The European Union’s Shot at Redemption in the Balkans
Plans were set for the White House to host talks between Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovar President Hashim Thaçi on June 27. The American side hoped to play a key role in resolving the dispute that has plagued the Balkans since Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. Kosovo declared independence nearly a decade after the end of violent conflict between the ethnic Serb-dominated Yugoslav military and the ethnic Albanian-dominated Kosovo Liberation Army, which concluded in NATO bombing the Serbian capital of Belgrade.
Then, just three days before the proposed meeting in Washington, Thaçi was indicted on war crimes charges. The indictment, announced by the Kosovo Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecutor’s Office in the Hague, related to murders and other illicit activities, such as organ trafficking, which allegedly occurred while Thaçi was head of the Kosovo Liberation Army. While the plan in the immediate aftermath of this news was for Thaçi to be replaced in talks by Kosovar Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti, Hoti announced that he would be withdrawing Kosovo from the United States-led talks altogether.
The aborted meeting in Washington represents a growing trend — in the Balkans, the United States finds itself increasingly on the sidelines. The resulting power vacuum provides an opportunity for the European Union to play a constructive role in the politics of the region. The Western Balkans — Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia — are especially crucial for the security and stability of Europe as a whole, but Brussels’ approach to the region in the recent past has been underwhelming. The European Union now has a window of opportunity to take the lead in advancing its interests in a stable, democratic Western Balkans. Doing so will require a frank assessment of its previous failures in the region and a commitment to live up the values that it espouses.
The West and the Western Balkans
The European Union’s recent history in the Western Balkans has been a failure on multiple fronts. It has often lacked a coherent and unified vision for the region, which has led to domestic political instability in multiple countries. Additionally, it has compromised on its own values and enabled the rise of autocratic leaders, which has exacerbated the region’s issue of democratic backsliding.
The explicit goal of the European Union’s policy toward the Western Balkans since the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit has been the eventual integration of all countries of the region into the European Union. In the nearly two decades since, only Croatia has been successfully integrated. The rest of the region struggles to meet European Union standards on key metrics such as democracy, the rule of law, and media freedom. Most of these countries have succumbed to authoritarian leaders at some point in the past several years, and often the European Union has supported rather than condemned these leaders.
The European Union’s passivity and disengagement toward the Western Balkans enabled the United States to fill the void. Increased American influence in the region has undercut the prestige of the European Union. This has been harmful not only for the European Union’s own legitimacy, but also for domestic political stability in the Western Balkans, as Washington has misplayed its hand. The United States envoy for the dialogue, Amb. Richard Grenell, was perceived as a bombastic and divisive figure who was more interested in scoring a foreign policy win for the Trump administration in an election year than in finding a mutually agreeable solution. While Grenell — who was also U.S. ambassador to Germany and acting director of national intelligence until recently — rejects the claim that U.S. policy is shaped by domestic political considerations, his bellicosity eventually squandered America’s influence and had serious repercussions for Kosovo’s political stability.
In March, Kosovo’s government, led by then-Prime Minister Albin Kurti, was toppled in a vote of no confidence. While this vote was ostensibly the result of a disagreement over how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, it actually occurred because Kurti’s party’s junior coalition partner was unhappy with Kurti for not acquiescing to Grenell’s demand that Kosovo repeal the tariffs it had placed on Serbia without receiving anything in return. This led to a ruling by Kosovo’s constitutional court that a new government could be formed without new elections, sparking protests that defied restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The instability brought on by America’s apparent effort to undermine the Kurti government has been debilitating for Kosovo and could have been avoided if the European Union had been a more active player in the region in the first place.
Europe’s “Huge Historical Mistake”
Domestic political instability in the Western Balkans has been enabled, in part, by the European Union’s inability to agree on a unified policy toward the region. In October 2019, it was widely expected that North Macedonia would receive approval to formally open the negotiation process for accession to the European Union. However, these hopes were dashed by French President Emmanuel Macron, who claimed that the membership process must be reformed before North Macedonia’s application could move forward. Macron’s veto was motivated at least in part by domestic political concerns. The veto was rightfully condemned by former European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker as a “huge historical mistake” and exemplified the European Union’s lack of a coherent policy toward the Balkans.
Macron’s decision wreaked havoc on North Macedonia’s political landscape. Zoran Zaev, the country’s former prime minister, had risked his political future by signing the Prespa Agreement with Greece, which ended the decades-long dispute between the two countries over the proper use of the term “Macedonia,” agreeing that the adjective “North” would be added to North Macedonia’s name. This agreement was controversial within North Macedonia, with members of parliament from the opposition claiming it was tantamount to genocide before boycotting the vote on the deal’s ratification.
Despite this controversy and incendiary language, Zaev’s party was able to get the agreement passed because it would enable North Macedonia to eventually join the European Union since Greece would now drop its veto. France’s decision to veto North Macedonia’s advancement in the accession process undermined Zaev’s entire justification for signing the Prespa Agreement and was potentially the death knell for his political career.
Realizing that he had lost his mandate to govern after the European Union’s rejection, Zaev resigned as prime minister, and snap elections in North Macedonia have been scheduled to take place on July 15. These elections could very well see a right-wing, nationalist opposition party come to power for the first time since 2015, when a massive corruption scandal engulfed the party and resulted in former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski being sentenced to prison.
After all of the turmoil that the French veto caused in the country’s politics, the European Union approved North Macedonia’s opening of the negotiation process less than six months after its initial rejection. This move was not a result of any significant reforms that North Macedonia had made in the interim but rather of the European Union realizing its significant blunder. Whether through passive acquiescence or active undermining, the European Union has brought instability rather than stability to multiple countries in the Western Balkans.
Stability or Democracy in the Western Balkans?
The European Union has sometimes promoted regional stability at the expense of supporting democracy. Some observers have used the term “stabilitocracy” to describe this dynamic, whereby Brussels turns a blind eye to autocratic leaders in the Western Balkans as long as they stem migration into Europe.
This paradigm is particularly salient in Serbia and Montenegro. According to a recent Freedom House report, both of these countries have officially devolved from “semi-consolidated democracies” to “transition/hybrid regimes.” Despite these declines, the leaders of both of these countries have received support from the European Union throughout their tenures, both explicitly through adulation in days leading up to important elections and implicitly through a lack of condemnation, thereby granting them legitimacy. This support gives these leaders pro-Western credentials while simultaneously allowing them to rule as autocrats.
In the case of Serbia, Vučić has consolidated the country’s media landscape and stifled critical voices through the arbitrary use of government authority, such as the weaponization of tax investigations to punish foes and utilization of government subsidies to reward allies. The effectiveness of Vučić’s political apparatus was on full display during Serbia’s recent election, in which his party won a two-thirds majority of seats in parliament amid numerous accounts of voting irregularities and suppression tactics, not to mention that almost all of the opposition boycotted the elections in the belief that they would be neither free nor fair.
In Montenegro, Milo Đukanović, who has been in power as either president or prime minister almost uninterruptedly since 1991, has wielded the power of the presidency to operate a sophisticated patronage network. His alleged ties to organized crime are well-known, leading many observers to note how he runs Montenegro like a “mafia state.” Like Vučić in Serbia, Montenegro’s upcoming parliamentary elections will provide Đukanović with the opportunity to demonstrate the iron grip he has over his country’s political institutions.
The European Union should be more assertive in promoting democracy in the Western Balkans. Passively accepting authoritarian trends in the region is shortsighted. While it may seem expedient and like the path of least resistance, over time it will undermine Europe’s position. Brussels has strategic interests in democracy and the rule of law in the Western Balkans, and it ought to be more forceful in articulating and advancing those interests.
How Europe Should Approach Kosovo-Serbia Talks
Taking the lead in facilitating the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue provides Brussels with an opportunity to advance its interests in regional stability and democracy, and it is already off to a promising start. The talks are being spearheaded by Miroslav Lajčak, who has been serving as the European Union’s envoy for the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue since April. However, several other European leaders have taken a keen interest in the negotiations, such as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who met separately with both Vučić and Hoti in the days following the cancellation of the White House talks. Additionally, Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are holding a video summit with Vučić and Hoti on July 10, and E.U. High Representative Josep Borrell will be meeting with Vučić, Hoti, and Lajčak two days after that.
Europe’s opportunity to facilitate an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo is fraught with dangers. Chief among these is a potential land swap, in which Kosovo would trade some of its Serb-majority municipalities in its north for some of Serbia’s Albanian-majority municipalities in its southwest. If a land swap were to be included in the final agreement, it could prove to be disastrous for the Western Balkans as a whole by setting a precedent for ethnonationalists and would-be secessionists throughout the region, such as Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s presidency.
Brussels should not accept a border swap between Kosovo and Serbia. Doing so would codify that national borders in the Western Balkans can be revisited, and such a prospect is a powder keg given the region’s history of ethnic violence. Additionally, a swap would implicitly endorse the view that homogenous states are easier to govern and preferable to multiethnic and pluralistic ones. Such an idea is completely antithetical to the European Union’s liberal democratic values. On the contrary, it would play right into the hands of Russia and China, whose authoritarian influence in the Balkans comes at the expense of Euro-Atlantic integration. The European Union should also follow through on promises on which it has reneged in the recent past, such as finally passing visa liberalization for Kosovo.
In the medium to long term, the European Union should place regional anti-corruption efforts at the center of its agenda in the Western Balkans. The Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, the center-left bloc in the European Parliament, released a statement saying that no further progress should be made in Serbia’s enlargement process until “sufficient democracy has been restored in the country.” The European Union as a whole would be wise to heed these words and apply them to not only Serbia but the Western Balkans writ large. This is especially true for the European People’s Party, the European Parliament’s center-right bloc, which consistently demonstrates significant issues with confronting democratic backsliding.
The European Union has a vital interest in the success of democracy and the rule of law in the Western Balkans. Sadly, its recent history in the region has been a failure. Rather than promoting stability and democracy in the region and getting these countries closer to becoming European Union member states, Brussels has been far too passive in the face of democratic backsliding, particularly in Montenegro and Serbia. Facilitating the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue provides it with an opportunity to make up for some of these blunders.
Brussels should make it clear to the people and governments of the Western Balkans that it is fully committed to their future as part of the European Union. The European Union has much to offer the Western Balkans in terms of economic opportunity, rule of law, and human rights, especially compared to other powers like China, Russia, and the United States. Europe should hold autocratic leaders in the region accountable for their behavior. Doing so may be uncomfortable in the short term but plays to the strengths of the European Union in the long term.
America’s missed opportunity to facilitate the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue is a chance for the European Union to chart a new course for the Western Balkans. Brussels should seize the occasion as a first step toward renewed engagement in the region.
Austin Doehler is a visiting scholar at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement.