By Jacob L. Shapiro

The European Union is struggling to find its way. France and Germany are talking about reforms, the U.K. is leaving and Spain is in a standoff with separatists. Meanwhile, Russia is coping with an economy that wasn’t ready for lower oil prices and a military deployment in the Middle East that looks more like a quagmire every day, and Turkey has been dragged into northern Syria and is clashing with European powers, both rhetorically and at sea.

These are developments that indirectly shape the global order because of the size and power of the countries involved. But there is one part of the world that does not have the luxury of being shaped indirectly, with a front-row seat at the same show for centuries: the Balkans. This mountainous region’s unique geography has consigned it to a troubled place in history, as much because of the ambitions and machinations of outside powers as because of its own fractiousness. The Balkan people are closely related, and yet that has not stopped ethnic, religious and nationalist feuds from erupting. Often a nation’s deepest fears center not on the “other” but on those who are too similar.


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Business as Usual

The same characteristics that make the Balkans a fractious and insecure region make it a difficult region for outsider observers to understand. What might qualify in Germany or the United States as “political instability” would be business as usual in the Balkans, where insecurity and political violence are all too common and therefore more easily metabolized. Consider the following two examples. In Montenegro, NATO’s newest member, two car bombs exploded in the past seven days and a major protest against violence is being planned by a Western-funded nongovernmental organization for the weekend. In Kosovo, just days after Kosovar forces arrested and deported a Serbian government official, the prime minister fired his interior minister and his intelligence chief for deporting six Turks accused of being involved in the Gulenist movement, which Turkey blames for the 2016 attempted coup, without his approval. (The Kosovar president has refused to accept the dismissal of the intelligence chief, and he remains in his post.) In other parts of the world, events like these might attract attention. But in the Balkans, they barely raise eyebrows.

In the West, reporting on the Balkans reaches the mainstream only if something counter to Western sensibilities occurs. My favorite recent example was a story about a Russian motorcycle gang called “the Night Wolves” that rode through the Balkans for nine days. In the Western press, this was widely reported as a potential Russian provocation because the leader of the Night Wolves is banned from entering Bosnia-Herzegovina. (“The Surgeon,” as he is called, ended up not entering Bosnia this time.) This just goes to show that to get attention, all you need is a good name and a motorcycle.

Motorcycle gangs aside, there is a great deal happening in the Balkans, as there always is. What makes these developments important now is that the strategic context is changing. After World War I, Balkan states were free of Austro-Hungarian rule but were too weak to be viable on their own. So despite their differences, which were not as vast as they are today, a kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was formed in 1918. Over time, this became Yugoslavia, and indeed, Yugoslavia proved uniquely capable of using the combined power of Balkan countries to balance between the Soviet Union and the U.S. during the Cold War. When the Soviet Union fell, Yugoslavia lost a mortal enemy and a communist paragon, and the following year it too dissolved. A period of intense conflict ensued and was eventually quelled by NATO forces, which enforced an uneasy peace on the region guaranteed by international institutions.

The peace, though fragile, has been maintained for roughly the past two decades and has defined Balkan politics. That is because in the heady days of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the agreements and arrangements made were all understood to be temporary. They were steppingstones on the way to integrating the Balkans into the burgeoning European family, just as Eastern Europe had been integrated after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But what was once temporary became permanent. Russia rejoined history with the invasion of Georgia and showed itself to be a threat once again. The 2008 financial crisis and the attendant shaming of Greece, itself a Balkan country, made the prospect of welcoming new countries like Macedonia or Serbia an impossibility. Meanwhile, some of the groups whose problems had not been addressed by international consensus lost patience. Kosovo declared independence for a second time in 2008, much to the chagrin of Serbia and its historical ally, Russia (as well as five EU countries afraid of the precedent Kosovo might establish).

Competition

All these obstacles might be overcome if the West were still the primary outside power calling the shots. But the leverage the West has in the Balkans is not what it once was. Instead, a three-way competition between the West, Turkey and Russia is emerging.

The West realizes this and has tried to respond. NATO has admitted Montenegro as a member and wants to do the same with Macedonia as soon as possible. As part of a Western effort to isolate Russia after the alleged spy poisoning in the U.K., a number of Balkan states chose to expel Russian diplomats. But efforts such as these might well be too little, too late. The EU cannot promise the same kind of prosperity it was offering in the early 2000s, and Russia has already shown what a U.S. security guarantee is worth.

Turkey is also a key NATO country, but it has a different agenda in the region, rooted both in its imperatives and its history as a great power in southern Europe. It is not powerful enough yet to assert itself in the Balkans and has bigger problems right now in Syria. Still, Turkey is slowly building political and economic influence in the region. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan felt sufficiently comfortable with Turkey’s position to condemn Kosovo’s prime minister for firing his interior minister.

Russia’s position in the region is stronger. It maintains a close working relationship with Serbia and with Republika Srpska, a predominantly Serbian enclave in Bosnia that is increasingly acting like an independent entity. Serbia has flirted with the West but cannot tolerate Kosovo’s independence, and Russia’s need to maintain Serbia as an ally has become even more serious as the Intermarium countries become more united against Moscow.

The Balkans isn’t on the verge of chaos. But developments in this part of the world have to be understood differently now in the context of a discredited EU, a weak and desperate Russia, and an ambitious but uncertain Turkey. Political violence in Montenegro, the lack of progress in Serbia-Kosovo relations, Serbian riots in Kosovo, name changes and other intrigue in Macedonia, the deterioration of Bosnia’s tenuous political structure and biker gangs running amok are all par for the course in the Balkans. But what is par for the course in the Balkans can have ramifications for the world simply by virtue of the Balkans’ geography and history. World War I started in the Balkans. That is not to say World War III will start there – it is merely to say that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and as the strategic context around the Balkans changes, so too will the Balkans.