Geography puts the Balkans at the margins of Europe; events place it at the continent’s heart. The wars of the 1990s were a stark reminder of this curse, as well as a warning to Europe that the events in its backyard could never be ignored. It is for this reason that after NATO’s intervention to stop the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, the international community set itself the task of mentoring the war-torn region to recovery and eventual EU membership.
Yet more than a decade later, long term peace and stability in the Western Balkans remain elusive. I visited the region last week and found a discouraging picture, above all in Bosnia – Herzegovina, where waning international resolve, an apparent lack of EU direction and a visible shift of US priorities have left a political void open to local secessionists and outside interference.
Painstakingly rebuilt after Europe’s bloodiest war in fifty years, Bosnia has made some progress. It has joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace program and signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the European Union. Yet, as things stand, Bosnia is far from being a functioning and stable state.
Nationalist parties continue to exercise exclusive control over the two ethnic entities that make up Bosnia-Herzegovina: the Bosniak-Croat Federation and the entity of Republica Srpska. Officially they share the ambition of EU membership. However the leadership of the entity of Republika Srpska continues to insist on its autonomy and call for eventual secession from Bosnia-Herzegovina. At the same time Russia is providing these leaders with the oxygen of hard cash by snapping up their valuable assets. Russia bought three oil companies in Republika Srpska in 2007 alone and is also proposing to base a section of its Southern Stream pipeline there. Through such support, Moscow has revived the secessionism which many EU governments had hoped had gone for good but is instead smouldering, and could burst into flames.
Today we face the prospect of Bosnia turning into a failed state,
Europe’s black hole, and a source of instability for decades to come.
Yet just when we need to be at our most resolute in Bosnia, the very
future of the international presence in the country is in doubt. The
Bosnian Serb leadership, with the support of its Russian backers, is
calling for the closure of the Office of the High Representative in
Bosnia, the body that implements the Dayton Peace Accords which brought
the war to an end. Faced with this crunch point, EU member states
remain undecided and EU policy seems directionless. As if oblivious to
the bubbling tensions in the country, and eager to close the mission
and declare it a success, a few weeks ago the EU started discussions
for the withdrawal of EU peacekeepers from Bosnia – Herzegovina.
We cannot allow Bosnia – Herzegovina to turn into a failed state. It is
in Europe’s vital interest to take urgent action to prevent this from
happening. The EU can no longer defer tough decisions on Bosnia. It
currently seems unable to exercise the leverage that its huge
commitment to Bosnia provides. Yet again it is not EU foreign policy
institutions that are wanting but Member States’ political unity and
the will to act.
Our engagement in Bosnia must not falter. There must be a clear message
that the reopening of border disputes will not be tolerated, and that
Bosnia has a future within Euro-Atlantic structures. A multiethnic
Bosnia is proof that ethnic cleansing will not be allowed to stand. The
break-up of Bosnia into ethnically exclusive statelets would send a
clear signal to would-be ethnic cleansers that in Europe such brutality
can succeed. If the EU accepts secessionism in Bosnia the impact on
other regions in the Balkans like Sanjak, Vojvodina, Presevo in
Southern Serbia as well as Northern Kosovo, could be dangerous indeed,
not to mention South Ossetia and Abkhazia. What future, above all,
would it offer to the two million Muslims in Bosnia who would find
themselves sandwiched in a sort of European Gaza Strip between Croatia
The Office of the High Representative should therefore remain open
until the key conditions for its closure have been met. Until such a
time, the High Representative needs to have the rock solid backing of
the EU and NATO on the basis of a clear strategy.
In place of weakness, we now need five clear actions:
Those who undermine the Bosnian state from inside or outside must not
be courted but isolated. Rather than be encouraged to sit out the
international presence, Bosnian political leaders on all sides must be
urged to work together.
There is a strong case for at the very least maintaining, if not
temporarily increasing, the number of international troops in Bosnia as
a precautionary measure and a clear signal that we remain unshakeably
committed to Bosnia’s future as a unified state. NATO allies that are
not deployed to Afghanistan should not shy away from Bosnia.
The EU should be clear in its dealings with Belgrade, that if Serbia is
to become an EU candidate country, it must let Bosnia go and discourage
Bosnian Serb separatism.
The Western Balkans must remain on our agenda, both in bilateral
discussions with Russia and at the international table, and not drowned
out by other competing issues.
Finally, we should call on the incoming American administration to stay
engaged in Bosnia. The United States played the crucial role in
bringing peace to this country; it must not allow it to slide back.
Many in Europe have made a naïve prediction that the countries of the
Balkans are firmly on an irreversible road to stability and peace. As
the Georgian crisis showed, we need to be vigilant and ready to take
decisive action if are to prevent the problems on Europe’s borders
turning into crisis with international ramifications. If our engagement
in the Balkans over the last fifteen years has taught us anything, it
is that hesitancy, division, prevarication or equivocation are
interpreted as weakness. It would be naïve and tragic to assume that
because we face a host of other problems elsewhere that the problems of
this region are at an end.