Will Putin Reignite the Balkans?

How Europe’s next crisis could come from what used to be Yugoslavia

The Balkans has been called the crossroads of Europe. It certainly sits on the crossroads of Europe’s crises. These crises have hit the Balkans harder than anywhere else.

Since the euro crisis of 2008, Balkan nations’ economies have barely grown. Poverty is up in every country that has been able to measure it. And this is in a region where living standards in some places were at a level you’d expect to find in Africa—even before the crisis hit. In Bosnia, 60 percent of 18-to-30-year-olds are unemployed.

This is the region that has also been hit hardest by the immigrant crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people now cross through the Balkans in pursuit of a better life further north in Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has even warned that if Germany shuts its borders, the resulting chaos farther south could spark another Balkan war. Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar gave the same warning.

Now, thanks in part to the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Balkans is facing another dangerous crisis. This region has long been a flash point between Russia and the empires of Western Europe—most famously in the run-up to World War i.

The Russians and the Serbs have deep cultural and historic ties, with their shared Slavic heritage and orthodox religion. Perhaps more importantly, Serbia lies far to the west of Russia’s border with Europe. Since Serbia is not firmly allied with the European Union or nato, Russia can use its relationship with the Serbs to project power close to the heart of Europe. There are strong geopolitical reasons for Russia to reach out to the Serbs, which is why Moscow has pursued this relationship repeatedly.

Now, Putin is reaching out to Serbia again. Europe is reeling from crisis after crisis, and the next one could very well break out in the Balkans.

Flash Point

Both the German and Slovenian leaders have publicly warned about the high risk of a new war in the Balkans. Though they may have political reasons for exaggerating the threat, the idea of a war here is not far-fetched. And they are not the only ones sounding this warning.

Taking a more general view, Stratfor ceo George Friedman says the same tensions that broke out into the Balkan wars of the 1990s, and even earlier, still exist. “The idea that Yugoslavia would abandon the bloodshed of 1912 and 1913 was an illusion,” he writes in his book Flashpoints. “Nothing has been settled within the former Yugoslavia, and the incentives to keep the peace are withering.” Speaking of his experience visiting the area, he concludes that the cycle of violence can only continue: “There is the belief of many that if only they were admitted to the European Union, all this would end. It isn’t clear why they believe this, but some believe it passionately. Others know that another round is coming. The advocates of the EU were more enthusiastic. The people I spoke to who expected war were more grim and determined. I took them more seriously.”

A new Balkan war would be a disaster for Europe. It would make the current migrant crisis look mild. And that is just one of many consequences another war would bring.

In October, Fortune magazine stated, “Pessimists, realists, and even optimists are concerned that Bosnia, at best, is a country divided where former combatants live parallel lives. Without common goals, and common ground, its people and future, smack in the middle of Central Europe, are standing on the breeding ground for more war” (Oct. 6, 2015).

James Lyon, an expert on the Balkans who used to work for the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, outlined a more specific threat. In October, he wrote an article for Foreign Policy called “Is War About to Break Out in the Balkans?” In it, he warned that the peace agreement signed in 1995 that ended the violence in Bosnia is on the brink of unraveling.

Srpska’s Independence

That peace deal, known as the Dayton Agreement, split Bosnia and Herzegovina into two parts: the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the majority Serb Republika Srpska.

Now the Serbs are on their way to declaring independence. Srpska’s President Milorad Dodik has announced that a referendum on independence will be held in 2018. “Officials who understand Bosnia’s fragility are worried—and with good reason,” wrote Lyon.

High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina Valentin Inzko—who is responsible for implementing the Dayton Agreement—warned the United Nations in September that the nation risks “slid[ing] further toward disintegration,” which has “significant international peace and security implications.”

It was exactly such a declaration of independence from Croatia that triggered the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Except, when the Croats declared independence, they were considered the good guys, exercising their right to self-determination. The same is true for the Albanians in Kosovo. But when it is Serbs who want to declare independence, this is suddenly a bad thing, and any ensuing violence will—in the West at least—be blamed on them.

