"Radovan Karadzic is a lucky man," wrote one reader of the website of RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service, referring to the former Bosnian Serb leader who is currently on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. "He can refuse to recognize the ICTY, but I cannot refuse to recognize my electricity bill even though I have no money to pay it."
The comment, I think, reflects the broad and growing gap between the things politicians in the Balkans are spending most of their time on -- ethnic disputes and arguments about ancient history -- and the real concerns of ordinary citizens at a time of worsening economic crisis.
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, a leader of the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) party said this week that he thinks the finances of the Bosnian Federation, the Bosniak entity of Bosnia, are in danger of imminent collapse. Over the last three months, 15,000 Bosnians have lost their jobs. A couple in the Bosnian town of Prijedor committed suicide last week, overwhelmed by poverty and despair.
Lawmakers in Croatia last week discussed cutting their own salaries by 10 percent. The national currency in Serbia has declined dramatically, as have stock markets in Serbia and Croatia. All the Balkans countries are talking to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) about relief assistance. Croatia is worried about the upcoming tourist season, while some experts estimate the country's total debt now exceeds 100 percent of its annual GDP.
The latest World Bank report also makes depressing reading. Developing countries face financial gaps of from $270 billion to $700 billion, at a time when their economies are being ravaged by plunging exports, collapsing commodities prices, declining foreign investment, and vanishing credit.
Direct foreign investment was a key foundation of much of the economic development in the Balkans and Eastern Europe over the last decade. But now the flow of money has been reversed, as investment collapses and Western banks step up efforts to collect loans in the region. In 2007, foreign investment in developing countries globally peaked at $928 billion. This year, it is expected to amount to about $165 billion. At the same time, some of the biggest lenders in Eastern Europe are Austrian and Italian banks. It is estimated that Austrian bank loans to the region total about 70 percent of Austria's annual GDP. What little money there is these days is going from East to West.
It is amazing how quickly the economic problems in the Balkans have exacerbated other problems -- like organized crime. Police in Sarajevo this week arrested the head of Development Bank on suspicion of fraud and conflict of interest. In Serbia, police detained 35 people, including 19 police officers, on suspicion of fraud, embezzlement, and abuse of authority. A Croatian general was sentenced to seven years in prison last week on organized-crime charges.
Social tensions are mounting as well. The Bosnian parliament cancelled its February 26 session rather than face protesters complaining about plans to cut social benefits. In Montenegro's capital, Podgorica, aluminum workers on February 9 demanded their back wages and that production, which has been suspended because of the crisis, be restarted.
At the same time, the European Union has made it clear that there is no money for emergency assistance outside the bloc. The United States is overwhelmed with its own agenda. The IMF is looking for at least $500 billion in additional funding for developing countries, but has so far raised only $100 billion from Japan.
Bad Old Balkans
All this spells trouble for the Balkans, where the roots of democracy are still shallow and the specter of right-wing nationalism remains a constant threat. The latest CIA threat-assessment report listed the Balkans as one of the five most critical problem regions in the world.
Yet no one is paying attention. The EU and the United Nations are about to confirm the appointment of a new high representative for Bosnia, Austrian diplomat Valentine Inzka. The official announcement has been scheduled for March 25. But the EU, United States, and UN have had a hard time deciding what the new appointee's brief will be besides preventing conflict and preserving the status quo.
An International Crisis Group report issued last week asserted that the Office of the High Representative is "no longer the motor driving Bosnia forward. Its role now is limited to protecting Dayton and unblocking the often-paralyzed central government." "Tensions are high and national leaders are challenging the  Dayton settlement more openly than ever before," the report warned.
For political leaders in the Balkans and others who have their own agendas, this is a perfect opportunity. The cat is away, and so the mice will certainly become brave -- and will step up their efforts to use empty stomachs to create more hot heads.
Serbia has boosted its support of the government of Bosnia's ethnic-Serbian entity, the Republika Srpska. Macedonia's prime minister is stoking nationalism by identifying his nation with the legacy of Alexander the Great. Slovenia has blocked Croatia's bid to join the EU and NATO, giving the ruling party in Zagreb the chance to stoke patriotic nationalism on the eve of elections in Croatia.
The prime minister of the Bosnian Federation, Nedzad Brankovic, has responded arrogantly to charges that he has been involved in fraud and organized crime. Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik doesn't even bother being arrogant anymore when faced with similar charges -- he just shrugs them off as another attack on Serbs and the Serbian entity in Bosnia. Serbia has issued arrest warrants for 19 Bosnian political leaders.
The list is practically endless. Serbs in Kosovo have stopped paying their electrical bills and clashed with police recently when faced with cutoffs. Serbia responded by offering to supply electricity to the region -- but only to Serbs.
In short, the global economic crisis, the lack of democratic habits and institutions, and the complete absence of a plan for future development have created fertile ground for nationalism and renewed ethnic conflict across the Balkans. The wars in the Balkans have been put into pause mode. There were no winners, no losers, so all sides can claim victory and march on. New flags of nationalism are again waving in the region. Can it be long before people begin digging out their weapons as well?
Nenad Pejic is associate director of broadcasting for RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL