Western powers must engage the Balkans

They say those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. 

Let’s hope Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden: US 'preferred a different outcome' on Brexit Abortion is weakness for Clinton VP favorite Overnight Defense: Biden hits Trump on national security | Dems raise pressure over refugees | Graham vows fight over spending caps MORE and Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski kept this in mind when they met at the White House earlier this month about EU and NATO integration, a brewing political fight over Skopje’s upcoming parliamentary elections, and Europe’s crushing migrant crisis. 

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If the 20th century taught us anything, it’s that the Balkans cause nightmares if mishandled.  World War I stemmed from Sarajevo, where a Serbian nationalist assassinated the visiting heir to the Austro-Hungarian imperial throne.  World War II was a continuation of the first, made inevitable by the overly harsh Treaty of Versailles. 

The Balkans were home to Europe’s next major wars. After communism imploded and the Iron Curtain fell, Yugoslavia was shattered into several mini-states – fueled by ethnic and religious conflict. The ancient battle between Muslims and Christians re-surfaced.  

I learned this personally while deployed as a naval officer to the Balkans and Adriatic Sea during the 1990s, supporting NATO operations in Bosnia and Kosovo.  

Let’s recall the Muslim Ottoman Turks occupied much of Christian Southeastern Europe for centuries.  Locals speak of the Turkish victory over the Serbs in Kosovo in 1389 as if it was yesterday.   

Religious-fueled wars continued as the stuff of legend.  Like Vlad the Impaler – a 15thcentury Balkan leader known today as Dracula.  Vlad got his bloody nickname by impaling Muslim enemies in present day Romania, just as they were doing to Christians.  

In modern times, international jihadists seeking to “defend Muslims” flocked to Bosnia.  That included an ethnic Pakistani from Kuwait, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed -- who’d eventually become the mastermind of Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks.  

Tragically, the Balkans, starting with Macedonia may be ripped apart again. 

Looming even larger than the elections crisis, the migrant tidal wave is a far greater threat.  

That’s because Macedonia is surrounded on three sides by European Union and NATO countries which look after each another, but not them.  And positioned along Greece’s northern border, it’s a central conduit along the land route to richer countries. 

Just last year over 700,000 asylum seekers passed through Macedonia – incredible for a nation of 2 million. Yet they’ve been abandoned to handle humanitarian efforts alone.  And what’s worse, with the warmer weather of coming spring, those floodgates from the Middle East will begin anew. 

Macedonia has escaped major calamities with migrants so far, for which they deserve credit. 

But what happens when the richer countries like Germany, Sweden and France tighten their borders and crack down on immigration, like we’re beginning to see?  

Macedonia will get stuck with an infinite number of Muslim asylum seekers, that’s what.  While Skopje isn’t as wealthy or glamorous as Berlin, Stockholm or Paris, it sure beats Damascus, Baghdad and Kabul.  

Such an upheaval could easily spark the next Balkans war as Macedonia is already fragile.  It barely survived a civil war just 15 years ago, waged by Muslim ethnic Albanians for independence.    

So what should we do? 

First, let’s not forget Macedonia and the Balkans.  Though Northern and Western Europe get most of the headlines, they also deserve our support. 

Second, establish a Balkan Center in Skopje.  That should include a sizable NATO deployment to combat trafficking in persons, arms and drugs.  The EU should help construct a Hungary-style fence on their southern border, since the Greeks have proven incapable of enforcing their own. 

Third, lean on Greece to stop blocking Macedonia’s integration into European economic and military alliances over an ancient name dispute.  Sure, everybody knows that ancient Greek hero Alexander the Great was “Macedonian” and was born in Pella, northern Greece.  But that was 356 B.C.  

Lastly, keep an eye on those elections.  Gruevski, who served as Prime Minister from 2006 until resigning last week, faces a shady challenge from the major left-wing opposition party which plans to boycott in favor of a darker scheme.  Opposition leader Zoran Zaev has released privately recorded and doctored conversations of the Prime Minister and attempted to blackmail him, a tactic unthinkable in any Western democracy. Since Zaev’s party is so far behind in national polls, their only chance to win is by circumventing the electoral process entirely.  Easy to see Moscow stirring the pot – the Kremlin hates European integration.  

Though the European Union has basically abandoned Macedonia on the migrant crisis, at least it has been responsible in mediating the election crisis -- pushing all four Macedonian political parties to respect the democratic process and adhere to April elections, as agreed upon last summer.    

It’s interesting to consider that upon resigning, Gruevski released a statement asking, “does the paralyzing bickering of politicians continue to hold us back?”  

For our sake, let’s hope not.  Getting the Balkans wrong is just too costly.  While there’s no shortage of challenges facing Western powers today, failure to engage them constructively would be a huge mistake. 

Gordon is a retired U.S. Navy Commander and former Pentagon spokesman who served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005-2009. He has also served as a senior fellow and adviser to several Washington, DC-based think tanks.

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