Europe’s BackyardTensions Rising in Balkans as Hopes for EU Future Fade

Fourteen years after being told they had a future in the European Union, countries in the Western Balkans are losing hope. Meanwhile, Turkish and Russian influence in the region is on the rise. So too is the nationalist rhetoric of old.

Armin Smailovic / DER SPIEGEL
June 27, 2017  

The man who hopes to become the prime minister of Kosovo has a past, documented under case file IT-04-84 at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. Forty-eight-year-old Ramush Haradinaj, aka Smajl, was accused of crimes against humanity in 37 cases, including murder and torture.

The allegations are from the 1990s, when he was a field commander for the Kosovo Liberation Army (UÇK) in the war against the Serbs. The court ultimately found Haradinaj not guilty, a product of witnesses declining to testify at the last moment or, in some cases, dying suddenly. The United Nations police force in Kosovo has accused the UÇK veteran of dealing cocaine, while Germany’s foreign intelligence service, the BND, described him in a 2005 analysis as being the head of a group involved in “the entire spectrum of criminal activities.”

Despite his past, though, Haradinaj’s alliance of former fighters managed to emerge victorious in Kosovo parliamentary elections earlier this month. With 34 percent of the voters supporting his alliance, it is now up to him to form a governing coalition.

The news from Kosovo, the mini-republic located northeast of Albania, is consistent with the atmosphere in the Western Balkans these days. Kosovo, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, all part of former Yugoslavia, have spent years waiting to become members of the European Union, but it seems in the early summer of 2017 as though they have almost been forgotten. And people there are beginning to lose their patience. The result: increasing numbers of people leaving the region, accelerated Islamization and rising nationalism. Violent protests recently in the Macedonian capital of Skopje along with ranting about a Greater Albania in both Tirana and Pristina, the capitals of Albania and Kosovo respectively, have served to demonstrate just how tense the situation has become.

Located at the historical intersection between the Orient and the Occident, the Western Balkans are something of a geopolitical no-man’s-land. Between the territories of EU member states Croatia and Greece, there are six countries in the region whose chances of joining the European bloc any time soon are extremely limited.

Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania: All were promised a future in the European Union at the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003, a time when optimism was widespread in the Balkans. But their hopes have been dashed: Not long after that summit, the EU switched from expansion to naval gazing, its energies being rerouted to the euro crisis and the dangers presented by populism and, more recently, Brexit.

Way back in 2010, then-Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg blasted the lack of attention paid to the Western Balkans, saying the region threatened to become “nitroglycerine under our behinds.” And now, it has become increasingly apparent that others are taking advantage of the West’s lack of action, including autocratically governed countries with historic ties to the Balkans like Russia and Turkey, in addition to new sponsors and mentors from the Persian Gulf.

The Balkans, a region that has produced numerous crises in Europe, is once again threatening to become a security risk. The attraction of the EU is fading and the nationalist rhetoric of the past is returning. If the EU had a joint foreign and defense policy, this would be its test case: the sustainable pacification of the Balkans.

1. KOSOVO: The Threatening Scenario of Greater Albania

As a commander during the war, Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi’s codename was Gjarpri, Albanian for “snake,” because he hardly left any tracks. But for years now, criminal prosecutors have been on his tail.

In the 1990s, Thaçi was one of the founders of the paramilitary liberation army UÇK and has been president of Kosovo since 2016. And now, just as he has been handed the privilege of granting his old comrade Haradinaj the task of forming a government, he faces potential prosecution for war crimes by a special tribunal in The Hague.

Seemingly by chance, books about streetfighters-turned-politicians, such as Joschka Fischer and Gerry Adams, lie strewn about on Thaçi’s desk in the capital of Pristina. The president of Kosovo is intent on demonstrating that the Thaçi of today no longer has anything in common with the man who, as a German intelligence report once claimed, controlled “a criminal network active in all of Kosovo.”

Sitting amid the gold-gilded, Rococo chairs and crystal chandeliers in his office, the head of state makes it clear that he is interested in talking about Kosovo’s future, and not about his own past. “The main threat,” he says, “is that the EU will come too late to this region, thus leaving space for others, including radical Islamists.” He says he is also concerned about “rising nationalism in the region and the increase of Russian influence wherever Serbs live.” In April, Thaçi even threatened the unification of all Albanians in the Balkans in a joint state if the EU was to close its doors. Now, though, he says his comments were misunderstood.


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