As the war in Ukraine dominates the international stage, the Balkans is also marred by high tension. Balkan ghosts are very much present as seen in the recent flare ups in Kosovo and elsewhere.
The 1990s was marked by wars between Serbs and other ethnic/religious groups (Bosniacs, Croats, Albanians) which made up Yugoslavia. The war in Bosnia was followed by violence and fighting in Kosovo. Both conflicts came to an end when NATO intervened and Serbs had to give in to NATO’s military superiority.
Since then, Balkan countries are in search of a place for themselves on the international stage. Every country seeks security, economic benefit and not to lag behind other Balkan countries. The best way to achieve this is to join organizations such as NATO and the European Union.
Many of them have already become NATO members, a few are now in the European Union or working their way to become members.
Besides trying to meet conditions and satisfy requirements for membership, candidate countries from the Balkans have to deal with obstacles set by other Balkan countries which are already members.
Greece’s prevention of Macedonia’s NATO membership for many years over the name issue and Bulgaria’s conditions in its bid for EU membership are the most frequently cited examples in this regard.
The spread of various Balkanic ethnic and religious groups all across the region is a main source of unease. Albanians form a sizable part of Macedonia and Kosovo and Serbs who have remained outside of Serbia live in Kosovo, Bosnia within Republika Sırpska and Montenegro in meaningful numbers.
It may not be the absolute rule, but in general, a good part of the tensions in the Balkans stem from the desire to unite those left outside with the main body, into what can be phrased as greater Serbia and greater Albania.
The most recent and visible tensions of that sort have flared up in Kosovo which declared its independence in 2008 and received diplomatic recognition from over 110 countries. It has all the requisites for being an independent and sovereign state but is faced with strong opposition from Serbia. Various other countries, including Russia, China and some EU members support Serbia’s position for their own reasons.
Serbs consider Kosovo as their ancestral land and have not accepted losing it. Historically, the battle of Kosovo in 1389, where Serbs were defeated by the Ottomans, is the most important episode of Serbian history. They commemorate it as the founding event of Serbian identity. Kosovo also is said to have religious significance as the birthplace of Serbian Orthodoxy.
At the entrance of the Serbian Ministry of Foreign Affairs it is written in Serbian and English “if Serbia is a man, Kosova is his hearth”. And this explains the mindset clearly.
Population of Kosovo is around 1.8 million and 6 percent are ethnic Serbs. They are concentrated in four municipalities in northern Kosovo, an area next to Serbia. Kosovar Serbs do not recognize the Kosovo government as their own.
Identity documents and vehicle license plates have become symbols of this disagreement. Under international pressure, basically from the European Union and the United States, Prime Minister Albin Kurti of Kosovo softened his stance and tension was defused.
As tensions de-escalate in one area, another one arises somewhere else. The latest incident of that nature was when a Kosovo Serb former police officer was charged for attacking municipal election commission offices in North Mitrovica. Kosovo Serbs rose in protest, raised barricades, blocked roads and targeted official offices. Neighboring Serbia put its army on an increased level of readiness.
This tension too has been diffused and things are back to “normal”. But the definition of normal is different from the definition of normal under normal circumstances.
Serbia is actively engaged to prevent more countries from recognizing Kosovo, to prevent it from becoming a member of international organizations and where possible, to convince countries which have recognized Kosovo to withdraw their recognition.
Kosovo has been left outside the United Nations due to objections of Russia and China, both permanent members of the Security Council.
Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić said at his end of the year speech that the number of countries which do not recognize Kosovo are more than those which recognize it. He talked about Serbia’s efforts against recognition of Kosovo and claimed that nine countries (all from Africa and island nations) had withdrawn their recognition.
The European Union which is a major actor in the region has its internal differences on the issue of Kosovo. Member states Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Cyprus and Greece have not recognized Kosovo. All these countries have their own minority or different ethnicities issues and regard Kosovo as a potential precedent for their cases.
EU membership is supposed to be an encouragement, a carrot for solving problems in the Balkans in peaceful ways. The EU has a Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue and other Western Balkan regional issues and is pursuing a normalization process between Serbia and Kosovo.
The war in Ukraine has also had implications on the nature and pace of relations between the EU and Balkan countries. Before the war, these countries were very critical of the EU for not keeping its promises. Russia’s intervention in Ukraine made the EU look at its relations with Balkan countries from another angle and Europe’s security perspective. Consequently, the EU started accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania. It granted Bosnia and Herzegovina the status of candidate. And Kosovo is on its way to get visa exemption by the end of 2023.
Russia is another major actor in the Balkans. Russia and Serbia have historically been very close, as they are bound by Slavic ethnicity and Orthodox religion.
In the 1990’s Russia supported Serbia but could only help to the extent that it could and at that time, in terms of military power and diplomatic strength, Russia was not at its best.
Over the last few years, Russia's various actions in the region such as its unwarranted involvement in national issues of Montenegro and Greece, its engagement with Serbs in different countries and its networks under various names all over the Balkans have become a source of suspicion and concern for many.
As regards the war in Ukraine and Russia-West tensions, Serbia appears to have positioned itself closer to Russia. It has not joined sanctions. Serbia has also benefited economically by making favorable deals with Russia, such as the one for purchase of Russian natural gas.
Despite that, as an EU membership hopeful, Serbia is careful not to put all its eggs in Russia's basket. It does not wish to alienate the West. Besides, Serbia is also not happy with Russia frequently citing Kosovo as a supportive case to its claims over Ukraine’s eastern provinces.
Other countries, among them Türkiye and China, are also active in the region especially in the economic sphere.
Another potential spot in the Balkans where tensions may once more flare into something big is Bosnia. Milorad Dodik, the nationalist Bosnian Serb leader, is not hiding his secessionist agenda and he has strong support among the Bosnian Serbs.
The 1995 Dayton Accords, which ended the Bosnian War, established a very complicated administrative system with the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska. Some argue that the Dayton system is outdated and should be at least reviewed. But then, everyone is seriously concerned with risks and consequences of opening Pandora's Box.