It was all supposed to be so different when NATO-led forces deployed in South Eastern Europe: in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Kosovo and in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.* Intervention had brought hostilities to an end and the prospect of democracy and Euro-Atlantic integration was supposed to put the region on the road to peace and prosperity. Sadly, it has not worked out that way. Increasingly authoritarian elites are indulging in ever more bellicose rhetoric, threatening to reignite tensions in the region.

Efforts to stabilise and integrate the region

NATO interventions, which took the Alliance out of area for the first time, succeeded in halting fighting in both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, as well as heading off full-fledged hostilities in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Moreover, Euro-Atlantic integration for the entire region appeared to offer all countries in South Eastern Europe stability and an opportunity to move on from the Wars of Yugoslav Dissolution.

NATO has been committed to building long-term peace and stability in the Western Balkans since the early 1990s, when it started supporting the international community’s efforts to end the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina. © NATO

For many years, it also appeared that progress was being made. All countries in the region had become members of the Alliance’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) after Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia joined in December 2006. However, Kosovo, which had not declared independence at the time, is still not a member of PfP.

Albania and Croatia joined NATO in 2009 and Montenegro was invited to join in December 2015. The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has been part of NATO’s Membership Action Plan (MAP) since 1999. And Bosnia and Herzegovina was invited to join the MAP in 2010, though its activation was made conditional on the resolution of a key issue concerning immovable defence property (this is still pending though progress has been made).

Croatia joined the European Union in 2013. Albania, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia are EU candidate states. Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo have both signed Stabilisation and Association Agreements with the European Union. And Bosnia and Herzegovina formally submitted an EU membership application in February 2016.

Left to right: The prime ministers of Albania, Sali Berisha, and Croatia, Ivo Sanader, speak to the press to mark the accession of their countries to NATO on 7 April 2009. © NATO

The processes of European and Euro-Atlantic integration certainly contributed greatly to supporting reforms and building stability in countries that joined the European Union and NATO from Central and Eastern Europe. However, they were designed to assist accession to international institutions, not to manage conflict. The complexity of five, overlapping national questions – Albanian, Bosniak, Croat, Macedonian and Serb – and the legacy of war and ethnic cleansing has proved beyond the tools deployed to address them.

Whereas the European Union and the United States kept a tight grip on developments in South Eastern Europe in the second half of the 1990s and the early years of the new millennium, they subsequently downgraded their engagement to focus on more pressing conflicts elsewhere in the world.

Moreover, the chances of leveraging the desire of the majority of the region’s population for closer links to Western Europe to fundamental change depend, above all, on the prospect of eventual membership being real. As the European Union has become increasingly embroiled in internal matters – the sovereign debt crisis, responding to an unprecedented influx of migrants and Brexit – that prospect has also faded. As a result, reform processes have stalled, increasingly authoritarian elites have entrenched themselves in power, and irredentism has returned to the political agenda.

Russia’s influence

In addition to undermining Western influence, the vacuum created by failing policies has opened up opportunities for an assertive Russia to exploit throughout the region. Without expending much financial or political capital, Moscow has sought to bolster anti-Western sentiment, in particular among Serbs; to reinforce like-minded regimes; and to undermine further the prospects of Euro-Atlantic integration.

Specifically, Russia has invested in Serbian-language media – Russia Today radio broadcasts and a Sputnik News web site – to promote its worldview among Serbs. It has also invested in the energy sector in Serbia and Republika Srpska (the Serb-dominated entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina). Above all, it has used its clout in international organisations and in particular in the UN Security Council to support Serb positions.

Russia opposed NATO’s Kosovo air campaign, which it considered illegal, in 1999 and has subsequently systematically used its permanent seat in the UN Security Council to support Serbian positions in relation to Kosovo’s status. In this way, the UN Mission in Kosovo remains in place nearly 18 years after deployment on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 1244. Moreover, Moscow has blocked measures in the Security Council that Belgrade objected to, in particular a resolution condemning the Srebrenica massacre as genocide on its 20th anniversary.

Serbia recently bought six MiG-29 fighters, along with other military equipment, from Russia at discounted prices. (Pictured MiG-29 jet) ©

Russia has also made strategic investments in Serbia’s economy, including state-owned Gazprom Neft €400 million purchase of a majority stake in Serbia’s Naftna industrija Srbije in 2008. And it has fostered military cooperation with Serbia, including the discounted sale in December 2016 of six MiG-29 fighters, 30 T-72 tanks and 30 BRDM amphibious vehicles, which are scheduled for delivery this year.

Russia’s approach is clearly designed to limit Serbia’s links with NATO and Alliance influence in Serbia. As such, it has only been partially successful, as NATO’s military cooperation with Serbia is actually much greater than Russia’s, albeit less reported by local media.

Moreover, the country where Russia’s presence in terms of investment, tourists and permanent residents is proportionately the greatest, Montenegro, is on the verge of becoming the Alliance’s 29th member. The country’s long-time leader, Milo Djukanovic, charted a clear Euro-Atlantic course for Podgorica from the moment in 2006 when Montenegro split with Serbia, despite the reservations of a large proportion of the population and especially the Serb community. As a result, Russia has sought to support Montenegro’s opposition. Indeed, Podgorica has accused nationalists from Russia of being behind an alleged attempted coup d’état on the eve of October’s general elections.

Right to left: The NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, and the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration of Montenegro, Igor Luksic, announce Montenegro’s invitation to start accession talks to become the 29th member of the Alliance -- NATO HQ, 2 December 2015. © NATO

Russia’s position in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is the opposite to that in Montenegro. Moscow has systematically supported the administration of long-time Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, despite his implication in a wire-tapping scandal, and objected to Western involvement and sympathies for the opposition.

By far Moscow’s closest ally in the region, however, is Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska. Since returning to power in Republika Srpska in February 2006, Dodik has single-mindedly pursued policies designed to maximise Republika Srpska’s autonomy and, if possible, to lead the entity to independence. In the process, the one-time US protégé has tied his colours to Moscow’s mast, including selling a majority stake in the Republika Srpska energy sector to Zarubezhneft, another Russian state-owned company, in 2007.

Moreover, Moscow has provided overt support for his efforts, repeatedly breaking ranks with the other members of the Peace Implementation Council, the body set up to oversee support for implementing the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the Bosnian War. Russia advocates closure of the Office of the High Representative and abstained from the UN Security Council’s vote in November 2014 on extending the mandate of EUFOR – the EU-led force that succeeded NATO’s peacekeeping mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2004.

Matters came to a head when Dodik organised a Republika Srpska Day celebration, including a military parade, on 9 January 2017 – in defiance of both Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Constitutional Court and High Representative Valentin Inzko – having held an illegal referendum on the issue in September last year, one week before local elections.

A train bearing the words "Kosovo is Serbia" in 21 languages stopped just short of Serb-dominated northern Kosovo on 14 January 2017. © YouTube

Two days after the Republika Srpska Day celebration, Ramush Haradinaj, a former Kosovo Prime Minister and Kosovo Liberation Army commander, was detained in France on a Serbian arrest warrant. And two days later, Serbia halted the progress of a special train from Belgrade to Mitrovica, the Serb-dominated enclave in the north of Kosovo, alleging that Kosovo special forces planned to attack it. The Russian-built train had been painted in Serbian colours and inscribed with the words “Kosovo is Serbia” in 21 languages. The result has been an unprecedented explosion of bellicose rhetoric across much of the region and inevitable talk of a return to hostilities.

The West needs to refocus on the region

It is, of course, possible to exaggerate both Russian influence and the threat of a return to hostilities. Despite Russian prodding, Serbia has generally sought to engage with, rather than confront, the West. Indeed, in September 2011, then Russian Ambassador Aleksandr Konuzin stormed out of the Belgrade Security Forum accusing Serbia of betraying Kosovo and asking “Are there any Serbs in the room?”

Moreover, the international peacekeeping forces – KFOR in Kosovo, which has +/- 4,300 troops, and EUFOR in Bosnia, which has 600 soldiers – have mandates and contingency plans to maintain a safe and secure environment.

Nevertheless, an increasingly tense situation has to be monitored closely, greater diplomatic attention must be focused on the region and new strategies developed to address the many outstanding issues.

About 4,300 troops are still deployed in Kosovo as part of KFOR, the NATO-led multinational peacekeeping force. © KFOR

Change may already be in the offing. In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, EU and US negotiators facilitated an agreement between political parties which led to extraordinary elections in December 2016. A new Kosovo Court, the Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecutor’s Office, with jurisdiction over certain crimes against humanity, war crimes and other crimes, which allegedly occurred between 1 January 1998 and 31 December 2000, became operational on 1 January. The United States imposed sanctions on Dodik on 17 January for obstructing the Dayton Peace Agreement. And, on 24 January, the European Union convened a meeting of Prime Ministers and Presidents in the framework of its Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue to try and rebuild confidence in the EU-led process aimed at normalising relations between Serbia and Kosovo.

Should these moves prove to herald genuine change, it will be but the start of a lengthy process to turn the region around.

* Turkey recognises the Republic of Macedonia with its constitutional name.