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Balkan security isn’t merely Europe’s affair

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Today we hear much about European autonomy, though its precise definition remains elusive. As Bismarck reminds us, politically speaking, Europe remains merely a geographical notion, nothing more. Moreover, organizations that claim to speak on Europe’s behalf, such as the European Union (EU), present a continuing spectacle of failure, incompetence, indecisiveness and inaction. 

The EU’s energy policy has clearly failed, it has no program for the immigration challenge and it is fighting with members who increasingly reveal a democratic deficit in their governance. Neither does Brussels have any idea how to counter Russia’s multiple challenges, not least in Ukraine where, despite statements from the highest level that Ukraine has no right to or basis for an independent existence, it persists in trying to engage Moscow in misconceived and futile diplomatic talks on antiquated formulas about Ukraine. 

The EU’s failures also encompass what is perhaps the most pressing issue in European security and one that could easily ignite another round of conflict, namely the Serbian-Kosovar and unresolved Bosnian tensions. Those issues are part of a larger mosaic of unresolved Balkan issues that offer Moscow and its supporters too many opportunities for undermining regional peace and security. 

But apart from Moscow’s centuries of inciting Balkan intrigues, the EU’s failure and joint U.S.-European neglect also incentivize local actors to undertake unilateral actions and incite new ethno-religious crises there. The danger here lies in the fact that 300 years of European history show that Balkan crises and conflicts inevitably put the entire European state system at risk. It is equally true that suspension or resolution of these potential crises occurs only when major European governments or institutions take the lead in managing or resolving them. Once those institutions begin to neglect the Balkans or shirk their responsibilities for doing so, they either inadvertently open a Pandora’s box or allow local power seekers to do so with well-known local and continental consequences. 

Thus, the latest flare-up between Belgrade and Pristina triggered by a clash over the seemingly inconsequential issue of license plates highlights Brussels’ abiding failure in the Balkans and the urgent need for a robust U.S. diplomatic presence here. This engagement is essential to prevent local actors from succumbing to the temptation to play to domestic galleries and incite new crises, e.g. the recent license plate crisis.

That crisis, probably not accidentally, materialized just before local elections in Kosovo when authorities in Pristina unilaterally instituted a new license plate policy affecting the Serbian minority there, apparently to mobilize their support base for those elections. 

Such excitation of ethnic passions only benefits Moscow and ultimately harms Pristina’s own interests. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, correctly assessed this crisis when he said that “unilateral and uncoordinated actions that endanger stability are unacceptable.” Indeed, neither Pristina nor Belgrade can unilaterally alter the status quo. So, if Pristina wants to advance its international status, it will have to come to terms with Belgrade lest half the world continue not to recognize it and thus deny its entry into international organizations.    

At the same time, the current and unresolved status quo between Belgrade and Pristina benefits Moscow. Russia utilizes its influence over the two sides’ dispute to preserve Serbian dependence upon it. Therefore, continuation of this status quo is dangerous for Serbia, Kosovo and the Balkans as a whole. Kosovo, which depends on the West, must duly consider Western interests in Balkan peace and security before acting merely to further its own narrow interests. 

The unilateral crisis generated around the license plate question was shortsighted, forcing Serbia to rely upon Russia’s support, thereby consolidating Russia’s presence and leverage in the Balkans. This outcome doesn’t benefit Pristina, Europe or the U.S. Instead, to help itself and the West and rid Serbia if not the Balkans of Russian influence, Pristina and Belgrade must jointly negotiate the normalization of their relations.

This, however, will require greater U.S. engagement. Belgrade and Pristina’s participation in a U.S.-led (and EU supported) diplomatic process benefits both sides. If this project can make progress or even successfully resolve the outstanding issues between them, it will end their isolation and facilitate their mutual integration into Europe. That outcome, in turn, will put both sides under the EU and NATO’s umbrella, improve their democratic governance, vastly reduce Russia’s ability to interfere in and corrupt their politics, and, most importantly, facilitate ever more peaceful relations between them over time. The precedent for this is Washington’s success over time in reducing and gradually dissipating Israeli-Arab tensions. 

Clearly, left to its own devices, the EU cannot make progress on these vexing Balkan security issues. And its failure to decide about membership and pacify Serb-Kosovar and Serb-Bosnian relations provides immense grist for the mills of local actors and those in Russia who want to aggravate tensions.

This fact leaves Washington as the only possible mediator that can drive the process through to completion. Only Washington possesses the single-minded focus to gain the confidence of both sides if it decides to lead new initiatives. And only Washington can offer, with the support of the EU, what analysts call “side payments” to facilitate resolution of outstanding issues and overcome domestic obstruction to peace talks.

Otherwise, if we and our allies simply abandon the Balkan security agenda to mere drifting along the current, sooner or later this current will overflow its banks once again and seep European security away with it. If we and our allies are truly serious about European security and autonomy, we cannot ignore almost three centuries of European history. Balkan security is European security and European security is vital to American security. The unassailable logic of this insight, validated by a tragic history, should galvanize Washington to act now rather than wait for the next crisis, which then might be beyond repair.   

Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI). He is also a former professor of Russian National Security Studies and National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. He is also a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College. Blank is an independent consultant focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia.

Tags Belgrade European Union Government of Kosovo Kosovo Kosovo–Serbia relations Politics of Serbia Russia Serbia

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