Political crises, regional tensions, and the decline of democracy point to an increased risk of conflict and instability in the Balkans.
Peace, democratic reform, and stability in the Balkans have been guaranteed for the past two decades by the prospect of European Union (EU) membership and by US and NATO security guarantees. Both pillars of stability have been weakened, and we are witnessing a return of geopolitics in the region.
Croatia and Albania were the last Balkan countries to join NATO in 2009. Macedonia’s integration into NATO has stalled since Greece vetoed membership over a name dispute. While Montenegro is set to join the Alliance, this progress has come at the cost of internal political stability which has enhanced Russia’s influence in the country. While NATO integration is a distant dream for Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, Serbia is warming up to Russia and rejects joining the Alliance.
In addition, the main driver of reform, EU integration, is in crisis. Over the past decade, the countries of the Western Balkans have gradually moved toward the EU. However, the EU has become preoccupied with political, economic, and financial crises. At the same time, EU enlargement has been too rigid and unable to respond to the challenges the region is facing.
The status quo in Euro-Atlantic integration has played into the hands of Balkan strongmen who pander to various geopolitical players or investors, increase their own power and patronage networks, and restrict space for democracy, rule of law, and media freedoms in their respective countries. As we have argued in a recent study on the state of democracy in the Balkans, democracy is on the decline in the region and strongmen produce instability as demonstrated by the violence in the Macedonian parliament against MPs by a mob on April 27.
The current vacuum leaves more space for Russia and Turkey to exploit their historic, religious, and business ties in the region. The Balkans is seen as part of the Western sphere, which is now up for grabs. Russia has gained a more visible and destructive presence in this sphere. It is supporting parties and media that oppose Euro-Atlantic integration and is undermining the EU integration process. This involvement has been largely opportunistic and a result of the weakness of the EU, NATO, and the United States in the region rather than any apparent strategic plan. Ironically, the Russian line portrays a disengaged West as the main culprit behind the last remaining force for democracy and accountability in the region—mobilized citizens.
The external context has dramatically changed. Geopolitics has increased the stakes in a series of local crises that could escalate further.
In Macedonia, for example, the ruling party is relying on Russian support and attempting to whip up ethnic tensions. At the EU summit in March, leaders discussed the Western Balkans after a long gap, and voiced concern over Russian meddling and other external influences that are fuelling divisions in a number of trouble spots.
Citizens across the region are frustrated and lack any clear perspective. They constituted the largest group of asylum seekers in the EU before the migrant crisis in 2015. Only a small number of radicalized youths from the Western Balkans have joined the Islamic State or support radical religious groups. However, the combination of being snubbed by the EU, bad governance, and meddling by external actors risks creating fertile ground for violent extremism.
In addition to radical Islam, there is also the danger of renewed nationalism taking root. Radical Serb politicians, for example, have challenged existing borders. Milorad Dodik, president of the Republika Srpska, has threatened a referendum on secession in 2018. Similarly, Albanian politicians in Serbia, Kosovo, Albania, and Macedonia have suggested the creation of a Greater Albanian state should EU integration fail.
The challenges in the region are closely intertwined and mutually reinforcing: authoritarian tendencies among leaders who disregard democratic institutions and rules; intervention by external powers, in particular Russia, to use the Balkans as a playground for larger geopolitical conflicts; and volatile interethnic relations in parts of the region that are instrumentalized by opportunistic elites.
It is in the strategic interest of both the United States and the EU to preserve the order and support a return to greater stability, democratic reform, and re-energized EU integration. Without these conditions, the region risks becoming the subject of larger geopolitical battles that could cause instability and contribute to the overall worsening of relations between the EU and the United States.
For the United States, coordinating a clear message with the EU that the future of the region remains in Euro-Atlantic integration can re-establish clarity that has been missing in recent years. Reaffirming this commitment includes clear support for democratic governments and addressing the authoritarian drift in the region. This commitment matters as autocratic regimes promise short-term stability but erode the long-term structures of stability.
The United States, irrespective of whether there has been a Republican or a Democratic administration, has a well-earned reputation for supporting reformers and upholding peace arrangements in the region. This bipartisan commitment has given the United States considerable leverage and credibility in the region over the past twenty years. It has secured for the United States allies in the Balkans and contributed to its prestige in the region with limited investment. If the United States stays on message, supports the EU, nudges countries to resolve bilateral disputes, and refrains from instrumentalizing ethnic tensions it can remain a constructive player in the Balkans and help end the current uncertainty in the region.
US engagement includes financial support for rule of law and democracy in the Balkans. Financial support for rule of law and democracy has high returns, and cutting funds would send the wrong message. A renewed and clear US commitment will help keep at bay the intervention by opportunistic outsiders and finish the Euro-Atlantic integration of the region.
Florian Bieber is the coordinator of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) and professor for Southeast European studies at the University of Graz in Austria. Dane Taleski and Nikola Dimitrov are also members of BiEPAG. Taleski is a professor at the Southeast European University in Macedonia. Dimitrov is a former Macedonian ambassador to the Netherlands (2009-14) and to the United States (2001-06).