Ivo Banac is a history professor in the Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb and a professor emeritus at Yale University. He is widely known for his expertise on global and regional politics.
In an interview with RFE, Banac talks about the prospects for the peace agreement for Ukraine, the possibility that Montenegro might to be left without an invitation for NATO because of the West’s negotiations with Moscow, and whether it is possible for small countries to maintain a neutral position amid political tensions between the East and the West.
RFE: Even though NATO stated that it is not giving up on its “open doors’ policy,” is the statement of French President Francois Hollande about stopping enlargement a signal of possible change because of events in eastern Ukraine?
Banac: That is hard to say. It depends on the influence the French president has, and I believe France does not have enough influence to prevent an invitation to Montenegro, even Georgia…
RFE: Still, in the current global political relations, Montenegro can be sacrificed in negotiations between the West with Russia and be left without an invitation for NATO. Is it possible…?
Banac: I believe France will not be the one deciding the issue. I believe the United States will have the main role in a completely new context of relations in Eastern Europe. Although there are other forces in Western Europe-- I stress Western Europe-- that are more prone to certain compromises related to the whole issue of enlargement toward the East. But I also think there is equal number of forces that know this is the moment when a new front is being established on the European continent.
RSE: Who exactly do you mean when you say ‘forces in western Europe’?
Banac: I am afraid that means all those with the illusion that the Minsk 2 is a permanent solution. All those who are ready to make compromises with Putin can also easily support limiting NATO enlargement. I cannot say how strongly the French president, unlike others in that part of the world, supports it, but [among others] there will certainly be doubts. One day [they will be] for it, and the other against it.
RFE: Does that mean you do not expect the peace agreement for Ukraine to hold and that predictions about the conflict spilling over to other vulnerable regions, namely Eastern Europe, might come true?
Banac: If anything is certain, it is that the Minsk 2 will not be a permanent solution. We can already see how strongly the agreement has been undermined, even though there have not been many incidents in the past several days. I believe …[Minsk 2] is just a minor stalemate, especially after the assassination of Boris Nemtsov. I do not expect Putin to stop. I think he will spread conflict, not only in Ukraine but maybe in some other regions. So, NATO will be needed. And NATO must act in the Balkans, too. Because, let me remind you, the Balkansis certainly one …region where Russia, in this weak form it currently has regardless of Putin’s position, can act as a great force even today.
RFE: That is exactly what US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent statement relates to. He said that countries of the region, such as Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia are in the firing line between Washington and Moscow. There is a perception that the United States has turned its focus away from the Balkans for some time. Taking the most recent developments, can a strengthening of the US interest for this part of Southeastern Europe be expected?
Banac: What you are saying about a certain passivity of the United States in the past years is correct, but Ukraine changed it all. Kerry’s statement tells us not only that these countries are in the firing line, but that within each one of these countries we have one great conflict between pro-Russian and contra-Russian interests. We can say that for all the countries in this part of the world. There is a strong dispute in Serbia and I cannot say how much that will cost [Prime Minister Aleksandar] Vucic. The situation is even more obvious in Bosnia and Herzegovina because [Republika Srpska President Milorad] Dodik is, no doubt at all, strongly supported by Russia, which also endangers Croatia. We have a strange situation in Macedonia. We have even stranger one, so far completely unclear, in Greece. So, with little imagination we can see how things could develop in this part of the world.
RFE: You mentioned Serbia, a country with the largest population in the region, which tries to balance between Russia and the EU. When it comes to small countries in this part of the world is a neutral position possible with further escalation of disputes between the East and the West?
Banac: It is not possible. You can balance it for some time, but you can see how everything related to Serbia’s foreign policy is controversial at this moment. For example, there are messages coming from Moscow that they are not truly pleased with this or that, with certain steps toward Brussels and the West in general. And the Americans on the other hand are also not thrilled with one potential EU country with friendly relations with Russia. It is maybe because Serbia had many problems at that level in the past several decades. So, it will be hard to keep neutrality – not in every country. And in those where relations are in some way connected to broader events, it will be nearly impossible.
RFE: We witnessed political earthquakes such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, September 11; my generation lived in four different countries and we experienced several wars. Is that ‘surplus of history’ something provided by modern technology because we live in a global village or because history got accelerated?
Banac: You have some faster changes in history, and some slower ones. That depends on whether there is a balance of different influences that is relatively stable--stable based on how the balance satisfies the biggest interests of the majority of the population. We had such a situation in the 19th century. Now we have the anniversary of the Vienna Congress, which brought peace to Europe, at least Western Europe, until the start of the World War I, even though there were some local and not so unimportant wars. In the 20th century things were different. We had two great wars, and after them a relatively stable situation in Europe, but always with certain tensions that told us that the system established in Eastern Europe is unsustainable.
Now, after a relatively short period of stabilization we have new challenges. Depending on developments, I believe rather large conflicts are possible. Maybe even on the international level. I am not saying that with anticipation, but because we must get more serious when we discuss issues of security and defense. This is not a time for reckless moves. I believe that is one of the reasons why authorities in our part of the world, which is still vulnerable, must have cool heads dealing with challenges here and in our neighborhoods.