international analysis and commentary

How the Ukraine war deepens divisions across the Balkans

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As the Ukraine war continues to rage, the world is split between two blocs: pro-Ukraine democracies versus pro-Russia autocracies while in between rests Turkey, which is attempting to play the role of the “honest broker” of a peace deal between Kyiv and Moscow. One region whose peace and stability is seriously threatened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the Western Balkans. Today as yesterday, it finds itself caught between East and West: Russia continues to be the Serbs historical sponsor as Austria and Germany have been that of the Croats and Turkey for Bosniaks (usually identified with Bosnia’s Muslims) and Albanians. As the weak flank of Europe, the nations of the Western Balkans are particularly vulnerable to the war’s effects, which has triggered diverse reactions across the region.

 

Our common enemy makes us friends

At first glance, Albania seems united in its condemnation of Russia’s aggression and in its pro-Western stance. As a rotating member of the UN Security Council, Albania voted on a draft resolution that it co-authored with the US, which would have condemned Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. The draft resolution failed to be adopted owing to a Russian veto while China abstained. Member of the Albanian Parliament Agron Shehaj explains his nation’s stance: “While Albania’s political class and citizens supported its entry into NATO, the broader public now perceives the real threat posed by the current crisis and the benefits of belonging to the NATO alliance.

At the same time, people are becoming increasingly frustrated about the EU’s failure to give a green light to the accession of Albania and North Macedonia into the bloc. Also, Bulgaria’s veto to North Macedonia’s entry – and hence to Albania’s as well due to the link between the EU accession processes of Tirana and Skopje – seems like an excuse by other EU members (especially France) to freeze the enlargement process.”

 

Read also: The Western Balkans: where EU credibility is at stake 

 

Conversely, continues Shehaj, “Albania has a military cooperation arrangement with Turkey in which Albanians have neither bad nor good feeling. We would like to have deeper cooperation in all sectors including the military with Western Europe, particularly Italy. In the absence of any tangible commitment by the EU and in particular Western Europe, Albania welcomes US engagement in our country and the region.”

 

Croats shout “Glory to Ukraine”

Croatia’s stance is similar to that of Albania. In the 1990s, both countries fought wars for national self-determination against the same enemy, but Zagreb’s was for secession from Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia while Tirana’s took the form of support to Albanian-majority Kosovo’s secession from Serbia. In 2009, Albania and Croatia both joined NATO and were the first Western Balkan countries to achieve this goal. In the Russia-Ukraine war, both staunchly stand with Kyiv. However, some nuances mark differences between Tirana and Zagreb’s posture vis-à-vis Russia.

While Albania’s main parties showed unity in their support to any US or NATO-led action against Russia, public statements by Croatia’s incumbent President and former President of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), Zoran Milanović, created embarrassment in Zagreb, which led to a political spat with Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, leader of the center-right Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) Party. Long before Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, Milanović had been vocal in questioning NATO’s possible enlargement to Ukraine and addressing Russia’s security demands. Commenting recently on the President’s statements, Plenković explained that Milanović, “Must have had a blackout” when he made such declarations.

Haris Boko, former Head of the dissolved Croatia’s Social-Liberal Party (HSL) and now President of the Zagreb-based consulting firm EUbusiness, when asked whether the clash between Croatia’s two most prominent political figures may be read as a lack of coherence in Croatia’s approach to the Ukraine crisis, said, “The clash is just the result of their political rivalry and an attempt to be more appealing to their electorate. However, in the event of a direct NATO intervention in Ukraine, Croats wouldn’t hesitate to back a government decision to send troops in support of Kyiv.”

In reality, the reason for Croatia’s solidarity with Ukraine can be found in its fresh memory of recent history, which saw it in the midst of the Balkan wars that inflamed the region throughout the 1990s and represented Europe’s largest bloodshed since World War II.

Boko explains: “The compass to navigate the Ukrainian crisis lays in Bosnia-Herzegovina.” In fact, the latter witnessed firsthand acts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes perpetrated by Serbian-led Yugoslav troops, which only NATO intervention and the ensuing Dayton peace agreements put to an end. But Bosnia-Herzegovina today remains an extremely fragile state, threatened by the possible secession of Republika Srpska, one of its two constituent entities and populated by a Serbian majority. Should the secession of Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk from Ukraine be recognized in one way or another by the international community, this may have a spill-over effect leading to the break-up of Bosnia-Herzegovina. That poses a potential threat for Croatia and explains why Croats feel overwhelming solidarity towards Ukraine.

That feeling of uncertainty was embodied by Croatia’s national football team already in 2018 during the World Cup when Croatian defender Domagoj Vida was warned by FIFA over his praise of Ukraine after his team defeated host Russia.

