Keep an eye on the Balkans: It’s the world’s next flash point

Keep an eye on the Balkans: It’s the world’s next flash point

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When considering the security and stability of Europe, the first thing that comes to mind is Russia's invasion of Ukraine. After all, it is the largest outbreak of war in Europe since the 1940s.

However, about 1,000 kilometers to the southwest of the front lines in Ukraine, another European security crisis is brewing.

The Balkans region in southeastern Europe is prone to instability. It faces many economic challenges. Ethnic, religious and sectarian differences remain a source of friction in society. And for better or worse, it is also susceptible to the influence of outside actors; Russia, the US, China and Turkiye, among others, all have interests and hold sway in the region.

After several bloody sectarian wars in the 1990s, following the dissolution of Yugoslavia, Europeans and Americans were able to stabilize the region through a series of peacekeeping operations. The geopolitical situation in the Balkans has since remained stable but fragile. There has not been a serious threat of instability— until now.

The Balkans is a good example of Europe’s unfinished business in terms of Euro-Atlantic integration. In part, this could be a source of the region’s current difficulties. Croatia and Slovenia are in the EU and NATO. North Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro are in NATO but not in the EU. Kosovo aspires to membership of both the EU and NATO. Serbia remains firmly in the Russian sphere of influence, serving as Moscow’s toehold in the region, but occasionally sends signals it wants to get closer to the EU.

The Balkans is a good example of Europe’s unfinished business in terms of Euro-Atlantic integration

Luke Coffey

But perhaps the most complicated, yet consequential, country in the region is Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although it has started the formal processes for joining both the EU and NATO, little progress has been made. Like its neighbors, it faces many social and economic challenges and, as you might expect, these challenges are exacerbated by sectarian divisions inside the country that are being fueled by those outside it.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, two sub-state entities emerged as a result of the Dayton Accords following the civil war of the 1990s: the ethnically Bosnian and Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the ethnically Serb Republika Srpska. The leader of the latter, Milorad Dodik, has long advocated for independence. In recent years he has also taken steps to undermine the legitimate state structures of Bosnia and Herzegovina by creating parallel institutions inside Republika Srpska.

Last month, for example, Republika Srpska’s National Assembly passed a new electoral law, considered to be unconstitutional, and established a legal framework for holding referendums, which many people fear could be used for a future vote on independence. Not only do these measures undermine the state sovereignty of Bosnia and Herzegovina, they threaten to bring instability to the Balkans by jeopardizing the success of the 1995 Dayton Accords.

Two upcoming events could serve as a pretext for fresh instability in the region. The first potential flash point is a draft resolution being debated by the UN General Assembly that proposes to designate July 11 as the “International Day of Remembrance for the Genocide in Srebrenica.” In 1995, Bosnian Serbs, along with paramilitary units from Serbia, massacred more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica after the UN declared the city a safe area.

Of course, Dodik and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic have vehemently criticized the resolution. This criticism from people such as Dodik is unsurprising; there are many officials in Republika Srpska and Serbia who downplay what happened in Srebrenica in 1995. Dodik has said that reports of Serbia’s involvement in the deaths of nearly 8,000 Bosnian Muslims are “untrue,” and many of the victims are “still alive.”

Raising the stakes even higher, Dodik has stated that should UN General Assembly adopt the resolution, he will seek out the next opportunity to secede from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Considering his previous rhetoric on the issue of independence for Republika Srpska, his threats should be taken seriously.

Redrawing borders based on ethnic and sectarian lines would open up a Pandora’s box

Luke Coffey

Secondly, next week a so-called grand Easter Assembly of Serbia and Republika Srpska will convene in Belgrade (next week marks the Easter holiday in the Orthodox Christian world). According to a statement by the Serbian government, “important decisions will be made about the survival of the Serbian people in their hearths, their economic progress, the preservation of the Serbian language and the Cyrillic alphabet and common cultural heritage.”

The political elite in Serbia have often discussed their vision for the so-called “Serbian world,” with Belgrade as its center. There is concern that the vote in the UN General Assembly, combined with the staging of the so-called Easter Assembly, could convince Dodik that the time is right to declare independence from Bosnia and Herzegovina and form a union with Serbia.

Such a move would be disastrous for the region. Redrawing borders based on ethnic and sectarian lines would open up a Pandora’s box. The Balkans already went through a tidal wave of border changes in the 1990s. During this period, more than 100,000 people died and millions were displaced during sectarian conflicts.

The effects of redrawing the borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia would be felt elsewhere, too. This is particularly true in other regions of the Balkans, such as Kosovo, with its Serbian minority, Macedonia, with its ethnically Albanian regions, and even Serbia, with the Muslim-majority Sandzak region and Vojvodina region.

Since the 1990s, the international community has invested a lot of blood and money to ensure that the Balkans remains peaceful and stable. Even countries as far away as Argentina, in Latin America, Morocco, in North Africa, and the UAE, in the Middle East, have served as peacekeepers in the region over the years.

With the present focus of the international community on Ukraine, Iran, Taiwan and Gaza, it should not ignore the Balkans. Over the next few weeks, things will start to heat up there.

• Luke Coffey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. X: @LukeDCoffey

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