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The West Can’t Take Balkans for Granted Any More

Edward P. Joseph, Executive Director of the Institute of Current World Affairs and a lecturer at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, undated

The only person to serve as a senior official in all three of the region’s divided towns – Mostar, Brcko and Mitrovica—says the West should understand that it cannot take the Balkans for granted any more.

Edward P. Joseph, Executive Director of the Institute of Current World Affairs, told RFE/RL Balkan Service that, “There has been too much backsliding in terms of basic democratic values and performance of basic democratic institutions, particularly in Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo. There is concern of backsliding in Serbia, too.

In an interview with RFE, Joseph also commented on the recent statement of Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov that the response of Brussels to "the developments in the Balkans "has been "shy."

“What minister Lavrov ironically did,” Joseph said, “was not to highlight the problem of radical Islam and radical Albanian nationalism but he highlighted the additional, very serious problem of malign Russian influence in the region.”

Joseph has plenty of experience working in the Balkans. In 2012, as Deputy Head of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo, he led the ‘technical team’ of OSCE negotiators and forged a breakthrough to run Serbian elections in Kosovo, averting a brewing crisis between Serbia and Kosovo.

Joseph has war-time experience in every conflict front (Serb-Bosniak; Bosniak-Croat; Bosniak-Bosniak; Croat-Serb; Serb-Albanian; Albanian-Macedonian).

The interview follows:

On Macedonia’s Fragility

RFE: How do you see the context and who masterminded the deadly attack in Kumanovo? There are a lot of conspiracy theories circulating – starting from a claim that the Macedonian authorities might be behind it in order to divert the attention from the opposition protest, then Albanian nationalists, who seek to establish the “Greater Albania”, to the assumption that some groups are trying to derail a planned oil pipeline from Turkey that would pass through the Balkans.

Joseph: The short answer is – we don’t know: who’s this group, what it represents, who is behind them, what is its motives. At the same time, we know that the circumstances are suspicious in a sense , that the timing is very convenient for the embattled government in Macedonia to have such an attack but that doesn’t meant it was all set up. It’s a kind of gray area.

What is quite possible is that this is the nightmare scenario in the Balkans where we could have radical Albanian nationalists who do seek the “Greater Albania”, who don’t recognize international borders, including in Kosovo, and we know that there are figures in the political arena in Kosovo who advance that agenda. Therefore, this could be a nightmare scenario of those fusing, perhaps, with Islamist radicals.

At the same time, the presence of so much skepticism and suspicions of the Macedonian government is a reflection of its own inherent weakness and overall progress in building democratic institutions. That is the case in other countries of the troubled region, too.

On Malign Russian Influence

RFE: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a visit to Belgrade last week that the response of Brussels to developments in the Balkans has been "shy," expressing concern “over the increased talk about the so-called Greater Albania” and the fact events in Macedonia “could be expressions of well-prepared terrorist ambitions. The Islamic State was already active in the Balkans." What’s your comment on Lavrov’s comments that the EU might have turned a “blind eye”?
The Western Balkans
The Western Balkans

Joseph: Ironically, what minister Lavrov said is [something other] than calling attention to the potential dangers of the “Greater Albania". What he did calls attention to the potential danger of Russian influence in the region. Because matching the concern that we should have about radical Albanian nationalism and radical Islam, is concern about malign Russian influence in Serbia, in Bosnia, particularly in Republika Srbska and possibly in Macedonia. There is a serious concern about Russian influence in the region. We know the Russian stance with respect to democracy and its attempt to subvert democratic expressions. The Russian foreign ministry characterized the protest of opposition in Macedonia as a threat of another “color” revolution.

In another words, it’s an attempt to link the situation in Macedonia with what Moscow abhors and fears, i.e. the public uprising and the expression of democracy which happened in Georgia and Ukraine and which Russia is doing its best to stamp out.

Thus, what minister Lavrov did, ironically, was not to highlight the problem of radical Islam and radical Albanian nationalism but he highlighted the additional, very serious problem of malign Russian influence

RFE: But it appears as though Russia is losing leverage in the Balkans, particularly after abandoning the “South Stream”. Montenegro supported the Western sanctions against Moscow. Meanwhile, Serbia has been trying to find a middle ground in an attempt to reconcile its European aspirations and, simultaneously, its traditional ties with Russia. While trying to open the first chapters in negotiations with the EU, Belgrade refuses to impose Western sanctions on Russia, invited Putin to the military parade in Belgrade last autumn and sent its soldiers to the military parade in Moscow in May.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnia and Herzegovina