Regardless of blame, a new Balkan war would be a disaster for Europe—worse than the euro crisis, the Ukraine crisis or the Syria crisis. Germany estimates that 40 percent of the immigrants who have arrived in Germany are from the Balkans; only 30 percent are from Syria. A new Balkan war would make the current migrant crisis look mild. And that is just one of many consequences another war would bring.

And behind this potentially disastrous situation, with his finger on the trigger, stands Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Behind the Scenes: Russia

Putin has cultivated strong relations with Dodik, the Serbs in general, and Srpska in particular. While Crimea held its independence referendum, Putin’s long-standing foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, was meeting with Dodik. In September last year, Dodik met with Putin himself, telling the Russian leader, “I am very grateful to you for Russia’s assistance, its political support in particular ….” Key Russian companies like Gazprom and Sberbank have been invited into Srpska, under favorable terms.

“There is now even some question as to whether Russia supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia,” wrote Lyon.

Directly to the east, in Serbia itself, meetings with Russian officials are even more frequent. Last summer, npr reported that “Russia is … waging an active campaign to win hearts and minds in Serbia, with tv networks and radio stations.” In October, Serbia held its first military parade in decades. The occasion? Vladimir Putin was visiting.

Putin has a huge amount of influence in Serbia. The Russian president can use that leverage to dial down the tension—or to ignite it. He could throw his wholehearted support behind Dodik and the Srpska independence movement. As we have seen in Ukraine, this man is not afraid to send unmarked Russian troops onto foreign soil and to continue sustained operations there. On the other hand, if he wants Srpska to tone things down, he can make a hint that he may withdraw some of his support. “By backing Dodik, Putin is able to create substantial problems for the West without needing to invest resources or diplomatic energy,” warned Lyon.

What would Putin gain? The chaos such a war would cause for Europe makes it a potent threat. Beyond that, if Russia could help unify Serbs across the region into one state, it would create a new significant power close to the heart of Europe, thus reversing many of the strategic gains Europe made when it broke up Yugoslavia (sidebar). At present, Croatia, with its Adriatic coastline, is part of the EU, and Putin would be incredibly hard-pressed to pry it back out of Europe’s hands. Germany’s core objective in the Balkans has been achieved. But a new, united Serbian power would go a long way toward reversing Russia’s losses.

In the long term, by supporting a Balkans independence movement, Putin poses a more pernicious, and potentially deadly, threat.

Border Battles

Europe’s borders have been in flux for millennia, but the modern chapter in its history began with the end of World War i. Europe’s great internal empires, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the German Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire had all been defeated and broken up. But what would replace them?

The solution was nationalism and national self-determination. The right of each ethnic group to decide its own destiny was one of the core principles behind the Treaty of Versailles. It sounds great in principle. In the realities of Europe, it was a disaster.

“[V]iolent ethnic nationalism … both dictated the nature of the Versailles settlement and ensured it would not work,” writes historian Paul Johnson in his book Modern Times. “[I]t was in Central and Eastern Europe that the violence and the racial antagonism which provoked it, were most acute, widespread and protracted. A score or more minor wars were fought there in the years 1919-22. They are poorly recorded in Western histories, but they left terrible scars … which contributed directly to the chronic instability in Europe between the wars. The Versailles Treaty, in seeking to embody the principles of self-determination, actually created more, not fewer, minorities, and much angrier ones (many were German or Hungarian), armed with far more genuine grievances. … Every country was landed with either an anguished grievance or an insuperable internal problem.”

These problems and grievances provoked what Johnson and his fellow historian Fritz Stern call a “Thirty Years’ War,” beginning in 1914 and culminating in the most violent clash the world has ever seen.

