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Steven E. Meyer: Where is the Leadership in the Balkans?

Sustained violence has not returned - at least for now, but ethnic rivalry, hatred and antagonism continue to plague the region and violence smolders just beneath the surface. Ethnicity is the great stumbling block to progress in the Balkans. This is an issue that the West - primarily the U.S. and Western Europe - never fully understood
By Steven E. Meyer, former CIA deputy chief for the Balkans
Datum: 12/07/2017

Steven E. Meyer: Where is the Leadership in the Balkans?

Foto Tanjug/AP

Potentially dangerous problems currently are mounting in the Balkans more than any time since the end of the Kosovo war in 1999. But, while the region drifts aimlessly from one danger to another, real leadership in the Balkans is difficult to find.

There are five major areas of difficulty and instability.

First, the Kosovo issue is stagnant. Under the Brussels process there have been some small technical agreements and some possible progress on the federation of Serb municipalities, but no breakthroughs on major issues. Both Belgrade and Pristina do not seem to know where they want to go, so the two governments are content to through verbal bombs at each other. There is no willingness to compromise on major issues and for now Belgrade is the bigger loser of the two governments. Belgrade plays the game that Serbia will never recognize Kosovo’s independence, but everything Belgrade does indicates the opposite. Belgrade essentially is trying to sacrifice Kosovo on the EU altar. At best, Kosovo has become another “frozen conflict” and at worst a sad place of economic decline, political instability and suffering on both sides of the Ibar River—especially in the Serbian community in Mitrovica and the surrounding Serb areas.

Second, recently Macedonia came closer to civil war than any time since the Ohrid Accords took effect in 2001. Fortunately, the Slav Macedonians and the Albanians stepped back from war. For the first time in more than a decade, the increasingly authoritarian Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party (IMRO-DP) lost its mandate to govern. Although IMPRO-DP had more seats in the new parliament, it was unable to form a government. Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov handed the mandate to Social Democratic party leader Zoran Zaev, who was able to form a government only with the help of Albanian parties in the parliament. The involvement of Albanian politicians in the process led to bloody riots in and around Parliament last April. In the wake of the election, Macedonia is a seriously divided, corrupt, economically depressed country of about two million people who kept from further integration from a petulant Greece that cannot abide the use of the name Macedonia by its northern neighbor. At best, Macedonia will continue to languish in depressing conditions, at worst it has all the ingredients that will lead ultimately to a nasty, bloody explosion.

Third, the sad twenty year saga of Bosnia continues unabated. It remains a country in name only; a fiction that is real only in the minds of outdated, mostly mid-level American—and some European—diplomats. The dysfunctional Federation essentially has become both the ward of and a project for the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo, while the bolder, more successful Republika Srpska (RS) is the regional bete noire of American policy. From Washington’s perspective, Bosnia must “succeed” as the multi-ethnic, democratic, free enterprise state. The difficulty, of course, is that this is not happening and there has never been much of a chance that it would happen. From the beginning, the Bosnian enterprise has been much more of a hoped-for reality in Washington and the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo than it has been on the ground in the Balkan region. Despite intentions to the contrary, the imposed Bosnian constitution (Annex IV of the Dayton Accords) ensured that Bosnia would remain ethnically divided and the RS has taken full advantage of this.

Despite high hopes that the Trump administration would do “great things” for the Balkans, the new U.S. administration has very little interest in the region. In fact, there has been little interest in the Balkans in Washington since the Clinton administration. Consequently, American policy in the Balkans is left to minor State Department officials and U.S. Ambassadors in the region, who pontificate about what Bosnia must do to succeed. To pursue its failed policy in Bosnia, Washington’s latest gimmick has been to levy sanctions on RS President Dodik. But, in reality, the sanctions only demonstrate American pettiness. As a result, as with most of the Balkans, Bosnia remains, unstable, economically depressed and a potential candidate for violence. Aside from the sanctions, there has been almost no change in American policy in 25 years despite the fact that the reality “on the ground” has changed substantially. In part, this is due to the fact that “super powers” believe they do not make mistakes and partly because of neglect in Washington.

Fourth, the question of a “greater Albania” is once again a major topic of interest and discussion. Although the “fear” of Albanian expansion is never very far below the surface of Serbian and Macedonian politics, recent provocations by Albanian Prime Minister, Edi Rama, has stoked the old ethnic fires more than usual. Rama said he would not “rule out a little union” between Albania and Kosovo if the EU suspended or ended EU membership for Kosovo. Kosovar President Hashim Thaci said that “all Albanians would live in a single, united country” if the EU closes its doors to Kosovo. At the same time, Rama and Thaci said there were no plans to push for a greater Albania and that the idea was being pushed by Belgrade to justify its own efforts to create a Greater Serbia. The Chairman of the Albanian National Council in Serbia, Jonuz Musliu, added to the sensation by arguing that Bujanovac, Presevo and Medvedja also should join a greater Albania. Perhaps the greatest blow has come from Ramush Haradinaj, the former Kosovar rebel, who has been accused of war crimes by Serbia, who argued that Serbia had to be put in its place.