Joseph: The tools Russia has are well known – energy, money and, also, emotionally incendiary appeals to Orthodox Slavs, pan-Orthodox Slav nationalism. Of course, to be clear, the Balkans is not as important for Russia as Ukraine or Georgia. But, to achieve a lower order of interests in the Balkans, Russia doesn’t need to achieve as much. It doesn’t need to destabilize all governments in the region the way it seeks to destabilize the government in Ukraine in order to achieve its objectives. Russia is fully aware that the Western Balkans is much more influenced by the EU and NATO as well. Therefore, Moscow accomplishes its objective by simple upsetting the Euro-Atlantic agenda, complicating it and destabilizing the region. Russia wins by being a spoiler in the Balkans and it’s a very good place to do that. If it can achieve more,Moscow would be quite happy to turn countries away from that direction but it’s a tall order because the current and previous Serbian governments have been strongly committed to join the EU.So, it’s unlikely that Moscow sees it as immediate possible to flip even Serbia (from the EU camp), but it doesn’t need to do that to destabilize the region. Republika Srpska, Macedonia – these are areas where Russia can complicate the Euro-Atlantic agenda, interethnic reconciliation, and most of all the building of democratic institutions.

RFE: But, when Serbia and other Balkan countries would eventually enter the EU, then the space for Russian influence is to be squeezed, or it’ll seek for a “Trojan horse” within the European block. Russia nurtures very close relations with, for example, Hungary and Greece. Is Serbia’s membership in the EU in Russian interests or will Moscow try to scupper it?

Joseph: It’s not an immediate, near term goal of Moscow to dissuade, or prevent Serbia from moving down the track of the EU. As you pointed out, even when countries enter the EU, Moscow is still able to have tremendous amount of influence like in Hungary and Greece. So, Russia doesn’t need to turn these countries away from the EU to achieve its objectives. It’s not Ukraine. For Moscow it would be a disaster if Ukraine joined the EU or NATO. It means that Russia could live with Balkan countries entering the EU. But if Serbia joined NATO, it would be a terrible blow for Russia.

On Serbian Military Moves Toward NATO

RFE: Could Russia prevent it?

Joseph: Russia would surely attempt to stop it, but it rests with the government and people of Serbia, who are themselves still very, conflicted about NATO. My understanding is that there are strong interests, particularly in the Serbian military -- which is, ironically, very pro-NATO -- in having good cooperation, first of all with the US military. (Those interests, who sees that is in the Serbian interest to advance military capability and military manufacturing by adopting NATO standards and that it would be good for Serbian security and economy. But, it’s still politically very sensitive for the Serbian public because of the NATO bombing in 1999.)

RFE: I was recently at a conference in Belgrade on Ukraine where one of participants mentioned, citing unofficial sources, that Russia is dismantling its regional headquarters of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in Sofia and moving it to Belgrade, including between 2,000 and 3,000 operatives. It sounds like an overblown figure.

Joseph: It’s quite plausible that Russia would be increasing its intelligence assets in the Balkans since the crisis in Ukraine erupted last year. It is now in open confrontation with the West and this part of the Balkans is an arena presenting opportunities for Russia, much more than Bulgaria does.So, it is plausible that Russia is moving military assets to Serbia where an emergency response center is already set up in the southern part of the country.

On the Balkans Backsliding

RFE: For how long could Serbia “sit on two chairs”, mulling its position between the EU and Russia? While on one hand, Serbia runs a pro-Western foreign policy, at the same time its domestic politics resembles more Putin’s, cracking down on independent media and other restrictive measures? There is a concern that if Serbia is left to wait too long to enter the EU, because of any enlargement fatigue, then its pro-Western direction cannot be taken for granted.

Joseph: This is a concern which the West should take very seriously. Serbia’s interest in joining the EU was the only factor in propelling Belgrade to make a historic compromise over Kosovo to normalize relations. Although it was not a full recognition of Kosovo by Serbia, it’s a major breakthrough. The incentive to make this difficult compromise was the desire to advance toward the EU membership and it’s very important.

The key, though, is not making the path too easy and moving conditions now. Washington and Brussels must ensure that countries of the region continue progress in developing their democratic institutions and modernizing economies. That is crucial and Serbia should avoid a problem of making some kind of geostrategic choice between West and East, or reverting to some kind of a latter-day nonaligned policy, which would be detrimental to the interest of Serbian people. They would lose prosperity and the prospect for security if they were to falter on the path to the EU. It would be a very serious mistake.

