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Ekaterina Entina

Associate Professor at National Research University Higher School of Economics

Dejan Novakovic

President of the Adriatic Council (Belgrade, Serbia)

Presently, an extremely unstable situation has developed in the Balkans, with a potentially adverse effect both on the Balkan countries and on the system of international relations as a whole. Intraregional actors are not able to cope with problems that have befallen them. Over the past two decades, they have not been able to attain any considerable progress in solving these problems, although they have managed to keep the dialogue going on all these years. External players pursue first and foremost their own interests in the Balkans. As a rule, they only slightly match with the real needs of the region and its population. Moreover, lately they have been concerned more with the policies dictated to them by an escalation of tensions between regional players.

The “spontaneous” territorial organization designed for the Balkan peoples did not bode well with them. Some representatives of the local establishment and the expert community pass the verdict that it ”failed miserably.”

Maintaining the artificial existence of ethno-national and territorial delimitation is leading nowhere. It will generate tensions, fuel various extreme nationalists and populists, accumulate crisis potential, which is already big enough. Therefore, within the region, as well as among the international expert communities, various actors and their configurations are holding a nonstop informal discussion in order to outline possible scenarios of the Balkans settlement in a long run. Among the external actors, the UK is the one to be the most active supporter of the creation of “ethnocentric states”, namely, “great” Albania, “great” Serbia, and “great” Croatia.

Germany takes an intransigent position regarding any territorial exchanges. As a result, it largely dominates the European Union. Berlin insists that it is totally unacceptable to implement any territorial exchanges and reorganize the Balkan political space as a whole. Any attempts will lead to the “Pandora's box” opening with unpredictable consequences for the territorial organization of not only the region, but also of Europe in general.

How to Split the Balkan Knot And Not Destroy Europe?

Presently, an extremely unstable situation has developed in the Balkans, with a potentially adverse effect both on the Balkan countries and on the system of international relations as a whole. Intraregional actors are not able to cope with problems that have befallen them. Over the past two decades, they have not been able to attain any considerable progress in solving these problems, although they have managed to keep the dialogue going on all these years. External players pursue first and foremost their own interests in the Balkans. As a rule, they only slightly match with the real needs of the region and its population. Moreover, lately they have been concerned more with the policies dictated to them by an escalation of tensions between regional players.

Present-day situation

The European Union offered all the Balkan peoples a so-called “European future”. The political elites and the population of the countries belonging to the region cannot imagine themselves without such a future. Although the percentage of Euro-optimists among the population has gradually decreased, integration into Europe is still considered a natural process and, seemingly, the only possible choice for the Balkans. The EU and its member states have accumulated so much of their own crisis potential for the moment that it is impossible for them to cope with all the challenges that are shattering the region. Brussels simply has neither resources, nor desire to do it.

The United States is pushing forward only those decisions that assure their influence on the pan-European processes as well as strengthen their positions in the global confrontation. Russia, China, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, which are accumulating more and more influence in the region, taken separately, are not so powerful. In any case, they are simply not able to offer any alternative to the “European choice”. However, they have never even planned to offer an alternative.

Most politicians and commentators agree that, as a result, the Balkans are turning into a tinderbox, just as they were a century ago. Existing problems are still not solved, while new ones are appearing on the horizon. Bilateral negotiations are dragging. Moreover, everything is happening either all by itself or through intermediary participation and even dominance influence of the US and the EU. Any attempts either to find unconventional approaches, or to put forward some new breakthrough initiatives are immediately extinguished by external players. In order to move the situation off the ground at least a bit, and achieve favorable dynamics, intra-regional political actors begin to use tactics of provocations, forcing all external players to react. The point is that this tactics only strengthens confrontational tendencies around the globe.

It seems, there is no indication that external actors will refuse to act unilaterally, and intra-regional political forces will suddenly become negotiable. However, it is also impossible to leave the situation on its own as well as to give a “carte blanche” to those who prefer destructive policies thus harming the Balkans and its peoples and the prospects for a comprehensive, sustainable, fair and comprehensive settlement.

Under these circumstances, it would be extremely advantageous and timely for Russia to offer a multilateral format of a "general Balkan settlement," which would be undoubtedly beneficial to all intra-Balkan political actors and extra-regional powers as well. For the former, it would provide an opportunity to proceed with mutual exchanges on a wide range of issues, which are unlikely to be achieved through bilateral negotiations, and to obtain all necessary guarantees of stability and sustainable economic development. For the latter, it would suppress negative developments in the Balkans and minimize risks both within and beyond the region. At the same time, it will make it possible to turn the Balkans from the everlasting “apple of discord” into a well-built platform for cooperation, and, if successful, into an instrument that would be designed to weaken confrontation between all major actors, which has gone too far, as well as to redirect the entire system of international relations to a more peaceful path.

Even if such a proposal is met with hostility, it should be put forward. It will show who is a true friend and a true defender of the Balkan peoples’ interests, and for whom, adversely, their geopolitical ambitions and their own selfish interests are on top of any other considerations.

Some of the Lucrative “Multilateral Format” Scenarios

1. Regardless of the resolution of the post-Yugoslav heritage problems, formation of a permanent "Balkan Council" is a top priority. It would include representatives of Russia, the US, Great Britain, Turkey, France, Italy, Slovenia and Germany as international observers, with mediation on the part of the EU and the UN, and also envoys of all the Western Balkan countries. The logical way to give life to this format is to reframe and accelerate the work of the Regional Cooperation Council (created 10 years ago on the basis of the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe; Russia, the US, and China took part in the deliberations of the Council, with the EU playing the main role).

2. Another scenario is the “Permanent Balkan Conference” led by the EU and mediated by high representatives from the U.S. and Russia. Such a decision could be enforced by changing the format of the Brussels talks, and with the consent of the Albanian and Serbian parties.

3. The third scenario is the “Permanent Balkan Conference — broad version” under the leadership of the UN Security Council. It would imply an increase in the number of Balkan negotiators and would entail a number of various territorial exchanges, based not so much on ethnicity, but on the geopolitical interests of each of the Balkan countries as well as on the guaranteed viability of such exchanges. In this case, territorial exchanges would be accompanied by the acceptance of regional economic interests as one of the end-results of the accession to the EU of all countries in the region. Thus, the newly created boundaries would have a positive symbolic value in the context of day-to-day life.

4. The fourth scenario is the creation of the “Balkan Union” modeled on the EU. Turkey, as an “eternal” candidate for the EU, might join such a “Union.” This scenario is most likely to be the least acceptable for Brussels, which wouldn't like to see Southeastern Europe being capable of addressing Western Europe on an equal footing or very close to being equal. However, in the context of the recent developments, this scenario is considered to be the most rational one for the Balkan states themselves.

Long-term Scenario of a “Package” Settlement

The “spontaneous” territorial organization designed for the Balkan peoples did not bode well with them. Some representatives of the local establishment and the expert community pass the verdict that it ”failed miserably.”

Ethnic groups are divided between different political entities. And they do not always feel comfortable there. Their vital interests are threatened, and it is possible to keep them from possible collisions and redistributions only due to some external factors.

Many countries and regional entities alone are simply not viable. Their successful future can be associated exclusively with integration, association, alliances, searching for some other forms and components of statehood. They are able to exist normally only under external control or as a part of some other entity.

The entire political, social and economic space of the region is fragmented. These fragments are dispersed chaotically, but they are holding onto each other. However, reorganization of its format is again impeded mainly because of various external factors. Obviously, if it goes as erratically as in the first half of the 1990s, it will end in tragedy.

At the same time, it is at least unreasonable and pointless to ignore the real situation. Maintaining the artificial existence of ethno-national and territorial delimitation is leading nowhere. It will generate tensions, fuel various extreme nationalists and populists, accumulate crisis potential, which is already big enough. Therefore, within the region, as well as among the international expert communities, various actors and their configurations are holding a nonstop informal discussion in order to outline possible scenarios of the Balkans settlement in a long run.

