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A nation must think before it acts.
Western Balkans countries’ hopeful integration into European institutions and the greater transatlantic community is reaching a pivotal juncture. The comparative neglect Washington, London, and Brussels has displayed over the past several years has left the region’s gradual transition in jeopardy. Russia and China are effectively filling voids where existent and cost-effective. Their destabilizing in-roads are paved in good part by local ethno-nationalist forces whose preference for authoritarianism conflicts with the democratic institutions required by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU). Accordingly, ultranationalists’ relative rise proportionately diminishes the prospects for regional stability. For the sake of greater European security, they need to be sidelined.
Despite the surge of nationalist forces throughout Western and Central Europe in recent years, fellow travelers in the Western Balkans are finding categorical victories elusive. Extreme nationalists’ ambitions have been fettered by a number of factors, including popular opinion in favor of Western orientation and the transatlantic community’s in-kind responses. Reciprocation is particularly apparent in NATO’s presence in the Western Balkans. At present, one-half of the former Yugoslavia republics have been admitted: Slovenia (2004), Croatia (2009), and Montenegro (2017). Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina are in waiting, each with its own Membership Action Plan up and underway.
Greatly encouraging is the welcome news from Skopje on October 19, when its parliament, the Sobranie, cleared a major hurdle in its efforts to join NATO. A late evening vote won the barest two-thirds majority to approve the process for constitutional amendments that would result in the country’s name change to the Republic of North Macedonia from the awkward “former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” or “FYROM.” Under the Prespa Agreement hammered out between Prime Ministers Zoran Zaev of Macedonia and Alexis Tsipras of Greece last June, Skopje agreed to drop its preferred “Republic of Macedonia” for the new title. Athens in return agreed to recognize the replacement if adopted and subsequently forfeiting the threat of vetoing Macedonia’s NATO and potential EU candidacies. Since Macedonia’s independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, Greece has vociferously protested the country’s adopted name due to its own territorial and historical claims to the lands comprising ancient Macedonia. With this crucial step taken, Macedonia’s MPs will draft related amendments to be hopefully cast in constitutional stone in the next few months. It will then be up to the SYRIZA-led coalition in Athens uphold its commitments under the agreement.
The stakes were high. The Prespa Agreement represents the greatest breakthrough in the dispute 27-year dispute. Polls have indicated that a majority consistently supports NATO and EU membership; however, despite the benefits of such status, the distinct and deeply emotional issues related to national identity made many Macedonians ambivalent. Tepid responses gave fuel to sentiments that the lead opposition party, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), would exploit these issues in furtherance of its own nationalist narrative. Well-founded allegations of Russian efforts to support VMRO-DPMNE and manipulate public opinion persisted throughout, culminating in a campaign to boycott the vote.
The referendum came on September 30, in which more than 90 percent of participating Macedonian voters approved the proposed name change; however, only about 37 percent of the electorate voted, thus leaving the decision in the hands of a divided legislature. Skopje-based analysts emphasized that the referendum’s low turnout should not be interpreted too broadly. It would be erroneous to conflate abstentions with disinterest in membership for either club; rather, voters were given only a few months to come to terms with a compromise whose impact on people’s sense of identity runs deep.
Political drama ensued in the weeks that followed. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and German Chancellor Angela Merkel both visited Skopje to advocate for the “yes” campaign, the former justifiably accusing Russia of malign pre-referendum interventions. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Wes Mitchell sent a letter to the head of VMRO-DPMNE, Hristijan Mickoski, publicly encouraging him and his colleagues to vote in favor. In response, Russia’s foreign ministry accused the West of meddling in Macedonia and Greece’s internal affairs.
The Sobranie’s vote is rightfully celebrated as a significant victory for the West and democrats on both sides of the Atlantic. Working in concert with allies and elected representatives, PM Zaev effectively seized a window of opportunity that would have been soon forced shut as Greece’s own elections—in which the question of name change would become unduly politicized—will be held in 2019. In addition to timing, the agreement stands as the best option the conflicting parties have achieved in nearly 30 years of unresolved dispute. Imperfect it may be, it was difficult to see anything approaching a better deal in the near future. Finally, the majority “yes” vote is a victory for NATO, whose credibility would have been marred otherwise.
Over the past few years, ethno-nationalist forces have been worryingly active in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Republika Srpska (RS) entity President Milorad Dodik continues to call for its secession from Bosnia. Bosnian Croats of the nationalistic persuasion effectively wield outsized influence in Zagreb, where Croatia’s prime minister recently declared in an Orban-esque overture his government’s “special responsibility” for his neighboring country’s minority. Events this summer in that capital suggest that revisionist messages surrounding Croatia’s Ustase past are at best tolerated, at worst tacitly promoted. Broadly throughout Serb-populated territories, the toxically antiquated idea of pan-Serbism still galvanizes segments of society, the most disconcerting being young men mobilized for political violence in its name.
It was in this environment that Bosnia held nationwide elections on October 7 for its presidency, parliament, and Federation cantons. The stakes surrounding this vote were also high. In recent years, interests between the country’s two most nationalistic parties—Milorad Dodik’s Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) and Dragan Covic’s Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina Party (HDZ-BiH)—increasingly aligned, spelling trouble for Bosnia’s integrity as a state given these leaders’ irredentist designs. They had the opportunity to take two-of-three Dayton-mandated presidential seats, which would drive the national government to dysfunction, paving the way for potential secession of RS and a break-up of the Federation.
Voters in the Federation determined otherwise. Instead of Covic, Federation Bosnians (comprising primarily Bosniaks and Croats) elected moderate pluralist Zeljko Komsic as the Croat tripartite president. Protests by several thousand ethnic Croats ensued, along with resumed calls for racist electoral reforms propagated by HDZ-BiH, whereby Bosnian citizens would be effectively barred from freely voting for a candidate regardless of his or her ethnicity. Komsic’s electoral win will help to temper and diminish political schemes to undermine state authority.
Covic’s loss further complicates Dodik’s visions for an independent statelet. Elected as the Serb member of the presidency, Dodik has an interest in seeing the state effectively run now that his chief ally is out. State dysfunction would, for example, prevent his allotment of various political appointments from taking office, and his greater say in Bosnia’s defense and security policies would be diminished. Covic and Dodik’s currently misaligned interests bode well for the integrity of the Bosnian state.
What Bosnia needs is the kind of constitutional compromise its parliament nearly achieved in 2006. In that year, the U.S. and its European partners enticed the Bosnian legislature to deliberate a well-developed set of constitutional reforms essential for a more streamlined, just, and authoritative central government. Using the incentive of EU membership, international stakeholders were able to effectively put on the table amendments empowering the state-level parliament as well as providing the procedural possibility of a president outside the three constituency peoples. Its passage would have been an initial and important step towards a more democratic, unified government.
Unfortunately, the incongruence of SNSD and HDZ-BiH agendas won’t in themselves catalyze the incoming parliament to take up such reforms in the near future. Although the potential catastrophe of state dissolution was averted, ethno-nationalism and its purveyors will nonetheless continue to loom in Bosnian politics for the foreseeable future.
As 2018 nears its close, the Western Balkans remains hotly contested between liberal democratic forces and those of reactionary nationalists. The U.S. and its European allies can best assist current and aspiring members to NATO and the EU with renewed and consistent political support, economic aid, vigorous assistance to democratic civil society, and robust military engagement. The fruits of such committed actions were witnessed in Skopje last week. For their sake and that of greater European security, it is best to keep the momentum going forward, helping these countries realize their place in the democratic, transatlantic community.