The Forgotten Balkans

The last decade has seen the security concerns of the Balkans dwarfed in comparison to Afghanistan and Iraq, although progress has been made in the region there are still deep divisions.

Yugoslavia's implosion dominated Western security concerns throughout much of the 1990s, as NATO, the EU and the US struggled to articulate a coherent response to the succession of wars that spread from Slovenia to Croatia, Bosnia and then finally to Kosovo in 1999.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 dwarfed those concerns, more or less wiping the Balkans off the map of opinion-formers and security analysts. Worries about violent Balkan nationalism seemed parochial when set against the global threat posed by Al-Qa'ida.

Yet, at the time that Yugoslavia vanished as 'an issue' in 2001, the embers of the recent conflicts were still glowing strong. Macedonia teetered on the brink of civil war, and Serbia was dousing the flames of an insurrection among ethnic Albanians on the Kosovo border.

Ten years on, unnoticed by a world whose attention has moved elsewhere, that picture of endemic ethnic-related violence and instability is no longer accurate. In the last two years, a Serbian president has paid tribute to Croatia's war dead in Vukovar; a Croatian president has paid tribute to Serb victims of Croatia's independence war near Osijek; and a Serbian official has visited Kosovo, not to lecture but to talk.

The big picture is of a remarkable transition towards mutual acceptance of each other's independence, and a renewed flowering of cross-border contacts between politicians, businesses, universities, environmentalists and artists.

However, significant disputes remain. Serbian-Croatian rivalry, the curse of the old Yugoslavia, has receded as an international concern. But Serbia does not recognise Kosovo's independence, proclaimed in 2008; and Kosovo's unresolved status (in Serbian eyes) remains an obstacle both to Serbia's EU accession hopes and to Kosovo's hopes of emerging from dire poverty.

Nor is Kosovo the sole point of dispute. Greece does not recognise Macedonia's name, Slovenia and Croatia continue their spat over territorial waters, and while the Croatian and Serbian governments may be friends, the two countries are still pursuing mutual genocide suits in the International Court of Justice.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is the bigger concern, however. The multi-ethnic republic is coming apart as assertive Bosnian Serbs attempt to roll back EU- and US-sponsored moves to fashion a more centralised - they would say more workable - country. Without a state government since last autumn, Bosnia's chances of exiting its political and ethnic impasse look remote, deterring investors and worrying its immediate and wider European neighbours.

In June 2011, Brussels gave Croatia the green light to begin accession talks. Weeks earlier, Serbia finally arrested the UN-indicted war crimes suspect, Ratko Mladic, thereby boosting its own EU prospects, notwithstanding the Kosovo dispute. Both events point to a widening division in former Yugoslavia between relatively successful northern states: Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia; and the more backward south: Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo, with little Montenegro somewhere in between.

This division is solidifying, tempting Europe to 'fence off' the south and forget them as future EU members. In that case, these depressed republics, all with high unemployment rates, will become increasingly susceptible to further penetration by organised crime groups and drugs and people traffickers.

There is welcome talk in Brussels of abandoning the old habit of cherry-picking in the Balkans, but in practice the EU continues to select favourites to work with. Ideally, Brussels should adopt a comprehensive, all-embracing approach to the former Yugoslav states that encourages them to work together towards their common goals. Whether Europe's policy-makers, preoccupied by the crisis over the eurozone, can be bothered to rise to such a challenge is another question.

Marcus Tanner is the editor of Balkan Insight, the author of Croatia: A Nation Forged in War and was The Independent's Balkan correspondent in the 1990s.

This commentary first appeared in the RUSI Journal


Explore our related content