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Balkans Without Borders

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

Serbian Nationalists Chant During EU Speech In Parliament
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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.

Bakir Izetbegovic, the Muslim Bosniak member of the Bosnia's tripartite presidency, said on February 17 that the legal bid would be submitted before the 10-year deadline for an appeal expired on February 26.

To sue, or not to sue. That was the question facing Bakir Izetbegovic, the Bosniak member of the Bosnian Presidency, in connection with a 2007 decision by a UN court acquitting Serbia of genocide in the 1990s.

To begin with, he has no support for a lawsuit from the rest of the tripartite body that governs Bosnia-Herzegovina. Moreover, Serb representatives in Bosnian state institutions have threatened a boycott that could paralyze the nation's political life if Izetbegovic decides to reopen old wounds.

Why has a decade-old court verdict suddenly become so explosive?

In 2007, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that the Serbian state could not be held responsible for genocide committed in Bosnia during the war (1992-95).

The court found only that Serbia had been guilty of failing to prevent the genocide at Srebrenica, postwar Europe's deadliest atrocity.

At the time, the verdict was a great disappointment for Bosnian officials, for Bosnian Muslims as the principal victims of the war in Bosnia, and for many international observers.

Dominant Nationalist Narrative

It was celebrated in Serbia, where the court decision was seen as a vindication of a dominant nationalist narrative that seeks to paint Serbs in Yugoslavia as victims of other ethnic groups. In some international circles, the ICJ's decision was seen as a miscarriage of justice.

"From the professional perspective, the 2007 ICJ judgement looked as though it could be wrong as it was not based on the evidence that existed and still exists at the ICTY, and therefore should be reconsidered," Sir Geoffrey Nice, the lead prosecutor in the case against Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, and Nevenka Tromp, a member of the prosecution's research team, wrote in a paper sent to Bakir Izetbegovic and to the Bosnian media.

Challenging the ICJ verdict was never going to be easy. But, according to Tromp, any legal avenue -- whether an appeal or a request for a revision -- should be taken if there is any doubt about the original decision.

The ICJ allows for appeals or requests for revision within 10 years of the original judgments. The main condition for such requests are the emergence of new, "decisive" facts or evidence unavailable to the court at the time of the verdict. Such new information or evidence must be provided within six months of its discovery. The deadline for Bosnia to send a formal request for revision is February 26, 2017.

Trove Of Documents

There is reportedly a trove of documents at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) archives that remain sealed as a consequence of political deals between Carla del Ponte, the former ICTY prosecutor, and Belgrade.

These agreements, dating from 2005 and 2013, allowed Serbia to protect documents at ICTY trials that might have been prejudicial to its interests in the genocide lawsuit bought by Bosnia at the ICJ.

Bakir's father, Alija Izetbegovic, was Bosnia's president when the ICJ genocide suit was launched in 1993. Some advised the younger Izetbegovic to begin the process of making those protected documents available in order to support the request for a revision of the ICJ verdict.

By Izetbegovic's own admission, taking Serbia to court once again on charges of genocide could create the biggest crisis in the region since the Dayton Accords brought peace in 1995. Yet he proceeded anyway.

The problem, however, is that he appears to have failed to do his homework, and did not leave enough time to meet all the requirements of The Hague tribunal.

Deeply Entrenched Feeling

When the war ended in 1995, there was a deeply entrenched feeling among Bosnians that nothing could prevent justice from taking its course. Many of those victimized by the war believed that the mass graves, the destroyed villages, the accumulated evidence of crimes against civilians in besieged cities amounted to self-explanatory evidence of the intention to commit genocide and of Serbia's complicity. But justice is not based on sentiment, and Bosnian officials failed to provide sufficient evidence in the case.

A Muslim woman weeps at a Memorial Center in Srebrenica commemorating some 8,000 people who were massacred there during the Balkan wars.
A Muslim woman weeps at a Memorial Center in Srebrenica commemorating some 8,000 people who were massacred there during the Balkan wars.

But the possibility of appeal is bringing emotions to boiling point once again, because Serbia never formally acknowledged responsibility for the genocide in Srebrenica; there has never been a frank and unqualified admission that the massacre of more than 8,000 men and boys in Srebrenica, in July 1995 -- the biggest mass killing on European soil since World War II -- was genocide.

In 2010, after heated debate, the Serbian parliament adopted a declaration on Srebrenica, but it fell just short of what many Bosnians had hoped for. The "G" word was dropped in the final document, although it included a link to a European declaration describing the events in Srebrenica as genocide.

'Last Chance'

A witness to genocide and a campaigner for victims, Hasan Nuhanovic, told RFE/RL in Sarajevo: "As someone who lived through those events, I have no doubt that Serbia was directly involved. Is this the right moment [to reopen the case]? It may or may not be the ideal moment; but it is definitely the last chance, because the deadline expires on February 26, and the day after will be too late for the Bosnian appeal. We simply don't have the luxury of agonizing over whether it's the right time [for this] or not."

A Belgrade historian, Branka Prpa, has suggested that the key to justice lies not in The Hague but in Serbia itself: "In order to emerge from the cycle of conflict, it is necessary for those who were in fact the instigators of that conflict to stand up and admit: I am guilty, and I apologize. Serbia is the key in that sense."

Janja Bec, a Serbian sociologist and scholar of genocide, has described the final stage of genocide as denial of the crime. It might be argued that Bosnia now finds itself in that final stage, even as a (majority-Serb) portion of the country continues to deny that it ever happened.

Nuhanovic, in response to concerns that the reopening of the ICJ case risked destabilizing the region, said that what is at stake is the most serious of all crimes -- genocide -- and that in any case Bosnia has lived in a state of constant tension since the end of the war more than two decades ago. He said that, anyway, "there is no harmony to speak of" which might be disrupted by a reopening of the case.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

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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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