The year 2016 marked the rapid deterioration of relations between countries of the Western Balkans, having the most difficult situation be in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but the key is held by Serbia. Over the last weeks Belgrade’s tone sharply deteriorated and radicalised, which resonates in Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Kosovo too. All this could turn out to be a rehearsal for the complete change of the geopolitical balance of power coming with the election of Donald Trump as US President, which bodes nothing good for the Western Balkans, and thus for the European Union. There are three lines of tension, which are carrying heavy voltage currently. The first one is Serbia – Bosnia and Herzegovina, the second one is Serbia – Croatia, and the third one is Serbia – Kosovo. Serbia – Montenegro is another channel, along which tension is being transferred. In addition to all that, there are elections upcoming in Serbia this year.
The situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is especially difficult, many comparing the pressure to the pre-war atmosphere in former Yugoslavia. Despite the serious stirring of the country’s European perspective, the three ethnic peoples are in serious conflict, stimulated by the neighbouring “their own”. Croatia demands that the Dayton peace agreement be re-negotiated, so that BiH turns into a federation. This was taken poorly in Sarajevo and a retaliation reaction followed – prosecution of Croatian war veterans. And in Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik keeps on challenging the very foundations of Dayton, completely undisturbed. In September, he organised an anti-constitutional referendum, which officialised the date January 9th as the entity’s national holiday, despite all reactions against this vote both from within BiH and the international community as well.
During the celebration itself, when the creation of the republic in the beginning of the war in BiH was being noted, Mr Dodik stated that there is going to be a second referendum for the separation of the entity from BiH and its accession to Serbia. He talked about the creation of Greater Serbia uniting all Serbs in the region, which caused sharp reactions and scare. The RS holiday was honoured at the highest levels from Serbia. President Tomislav Nikolić, who is counting on winning a second term at the Serbia presidential elections this spring, honoured in person the celebrations during one of which RS demonstrated military prowess as well. Milorad Dodik’s actions enjoy Belgrade’s full support. Support also came from Prime Minister Vučić, who sent an unambiguous congratulations letter on the event of the celebration.
Tension between Serbia and Croatia has been smoldering for quite some time, but did escalate lately after another block by Croatia of the opening of a chapter of Serbia’s negotiation process with the EU. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić reacted sharply and turned up the anti-Croatian rhetoric in the country. The cherry on the cake was placed by the statement of the special envoy of Prime Minister Vučić to Zagreb on the occasion of the celebration of Orthodox Christmas. In the presence of Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, Vladimir Božović stated that Serbia is going to defend the right of the Serbian minority with all means possible. This statement was qualified by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Davor Ivo Stier as being a recycling of the theses of Slobodan Milošević.
Tension has risen considerably between Serbia and Kosovo as well. Relations between the two countries have not been exactly smooth for a long time now, despite the progress in the Priština-Belgrade dialogue with the EU facilitation. This dialogue is part of Serbia’s negotiation process with the EU – chapter 35. The reason for the lack of smoothness is the non-compliance with many of the agreements, which is due to the lack of political will in Kosovo authorities, frequent political clashes in the young republic, and the tension in Northern Kosovo. Since the start of the year, Serbia has changed its approach. Last week was dominated by the events surrounding the Serbian arrest warrant for Ramush Haradinaj – former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army – on charges of war crimes.
A French court let Haradinaj go free under bail, which caused a wave of reactions in Belgrade. President Tomislav Nikolić blamed the entire European Union for the ruling of the French court, stating that a directive was sent down that the Serbian warrant is not to be honoured. Most media, even those critical to Aleksandar Vučić’s government, went head over heel in publishing discoveries that Albanians are paying huge amounts for lobbying and bribes all over Europe in order to prevent the extradition of Haradinaj to Serbia. What is more, Belgrade claimed that Albanians are planning terrorist attacks against Serbian embassies in Europe. The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Internal Affairs Ivica Dačić sent out warnings and requests that the security detail around Serbian embassies in the EU be increased.
