Dropping the Ball in the Western Balkans: Can the West Pick It Up Again?


After a number of years of relative disinterest in the Western Balkans, there has recently been no shortage of special panels, roundtables, hearings, opinion pieces, and reports on both sides of the Atlantic sounding the alarm over the increasingly precarious developments in the region. There is a growing sense that, like other parts of Europe, the region has not been immune to Russia’s reach and spoiler techniques. Regional stability has been further threatened with what seems to be the return of great power politics, primarily due to the increased visibility and impact of other major players, such as China and Turkey. Lastly, and perhaps most grimly given the extensive international assistance since the 1990s, there is no escaping the fact that region has been at best stagnating, or at worst deteriorating in terms of the vital political, economic and social indicators. External shocks such as the 2015 refugee crisis extending through the ‘Balkan route’ only underscored the need to address the issues of poor governance in the region.

The common takeaway from these deliberations has been that the West, broadly defined, has “dropped the ball” and needs to engage more to curb and reverse some of these worrying trends. However, before coming up with the policy proposals, we must first analyze what the West has been doing so far, and more importantly, whether we can assume it can act as a unified force in this region.

But First, A Riposte

In a recently published article, Michael Carpenter and Mieczysław Boduszyński provide a strong diagnosis of the situation on the ground in the Western Balkans. They point to the impasse on the constitutional reform and the secessionist impulses in Bosnia and Herzegovina, unresolved dispute between Serbia and Kosovo, and Macedonia’s name dispute with Greece. They argue, correctly, that these all pose major challenges for regional stability and demand urgent attention and resolution. The policy recommendations they put forward speak to the need for greater engagement from the European Union and United States in addressing these issues as well as the need to accelerate Euro-Atlantic integration after a period of drift.

Yet, all of their recommendations are based on the assumption that the European Union and United States are able and willing to refocus on the region, and more importantly, to work in concert. These assumptions are shakier than they might appear. Furthermore, an assessment of the role the West has played in contributing to the problems the region is facing today is absent from their analysis. We need to start, therefore, with a better understanding of what led to this moment and which players are likely to have an impact moving forward. Only then we will be able to set a more realistic range of policy options for the Balkan states and their Western allies.

Challenging the Western Drift Thesis

It is indisputable that Brussels and — to an even greater extent — Washington have deprioritized the Balkans for the better part of the past decade. In doing so they have created a vacuum that other powers, such as Russia, Turkey, and China, have come to fill in. The usual narrative suggests that in turn, given the competing agendas of these major powers, the region has become more unstable. However, this isn’t the full picture. As its attention to the Western Balkans waned, the West prioritized regional stability over the push for meaningful democratic reforms, which — as it often happens in other parts of the world — aggravated the very factors feeding regional instability.

As a number of area scholars have pointed out, Western policies in the region have been supportive of leaders with autocratic tendencies – from the presently serving presidents Aleksandar Vučić in Serbia, Milorad Dodik in Republika Srpska, Milo Đukanović in Montenegro to the former prime minister of Macedonia Nikola Gruevski – in return for assurances from these leaders that they would keep a lid on ethnic conflicts and prevent potential hot spots from erupting. Regimes that have substantial democratic deficiencies are thereby granted external legitimacy because their political alternatives (usually in form of more radical and nationalist political options) are seen in Western capitals as much worse. In that manner, the European Union and United States have some responsibility for the region’s “stabilitocracies.”

As such, before Western leaders decide on a course of stronger engagement, per Carpenter and Boduszyński, they should first reflect honestly on how and why Western policies and preferences have failed so far. As I have discussed, this is a far bigger problem than simple inattention. The unintended consequences of Western policies — primarily in form of democratic backsliding and growing distrust and cynicism regarding the role of the West in the region — should not be ignored as the United States and European Union chart their goals lest greater engagement in the Western Balkans ends up just being more of the same rather than a genuine policy rethink.

The Prospects of Transatlantic Cooperation

The European Union is, understandably, more determined to act on this front than the United States for reasons of simple geography. The European Commission has set the agenda for the next round of enlargement which could potentially see Serbia’s and Montenegro’s accession in 2025, while offering a pathway for the remaining four states in the region to catch up. The newly adopted strategy for the Western Balkans does not mince words and provides only thinly veiled criticism of the culprits behind the problems plaguing the region. The document unequivocally points to the state capture, links with organized crime and corruption, political interference in and control of the media, and politicized judiciaries as the primary reasons why the region has been lagging behind.

