"It will be in the interest of Europe to fasten the positive scenario of gathering the Balkans under the EU and NATO umbrella before the destructive cold war winds reach the region."
The Balkans are not just a geographical region.
Although the Balkans are no longer a ticking time bomb like they used to be, the sensitivities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and North Macedonia still show signs of new tensions, albeit of a low intensity.
Even at times of peace, the Balkans have been subject to ethnic and faith-based tensions. Many times, it has easily turned into a powder keg as a result of the interest of the great states. This is unfortunately still the case today.
The six new republics that broke away from Yugoslavia with the collapse of the iron curtain in the 1990s have not yet achieved lasting peace and stability. Democratic reforms still continue.
Young republics with problematic borders, each of which has minority populations in the other, can at any time return to the old troubled days with provocations.
The region continues its search for stability under the catalysis of international actors.
After hundreds of years of affiliation, the Balkan geography broke away from the Ottoman Empire in the First World War and tried to exist within turbulent independent state structures until the Second Great War.
After World War II, except for Turkey and Greece, the entire region was within the Eastern Bloc's sphere for almost half a century.
The new Balkan countries, which opened their eyes to a unipolar world order following the 1990s global transformation, saw the EU and NATO as the only foreign policy targets with no alternative.
EU's outlook on the Balkans
Although the young Balkan countries were enthusiastic, the EU, which had critical structural problems within itself, could not be as eager for new memberships. From the start, the only goal was to reduce the importance of borders while ensuring regional stability through the simultaneous integration of the Balkans into the European family.
However, the EU's slow and shortsighted policies have left the region deeply disappointed.
This situation has increased instability, mostly in "multi-ethnic" hot spots such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and North Macedonia.
The EU, which could not cope with the Balkan countries with its inept policies, tried many approaches, including ethnic-based solutions as the final solution to stability.
Ethnic separation or merger initiatives in the Balkans may change the map of at least six to seven countries.
A new confrontation in the Balkans would also change the political set-up of the region, including the Sanjak, Chameria, and Presova hotspots.
The EU's inability to create the expected harmony is a sign that the expectations of the republics, which dream of uniting under the EU umbrella in the Balkans and achieving stability within the Western club, are exhausted.
While the EU is also divided within itself over the Balkan strategies, the Balkan countries are now openly criticizing EU policies.
Although North Macedonia, which is a small model of the Balkans, seems to have overcome some problems by allowing the addition of "North" to its name, serious existential problems continue. Its multi-ethnic structure still whets the appetite of its neighbors.
They do not regard North Macedonia as a nation and an independent country, but rather as a country whose minorities are manipulated. Neighbors keep those minorities in hand by granting them citizenship and passports.
A North Macedonia that is subject to ethnic division can easily be wiped off the map, causing subsequent ethnic changes.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnia and Herzegovina is a country in need of stability and peace internally. The founding peoples are essentially dissatisfied with the current multi-patchy political system and each other.
B-H, which has experienced ethnic strife and power sharing problems, has recently been having problems with Croatia in addition to the Serbs. The disagreement with Croatia regarding the Peljesak Bridge has made the internal and external balances more fragile.
The deepening of ethnic divisions by internal and external threats may lead to the sharing of the BiH state by its neighbors, like Macedonia. The passionate activities in this direction are very visible among the extreme nationalists of Serbia and Croatia.
Kosovo, with its strategic importance, is always the most fragile country in the Balkans.
The dialogue process with Serbia on the solution of sovereignty, name, territory, border, and matters of free movement, which has been going on for 10 years, sometimes takes difficult turns.
The latest EU-sponsored Franco-German proposal that seeks a firm dialogue framework is still under discussion and on the agenda between the two sides. It proposes the normalization of relations rather than the recognition and exchange of low-level permanent missions, both in capitals.
Local government elections, license plate recognition, and ethnic pressures are the main potentials for serious crises. During the latest crisis, we witnessed military exercises, harassment by warplanes, blockades of customs gates, and mass protests at the borders.
Russia has openly supported Serbia in these tensions at the diplomatic level and with its mercenary militias like Wagner.
Both EU and NATO urges the sides to refrain from any unilateral actions.
In addition to the sensitivities of Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Kosovo, a surprising development was the Orthodox Church showdown between Montenegro and Serbia. The historical Cetince Orthodox Church sovereignty conflict has initiated serious stability concerns.
In fact, the suppressed problems can easily drive the region to the line of fire.
The Balkans, with their fragile ethnic structure, are a geography that yearns for stability and permanent peace more than ever.
The opening of Pandora’s ethnic box could lead to more violent east-west proxy wars than in Ukraine. Unpredictable humanitarian crises and mass displacement may occur.
It will be in Europe's best interests to accelerate the good scenario of bringing the Balkans under the EU and NATO umbrella before the destructive cold war winds blow into the region.
About the author
Hasan Sevilir AŞAN
Faculty of Political Sciences, International Relations, Ankara University
Hasan Sevilir AŞAN is a retired ambassador who served 40 years at the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His Diplomatic duties were in India, Libya, Czechoslovakia, the UK, Iran, Australia, Albania, and South Sudan
He was also Consul General at Tabriz, Iran; Consul General at Melbourne, Australia; Ambassador to Tirana, Albania and Ambassador to Juba, South Sudan.
Since 2019, he regularly publishes articles on diplomacy and international issues in his column in Yeni Adana Newspaper.
He has special focus on the Balkans, Australia (Canakkale 1915, Anzacs, Gallipoli Campaign), Africa, Iran, G20, refugees and humanitarian aid.
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