Are you concerned by the ongoing crisis in Bosnia, with Milorad Dodik openly threatening a de facto secession of Republika Srpska? What to expect in the country in the following months? And what the EU and the US should do to avoid an escalation or even a conflict?
Some elements of the current crisis bear a resemblance to the beginning of the conflict in former Yugoslavia. Withdrawal from institutions, unilateral decisions aimed at weakening the state level, the weakness and disunity of western actors, and generally unfavourable regional political dynamics, to mention just a few.
There are significant differences too, but one must be acutely aware of two ongoing processes. The increasingly hostile atmosphere created in the country, that makes serious incidents more likely to happen. And the fact that the rule of law, constitutionalism and democratic institutions in the country suffered irreparable damage through all the previous crises rendering them virtually powerless. Those two put together make for an explosive mixture and potentially very dangerous developments.
Ideally, the EU and NATO (and the USA) should proactively approach the crisis as a united front. However, short of generic joint statements calling for de-escalation and focus on socioeconomic issues and returning to institutions, this will hardly happen. Disorientation and incoherence in the approach of the previously relatively monolith western presence in Bosnia indicate severe fractures and disagreements in the West. Bosnia, in this sense, represents a very useful early warning system as we could trace such negative developments in the country before they become visible in these institutions themselves.
To put it bluntly, if NATO and the EU are unable to properly address the current crisis in Bosnia, reverse negative trends and actively engage in punishing those responsible for illegally dismantling Bosnian institutions, that will embolden openly anti-western forces in and around Bosnia, but also in the West, for Bosnia is a symbol of western engagement. Unless we counter this one, the next iteration of the crisis in Bosnia or the region will be worse and more dramatic.
We witnessed new tensions in Kosovo in the past weeks. Do you think it is still realistic to expect some steps towards normalising the relations between Belgrade and Pristina?
Hardly, if all actors in the process are the same and the dynamics in the region remains the same or further deteriorate. Over the past few years, it has become painfully clear that the EU does not have a clue what to do with Western Balkans or how to drive the few positive processes forward. Not to mention to turn the tide around. It is also clear that the USA do not wish to engage in the region. Several years back, the EU put forward as a priority for Western Balkans (WB) countries the resolution of all bilateral disputes before entering the EU. This plunged the region into an even deeper crisis. While completely legitimate, for the EU does not want these countries to import their bilateral disputes in the EU, the push proved not genuine in the case of North Macedonia, or increasingly futile and exhausting in the case of Serbia and Kosovo. For Bosnia, it only accelerated the return of identity politics and ethno-territorialism to the fore placing ever greater distance between political elites and peoples.
Also, the EU has not given up on the “policy” of trying to work with Serbia at all costs to achieve the stability of the region. Serbia is undisputedly the crucial element in this equation and must be engaged with. However, this method simply does not deliver. The current Serbian government thrives on conflict and strengthens its legitimacy through conflict, both domestic and regional. And this is directly related to the serious democratic regression in Serbia and strong autocratic tendencies. Yet, this year’s EC country report for Serbia, which recommends opening additional two clusters, completely ignores these developments. So far, the EU and western countries were presenting the approach to Serbia as a binary choice between democratic consolidation and the rule of law on one and the region’s stability on the other. That is simply and plainly wrong, for the two are undisputedly correlated. Less democracy in Serbia means less stability in the region.
And what about Montenegro? Is the country going towards a period of political instability?
Montenegrin society suffers from strong societal and consequently political divisions, that are only made worse by aggressive Serbian meddling. The uncompromising character of politics is likely to result in a series of crises as the post-DPS government struggles to establish control over institutions while trying to accommodate diametrically opposed positions within the governing majority.
Possible future alternations in power would then be used not only to reverse the achievements of the previous governments but also to ensure a stronger undemocratic grip on institutions, all of which will ultimately damage Montenegrin democracy.
The EU enlargement process to the Balkans has stalled. Which risks do you see in keeping the Balkans out of the European Union for another decade?
Due to the slow pace of reforms in Western Balkans and a series of unresolved bilateral issues, WB countries are not advancing fast towards membership. Still, even those who made very serious progress are stopped in their tracks by the EU itself. The absence of clear and unequivocal political commitment to WB enlargement represents a problem.
We must be aware of general regressive trends in the region and not observe them as static. In this situation, further distancing from the EU and weakening of EU’s leverage and normative power will certainly damage regional stability. New international actors replacing dominant western actors seek to redress the status quo and are not concerned with democratic consolidation, which is the only long-term guarantee of stability.
Unstable and weak institutions and the non-existent rule of law in the region will be fertile ground for various criminal activities, trafficking in arms, drugs and human beings, prompting in turn, the establishment of an ever-stronger border with the EU. Instead of engaging in the region, the EU will become more distant. We (the region) could ultimately end up being a black hole surrounded by EU countries. Seen like this, the current situation is fairly similar to the late 1980s and early 1990s with regard to Eastern Europe, albeit placed against completely different backgrounds. The decision to enlarge eastward in those days took place at the time of liberal western upswing. The discussion on the future of enlargement to Western Balkans is taking place when democracies shrink and the West is turning inward.
The energy and food prices are significantly increasing also in the region. Do you think there is a risk of a new economic crisis and even street protests in the Balkans in the following months?
It will be very difficult to weather the coming economic storm without help from the EU. There are additional negative trends in the region. In the demographic sense, the WB countries are being emptied of qualified and young labour (which is leaving for the EU) and suffer from ageing populations. Unconsolidated democracies and captured institutions breed corruption that eats the economies from within. With the dramatically deteriorating socioeconomic situation, we are likely to see discontent rising and the repression and brutal crackdowns.