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Worrying Signs Just Keep Trickling Out 

  • Gordana Knezevic

A man waves an Albanian flag next to a banner of former Kosovar Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj during a protest staged by Kosovo war veterans' associations in support of the ex-guerrilla commander who is currently being detained in France.

A man waves an Albanian flag next to a banner of former Kosovar Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj during a protest staged by Kosovo war veterans' associations in support of the ex-guerrilla commander who is currently being detained in France.

Warnings that another conflict may erupt in the Balkans have been coming in from former diplomats and think tanks in recent weeks.

Most recently, there is concern that the prolonged detention of former Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj in France may trigger a wave of protests in Pristina.

Neighboring Macedonia is facing a potential constitutional crisis as the president continues to deny a mandate to form a government to a political leader who appears to have a parliamentary majority in hand.

Serbia would like to be seen as a rock of stability in the region, but it currently finds itself on the worst terms it has had with its neighbors since the end of the cycle of Balkan wars (1991-99).

In Montenegro, October's elections were marred by a purported coup attempt that may have had Moscow's backing (although those allegations have never been proven). Meanwhile, its pro-European government faces a boycott by the pro-Russian opposition as Montenegro stands on the brink of NATO membership.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, wartime objectives from the 1990s have become peacetime political projects. The country is bitterly divided, not least over the desire of some -- mainly among the Bosniak majority -- to revisit a 2007 international court ruling that cleared Serbia of genocide charges related to the 1992-95 war. Bosnian authorities have been unable to find a unified voice on the issue, and members of the country's three-member presidency are sending conflicting messages to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

'A Frying Pan Full Of Oil'

All these brewing disputes led one outsider to predict that the first international crisis to face the new U.S. administration of President Donald Trump would crystallize in the "rumbling Balkans."

Such a warning is more extraordinary when it comes from an EU official.

In an interview with Zeit Online, the EU commissioner for neighborhood police and enlargement talks, Johannes Hahn, said that stabilizing the Balkans is in Europe's interest. He added: "We will either export stability or we will import instability. This applies especially to the Western Balkans, which is like a frying pan full of oil. All it needs is a match to light the fire. However, an enduring peace in that region is possible that would provide these countries with an EU future."

Jelica Minic of the Belgrade-based NGO European Movement In Serbia expressed agreement with Hahn's observation. Minic told the RFE/RL Balkan Service's Belgrade bureau that four risk factors could produce a spark to light the fuse in the Balkans. In her view, the tipping point could be ethnic tensions, social unrest, the migrant crisis, or meddling by foreign powers in the region.

Minic also pointed to an article by former U.K. diplomat Timothy Less in Foreign Affairs calling for a redrawing of national borders in the Balkans, lending support to longstanding nationalist projects. The projected new "map" of the region would include a Greater Croatia, Greater Serbia, and Greater Albania. The article proved popular among nationalists of all stripes. The British Foreign Office made it clear that Less does not represent the views of the British government. Nevertheless, Russian Sputnik radio's Belgrade outlet has quoted an analyst arguing that Less's opinion piece is proof that "the West is undermining the Balkans." In the same article, Bosnia is referred to as a "quasi-state."

Foundations 'Not Secure'

Speaking to RFE/RL's Balkan Service, Ukrainian Ambassador to Bosnia Aleksandr Levchenko highlighted Russian influence in the region.

"It appears that the destabilization of this region [Bosnia and the Western Balkans] is in the interest of [Russian President] Vladimir Putin," Levchenko said. "It would create an opportunity for him to present himself as the peacemaker. This is the usual script -- he manufactures a conflict and then offers to negotiate with the West on conflict resolution."

Minic sees tensions on all sides -- between Serbia and neighbors Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia, between Croatia and Bosnia, and so on.

European Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Han (file photo)

European Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Han (file photo)

Johannes Han has expressed concern in particular over ongoing tensions between Kosovo and Serbia. Responding to a question from Zeit Online on whether European-integration processes have been stuck in reverse lately, given that the specter of war was explicitly invoked during the most recent dispute between Serbia and Kosovo, Han replied: "That only proves my assertion that even though each country in the region has made progress, the foundations are not secure yet by any means. One wrong word can lead to conflict."

Han nevertheless said he remained convinced that responsible parties in Serbia, including Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, "are well aware that there is no alternative to a European orientation if they desire peace and prosperity."

However, the prospect of EU restructuring based on a proposed two-tier model -- with one tier pursuing closer integration and the other remaining in a looser union -- raises questions about the place of Western Balkan countries in any new order. Specifically, whether that new model for the EU would speed up or slow down the integration of those countries -- a question that is currently impossible to answer, according to Minic.

WATCH: Serbian Nationalists Chant During Federica Mogherini Speech In Parliament

The warnings of regional fragility might ensure that the Western Balkans remain a focus of attention in Brussels. Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign affairs and security chief, is currently on a tour of regional capitals spreading a message about the importance and value of an EU future. It is a sign that Brussels recognizes the danger of leaving the Balkan region to its own devices, with tensions on a knife-edge.

And yet the worrying signs persist.

As Mogherini addressed the Serbian parliament on March 3, her words were met with chants from back-bench lawmakers: "Serbia, Russia, we don't need the [European] Union!" Throughout, the Serbian Radical Party deputies were pounding the tables, and their leader, Vojislav Seselj, declared it the beginning of his presidential campaign. Presidential elections in Serbia are scheduled for April 2.

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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