By S. Vincent Andrews

With Slobodan Milošević’s passing in 2006, and what appears to be Radovan Karadžić’s imminent indictment in The Hague, for many international observers the Balkans’ political relevance and reputation as the “powder keg of Europe” appear to be rapidly on their way out. In a matter of a decade, political and media attention on the region has progressed from assiduous interest in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, to what now amounts to little more than a trickle of human-interest stories and courtesy diplomatic visits. Despite our inattention to the Balkans, the relative peace in the region is fragile and by no means durable: the economy is weak, corruption abounds, and ethnic tensions still simmer. The United States must not lose sight of this.

The former Yugoslavia and its environs are no stranger to instability. Indeed, the Balkan Peninsula has been a site of tremendous ethnic, religious, and political conflict throughout most of its history. Straddling both Europe and Asia it has played home to a spate of tug-of-wars between the powers of the “West” and those of the “East” that came to mold the allegiances of Southern Slavs mainly, but by no means exclusively, along religious lines. When nationalism captured the hearts and minds of 19th-Century Europe, ethnic communities in the Balkans began to link their religious confessions to distinct national identities, and in so doing set the stage for a horrific chapter in an already-bloody European history: the disintegration of Yugoslavia and its devastating aftershocks. The Balkan conflicts of the late 20th Century saw countless killed and many more forcibly displaced, but while the wars may be over, the ethnic fissure that instigated the confrontations remains, to this day, largely unresolved.

The fragility of the situation in the Balkans is no more evident than in Serbian breakaway state, Kosovo. The predominantly Albanian-speaking province propelled itself to the international stage when it became the world’s newest (and Europe’s poorest) state, and it was feared that it would catalyze yet another Balkan conflict. As Kosovar Serbs and Kosovar Albanians vie for influence in the new nation, tensions are mounting: Albanians have rioted against Serbian institutions, and late last year Serbs boycotted local elections. The “Kosovo question” has become highly sensitive, sparking worldwide debate and social unrest in Serbia’s capital, where rioting masses attacked the US Embassy following the Bush Administration’s recognition of what was viewed to be still part of Serbia. What is more troubling for the United States however, is that Kosovo’s status has proved a stalemate in the United Nation’s Security Council. China and Russia, two formidable member states who fear similar démarches in their own countries, resolutely oppose Kosovo’s independence and have stymied any UN or US-led effort to recognize the disputed Serbian province. Not only has this stoked tensions between the US and rival global powers, but it has also has made way for a resurgent Russia – both economically and geopolitically – which has displayed an unrelenting policy of endearment toward its “Slavic cousins” to the South with tremendous bilateral efforts to strengthen economic and political ties. Undoubtedly, the most visible result of this relationship is the proposed Russo-Serbian gas pipeline that aims to distribute Russian natural resources to the rest of Europe, arguably in contest with a similar EU project, Nabucco.

Since the liberalization of global markets and the fall of Communism, oil transit has become one of several booming businesses in the Balkans. Organized crime and the trade of illicit commodities have thrived in a transitional economy that is sluggishly adapting to capitalism, and exploiting loopholes that result from weak governance, instability, and poverty. Criminals and politicians have become intimate associates and capos have garnered considerable clout in the politics of these countries, so much so that the line between lawmaker and lawbreaker has been blurred beyond recognition. And there is no shortage of henchmen—with a crumbling economy and no more wars to fight, the Balkans, in the words of crime journalist Misha Glenny, is teeming with “testosterone-fueled, unemployed young men”, usually ex-paramilitaries, who have no choice but to turn to organized crime in order to subsist and prosper.

However, for otherwise fiercely nationalistic paramilitaries in this Balkan underworld, ideology takes a backseat to profit: Serbs collude with Croats, Kosovar Albanians with Kosovar Serbs, and so on. The damage effected by these groups is astronomical. According to World Bank estimates, illicit commerce accounts for fifteen to twenty percent of the global GDP. Eager for their cut, Balkan crime lords have established criminal enterprises that are diversified, amorphous, and global. Trafficked persons move effortlessly across borders (as no border dog can detect a human held against his or her will), surplus arms from the wars of the 1990’s make their way to the most dangerous war zones in the world with impunity, and drug lords profit from the narcotics “Silk Road” that runs directly from poppy-rich Afghanistan through the Balkans and onward to Western Europe. But still more urgent for countries like the United States, organized crime in the Balkans is a decidedly transnational affair, and as such has ties to illicit organizations all over the world, including, in increasing numbers, terrorist groups. Here again, motivated more by profit than creed, Balkan crime organizations have actively assisted groups like Al-Qaeda in transit operations, recuperation, money laundering, and the establishment of training cells (Congressional Research Service, RIEAS).

A US presence in the Balkans therefore remains indispensable. As weak institutions, poverty, and the venality of public officials continue to plague the successor states of the former Yugoslavia, the United States must exert pressure on these governments and engage their populations in order to bring them on a path to prosperity and security. In this spirit, accession to the European Union remains the best possible solution for leading these countries into the 21st Century as democratically able states. Recently, thanks to efforts made by Brussels and Washington, the region has begun to show signs of warming opinions of European Union membership. But as it stands now, only Croatia stands a fighting chance of becoming the 28th member of the bloc, possibly as early as 2012. Macedonia submitted its bid in 2005, Montenegro and Serbia followed suit just recently, and Bosnia aims to submit an application within the next decade.

But the road to Brussels will be long and intractable. Bosnia, a nation Vice President Joe Biden described as “off the path”, is plagued by a 42% unemployment rate and an economy that trails Uganda. To add insult to injury, the entire country is divided into two hostile administrative entities: the Bosniak-controlled (Muslim) Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, that mutually drive the country into repeated political deadlocks. Macedonia is in better shape, but may never attain membership due to an ongoing name dispute with Greece. Serbians, who have yet to deliver alleged war criminal Ratko Mladić to The Hague (a pre-condition for EU membership), are only lukewarm toward the prospect of joining the European Union. This is evidenced in the most recent presidential election, where anti-EU candidate Tomislav Nikolić gained 47% of the vote. Even Croatia, a country that is largely expected to snag a seat in Brussels within the next two years, has run into a number of roadblocks grappling with crime and corruption, as well as border disputes with its northern neighbor and fellow ex-Yugoslav republic, Slovenia. But Croatia remains the West’s surest bet. As the wealthiest of the Western Balkan region endowed with both NATO, and eventually EU membership, it is poised to command considerable influence over its neighbors in the coming years. The healthy, bilateral relationship between Washington and Zagreb will only continue to flourish in a time when the US desperately needs friends in a region potentially on the brink of yet another conflict.

The complexity of the current situation in the Balkans is colossal, and Washington cannot depend on the European Union to be the sole guarantor of security in the region. The European Union, according to American Balkans expert Edward Joseph, is not “up to solving its own security problems” and lacks a “coherent policy” towards the region, making American leadership all but “indispensable” (Economist). We must engage each successor republic of the former Yugoslavia on an individual and personalized basis. Too often foreign policy and security initiatives tailored to the region apply a “one-size-fits-all” model that ultimately proves inoperative in a region so rife with ethnic, religious, cultural, and historical differences. Indeed, this fact alone has contributed to the predicament in which most Balkan countries find themselves today. The United States must therefore continue to engage the region and work toward a diplomatic relationship that is both mutually beneficial and critical for the state of global security.

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