Unrest is beginning to fray the bonds of peace in the Balkan states of southeastern Europe, which could result in far-reaching consequences for the United States and its allies.
A combination of the U.S., the European Union and NATO has helped maintain order in the Balkans since the 1990s, but both the recession and migrant crisis are causing western countries to put the Balkans on the diplomatic backburner. In the last few years, high unemployment numbers, renewed ethnic and religious tensions and an emboldened Russia have undermined stability in a region where peace is by large a relatively new concept.
The “Balkans” mostly refers to the countries found on the Balkan Peninsula that once made up the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. This federation came about following World War II, consisting of six constituent countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Serbia.
Yugoslavia was held together for the latter half of the 20th century by Josip Broz Tito, who led the country as both a president and a statesman later in his life.
After Tito’s death in 1980, nationalism began to strain at Yugoslavia’s foundations, with the various religious and ethnic groups continuously butting heads. While Yugoslavia’s former constituents wanted their own independence, ethnic minorities within each country wanted independence and nation-states of their own in turn.
These tensions finally boiled over in 1992 with the start of the Yugoslav Wars, which dragged on through most of the 1990s.
The conflict resulted in roughly 140,000 deaths and left millions displaced. There were numerous attacks on civilians, not to mention targeted assaults against entire ethnic groups and other crimes against humanity.
A tentative peace has held ever since, but deepening divisions could prime the Balkans for more unrest.
Macedonia’s political crisis reached a fever pitch in April when protesters stormed parliament and attacked several MPs over the election of an ethnic Albanian as its new speaker in a country with a Slav majority.
Serbia and its former province of Kosovo remain at an impasse in their relations, not helped by the fact Kosovo could soon elect a former guerilla who is wanted for war crimes in Serbia as its new prime minister. And Bosnia-Herzegovina faces a constitutional crisis of its own, egged along by mounting tensions between Muslims, Christians and the country’s major ethnic groups.
The E.U. could begin moving towards a resolution process by adding the Balkan states as new members. Not only would this help stabilize the economies in the Balkans, but it would also give the many groups living there incentive to forget hostilities and work together.
However, the E.U. is dealing with its own problems of finance and migration lately, showing little interest in adding new members. And while the U.S. could intervene if fighting started anew, this is no longer a sure thing; During his campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump raised questions about whether he would stand with America’s NATO allies in the future.
And while all this is going on, into the void steps Russia.
Moscow is intent on stopping the expansion of the E.U. and NATO, and sowing discord in the Balkans makes it less likely for the E.U. to bring them into its fold anytime soon.
According to a report from the think tank CNA, Russia is using disinformation and feeding nationalism in the Balkans to plant mistrust in western institutions like the E.U.
In other words, the less these nations want to join the western alliance, the more unrest Russia can exploit on Europe’s doorstep. This gives Moscow the chance to gain a solid foothold in the region and a means to push back against NATO in the future.
A refocus on the Balkans by America and Europe could go a long way in solving the crises in the Balkans. Moreover, it would ensure the E.U. remains the dominant power on the continent, putting a check on Moscow’s ambitions.
Most importantly, renewed western influence could be the deciding factor on whether or not the genocide of the 1990s repeats itself.
William Hadden is a contributor at Politicsay. He graduated from Belmont University with a degree in Journalism with a minor in Audio Video Production. William writes on American domestic issues, as well as international political news.