What is essential now for the West is to understand that it cannot take the Balkans for granted any more. There has been too much backsliding in terms of basic democratic values and performance of basic democratic institutions, particularly in Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo. There is concern of backsliding in Serbia, too.

The way to avoid having to make this terrible choice is very simple – it is a continued democratic progress both in Serbia and Kosovo. Throughout that process of building their own democratic institutions and normalizing their relations, the question of Serbian admission to the EU would be resolved, because continuing down that path will make it much easier to come to a suitable political solution that both Belgrade and Pristina can live with. Along the line of recognition there are a lot of formulas that can save face and the dignity of Belgrade and still permit Kosovo to advance on its own toward EU membership.

RFE: There is an impression that, for the West, it is most important to entice Serbia first into striking and then implementing the deal with Kosovo. It appears that, for that sake, Washington and Brussels are poised to turn a blind eye toward backtracking of democratic reforms in the country.

Joseph: The single, most important thing that the West can do is, once again, to take the problems of the Balkans seriously and one of them is backsliding in democratic values. Terrible conditions in which independent media find themselves in Serbia, Macedonia and other countries are one of the main indicators. Therefore, it’s urgent on the part of the US and the EU to reengage much more vigorously with all of these countries to return them to a solid track of building democratic institutions. The challenge is much more difficult now than it was because of the twin dangers of Russian influence, on the one hand, and the radical Islamists, on the other. The two of them are conspiring with nationalist forces that unfortunately still exist in the Balkans.

RFE: One of the signs of these trends is the rehabilitation of the Chetnik leader Dragoljub Mihailovic who was convicted in July 1946 of collaborating with the Nazis during World War II and sentenced to death. The Court’s decision sparked furious reactions in the region, both in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Croatia.

Joseph: The rehabilitation of Mihailovic is highly provocative and one more indicator of what I mentioned -- that the task of building democratic institutions is complicated by the potential for nationalism. We know that the virulent strain of nationalistic virus resides in many people in the former Yugoslavia. It erupted in the 1990s with catastrophic violence. The potential for violence, perhaps not on that scale, in causing instability persists and is not confined to Kosovo and Serbia.

At the same time, it is important to balance that with the fact that there has beenreal progress and we’re not living in the same situation as in the 1990s. People are wiser and many understand that nationalism has been used to manipulate them.

On Washington’s Stand on a “Greater Albania”

RFE: Coming back to the idea of “Greater Albania”, which was shelved for years, and has been floated again, not only by fringe politicians. Incumbent Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama mentioned an intention of unifying Albania and Kosovo in the context of the EU, but if it fails, they will do it “in the classic way”, which sparked controversies. He claims he was misinterpreted, but would you comment on the very mention of the idea of “Greater Albania”?

Joseph: All expressions of maximalist nationalist aspirations are dangerous, especially in the Balkans. What is particularly dangerous about the expression of radical Albanian nationalism is that in Kosovo there is a political party, called “Self-determination”, whose platform is the merger with Albania. What Edi Rama said is a matter of concern but we should temper that and put it in perspective because Tirana overall and in much serious times (when the problem of Albanian nationalism in Macedonia erupted), has generally played a very responsible role in not encouraging separatism.

RFE: Serbian officials claim that the West is not as critical of the concept of “Greater Albania”, but it blasted the idea of “Greater Serbia”.

Joseph: I don’t agree at all. It is absolutely not true. I can say from a personal standpoint when Albin Kurti, leader of “Self-determination” participated at a panel in Washington, all participants criticized the platform of his party. I don’t know anyone in Washington either in the government or those active on the Balkans who are not openly and sharply critical of the “Greater Albania”. The difference is that during the 1990s the “Greater Serbia” project was carried out not with words of someone like Albin Kurti but with weapons.

RFE: Bosnia is deeply divided and many pundits suggest that situation is the worst since the end of war. Is the latest announcement on the referendum in the Serb entity by 2018 an empty threat or could it lead to the disintegration of Bosnia?

Joseph: There are very serious developments in terms of moving toward a separatist agenda, not only Serbs but also Croats, who seek a third entity. This is a totally wrong direction [that could move] Bosnia to a dissolution, which would cost all people living there a lot. It means that there are many reasons for Bosnians to stay together but risk and challenges need to be overcome. For that reason, the EU, the US and, IMF and the World Bank need to be much more engaged in confronting recalcitrant and intransigent domestic leaders who obstruct reforms and lead their country toward dissolution. Without the threat of a serious and credible penalty to those leaders, I’m afraid Bosnia will lose more time and the agenda will become much more problematic.