Among the external actors, the UK is the one to be the most active supporter of the creation of “ethnocentric states”, namely, “great” Albania, “great” Serbia, and “great” Croatia. This scenario would mean the following territorial exchange:

“Great” Albania: the Republic of Albania, most of Kosovo, part of Macedonia, part of Serbia (Bujanovac and Presevo), Ulcinj part of Montenegro;

“Great” Serbia: the Republic of Serbia, the Republika Srpska with access to the sea in the Herceg Novi region (Montenegro) and the Serbian communities in the north of Kosovo, including North Mitrovica;

“Great” Croatia: Republic of Croatia, the third “entitet” in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Herceg Bosna (Herzeg-Bosnia));

Montenegro would receive a part of the Serbian Sandzak;

Bosnia and Herzegovina within the borders of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina with the possible option of creating a confederation with Croatia / Serbia / Montenegro;

Macedonia would be in a worse position, left without most of its own territory. Moreover, a tendency to tear the remains among Bulgaria, Greece, Albania and Serbia is notable here. One of possible scenarios for Macedonia in this case is to form a confederation with Bulgaria or Serbia.

Only nationalist population of the region could support such a radical scenario, it would seriously shut off the Balkans from the EU in mid-term perspective. At the same time, in a long run, in the context of the region, this is one of the options for a long-term settlement of existing national problems.

The Importance of Provisional and Interim Measures

If the EU includes the whole mass of the region peoples implicitly overwhelmed with smoldering conflicts, that would entail its disorganization and weakening in its capability to resist external manipulation. On the contrary, if the EU doesn't include the peoples, that would issue the verdict for the entire European project. In principle, the pan-European establishment understands this, although such a prospect really scares it.

However, in the context of Balkans, the EU rarely spoke with one voice. In other words, Member States that are actively spreading their policy outwards have very different goals in the region. Great Britain tends to support the Albanians at the expense of all other ethno-national formations of the region. France has a different vision: for Paris the most important thing is to protect its political and economic interests in a larger European region. That's why the country is ready for certain exchanges. The disorder and strife of Balkan society are flowing into the neighboring countries. Thus, it is important for them to ensure its long-term stability and crisis-free development.

Germany takes an intransigent position regarding any territorial exchanges. As a result, it largely dominates the European Union. Berlin insists that it is totally unacceptable to implement any territorial exchanges and reorganize the Balkan political space as a whole. Any attempts will lead to the “Pandora's box” opening with unpredictable consequences for the territorial organization of not only the region, but also of Europe in general. The whole post-war order across the continent will be threatened as well. This will undermine the legitimacy of all previous decisions. This will provide the grounds for raising the question of demarcations and territorial exchanges, inclusions and compensations in each part of the world. In this case, taking into account the artificial character of those processes, similar to the Balkans issue, there will be hell to pay.

In this respect, one cannot but agree with Berlin. Indeed, the “Pandora’s Box” should never be opened. The point here is that such an effect could be entailed by any bilateral private agreement on exchanges and revisions getting beyond multilateral inclusive format and “package solution,” especially under pressure from Washington, following nothing but its own geopolitical ambitions. It will be extremely difficult to control further destructive processes awakened by this approach in the future. At least, if it’s even possible.

However, including them in any of the above-mentioned multilateral formats changes the picture considerably. Firstly, it allows you to supply any action with organized and controlled character. Secondly, it provides an opportunity to combine all political decisions, which are separately unacceptable, belonging to different periods, into a single “package,” coordinated and approved by all. Thirdly, it opens the prospects of providing solid international guarantees for the “package settlement” on the spot. Fourthly, it establishes the rules of the game clear and acceptable to all players.

Thus, if the main intra-regional political actors as well as the external ones show goodwill and make bold enough to “split the Balkan knot” in the interests of the Balkan peoples, rather than in favor of some abstractions and geopolitical ambitions, each of them will be able to make a proportionate contribution to the common "Balkans issue" settlement. Such a contribution could consist in:

(1) rejecting any informational, military, political and economic provocations;

(2) supporting general legal regime of free economic activity for the whole region without any signs of discrimination;

(3) having a positive political influence on all those political forces, with which privileged relations are maintained;

(4) providing all necessary comprehensive international safeguards;

(5) financing the accelerated development of the region and the implementation of diverse economic projects that are useful and beneficial to its people.

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Poll conducted

  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
    Restoring multilateral negotiation process without any preliminary conditions  
     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
     22 (21%)
    Armed conflict still cannot be avoided  
     12 (12%)
    Stonger deterrence on behalf of the U.S. through modernization of military infrastructure in the region  
     4 (4%)
    Toughening economic sanctions against North Korea  
     2 (2%)
 
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