international analysis and commentary

Western flexibility to prevent the simmering Balkans from flaring again


Two European political hot spots from the 1990s are back in the headlines. Bosnian Serb leaders have renewed their push for enhanced autonomy, if not outright independence, for their Republika Srpska, one of the two largely autonomous “republics” comprising the fragile country of Bosnia. The latest signal that Serbs have little or no allegiance to the Bosnian state was a mass demonstration on January 9th. Bosnian Serbs celebrated the Republika Srpska’s “statehood day” with a parade of armed police, special forces and armored vehicles in a Sarajevo suburb.

The Republika Srpska’s statehood day parade in Sarajevo


It was a highly inflammatory gesture deeply resented by the Serbs’ Muslim rivals in Bosnia. January 9th was the date in 1992 when Bosnian Serbs declared independence from the newly minted country of Bosnia, which months earlier had seceded from a disintegrating Yugoslavia. The attempt to establish an independent Republika Srpska triggered the three-year-long civil war. The current generation of Serbs went ahead with their celebration despite a ruling from Bosnia’s highest court banning the January 9th holiday.


Read also: Why Serbia matters


The provocative celebration of “statehood day” was merely the latest evidence that Bosnian Serbs want out of the multi-ethnic state that NATO imposed in the 1990s. The 1995 Dayton Accords ended the fighting in Bosnia, but they did little to resolve Bosnia’s bitter divisions, much less transform a collection of three mutually antagonistic ethnic communities (Serb, Muslim and Croat) into a viable economic and political entity. That depressing situation is as true today as it was in 1995. Economically, Bosnia remains a dysfunctional international ward. Its $22.57 billion GDP in 2021 put it 111th in the world rankings, barely ahead of such countries as Burkina Faso and Haiti, and behind such countries as Nicaragua and war-torn Yemen. But even that modest figure is deceptive, since it includes international financial aid monies, as well as the financial inputs from peacekeeping troops and international bureaucrats operating in the country.

Bosnia is even more dysfunctional politically than it is economically. Despite its status as a nominally independent state with two semi-autonomous, sub-national administrative units (one Serb, one largely Muslim), most real power still resides with international officials. Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik continues to push for full independence for the Republika Srpska, insisting in late October 2021 that such a status was an entirely legitimate goal. He described Bosnia in its current form as a “failed experiment” on the part of the Western powers. In December 2021, the Serb legislators voted to begin the process of withdrawing the Republika Srpska from Bosnia’s armed forces, judiciary and tax system.

Joe Biden’s administration responded by imposing sanctions on Dodik, charging that his “attempts to dismantle the Dayton Peace Accords” threaten “the stability of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the entire region.” Just a few weeks earlier, Germany had called for the imposition of harsh sanctions on Dodik for the same reason.

Farther south in Kosovo, the level of tensions may be even more worrisome than in Bosnia. The latest round began in late July 2022, when the government in Pristina announced plans to adopt a new rule requiring people entering Kosovo with Serbian IDs to replace them with temporary documents issued by the Kosovo government. The government also proclaimed that ethnic Serbs who had vehicle registration plates issued by Serbia would have to replace them with “Republic of Kosovo” license plates within two months. The latter measure was explicitly aimed at the 50,000 Serbs living in northern Kosovo. Pristina authorities had announced a similar plan a year earlier, but then relented when angry demonstrations erupted and NATO and European Union authorities pressed them for a delay.

Ethnic Serbs living in northern Kosovo responded to the latest initiative by blockading roads and disrupting border crossings. Kosovar police even came under gunfire. The Pristina government then agreed to postpone the implementation of those changes for a month. However, negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo failed to produce any meaningful agreement. Initial attempts to implement the new policies instead sparked a mass resignation of ethnic Serb participants from all of Kosovo’s national institutions in November. Pristina’s move in early December to dramatically increase its police presence in northern Kosovo municipalities was highly provocative. Explosions were heard in several locations in majority Serb areas, although no casualties were reported

Tensions spiked further when ethnic Serbs again erected barricades throughout several areas in the north. Even more alarming, Serbia put its troops stationed on the border with Kosovo on a “full state of combat readiness.” Belgrade also asked NATO to approve sending up to 1,000 Serbian security forces into northern Kosovo to help restore and maintain order. Not surprisingly, staunchly pro-Pristina NATO authorities turned down that request.

Fortunately, the alarming confrontation between Kosovo and Serbia eased at the end of December. Serb demonstrators dismantled the barricades blocking the main border crossing, and Belgrade removed its forces high alert. Nevertheless, the underlying quarrels are no closer to resolution than they were before, and both sides seem to be operating on short fuses.

The turbulent, intractable situation in Bosnia is similar. The stubbornness and rigidity of US and European leaders with respect to this issue is both frustrating and counterproductive. It probably is too much to hope that the NATO governments might admit that the Alliance’s original intervention in the Bosnian civil war was a mistake. However, they at least need to concede that the arrangement the Dayton Accords created has not proven viable. Continuing to force utterly antagonistic ethnic communities to remain in an artificial, pretend country is both pointless and cruel. Bosnian Serbs have made it emphatically clear that they do not want to remain part of that political entity. Holding out the elusive, unrealistic carrot of EU membership for a united Bosnia is not likely to change their views.

If Western governments truly fear that the emergence of an independent Republika Srpska might lead to the resumption of Bosnia’s civil war, the logical alternative would be for the European powers to police the partition process with their military forces until that danger recedes.  Although not ideal, such an approach is decidedly superior to insisting on the preservation of a dysfunctional country that a major segment of its population loathes.

US and European leaders also need to be far more flexible regarding the Kosovo issue. Even though NATO’s conduct in forcibly severing Kosovo from Serbia was shockingly contrary to the principles of a “liberal, rules-based international order” that Western officials incessantly invoke, most reasonable Serbs understand that Kosovo will remain independent. The remaining barrier to a settlement is a fairly limited one. The northern portion of Kosovo is majority Serb, and the Christian population there does not wish to be a small, ineffectual minority of second-class citizens in an overwhelmingly Albanian Muslim country. A border adjustment is in order, allowing northern Kosovo to resume being part of Serbia. Instead of endorsing a modest change that would maximize prospects for a peaceful outcome and a new relationship between Pristina and Belgrade, NATO and the EU mindlessly back Kosovo’s demand for continued control over the restless north. This situation cries out for a dramatic shift in Western policy.

Political and policy elites in Europe and the United States increasingly fret that the Balkans could slide into a new, bloody crisis. However, such an unpleasant outcome can be prevented with greater flexibility and creativity on the part of Western governments. Unfortunately, there is almost no indication of receptivity to the necessary policy reforms to forestall a tragedy. Instead, Western leaders, citing Russia’s growing campaign to gain influence in the Balkans (especially in Bosnia), are doubling down on the existing knee-jerk, anti-Serb approach that has failed so spectacularly.


Read also: How the Ukraine war deepens divisions across the Balkans