Home Politics It’s time to change Western policy towards the Balkans – OpEd – Eurasia Review

It’s time to change Western policy towards the Balkans – OpEd – Eurasia Review

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By Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Twenty-eight years have passed since the signing of the Dayton Accords and the Western Balkans are now closer than ever to a resurgence of the political violence, ethnic cleansing and mass migration that afflicted the region in the wake of the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Policymakers in Brussels and Washington, who once played crucial roles in negotiating and implementing Balkan peace deals, have found themselves preoccupied with looming new crises, from Ukraine to Taiwan.

In recent months, Balkan countries have witnessed a worrying rise in tensions and violence. Incidents such as the clashes in northern Kosovo, clashes between Serbian paramilitaries and Kosovo police and the reinforcement of Serbian troops near Kosovo have raised alarm bells. These events should serve as flashing red indicators on the political dashboard of the Western world. It is high time to reassess our approach to the Balkans.

What these challenges have in common is the lack of engagement from the West, particularly the EU, the US and NATO. This lack of involvement has emboldened nationalist and hegemonic forces in the region, giving these countries more influence. This vacuum has also created opportunities for groups, including nationalists and the far right, who oppose liberal democracy.

The first component of this lack of commitment comes from the attitude of Antony Blinken’s US State Department. The Biden administration’s shift in focus from aiding global democratic struggles to preserving the democratic credentials of declining countries like India has led to a belief that the Balkans are inherently tribal. The result is a fading memory of a superpower willing and able to promote ideals such as reducing corruption and strengthening democracy.

The second element of this disengagement is an EU whose influence has diminished. Hopes for EU participation and possible membership in the bloc, which strengthened its influence in the 2000s and 2010s, have all but disappeared. The move fundamentally changed the incentives of local political elites, fueling authoritarian leaders, stifling economic growth, and attracting capital from authoritarian countries. It also opened the door to the influence of external actors like Russia and China.

This void has been filled by Chinese investment and Russian disinformation. Although Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may have changed the dynamic, it is too early to assume that the loss of Russian influence will automatically translate into gains for the West. Western liberal democracies have looked away from the Balkan region for too long, leading to many negative consequences.

So what should Western policy in the Balkans focus on in the coming years?

First, we need to go back to basics. The West has been successful in the past when it provided a clear and compelling vision for the region and supported that vision. We must articulate a vision of freedom, justice, trade, progress and peace for the Balkans, making clear how this will benefit the nations of the region. Engagement must take place at the senior level, but it must also involve outreach to local populations, including cultural diplomacy.

In addition, we must meet the challenge of Russian information warfare. Western information operations should remind Balkan countries that Russia cannot be trusted, including by highlighting its failure to help countries like Armenia and its previous participation in the peacekeeping mission led by NATO in Kosovo before abandoning it in 2003. Investing in free media in the Balkans, particularly in areas vulnerable to Russian propaganda, is also essential.

Although some parts of the region may not be receptive to Western democracy today, a foundation must be laid for the future. NATO should consider deploying a deterrent force in the region, starting with areas like Brcko, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Serbia deserves special attention. We cannot rely on outdated approaches and must consider the role of Serbian culture and society. Recent years have seen an upsurge in war crimes denials and historical revisionism. Western policy should address these underlying cultural causes of Serbia’s international orientation rather than just its symptoms.

There is no doubt that the region has faced challenges stemming from a history of political instability and conflict, but it offers many opportunities for growth and development.

First, the Western Balkans benefit from a strategic geographic position at the crossroads of Europe. This location provides a gateway for trade as well as access to the EU market, which is a key advantage for foreign investors. The region’s rich natural resources, including fertile land and mineral deposits, also contribute to its economic potential.

Additionally, a young and educated workforce is available in the Western Balkans, providing a competitive advantage in sectors such as information technology and services. Tourism, thanks to its breathtaking landscapes and cultural heritage, is another promising industry.

To fully realize the economic potential of the Western Balkans, investments in infrastructure and education as well as reforms to improve the business climate are essential. The EU’s commitment to supporting the region’s integration and economic growth through various programs and initiatives will also play a central role in unlocking this potential. However, addressing persistent political challenges and fostering regional cooperation will be crucial for the sustainable development of the Western Balkans.

In conclusion, the Balkan region is at a crossroads and renewed Western engagement is imperative. By setting a clear and attractive vision, engaging with the region at all levels and countering external influences, we can help steer the Balkans onto the path of stability, democracy and progress. It’s time to act and the stakes are high.

  • Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is director of special initiatives at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, DC, and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017). X: @AzeemIbrahim

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