In that sense, it seems there is a recognition that the days of turning a blind eye and offering carrots and refraining from using sticks are likely to be replaced with a policy of “tough love.” Still, given the past fumbling over E.U. enlargement into the region, the European Union has a credibility problem. Equally, the strategy leaves a lot of open questions regarding the fate of those that have not been tapped as the frontrunners for the 2025 enlargement, most worryingly Bosnia and Kosovo.

While U.S. officials working in and visiting the region have voiced the need to deal with unfinished business and resolve the perennial issues that threaten regional stability, the Trump administration has yet to offer a distinct and comprehensive American approach to the Western Balkans. So far, America’s career diplomats have mostly been in charge, with seemingly very little political input from the top levels of government. They have been repeating the standard line of encouraging political reforms to enable democratic consolidation, promoting economic development through trade and investment, and advocating greater energy independence.

One could make an argument that it is not such a bad thing to have only career foreign service officers involved in formulating and executing U.S. policies in the Western Balkans. Yet, much of this is also about the optics. In order to send a strong signal that the U.S. government has an interest in seeing the reforms implemented, those messages should come from the top levels of the administration and be sustained.

Herein lies perhaps the greatest challenge for an effective U.S. engagement in the region. One simply cannot gloss over the symbolism of the U.S. presidency and disregard President Donald Trump’s vacillating commitment to democratic institutions and norms. It has been worrying to see far-right groups in Croatia and Serbia express their support for the American president. In a region where the outcomes of brutal ethnic conflicts are still felt over two decades later, the perception that ethno-nationalist platforms are being granted legitimacy from the most powerful office in the world is even more unsettling. Thus, the discrepancy between the president’s messages and the career bureaucrats’ statements will make it much harder for the U.S. to be taken as speaking with one voice.

On the issue of E.U.-U.S. cooperation, there is no doubt it can be an effective force multiplier. The last time we saw a meaningful, productive, and highly visible transatlantic cooperation was during President Barack Obama’s first term. Between 2009 and 2013, there was a more conscious effort to have E.U. and U.S. officials work together, as evident from a number of joint high-level visits to the region. This was largely due to having key policy entrepreneurs on the U.S. side with previous experience in the region such as the Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. One major accomplishment of these efforts was the agreement on confidence-building measures that would eventually see the agreement on the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo. Regrettably, it is hard to identify the senior officials in the Trump administration who have the same interest in the region.

Additionally, it would be a mistake to pretend that the E.U.-U.S. cooperation is a given and only natural. While the elements of rift in the transatlantic partnership precede Trump, his rhetoric and policies have drastically deepened these divides. From the U.S. administration’s standpoint, there has been a willingness to bilaterally engage with some of the member states of the E.U., but not so much with the Union’s key officials. Equally, the administration is well aware of the European Union’s internal divisions and has seemingly been exploiting them to its own advantage. This was nowhere better exemplified than in Trump’s visit to Poland last year, and the administration’s endorsement of the Three Seas Initiative — a dubious exercise in sub-regional cooperation among Central and Eastern European states, which has opened up the space for U.S. gas exports to that part of Europe.

Is This the Hour of Europe?

All of this is not to say that the West cannot develop a more determined and consistent approach to the region. However, the policy recommendations need to be grounded in a sober assessment of the past policy pitfalls and the presently available resources. The assumption that there are buttons labelled “deep engagement” and “transatlantic cooperation” that can just be switched on is at best naïve and at worst fails to appreciate the drastically changed circumstances.

E.U. leaders do not lack ambition, but they have yet to demonstrate real commitment to a different approach. The region watchers will be looking at the forthcoming E.U.-Western Balkans summit, the first such meeting in 15 years, with great interest. On the U.S. side, we are yet to see the resolve to become engaged in a more meaningful way. This is primarily due to the sense of greater urgency in responding to the multiple issues and crises emanating from East Asia to the greater Middle East. Under these conditions, the absence of key policy entrepreneurs with the interest in and knowledge of the region, as well as the president’s well-documented denunciation of both diplomatic engagement and transatlantic ties, will make it much more challenging to see Washington credibly involved.


Dr. Gorana Grgić is a jointly appointed Lecturer at the Department of Government and International Relations and the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. Her research interests include transatlantic relations, U.S. alliances, conflict resolution and democratization. She is the author of Ethnic Conflict in Asymmetric Federations (Routledge 2017). She has been a regular political contributor for the ABC News and Sky News Australia, and has written for and contributed to a number of Australian and international media outlets and policy institutes. In early 2019, she will be joining the Center for European Studies at Harvard as a Visiting Scholar.

Image: Erin Johnson/Flickr