, because both sides see compromise as treason and political suicide.

Solving the development dilemma: A role for everyone

There are many regional economic and security responsibilities that Kosovo needs to take to be considered a competitive state. As preconditions for continuing constructive dialogue with the international community, the country needs to step up and strengthen state institutions that will take responsibility in fighting against organized crime, drug trafficking, and human smuggling.[9]

Serbia must also choose between their historical alliance with Russia and the economic benefits of the EU. Serbia wants to be perceived as militarily neutral, but their partnership with Russia does not seem to support their words. In May 2021, the two countries conducted “Slavic Shield 21,” joint military exercises for which Russia brought a significant number of their land and air systems to Serbian territory. The Serbs also bought Russian 30 T-72MS tanks and 30 BRDM-2MS amphibious armed personnel carriers. This follows purchases in 2019 and 2020 of four Mi-35M attack helicopters, six MiG-29 jet planes, ten BRDM-2 armored reconnaissance vehicles, three Mi-17V-5 transport helicopters, as well as Pantsir-S1 air defense systems.[10]

The international community can play a crucial role in making Kosovo a responsible state. Just as they awarded Kosovo independence, today they can help them to build a functional political system and sanction reckless politicians that use nationalism as a political tool. Becoming part of the EU’s Single Market will drastically improve Western Balkan economic development because it will directly improve GDP growth and minimize the brain drain from the region.[11] Currently, however, the EU entry process is based on one-way communication.

It seemes that as soon as Western Balkan states get close to fulfilling the requirements, EU officials present a new round of obligations. In 2019 Macedonia and Albania were rejected from even starting the negotiation process because France, the Netherlands, and Denmark directly opposed the proposal.[12] Then in March 2022, Joseph Borrel, the European High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, visited Skopje, Macedonia, and promised that the EU had the will to start negotiations.[13] Soon after, the EU agreed to start the process with both Albania and Macedonia. Then Bulgaria vetoed the process. Their criteria for the rejection was a denial of the existence of the Macedonian nation and language, this despite signing the Treaty of Friendship for Good Neighborliness and Cooperation with Macedonia in 2017.[14] How to explain this about-face? It could be argued the veto served the Russians, who were able to meddle in regional and EU cooperation. Or it could be domestic Bulgarian politics. In the last 20 years, the European Court of Human Rights has cited Bulgaria for a litany of offences against Macedonia, including banning political parties and limiting the right to freedom of assembly.[15]

The economic deterioration that has inevitably followed from this capricious process has made Macedonia less competitive and more of a burden to the EU. These actions undermine the EU’s values of liberal democracy and the United Nations Charter of Self-determination, but they also harm the EU’s reputation since their member states keep pulling the rug out from these potential future members. The second-order effect of neglecting the Western Balkans from starting accession talks is keeping them in a consistent process of transformation and reforms. If one system is in constant change, it cannot establish targets for success. If the system operations cannot be measurable, observable, and adjustable, they can be considered nonfunctional.

The Western Balkans are also vulnerable to Russian influence, and many observers expect the next conflict with Russia to be in the Western Balkans. The situation represents an excellent opportunity for Russia to fan the flames in the EU’s backyard through propaganda and disinformation, subversion, sabotage, and the use of select politicians such as the former head of Republika Srpska Miroslav Dodik[16] or radical left or right organizations to serve as proxies[17] to initiate conflict.

The way forward

The Western Balkans cannot sustain the status quo much longer. People in the region need to break the vicious cycle of “takers” of external solutions and find a way to implement them into “creators” of their future. Only then will EU membership follow as EU officials will no longer have excuses for adding new requirements. So far the region has proved that it can keep the peace. Yet, maintaining peace is not enough. In the current interregnum period, where major powers are shaping the new world order, none of them will feel sorry for the Western Balkans if they cannot keep up with the changes. The question is: what is the way forward?

The Western Balkan countries need to leave behind the nationalistic ideologies that limit mutual prosperity, assume responsibility, and start creating ethical solutions. The last bloodshed was not that long ago, but the newer generation does not seem to support armed conflict. They want pragmatic policies that set conditions for development rather than ideologies that divide societies and the region. Such a system will make Western Balkans more resilient to implosion, malicious ideologies, external authoritarian states, and malevolent nonstate actors.


[1] Branko Filipovic. 2022. “Pro-Russia Serbs march in Belgrade as country treads ever finer line between East and West,” Reuters.

[2] Paul Latawski and Martin A. Smith. 2003. The Kosovo crisis and the evolution of the post-Cold War European security. Manchester University Press. USA

[3] Dani Rodrik. 2013. The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy. W.W. Norton & Co.

[4] Helena Smith. 2018. “Macedonia facing crisis after name chane referendum hit by low turnout,” The Guardian.

[5] Heather Grabbe. 2006. The EU’s Transformative Power: Europeanization Through Conditionality in Central and Eastern Europe. Palgrave Macmillan. London. UK

[6] Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. 2003. “Parallel Structures in Kosovo.”

[7] Michael Hernandez. 2022. “US sanctioned Bosnian Serb leader, 3 others for corruption,” Anadolu Agency.

[8] Julian Borger. 2015. “Bosnia’s bitter, flawed peace deal 20 years on,” The Guardian.

[9] Fatos Haziri. 2016. “Fighting organized crime in Kosovo,” Concordiam: Journal of European Security Defense: Issues 7, No. 3, 2016: 36-41.

[10] TASS. 2021. “Serbia to host Slavic Shield air defense drills in mid-October.”

[11] Fritz Breuss. 2009. “An Evaluation of the EU’s Fifth Enlargement.” European Commission.

[12] European Parliament. 2019. “Failure to open accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia is a mistake.” Press Release.

[13] All the news about his statement were deleted from the internet. The author listened to the press conference live and to Mr. Borrel’s movie clip, which was edited with selected statements.

[14] European Western Balkan. 2017. “Macedonia and Bulgaria sign Treaty on Friendship, Good Neighborliness and Cooperation.”

[15] Minority Rights Group International. 2001. “Macedonian Rights in Bulgaria.’

[16] Zeljko Trkanjec. 2022. “Dodik attempts to block UN vote with Russian help.” EuroActiv.

[17] NBC Boston. 2022. “Bosnian Serbs stage rally to support Russia.”

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