Monday, August 31, 2009

The Inevitable Balkanization of the Already-Balkanized Balkans (Updated)

The current issue of Foreign Affairs sports a real gem of analysis buried amid all of the articles on economics and discussions of the resilience of Cold War institutions. Patrice McMahon and Jon Western discuss Bosnia 14 years after the signing of the Dayton accord. Having spent last week in the Balkans, I would have to say the issues they raise are poignant and present serious security risks to Europe.

To say that I'm not an expert on the Balkans would be a gross understatement, especially given how many true experts there are. Other than the occasional article in the newspaper, my previous exposure was predominately during my cadet days when I thought my career would culminate as a platoon leader somewhere in the region. Of course, Iraq and the Middle East myopia it induced in the U.S. military relegated the region to the purview of the National Guard as a mission all but complete.

But it is no where near complete. While the signing of the Dayton accord and the initiation of the Kosovo Air Campaign will remain relevant historical events in the Balkans, they were the beginning, not the end of any Euro-American efforts there. These two events separated the combatants, but time has not tempered ethnic tensions because the politics have not yet been solved. Especially as the politics were devised by the West to separate the ethnic groups in the hope that time would temper their relations. Talk about hopeful.

Bosnia is on the brink of collapse as Bosnian Serbs, Croats, and Muslims try to outmaneuver each other for political advantage. In Kosovo, the region of Mitrovica is rife with ethnic tensions as the Serb majority defy Albanian attempts at pulling the area under the control of Prishtina. Of course with the assistance of Serbia itself, still upset at Western vilification of their nation. While Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, and Montenegro seem to be doing fairly well (with EU ascendancy quite possible in some cases), history has shown that conflict in the Balkans knows no borders just as ethnic ties do not.

The current political situation has been compounded by a number of factors in addition to the ethno-political divisions cited above (some listed in the article, some of my own conjecture). First is the cacophony of aid to the region in the mid to late 1990s. Everyone wanted to help with donor assistance or military aid. But the aid surpassed the local capacity to handle it. Second is that this cacophony of aid was on occasion disguised for instituting donor influence to gain strategic advantage. Third is Russia's patronage of Serbia. With Russia's energy influence on Europe and the NATO/Russia tensions over both Georgia and the Ukraine, no one wants to incite global conflict over the Balkans. Again. Fourth, and possible most important, is the aforementioned myopia on the "War on Terror" or whatever we're calling it today.

The reality is that without true Western leadership, as called for in the article, the region could continue to fragment and fall into conflict again. It is not a problem that can be ignored any longer, nor be labeled as a success or mission complete. As true in any post-conflict environment, especially those past the attention of the intervening nations' public, McMahon and Western put it best: "It is impossible to create a functional state that can be sustained and governed by local actors merely by throwing money and resources at the problem. As the experience in Bosnia has proved, state building is not a problem to be solved but a process to be managed."

Update: Positroll makes note in the comments that Slovenia has been a member of the EU since 2004 and Croatia has been a candidate since 2004 and received NATO membership in 2009. Thanks for the correction and I'll spend a little more time on Wiki in the future.


  1. Re: Kosovo I always considered it a mistake not to let the Serbs keep the Mitrovica region in the first place. For legal reasons (in my opinion the right to secession of the suppressed Alabnians didn't include a right to take the Mitrovica Serbs with them) as well as for political reasons (a compromise on Mitrovica would have helped Serbs and Russians save face).

    Bosnia, now that's a whole different story. I'm not sure whether there are any good solutions to this mess ...

    P.S. Nitpicking:
    "with EU ascendancy quite possible in some cases"
    Especially in the case of Slovenia - EU member since 2004 ... (and Croatia being an official EU candidate since 2004 and a NATO member since 2009)

  2. Ok, the title of this post kind of made me laugh.....

  3. Which is not to say the topic is laughable, though....

  4. Positroll - you're absolutely correct on Mitrovica. It has become a big boy contest between Kosovo and Serbia so no one wants to blink now. I'll add an update on EU/NATO membership - thanks for the correction.