This scandal had not yet subsided when Belgrade brewed up another and much more dangerous drama. On Saturday, Serbia decided to run the first train between Belgrade and Mitrovica (in Northern Kosovo) in 18 years. The line’s opening was supposed to mark another step in the normalisation of relations, but it turned into an ugly provocation. The train was painted in the colours of the Serbian flag and on it, in 21 languages, was written “Kosovo is Serbia”. On the inside, the train was pasted with pictures of the frescoes in the Orthodox monastery in Kosovo. Kosovar authorities asked that the EU forbids the train entering Kosovo due to danger of an armed conflict.
Meanwhile in Serbia tension was also being kindled by information that the Albanians were preparing a sabotage of the railway. Messages popped up that there were explosives in place along the tracks, none of which was found to be true in a later investigation. Kosovo special forces were deployed (with no knowledge of this by NATO as it turned out later), ready to stop the train. Prime Minister Vučić ordered in the last possible minute to stop the train, right at the border with Kosovo. This action of his was presented as an attempt to prevent an armed conflict. President Nikolić tuned in once more stating that Serbia is prepared, if need be, to send its army into Kosovo to defend the Serbian population there. His rhetoric chilled the blood. There were appeals already appearing on the first pages of Serbian press, calling to do everything necessary to prevent a new war in the region.
Russia too is talking of the danger of war and the EU recommends that tension is lowered by all sides. There is no way, however, to neglect other signals as well that Serbia has rapidly switched the rhetoric. At the very start of the year Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Internal Affairs Ivica Dačić gave a provocative interview, in which he sent out a threat to all countries in the region, which had recognised Kosovo. In his words, Serbia is waiting for the moment when they will be in need of support in some international organisation, but will not get it from Serbia.
Elections or preparation for a new political reality?
Some analysts explain what is going on with the upcoming presidential elections in Serbia this spring, which will be an extremely close call. There is once more talk about having preliminary parliamentary elections on the same day. There were snap elections in Serbia last year too, without any particular political necessity. There is no such necessity this year too. President Nikolić won back in 2012 his first term with the list of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) of Aleksandar Vučić. In this year’s elections, however, the party is not at all willing to stand behind Nikolić once more. Regardless of whether he will receive support from Vučić, the former associate of Serbian radicals Tomislav Nikolić has already announced that he will also run on his own.
Should this happen, the SNS will have to present their own candidate, but polls are showing that no one except Vučić himself would be able to win against Nikolić. Among the other candidates is the radical Vojislav Šešelj. The opposition is once again in disunity and so far there are no visible chances that it will come up with a common candidate. So everyone await the decision of Aleksandar Vučić. Tradition in Serbia calls for sharpening of rhetoric in election years, but this time the situation went out of control, which poses the question whether Serbia may be preparing for the new world order following Donald Trump’s inauguration. His coming to power shifts the balance of powers quite significantly. So far the USA guaranteed the post-war status quo on the Balkans. As a leading NATO member the USA served as a deterrent to any attempts at redrawing borders on the Balkans.
Trump, however, believes NATO to be an outdated organisation and, besides, he sympathises with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is interested in preserving Russia’s influence in the Balkans. With no USA participation NATO would be unable to prevent a new conflict in the Balkans if Serbia, for example, were to decide to take advantage of the wind of change and take Kosovo back and Republika Srpska secedes from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Aleksandar Vučić is attempting to present himself as the only one capable of preserving the peace in the region, but this time it is not that certain he will succeed. Should he lose the presidential elections, it might also spell the beginning of his decline at the parliamentary ones as well. Vučić so far has been the only one who presented himself as a pro-European politician, but the new situation reminds of the ancient saying that a leopard can’t change its spots.
The EU is less unified than ever and elections are coming in several key countries. This means that if something should happen in the Balkans, the most vulnerable countries could hardly expect any aid from allies. There are elections coming in Germany this year, in France, and Great Britain is possessed with the process of exiting the EU and, besides, it relies on Trump for brokering a beneficial trade agreement. The Balkans are left on their own, and this time the situation looks worse than it did in the 1990-ies, because the international system of values is shifting with the coming to power of anti-everything-sentimental populists and radicals. With so many raging conflicts in strategically important global hotspots, the Balkans might just turn out to be something no one wants to deal with.
Anyway, it is worth it that the EU be pro-active this time and not stand aside and call the sides to sort it out between themselves, for if fire ignites in the Balkans, the EU will burn as well for sure.
Translated by Stanimir Stoev