On June 25, 1991, Slovenia and Croatia, two republics of the former Yugoslavia, declared independence. Although political tensions provoked by ethnic strife started in Yugoslavia long before that, that day 20 years ago is seen as the beginning of a bloody fratricidal war that was to be the genesis of seven new European states.
Developments in the Balkans in the 1990s and the 2000s showed that ethnic and religious conflicts, which had smoldered for decades, if not centuries, can flare up easily even in the seemingly civilized context of modern European society. Militant nationalism exterminated the healthy green shoots of development, and foreign peacekeepers’ best intentions warped into blatant cynicism in which double standards were presented as a moral victory.
The Balkan tragedy is far from over because the borders have not been delineated and the future of the diverse peoples across the region remains unclear. Furthermore, European and Euro-Atlantic organizations, which in the past thought they had the right to decide the region’s future, are seeing their ability to implement their plans atrophy.
Slovenia is the only former Yugoslav republic that is prospering. It seceded from the federal state without bloodshed, does not consider itself a Balkan state, and is a member of NATO and the European Union.
Croatia joined NATO but procrastinated too long over the extradition of a very popular Ante Gotovina in the country general, who is charged with anti-Serb war crimes, preventing it from being admitted into the EU in 2007. The EU expansion wave then subsided, as the EU faced too many problems to bother with admitting new members.
The other day the European Commission said Croatia could become a member in 2013. However, many Croatians lost their optimism about EU membership after General Gotovina was sentenced to 25 years behind bars and the EU’s economic problems started to escalate.
Serbia has fulfilled nearly all the Hague Tribunal’s requirements. It extradited Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military leader accused of war crimes, thus removing the final obstacle to EU accession talks. The nation is split over joining the EU. People are weary after losing the wars, and tired of the opportunistic and unprofessional authorities in Belgrade: they are simply not in any state to stage protests.
In any case, the decision does not rest with their government. The EU will likely consider Serbia’s membership request in a package with the other regional applications.
Montenegro seems to be problem-free: it is de facto part of the Eurozone and the EU economic space.
Macedonia has been bickering with Greece over its name for 20 years. Three years ago Athens blocked its NATO admission and plans to oppose its entry into the EU down to the last minute.
Although Albania is a NATO member, it is also one of the most socially and economically unsettled countries in Europe.
Five EU countries still refuse to recognize Kosovo, but it will likely be admitted together with the other countries of the region due to its status as a European protectorate. After all, leaving it unattended would only increase problems. Serbia will hardly protest because its protests would make no difference anyway.
The biggest regional problem rooted in the 1990s is Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H). Created after the civil war, this artificial state has been plagued by political crises despite external governance.
The authorities of Republika Srpska, one of the two political entities within B&H, have been looking for loopholes in the Dayton agreements, which put an end to a three-and-half-year war in Bosnia, that would allow it to declare independence. The Muslim-Croatian Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the other entity within B&H, has not formed a new government since last year’s elections.
In short, the three communities still seem to be heading for divorce.
The West first formulated its position in the mid-1990s, when Bosnia and Herzegovina was created. It had changed dramatically by the late 2000s when the Kosovo issue was put on the agenda. In 1995, the country’s various ethnic communities were not allowed to go their separate ways after a bloody fratricidal war. They were told instead that they must learn to live in a multicultural state. In 2008, the West applied the opposite approach to Serbia and Kosovo, clearly thinking it would be better to let them split rather than forcing them to coexist.
The viability of Bosnia and Herzegovina is debatable but any new re-division of the Balkans would be a nightmare that Europe could not survive. This is why B&H stands to gain more from EU and NATO membership than any other country in the region because that alone will give it a chance for a controlled evolution.
Even presuming that developments across the Balkan states take a positive turn, this will not expedite their EU admission. The European Union is trying to overcome a deep conceptual crisis, and so the idea of admitting new members that are still plagued by unresolved problems is rejected by the general public and politicians alike.
The EU is approaching a fundamental internal change, and no one can tell what the union will look like in a few years’ time. Candidate countries are in fact seeking admission to an association that essentially no longer exists. Unfortunately, the risk is that without the EU umbrella, the fragile peace that, for now, prevails in the Balkans may shatter (NATO is much less useful in this respect), creating new big problems for the rest of Europe.
The tragedy that began in the Balkans 20 years ago is far from over.