February 17, 2017
Watch out for instability of the Balkans
The Western Balkans are mostly outside our purview as only Slovenia is in the eurozone, but Croatia is also an EU member state and the EU runs a protectorate in Bosnia in all but name. Added to this is the major role of the Balkan route in the migration crisis of 2015-16. Political instability in the Balkans is the last thing the EU needs when it is already faced with geopolitical uncertainty from Brexit, the Trump administration, and the diplomatic conflict with Russia over the war in Eastern Ukraine.
In recent weeks we have caught a number of analysis pieces both from a European and American perspective, warning about the potential for instability in the Balkans and Russia's alleged role in stoking conflict in the region.
Most recently, Salvador Llaudes of Spanish think tank Elcano wrote about how the arrival of the Trump administration can affect the Western Balkans, and the EU's interests in the region. In principle, Trump is good news for Putin because he prefers to deal with strong-leder types than with multinational organisations like the EU - or even NATO which Trump has even called obsolete. Possible flashpoints include the increasingly tense relations between Serbia and Kosovo; and the breakdown of Bosnian intercommunity relations as the Serb entity the Republika Srpska increasingly contests Bosnia's constitutional court. The situation in Bosnia directly involves the EU as it oversees the application of the Dayton agreement through its high representative. Montenegro, on the other hand, appears strongly committed to both EU and NATO membership. The US is favourable to Montenegro's accession to NATO, which woud be a setback for Russian designs in the region.
Writing in the LSE's European politics and policy blog, Florian Bieber writes that Trump's presidency will encourage regional oligarchs - which he calls Balkan Princes - to become more brazen as they can now not only emulate Erdogan or Putin, but also Trump. He also notes the return of geopolitics with increasing talk by Western analysts about redrawing the borders along ethnic lines - basically, carving out Bosnia. Such talk has elicited strong rejoinders such as this from Dejan Anastasijevic, who says the last thing the people of the Balkans need is experts fanning the flames of future conflicts.
Commentary from the US tends to focus more on Putin vying for control of the region with the US. The analysis relegates the EU to a background role. We note a piece in Bloomberg by Leonid Bershidsky warning that the Russian sphere of influence extends into the Balkans though Serbia. John Schindler writes that Putin is beating the drums of war by arming Serbia and encouraging stunts like the recent chartering of a Russian-made train to Kosovo with the decoration "Kosovo is Serbia" in over 20 languages. The train never made it to Kosovo amid rising tensions. Schindler calls Putin's actions in the Balkans Trump's first foreign policy crisis.