Rama and Thaci may or may not be serious about a Greater Albania, but their rhetoric certainly succeeds in enraging Serb leaders, media organizations and many ordinary citizens. At the least, the Albanian effort is aimed to provoke Serbs, to evoke an angry response from Serbs. But, even if it were true what danger would this mean for Serbia? Certainly Serbia is strong enough to protect its interests. Instead, Belgrade betrays fear, weakness and intransigence. In fact, Serbia really has little to fear from an expanded Albania, especially if Serbs were at liberty to expand into Serb-dominated areas that are not now controlled by Belgrade.

Finally, during the past year we have seen an increase in angry exchanges between Serbian and Croatian leaders—initiated primarily by officials in Zagreb. These exchanges have been buttressed by an increase in actual and planned military upgrades in Croatia and Serbia. With Russia being the primary military supporter for Serbia and the U.S. for Croatia, the military “improvements” in the Balkans have assumed the flavor of the Cold War. Ironically, the Cold War was supposed to have ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but, in fact, it really has never ended. Both the U.S. (and its NATO allies) and Russia have found willing proxies in Croatia and Serbia for their respective political and military agendas as well as new, lucrative markets for new and not so new weapons systems. The desire by Serbia and Croatia to “improve” their military posture also is a boon for arms manufacturers on both sides of the lingering Cold War.

The cross-border antagonistic comments have cooled in recent months and currently there is little likelihood of war between Serbia and Croatia. But, the military buildup continues and with it persistent and troubling instability, the possibility of military skirmishes and, perhaps most important, a propensity against closer, mutually beneficial relations that would boost cooperation in the region. In 2015 Washington promised to donate 16 M270 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) to Croatia—as long as Zagreb bought the rockets from American manufacturers. The U.S. also promised to send 16 OH-58D Kiowa Warrior Helicopters to Croatia. Since Croatia is a NATO member, these donations and purchases of military hardware help ensure that Croatia becomes increasingly “interoperable with NATO standards,” which locks Croatia into buying weapons and material from Western—mostly U.S.—arms vendors. Zagreb also is looking to replace an aging jet fighter fleet—possibly buying the Swedish Grippen or South Korean FA-50 fighters, which would be cheaper than American fighter aircraft. A similar theme is obvious in Serbia. Although most purchased and promised weaponry slatted for Serbia is coming from Russia, Belgrade is looking seriously at French Airbus helicopters. But, the rest—6 MIG 29 fighters, 30 T-72 tanks and 30 BRDM reconnaissance vehicles—are coming from Russia.


Why Is There an Increase in Problems in the Balkans?


There are, I think, three major reasons for these problems—and the accompanying instability.

First, as time has passed since the wars of Yugoslav succession in the 1990s, including Kosovo in 1999 there has been growing suspicion and antagonism across the region based on ethnicity. In the Western Balkans the issue of ethnicity never goes away. Although ethnic differences have not resulted in war since 1999, they are the constant variable that undergirds most relationships in the region. This is especially true when state borders cross ethnic lines and most often when ethnic communities oppose or do not consent to the state borders (for example, the rejection of Bosnian independence by the Serb community in the referendum in 1992). Ethnicity can be a positive source of strength, purpose and pride if well controlled. If it is not well controlled, ethnicity seeks an “other” that is defined as an enemy. In that case, it can be a source of stagnation, danger and all too often a justification for violence. If not managed well, ethnic antagonism also can inhibit economic, political and military cooperation.

Contrary to popular belief all too common in the West, ethnic conflict is not steeped in Balkan history. Yes, there have been ethnic flare-ups throughout history, but such conflict has not been deep-seated and endemic in the region. Although there were a scattering of examples through the early 20th century, the ethnic issue only became widespread, serious and deadly with the advent of World War II. Civil war, concentration camps, rape, murder and torture caused more casualties than combat between Yugoslavs and Axis forces. For the most part ethnic violence was relatively scarce in the “second” Yugoslavia that was established under Marshall Tito’s strong hand. But, with his death, economic stagnation and the gradual disintegration of the Yugoslav state, angry, deadly ethnic violence reemerged as a distinct echo of the World War II years. The Dayton Accords, combined with war exhaustion, brought an end to the conflict. But, these Accords were unable to resolve the deep ethnic differences that tore Yugoslavia apart.

