Balkan security and the threat of uncontrolled migration

Europe’s refugee crisis is worsening. According to recent media reports, the flood of Muslim refugees streaming into the Eurozone from the Middle East and North Africa will overwhelm Europe’s migration system in a matter of weeks, if not days.

This flood of refugees threatens European institutions because European voters refuse to accept them. Whatever their political inclination, European governments have steadily bowed to domestic pressure and have begun to erect barriers to further immigration.

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The result, however, has not been a curtailing of the problem, but rather its relegation to Europe’s periphery – with the smaller countries of the Balkans, the entry point for this human wave, have been thrown into crisis. Refusing to become “parking lots” for Western states that will not accept those refugees already in the Balkans, let alone future ones, Balkan governments have capped the number of refugees they will accept and are themselves now erecting barriers to new migration. This decision traps thousands of refugees in makeshift camps in the Balkans and jeopardizes the stability of local governments, especially those facing new elections like Serbia and Macedonia.  This is because those elections are now mixed up with the refugee issue.

In Macedonia, the current caretaker coalition government came about due to a compromise brokered by the EU and U.S. after a major political crisis that rocked the country last year. That decision stipulated the resignation of Prime Minister Nicola Gruevski, who had launched major reforms in health care, education as leader of the pro-Western VMRO party, and his replacement with the current coalition – which is to be in place until new elections that were originally scheduled for April 24. Now that agreement is in danger, despite the backing of the EU and the Obama administration.

The culprit is Zoran Zaev, the head of the Russia-leaning SDSM Socialist Party. Zaev, whose party cannot attain victory, has demanded and won the postponement of the elections to June 5th, not just to delay them but to prevent them altogether until he can come to power. In the meantime, Macedonia, a flashpoint of the refugee crisis and center of the Balkans where Russians are trying to enlarge its political and economic influence will have no functioning government to deal with refugees or any other issue.

Undoubtedly, Zaev intends to pressure the ruling coalition into bringing his party into the government, lest the country descend into crisis. This outcome only benefits Moscow, which sees Macedonia as another “outpost of the Cold War” between it and Washington.  Postponing the advent of a legitimate government is doubly dangerous because Macedonia’s progress under Gruevski, showed how liberal capitalism and democracy can improve living standards and meet current socio-economic challenges and because chaos only benefits Moscow. If Greece softens its objections to Macedonia entering NATO at the Warsaw NATO summit in July, the absence of a viable government deprives any new government after June of any opportunity to prepare for that decision and membership, undoubtedly to Moscow’s benefit.

For reasons that remain obscure the U.S. embassy in Skopje supported Zaev’s demands for a new election.  Meanwhile, however, refugees will continue coming until their own countries stabilize. Therefore a solution is needed now rather than the mounting xenophobia and buck-passing that characterizes Europe’s approach.  Given its vital security interests across Europe the U.S. must also become involved beyond accepting those refugees who want to come and are neither security risks nor carrying contagious illnesses. That means devising policies to assimilate these refugees and educate their children in ways that integrate them into their host countries.  This entails a huge EU program backed by the U.S. to stimulate their economies, create jobs and opportunities for these immigrants and reignite Europe’s economy.  The West must also break the Balkan logjam and provide local governments with the means to host refugees and/or allow others to travel freely across Europe because Balkan states need timely economic and political support, not least in the form of investment to accommodate their own refugees and help them integrate into Europe. 

Secretary of State Kerry and other high-ranking officials’ visits to the Balkans have shown America’s interest in democratizing Balkan governance and integrating Balkan states more fully into Europe.  Launching this large-scale economic-political program to impart renewed dynamism to the Balkans and Europe bequeaths to this generation a challenge of a scope and a magnitude that will match the West’s capacity not only to dream big and also gives new life to the vision of a Europe whole and free.  This policy matches U.S. and European interests and values. 

That attention to the Balkans will pay substantial dividends in the future and also change in Europe’s psychology and vision. In 1946 a shattered Western Europe and the U.S. acting together coped successfully with an even larger refugee challenge.  Today an infinitely richer West can and must find the will to deal with this serious but still smaller challenge.  If we fail this test then we and Europe will confront bigger and more complex challenges with less vision, fewer resources, and even less leadership than we now see.

Blank is senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.