Croatia footballer Domagoj Vida

 

Bosniaks also stand with Ukraine

Mahir Hadziahmetović, a retired leading diplomat of the former Yugoslavia and later of the newly-independent Bosnia-Herzegovina, has a very clear opinion about the potential repercussions that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may have on his country, and in particular on the Bosniaks. First, he says, “Bosnia-Herzegovina vividly recalls the tragedy of the 1,425 days of war that took place between 1991 and 1995. Sarajevo paid a particularly high toll with 350 grenades hitting the city daily. For this reason, all Bosnians are empathetic with Ukrainians.” Secondly, the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which was also signed by the Republic of Serbia’s predecessor state – Yugoslavia – and by the Russian Federation’s predecessor state – USSR – foresees the respect of internationally-recognized borders. Elaborating, Hadziahmetović says, “This principle applies also to Ukraine. Legalizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Donetsk’s and Luhansk’s secession from Ukraine would open a ‘Pandora’s box’ not only in Bosnia-Herzegovina with Republika Srpska, in Montenegro with its Serbian minority and in North Macedonia where Albanians live but also in Spain with Catalonia, in the United Kingdom with Scotland and even in France with Corsica”.

However, Hadziahmetović acknowledges that “admitting Ukraine into NATO’s enhanced opportunity partner interoperability program before Kyiv’s EU membership was a mistake. The process should have been the other way round. And the possibility that NATO may undertake direct military intervention in Ukraine should be avoided as it may trigger Putin’s extreme recourse to nuclear weapons. Similarly, a possible entry of Bosnia into NATO would be like poking a finger into Russia’s eye.”

 

Meanwhile Serbs stand for Russia

Visitors arriving in Belgrade cannot escape billboards displaying the flags of Serbia and Russia intertwined and with an inscription that reads: zajedno (together). Although this is the advertising board of Serbia’s national oil company NIS, acquired by Russia’s Gazprom in 2009, the billboard aptly reflects the spirit of most Serbs towards Russia. And Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not altered this sentiment.

Advertising billboard of Serbia’s oil company, NIS

 

Since his ascent to Serbia’s steering wheel in 2014, initially as prime minister and later as president, the country’s strongman Aleksandar Vučić has managed to keep Belgrade on a narrow path of neutrality within a multipolar world order. Vučić maintains good relationships with the US and its main Western allies in order to balance its thriving historical ties with Russia. Ten years have passed since Serbia obtained the status of an official EU Member Candidate and a feeling of being deceived by Brussels is rising among Serbs.

Many Serbs feel frustrated by what they claim to be a “double standard”. They think that while the West applied the principle of peoples’ right to self-determination in order to support Kosovo’s secession from Serbia through the 1999 NATO bombing, it adheres to the principle of the states’ territorial integrity to condemn Russia’s annexation of Crimea and blame Bosnian Serbs’ discomfort with Bosnia-Herzegovina’s institutional architecture. In other words, according to most Serbs, if Kosovo has the right to secede from Serbia, so too should Crimea from Ukraine and Republika Srpska from Bosnia-Herzegovina. Alternatively, if Ukraine has the right to preserve its territorial integrity, so too should Serbia.

The outbreak of the Ukraine war is a major test for Serbia and its leader. Although Belgrade has voted in favor of the resolution demanding that Russia “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders” at the UN General Assembly, it has failed to adhere to the sanctions imposed by the West against Moscow. Meanwhile, pro-Russia rallies have taken place in Belgrade followed by smaller pro-Ukraine ones. Vučić’s easy victory during the elections held earlier this month is a popular endorsement of his foreign policy.

 

Read also: Serbia between domestic tensions and regional responsibilities

 

AVladimir Marinković, a member of Serbia’s ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), when asked to elaborate on Serbia’s stance in the Ukraine crisis, said, “We sympathize with Ukrainians’ mornings and suffering but at the same time we believe that the Minsk II agreements – envisaging a reform of the Ukrainian constitution whereby a higher degree of decentralization would be granted to the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk – should be implemented.” Regarding the possible implications of the Ukraine war on the Balkan region, Marinković recalls that “Russia supports Serbia’s territorial integrity (over Kosovo).” At the same time, “Serbia has pledged its commitment to Bosnia-Herzegovina’s territorial integrity. We mustn’t forget that Belgrade is one of the guarantors of the Dayton Peace Agreements and that Serbia pursues peace and stability in the region. The so-called Open Balkan initiative aimed at creating a free-trade zone between Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania is a proof of that. Serbia-Albania relationships, in particular, have never been as good as they are today. We are proud of having donated 29,000 tons of wheat to Albania, after supplies from Ukraine to Tirana were cut.” However, Marinković concludes that “measures to protect Serbian minorities in Montenegro and elsewhere should be introduced. The quota system adopted in North Macedonia to the benefit of Albanians may be a good solution.”

While it is not uncommon to come across Ukrainian refugees in the streets of Zagreb or Russians dining in Belgrade’s restaurants today, tensions in the Western Balkans, however, are mounting and risk destabilizing Europe further. The world would do well to recall the quote by former US President John F. Kennedy: “There is nothing more certain and unchanging than uncertainty and change.”