Sustained violence has not returned—at least for now, but ethnic rivalry, hatred and antagonism continue to plague the region and violence smolders just beneath the surface. Ethnicity is the great stumbling block to progress in the Balkans. This is an issue that the West—primarily the U.S. and Western Europe—never fully understood. At the end of the wars of the 1990s, the ethnic issue was seen in Washington as just one more problem that would be put to rest as the successor countries committed to building multi-ethnic, democratic, free enterprise states. For the West, ethnic issues were seen as a vestige of the past. For the West, building political communities along ethnic lines was passé. If it was true that ethnicity was no longer a valid justification for assigning sovereignty in the West, it was equally true for the Balkans. For Washington, Brussels and major West European capitals, “modernization” was to be defined only in terms of the multiethnic, democratic, free enterprise state. According to Western politicians, the Balkans merely had to be led, guided, forced and cajoled to “modernize.” This proved to be a colossal failure. Not only did it not work in the Balkans, it has proven to be a merely one form of modernization to grip the post-Cold War world. Essentially, the West has left the Balkans with false hopes and a failed legacy.

Second, the history of the Balkans has been one of long, debilitating occupation and influence by outside powers. Through time the Balkans has been a major playground for major empires—the Austrians, Russians, Ottomans and most recently the Americans. In most cases, the wars fought in the Balkans were started by outside powers fighting for dominance against each other. The great problem for the Balkans was geography. Even countries that did not physically occupy the Balkan region—such as Britain and France—were contesting power against each other, not against Balkan states as such.

Perhaps just as devastating as physical occupation has been the constant hammering by major outside countries that the people of the Balkans do not know how to construct modern, advanced, productive societies without substantial help and advice from the outside. Especially from the French Revolution on Europeans and later Americans have enforced the notion that only in obedience can the Balkans enjoy Western-style modernization. The dominance of this idea was instrumental in fostering some of the most serious problems facing the Balkans today—such as intransigence in Kosovo, the failure of Bosnia and perhaps the failure of Macedonia. The result has been a stunted sense of history. Certainly, there is pride in the national histories of the Balkans, but it is usually linked to a history that predates the modern era—it is the only place that the citizens of the region can point to prominence, glory and success.

Third, perhaps even more serious than the political damage has been the psychological damage to citizens and leaders alike. Too many are so beaten down that they actually believe that they indeed are incapable of determining their own affairs without the help and supervision of “greater” powers. In particular, this mentality has produced a crop of timid, uncreative leaders in the region. This is not universal of course, but it is a significant enough problem to present a major obstacle to self-determination and thriving political communities.

There are exceptions, of course. Serbian President Vucic has been able to successfully manage a balancing act between the West and Russia and the Republika Srpska has been able to avoid the worst effects of the “domination infection.” But, these cases are not typical. In Serbia, for example, one constantly hears the refrain that “we are too small, too weak, too poor” to chart our own course for the future. Serbia’s willingness to participate in the Brussels Process on Kosovo has been a failure, achieving no advantage with the EU and no success in Kosovo. The Bosnian Federation is essentially an American “vassal state” and Macedonia is a time bomb waiting to explode. Sadly, current policies will do little more than contribute to the current stagnation. There needs to be a major break with the past.


Moving Ahead


The most critical requirement for leaders in the Balkans today is intangible. It is the need for leaders to exercise creativity, boldness, courage and understanding. The need is for leaders who think beyond themselves, who envision something larger than themselves. Leaders also are needed who trust their people and who rely on their people and their own leadership skills to think through issues and find solutions. Leaders also are required who have not only the welfare of their countries at heart, but who have the interests and welfare of the Balkan region at heart. The answers are not in Washington, Brussels, Berlin or Moscow. Certainly, it is wise to have good relations with these capitals, but they do not know what is best for the Balkans. Answers to those questions can be found only in the Balkans. This will mean genuine cooperation and consultation by and among the leaders of the region. There are literally scores of organizations in the Balkans that promise cooperation and consultation on a wide variety of political, economic, social, military and law enforcement issues. But, too many of them have little impact on the real problems in the Balkans. A resurgent Russia has breathed new life into NATO. But, it is an organization that perpetuates the Cold War and offers no real protection from modern threats. The EU may offer some benefit, but it is a broken organization whose best days are behind it and there is real doubt about just how much interests there is in Brussels in expanding into southeastern Europe.

Leaders in the region also must be willing to look realistically and calmly about what constitutes a viable political community. How should the state be constructed? This requires that leaders look seriously at the question of borders. Boarders are not “sacred”—they have changed from the very beginning of time. Western commentators who warn against border change are essentially hypocrites because border change—both peaceful and by force—have been a hallmark of the West for centuries. It is a legitimate consideration and one that should be examined, discussed and negotiated carefully. There are plenty of examples in Europe where this has been done peacefully since the end of the Cold War. Here may be a place to start: perhaps it is time to consider a confederation of Orthodox countries. Not a third Yugoslavia, but a loose union of Serbia, the Republika Srpska, Montenegro and the non-Albania parts of Macedonia.   

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