War Won’t Be Coming Back to the Balkans
“Peace, Stability, Vucic.” That is the slogan Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is betting on as he fights for a new term and a solid parliamentary majority. Serbia is gearing up for a jumbo election on April 3, with the presidency, the 250-strong legislature, 12 municipalities, and two cities — including the capital, Belgrade — up for grabs. Hovering over these elections is the threat of war. For many, the devastation of Mariupol, reduced to rubble by Russian airstrikes and ruthless shelling, evokes traumatic memories of Vukovar in 1991. The images of Ukrainian refugees pouring into the European Union are painfully familiar to many Bosnians, Kosovar Albanians, and others in the Balkans.
For many people, both foreign observers and residents, the possibility of spill-over seems all too plausible. How long, they wonder, before nationalist fervor coupled with the provocative rhetoric coming from Russia morphs into fighting in, say, the Serb-populated north of Kosovo? From a cynical perspective, it would be foolish of the Kremlin not to take advantage and fan the flames of conflict, whether it is through arming proxies, active measures, disinformation, or all of the above.
Yet the situation is not as dire as it may appear. The risks are real. But the overriding interest of the region’s politicians remains clinging to power. While Russia has an incentive to open a second front against the West, its partners and fellow travellers in the Balkans have much to lose from an escalation. If Europe continues to pay attention to the region and maintain pressure on its leaders, Russia’s options to create trouble there will be limited.
Russia has invaded Ukraine and, despite setbacks, appears prepared to escalate further in order to bend the county to its will — whatever that might mean. The West has retaliated with unprecedented economic sanctions, but the Kremlin is as unyielding as ever. What if it raises the stakes and opens a second front, right in the European Union’s backyard, by rekindling conflicts in former Yugoslavia? Those in the region who remember the horrors and the suffering of the 1990s are rightfully concerned. Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti said the Balkans were “in even greater danger than the Baltic countries and Moldova.” On March 3, he established a fund to raise money for the country’s security force.
Some of the ingredients are already in place. In Serbia, the overwhelming majority supports Russia’s “special operation.” The same is true of Republika Srpska, the Serb-majority entity within Bosnia and Herzegovina. In Belgrade, thousands of protestors marched with Russian flags and placards reading “Crimea is Russia. Kosovo is Serbia” on March 4. The war, in the eyes of many, is payback against the West for all the harm and humiliation it inflicted on Serbs in the wars of the 1990s and with the recognition of Kosovo as a state in February 2008. In the meantime, media praise Russia’s valiant campaign to rid Ukraine of Nazis and spread conspiracy theories about U.S. biolabs. In Montenegro, supporters of the pro-Serbian and pro-Moscow Democratic Front blocked the country’s roads. They rallied because of a domestic squabble involving the coalition government (of which the Democratic Front is a part), yet the unfurling of Russian flags sent a strong message. In Bosnia, the Russian ambassador Igor Kalabukhov issued a warning that Moscow would respond to any attempt to bring the country into NATO, pointing to Ukraine.
Western powers are taking these scenarios seriously. The European Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo is to receive extra personnel. The E.U. peacekeeping operation, called European Union Force Bosnia and Herzegovina or Operation Althea, is being beefed up with 500 additional troops, bringing the total to 1,100. It is a far cry from NATO’s initial deployment after the conclusion of the Dayton Peace Accords, but still a powerful political signal to all troublemakers. Importantly, Operation Althea is backed up by NATO under the so-called Berlin Plus arrangement. That means that in case of an emergency, the E.U. mission can call on the alliance, including U.S. troops stationed in Italy. As the E.U. High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell put it during a visit to Sarajevo, “To everyone thinking about destabilizing Europe and the Western Balkans, my message is clear: Operation Althea is here to prevent it.”
Borrell’s warning is directed as much to Russia as to Balkan politicians. Under Milorad Dodik’s leadership, Republika Srpska has become an self-standing entity in all but name by challenging the authority of central state institutions. Dodik periodically threatens to call a referendum on full independence, and Russia, which sits on the Peace Implementation Council tasked with overseeing the Dayton agreement, gives him diplomatic cover. Russian business has made inroads into the economy, particularly in the energy sector. Moscow has helped Republika Srpska build up its police force, which is now reminiscent of an army — to the consternation of many Bosniaks. In Serbia, too, Aleksandar Vucic has continued the policy of his predecessors to cozy up to Russia. Notionally subscribing to neutral status, Belgrade has benefited from donations and purchases of military kit from both Russia and Belarus. It conducts joint exercises with the two as well. Moscow is largely in control of the country’s oil and gas industry. The Russian Orthodox Church nurtures close ties with its Serbian counterpart. Every time Putin turns up in Belgrade, he gets a welcome worthy of a rock star. It is tempting to cast Vucic as little more than a Kremlin proxy.
More than Minions
But seeing Vucic and Dodik as Putin’s minions, ready to start a war at Putin’s orders, overstates the risk facing the region. As canny political operators these leaders have always prioritized their own interests. They are happy to do business with Russia when it suits them, but also enjoy the perks of being close to the European Union. Then there is China, too, which has invested in Serbia and helped Vucic get political mileage from the COVID-19 pandemic through passing on vaccines to neighbors and inoculating their citizens for free. Dodik, who has come under U.S. sanctions, is also pulling off a balancing act. In a recent hearing at the European Parliament, he reassured members that he was not plotting to turn Republika Srpska into a Balkan version of the Donetsk or Luhansk People’s Republics. A divorce with the West is not in the cards for either Banja Luka or Belgrade, much less for anyone else in the former Yugoslavia. Montenegro or North Macedonia entered NATO in 2017 and 2020 respectively and are hoping to join the European Union too. However many fans Putin has in those countries (and, let’s be honest, there are quite a number), Russia is not a long-term option.
What the Vucics and Dodiks of this world desire is to cling to power. Foreign alignments are simply a means to this end. The war in Ukraine is therefore heaven-sent. It changes the conversation from pesky subjects such as economic grievances, corruption, and the abuse of power, to geopolitics. Serbia saw a huge wave of popular protests, notionally against a mining project carried forward by Rio Tinto but, in reality, against the unfettered grip on power the president enjoys. In Republika Srpska, Dodik, who has been in charge since 2006, has seen his popularity declining, with opposition to his rule picking up. He is more comfortable in the company Bosnian Croats leader Dragan Covic, who is also keen to wrest power from Sarajevo, than he is with many Bosnian Serb voters. The sense of impending doom and gloom and the reawakening of memories from the 1990s Yugoslav disintegration helps consolidate the base. It also drives a wedge between the ranks of the opponents. The Serbian opposition is a broad church with hard-line nationalists and Kremlinophiles rubbing shoulders with pro-Western liberals. Indeed, the conservative Dveri movement lambasted the government’s decision to back a U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning Russian aggression, and put up billboards with Putin’s face trying to snatch Russia from Vucic.
Last but not least, the West tends to be more accommodating when the threat of a Russian intervention and takeover appears credible. Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic offers an example of a former friend of Moscow turned Western ally. Over the years, Djukanovic has skillfully played the Russian card to disable any criticism of corruption and abuse of power. A plot against Djukanovic concocted in 2016 by Russian operatives and Serbian nationalists wishing to derail the country’s imminent accession to NATO bought him good will in the West. His Democratic Party of Socialists was ousted following the August 2020 elections, but now Djukanovic is poised to make a comeback. No doubt, the war in Ukraine will help sustain Western support for his effort to create a new minority administration.
For better or worse, Balkan politics are populated by status-quo players. Waging a real war, as opposed to rhetorical attacks on neighbors and the West, is risky and politically counterproductive. Granted, Russia might well choose to stir the pot. But its allies will be on the nationalist fringes, not the leadership, even in countries where Russophilia runs strong. Once you rise to power in a place like Serbia, you have an incentive to hedge your bets, avoid taking sides in political battles waged by great powers, and try to make the most of the situation. That is a foreign-policy script inherited from Tito’s rule at the height of the Cold War. Balkanites often bemoan their predicament and often with good reason. Yet they are almost certainly grateful to be in Belgrade or Sarajevo right now rather than in Kharkiv or Mariupol.
That should not give the West a false sense of complacency. The war in Ukraine has already spilled over rhetorically into the region, fuelling the narrative battles that have never really ceased since the 1990s. Tabloid readers and TV viewers have grown accustomed to stories painting minorities and neighboring countries as enemies, glorifying past wars, and sowing fear. As a result, local political entrepreneurs as well as malign foreign powers have much to work with. Yet this cult of militarism is a symbolic strategy targeting voters, not necessarily a prequel to a showdown. It inflames passions but, at the end of the day, leaders are in control of the narrative rather than being captive to it. If Vucic “pivots” to the West tomorrow, his cheerleaders in the media will be applauding the boss’ courage with the same dedication they exalt Serbian-Russian or Serbian-Chinese camaraderie today.
Russia will continue to foment trouble in the region, using its habitual disruptive tactics: sponsoring anti-Western groups, carrying out information and propaganda campaigns, mounting cyber attacks, and using its diplomatic leverage to make life difficult for NATO and the European Union. Violence might ensue too, but the probability is not high.
To make sure that risk stays as low as possible, European leaders should keep up their pressure on local powerholders. Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s foreign minister, visited both Belgrade and Sarajevo earlier this month. Austrian Chancellor Karl Nechamer was in Serbia too. Once the elections are done and dusted, Vucic will have to make a choice between the European Union and Russia and implement at least some of the sanctions. If he fails to do so and faces no reprimand, this will undermine Europe’s efforts to push back against Russia and provide more space for Russian interference. But if Europe forces Vucic to make a choice, there is good reason to hope that his own self-interest will lead him to side with Europe and with peace.
Dimitar Bechev is a lecturer at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies and a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. He is also the author of Turkey Under Erdogan: How a Country Turned from Democracy and the West and Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe.