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Senator Murphy: Ethnic peace in the Balkans still thin and brittle

Senator Chris Murphy meeting Kosovo President Atifete Jahjaga in Prishtina.

Prepared by Arbana Vidishiqi

U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), said in a recent speech that “the ethnic peace that has settled on top of the Balkan region over the past decade is still thin and brittle.”

As evidence, he pointed to incidents during and after a match between Serbia and Albania players and fans during the Oct. 14 European Championship qualifier in Belgrade.

What triggered cancelation of the game and led to subsequent recriminations was a drone flown over the stadium and carrying a flag outlining what nationalists consider the outlines of a Greater Albania, an imaginary state that would unite all Albanians living in the Balkans.

Murphy, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs, visited Kosovo, Serbia, Croatia, Albania, and Montenegro recently and underlined the need for the US to re-engage in the Balkans.

He delivered his speech at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies’ Center for Transatlantic Relations and offered “three primary reasons why America needs to reinvest in the Balkan region.”

Argument No 1: Ethnic Tensions

“We should not simply take for granted that the ethnic, religious, and political peace that has largely held within the region since the conflicts of the 1990s is permanent. That a flag at a soccer game could result in two Prime Ministers postponing an historic diplomatic meeting tells you all you need to know about the fragile nature of the region”, he said.

Albania’s Prime Minister, Edi Rama, was scheduled to visit Belgrade on October 22, eight days after the match, to meet Serbia’s Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vucic. The meeting, canceled after the drone incident, would have been the first visit to Serbia by an Albanian leader for 68 years.

The visit is now re-scheduled for November 10, although the war of words between the two countries continues.

Argument No 2: Foreign Fighters

“Up until recently, there has been no tradition of Islamic extremism in places like Kosovo or Albania or Bosnia”, Murphy said, underlining though that “money from terrorist funders has begun to creep into the Balkans, and some estimates suggest that over 200 young men from Kosovo alone have already been recruited into the ranks of the Islamic State”.

“In most Balkan nations, including Kosovo, upwards of 50% of young men are without jobs. This disconnection and disaffection leaves the region ripe for ISIS recruiters, who promise handsome sums of money to young men that have few, if any alternatives, to provide for their families. And ISIS is apparently developing safe haven inside Syria for these men, with reports that an Albanian community exists somewhere inside or near the conflict zone as friendly harbor for foreign fighters arriving from the Balkans.”

Fifteen influential Muslim leaders were arrested across Kosovo in a Sept. 17 crackdown targeting what authorities say is a recruiting network for Islamic State militants and Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, the Al-Nusra Front.

Argument No 3: Russian Money

“As the U.S. pulls back involvement in the region, Russia is sitting on the doorstep, ready to take our place,” the senator said, explaining that he has returned from his trip to Balkans “more worried about increasing Russian influence within the region, and what that might mean for our interests there.”

“Russia is actively probing ways to extend its influence inside Serbia. It still hopes to build the South Stream gas pipeline through Serbia, increasing the dependence of Serbia and the entire Balkan region on Russian energy. And even more dangerous is talk that Russia seeks to expand its military partnership with Serbia, perhaps co-locating Russian and Serbian troops somewhere in Serbia”.

The senator warned about what he calls the “alarming parallels between Serbia and Ukraine.”

“Serbia isn’t getting a full invite to join the EU anytime soon, and this leaves plenty of time for Russia to increase its leverage over Belgrade and to ultimately force it to choose, Mother Russia or Europe and the United States. That forced choice, in Kiev, resulted in chaos. We shouldn’t let it happen again.”

You can read the full speech and learn Senator Murphy’s proposals here: