The Balkan Question

The future of the Balkans is being decided by a clash between the liberal idealists and conservative realists. Whichever worldview prevails will determine the region's geopolitical future.

A boy speaks on the phone underneath a 10-foot-high statue of former U.S President Bill Clinton on Bill Clinton Boulevard in 2019 in Pristina, Kosovo.
A boy speaks on the phone underneath a 10-foot-high statue of former U.S President Bill Clinton on Bill Clinton Boulevard in 2019 in Pristina, Kosovo. Credit: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

An ideological contest is underway in the West over the future of the Balkans. On one side stand liberal idealists. They view the region as a place where belief in international justice and their vision of a post-national world order must be pursued and defended. On the other stand conservative realists. They are fatalistic about the constraints of history, support the nation state and are sceptical of attempts to export Western values. The fate of the Balkans will depend on whose worldview prevails.

The origins of the debate date to the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the question of how to manage the violence that followed. The Yugoslav state had comprised of ten national groups, cohabiting uneasily in six federal republics and two autonomous provinces, whose borders only partially corresponded with the country’s complex ethnic geography. As the Cold War ended, the Bosnjaks, Macedonians, and others pushed for the independence of their titular republics, and the Kosovo Albanians for independence from Serbia. By contrast, the Serbs and Croats pushed for nation states comprising the mother state and parts of neighbouring republics. By mid-1991, the region was at war.

At first, the West’s position was ambivalent. Idealists advocated a multiethnic settlement in the region and called for the independence of the federal republics within their existing borders, justified by reference to international norms including the territorial integrity of states. Realists in Washington, London and other capitals cited ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’ and conceded the need for new borders to satisfy the aspirations of the Serbs and Croats. Both sides claimed their approach was the key to regional stability and dismissed the other’s approach as folly. This ambivalence was accompanied by a general lack of interest in the Balkans and a reluctance to enforce positions on the ground.

In 1995, the idealist vision prevailed when the US stepped in, with the Clinton administration intervening militarily in Bosnia. Its primary goal was to end the war but, in doing so, it gained the right to determine the nature of the peace and insisted on Bosnia’s preservation as a state. The administration refused to accept that borders could be changed by means of ethnic cleansing and failed to see anything inherently problematic with a multiethnic settlement. The Europeans, inspired by a vision of a trans-national world embodied in the new European Union, generally agreed. Like Carl Bildt, Bosnia’s first UN high representative (an ad-hoc position created to oversee parts of the peace agreement), they rejected ‘nineteenth century concepts of the nation state.’ The Serbs and Croats had to accept autonomy in the shape of a unified Bosnia.

The Western powers then applied this idealist vision to the rest of the Balkans. In 2001, they suppressed a bid by Albanians to break away from Macedonia, instead granting them new rights which reflected the West’s vision of the country as a civic, multiethnic state. Similarly, they resisted Podgorica’s efforts to break away from the rump of Yugoslavia, leading in 2003 to the short-lived state of Serbia and Montenegro. The counter-step was the West’s decision to recognise Kosovo as independent in 2008, in effect a partition of Serbia along roughly ethnic lines. However, even there, the West insisted on retaining Kosovo’s Yugoslav-era borders, which incorporated a sizeable population of Serbs, concentrated in the north of the new Albanian-dominated state.

When local actors resisted the Western vision, the US and Europe took steps to uphold it. In the early 2000s, they resorted to raw coercion, particularly in Bosnia where a purge of the political elites by the high representative and snatch operations by NATO troops on the ground succeeded in breaking the power of Serbian and Croatian nationalists. From the mid-2000s, the West relied on the enticement of EU membership. In return for abandoning nationalism, Albanians, Croats, and Serbs were offered the prospect of democracy, rights, prosperity and a chance of national reunification inside a larger, internally-borderless entity.

After a decade in which idealists had defined policy towards the Balkans, realists pushed back through the 2010s as the multiethnic settlement revealed its limitations. In Bosnia, the Serbs and Croats continued to seek some form of separation from the Bosnjaks. Albanians remained unreconciled to their place in Macedonia and the neighbouring Preševo Valley in Serbia. The Serbs in Kosovo insisted on effective independence from Pristina. Meanwhile, Serbia, which remained attached to the idea of nation statehood, insisted on territorial compensation for recognising Kosovo, thereby maintaining it in a state of legal and political limbo.

In conditions of frozen conflict, the region failed to develop. Politics remained dominated by the primary issues of state, territory, and identity at the expense of second-order problems such as governance or the economy. Decision-making across ethnic lines proved complicated and, in Bosnia’s case, impossible. Democracy was stifled by the need for strong leadership by those who pledged to defend the national interest. Corruption and criminality remained rife, and the region underperformed economically. Large numbers of people from all across the region emigrated for better opportunities elsewhere.

European integration, the West’s long-term remedy, proved elusive. Locals had different priorities than the complex conditions which regional unity necessitated, and European citizens viewed the area as a liability, best kept at arm’s length. Many leaders agreed and exploited a succession of crises in the EU to ‘pause’ the integration process. In 2014, the European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker ended enlargement on his watch. Serbia and Bosnia refused to join NATO, partly to please Russia, which leveraged the region’s unresolved problems to gain influence. Amidst uncertainty and the risk of relapse into instability, the US and Europe were forced to maintain a military presence in Bosnia and Kosovo.

In the US, realist thinkers called for an adjustment of borders. The former ambassador to Croatia, William Montgomery, advocated the ‘peaceful dissolution’ of Bosnia. The chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Dana Rohrabacher, dismissed Macedonia as an artificial state and called for the Albanian areas to join Kosovo. Similar calls were heard in Europe as nationalist-conservative parties gained ground. Édouard Ferrand of France’s National Front called on the European Parliament to support independence for Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serbs’ entity. Croatian MEPs advocated a new deal for the Croats. Realist academics and think tanks provided intellectual justification.

As a matter of policy, however, the West maintained its idealist approach to the Balkans, albeit less confidently than before. American diplomats repudiated demands for unification by Albanians and independence by the Bosnian Serbs. Europe continued to fund local non-governmental organisations that supported the multiethnic settlement, in a forlorn effort to free people from their perceived state of nationalist ‘false consciousness.’ The UK and others pushed EU enlargement, and everyone tried to persuade Serbia to cede Kosovo without insisting on territorial compensation elsewhere.

The situation changed in 2017 when realists took control of policy following the election of Donald Trump. As a conservative-nationalist with a focus on core American interests, the new US president had little time for the values-based policies of his predecessors in peripheral regions of the world. ‘It is not the duty of the US,’ he argued, ‘to solve ancient conflicts in faraway lands’. For Trump, the Balkans was an unstable region full of ‘strong and very aggressive people’ which was Europe’s problem to solve. His sole interest was in finding a permanent fix for Kosovo that allowed him to bring American troops back home.

In 2018, the Trump administration revealed the nature of this fix when it agreed to a redrawing of the border between Serbia and Kosovo. The US needed Belgrade to recognise Kosovo’s independence and conceded Serbia the right to demand something in return. When its president Aleksandar Vucic proposed Kosovo’s partition and the incorporation of the Serb-dominated north into Serbia, and Kosovo’s president Hashim Thaci accepted this in principle, so too did the US. ‘If the two parties can reach agreement’, Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton explained, ‘we don’t exclude territorial adjustments.’

In Europe, where politics was moving in a more conservative direction, the initiative was broadly accepted. The Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz pledged his support to whatever could bring peace, ‘even if it is a border correction.’ Romania’s foreign minister described the agreement as ‘the best solution.’ France was ‘positive’ about the idea and most other countries quietly acquiesced. Even the European Commission, the bastion of liberal internationalism, supported the proposal after years of failing to persuade Serbia to accept Kosovo’s independence within its existing borders. Officials conceded ‘this isn’t an ideal world; this is the Balkans.

In 2019-20, the Trump administration pushed hard to secure a deal based on partition. Trump appointed a personal envoy to Serbia and Kosovo, Richard Grenell, to overcome opposition from Serbs who thought the deal offered too little and, more importantly, Albanians who thought it conceded too much. As the November 2020 election approached and Trump sought a foreign policy success, the White House intensified the pressure. In February, Grenell threatened to cancel American aid and investment to Kosovo unless the Albanians agreed to Kosovo’s partition. In March, Donald Trump Jnr. threatened to withdraw American troops, implying a free pass for Serbia to partition Kosovo unilaterally.

Through this period, the Trump administration focused on a bilateral solution between Belgrade and Pristina and ignored demands by the Bosnian Serbs for a wider reorganisation of the Balkans involving a land swap between Kosovo and their autonomous entity, Republika Srpska. In time, Trump might have accepted a grand bargain for the region, especially as his attempt to partition Kosovo floundered in the face of resistance by hardliners on both sides. Widening the Kosovo issue to include Bosnia, as well as North Macedonia and the Presevo Valley might have yielded success, at least on Trump’s terms. However, first coronavirus struck, distracting everyone from the question of borders in the Balkans. Then Trump lost the election.

Instead, the initiative passed to the Europeans and specifically Slovenia which, under its conservative prime minister, Janez Jansa, earlier this year proposed the idea of a more general reordering of the Balkans. In February, his office submitted an unofficial paper to the president of the European Council entitled ‘Western Balkans – a Way Forward’ which proposed the establishment of new nation states in the region. The Serb-populated parts of Bosnia would join with Serbia, and the Croatian-populated parts with Croatia, creating a new Bosnjak state on the territory that remained. Kosovo would unite with Albania, minus the Serb-dominated north. In March, Slovenia’s president, Borut Pahor, broached the question of Bosnia’s peaceful dissolution in Sarajevo.

In doing so, the Slovenes were acting out of different motives from Trump who viewed the Balkans as a far-away region in which the US had no strategic interests. By contrast, Slovenia’s location on the frontline of the Balkans had meant the region’s political instability, economic stagnation, and exclusion from the EU posed a direct and continuing threat. What Washington and Ljubljana shared, however, was the underlying assumption that the source of the Balkans’ problems was, as Slovenia argued in its European Council submission, the ‘unresolved national issues of the Serbs, Albanians and Croatians’ for which the remedy was to align the region’s borders with its peoples.

Much about the non-paper, which only became public following its leak to a Slovenian online journal, remains mysterious. What can be assumed is that a small country like Slovenia would not have issued a paper challenging two decades of Western policy without consulting neighbouring EU members. There has been speculation about the involvement of Hungary, with which Slovenia’s leadership is close. Ljubljana probably also canvassed opinion in other regional capitals meaning the paper is likely to represent a larger constituency of opinion than just Slovenia.

What is certain is the reaction. Most European leaders failed to respond, leading the European Parliament’s rapporteur on the western Balkans, Viola von Cramon-Taubadel, to condemn them for ‘tolerating the narrative’ contained in the paper. They also continued to repudiate the region’s integration into the EU, the main alternative to a redrawing of borders. In May, the European Council rejected Albania and North Macedonia’s applications to open negotiations for a fifth time. Meanwhile, nationalist-conservative parties across Europe gave the paper their support. In the Bundestag, the right-wing Alternative for Germany party endorsed its ‘innovative solution.’

In the region itself, the Slovenian paper was welcomed by local revisionists. The Bosnian Serbs seized on the opportunity to call for negotiations with Bosnjaks on the country’s ‘peaceful dissolution.’ With the support of the Bosnian Croats, the Serbs then initiated a blockade of the shared political institutions. In Belgrade, Serbia’s minister of interior Nebojsa Stefanovic called for the Serb people to unite ‘wherever they live.’ A new nationalist government in Kosovo continued to talk about unification with Albania as a solution to the problem of the country’s lack of recognition.

Does that mean the West is resigned to a reorganisation of the Balkans along national lines? The short answer is no, at least under the current constellation of political forces. Major states like the UK and Germany have maintained their opposition to any redrawing of borders, citing risks of conflict and adherence to international norms. ‘This has to be said again and again,’ Angela Merkel maintained in 2018, after the Trump administration consented to Kosovo’s partition, ‘because again and again there is talk about borders.’ She then tried to block Trump’s initiative by launching a parallel EU mediation process which specifically ruled out partition as an option.

So too have officials at the US State Department, which also defied efforts by the Trump administration to partition Kosovo. The assistant secretary of state Philip Reeker explained that border changes were ‘not what we’re focused on’ and the ambassador to Tirana insisted that Kosovo’s existing borders ‘should be respected.’ In 2019, the State Department tried to take back control of negotiations from the White House by appointing its own special envoy to push an alternative solution to the dispute. For a short while, three rival international mediators were active in the region.

Since January, the White House has once again embraced an idealist approach to the Balkans following the election of Joe Biden, a political veteran of the Bosnian war who has held true to the Clinton-era vision of a liberal world order. Under his leadership, the US pushed back strongly against the Slovenian non-paper, dismissing it as ‘dangerous’ and ‘wrongly directed’ and rallied others in opposition. The UN Security Council endorsed a resolution affirming its ‘unwavering support’ for Bosnia’s territorial integrity, and G7 leaders who met in England in June condemned ‘unwarranted speculation about border changes along ethnic lines.’ German officials made clear the issue of borders was ‘closed.’ Chastened, Slovenia distanced itself from its own ideas.

Subsequently, the West has re-engaged in the region with the aim of blocking local revisionists, deploying a mix of punishment and reward. In June, Biden issued an executive order which strengthened his power to sanction individuals who challenge the regional settlement. In July, the US and Europe appointed Christian Schmidt, a heavyweight politician from Merkel’s cabinet, as the new high representative in Bosnia, to shore up the West’s authority. The outgoing high representative then fired a warning shot to Serbs in the form of a ban on genocide denial.

Germany has also made a renewed effort to promote alternative solutions to the region’s unresolved national disputes. At a summit of Balkan leaders in July, Merkel reaffirmed her support for the region’s EU membership to mitigate ‘the tendencies of disintegration and secession’ and pleaded for ‘reconciliation and cooperation.’ She also pushed an EU-led initiative to establish an economic zone in the Balkans which, like the old Yugoslavia, has the potential to downgrade the significance of contested regional borders. With the major powers again committed to the Balkans’ territorial integrity, any prospect of a reordering is unlikely in the short term.

However, this is unlikely to be the end of the matter. After two decades, Western powers have yet to prove the viability of their idealistic approach to the Balkans. The region remains stagnant and tense, local revisionists are fixated on establishing new borders, and the prospects for alternatives to this, above all EU membership, remain dim. At an EU-Balkans summit in Ljubljana in October, France and the Netherlands explicitly rejected any further enlargement of the EU. In such circumstances, opponents of this approach will continue to advocate a realist solution that involves a reordering of the region. This could again become policy if voters in the West elect leaders willing to countenance the idea.

That could come sooner than anticipated if upcoming elections in France, Italy, and Spain bring nationalist-conservative forces to power and Merkel’s successor fails to provide a strong counterweight. Meanwhile, in the US, Trump is plotting his return in 2024. Potentially, these developments will create conditions in which local revisionists can push for a new regional settlement. No doubt, such moves will continue to be countered by idealists who remain committed to the political status quo in the Balkans, meaning nothing can be taken for granted. All that can be said for sure is that, as the ideological contest in the West works towards an eventual resolution, the future of the region will depend on whichever conception of the Balkans ultimately prevails.


Timothy Less