It’s no wonder that after World War ii, self-determination was deemed a poor foundation for modern Europe. So a new convention was established. The borders were set and then were to be left alone. They would not be redrawn except by mutual consent. This left many ethnic minorities in other countries, but no one would support their claims for independence or separation for fear of collapsing the entire system on their own heads.

The fact that many of the minorities lived in countries dominated by communism forcibly kept the lid on designs they may have had for insurrection.

And this is how Europe has continued for 70 years. Across the Continent, there are borders that don’t make sense—enclaves of one nationality embedded in another nation. Self-determination may have been enshrined in the UN charter and applied around the world in the breakup of colonialism, but the ethnic nationalism it encourages has been deemed too dangerous for Europe.

But this is exactly what Germany unleashed in the Balkans. And it is exactly what Putin has appealed to, both in Crimea, Georgia and now Srpska. By building on this precedent and appealing to ethnic nationalism, Putin is attacking a core pillar of modern Europe.

Others see the threat. Romania, for example, has refused to recognize Kosovo. One of the fault lines that erupted during the interwar years was Transylvania. Here there is a strong Hungarian minority—and in some counties, a Hungarian majority.

Hungarian President Viktor Orbán has even taken some tips from the Putin playbook in supporting Hungarians in Romania. He has made it easy for Hungarians living abroad to gain Hungarian passports. Russia does the same thing—shortly before it invades “in order to protect Russian citizens.” Cyprus, Greece, Spain and Slovakia have all refused to recognize Kosovo as a country—despite strong pressure from Germany—largely out of fear of stoking other separatist or independence movements.

The Threat From Putin

By stoking ethnic nationalism in Europe, Putin is playing with fire, and he knows it.

Putin’s power in Srpska is a potent threat. And Srpska is not the only unstable region in the Balkans. Macedonia is ruled by a corrupt but pro-Western government, and unrest there is growing.

Each new push for independence undermines this foundation of modern Europe. So far it has not been fatally undermined. But how many independence declarations will it take to start the dominoes falling all across Europe? No one wants to take the risk to find out.

The Balkans perfectly capture the relations between Russia and Europe. Europeans have many reasons to fear Putin. But they have a lot of reasons to cooperate with him.

“Since the end of the Cold War, the principle of the inviolability of borders has been violated repeatedly—through the creation of new borders, through the creation of newly freed nation-states, through peaceful divisions and through violent war,” wrote Stratfor on June 23. “The principle of stable borders held for the most part until 1991 before undergoing a series of radical shifts that sometimes settled the issue and sometimes left it unresolved. The Europeans welcomed most of these border adjustments, and in one case—Kosovo—Europeans themselves engineered the change.”

“Europe’s borders have been in flux for some time,” Stratfor warned. “That is indeed a matter of concern; historically, unsettled borders in Europe are precursors to war, as we have seen in Yugoslavia, the Caucasus and now Ukraine” (ibid).

The threat Putin poses to Europe in the Balkans is so powerful that it will probably never be used. That could be part of the reason why there is a growing willingness in Europe, especially in Germany, to play nice with Russia. German Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel visited Putin in late October, as Stratfor noted in its article “Germany Tests the Waters With Russia.” “[T]he meeting suggests that Berlin is looking for ways to modify or even lift the current punitive measures against Moscow,” Stratfor wrote (Oct. 29, 2015). Over the past few months we have also witnessed growing ties between Russian and German businesses, especially in the energy industry.

The Balkans perfectly capture the relations between Russia and Europe. Europeans have many reasons to fear Putin. He can do them a huge amount of harm. But this also means they have a lot of reasons to cooperate with him.

Germany’s and Russia’s interests intertwine in so many areas—the Balkans, Syria, Greece and Cyprus, on energy and on the economy. Germany has very strong incentives to work with Russia. But it also has excellent reason to fear Russia, and to build up its defenses at the same time.

Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry wrote that “former Yugoslavia is in fact the first victim of World War iii” (June 2002). Russia was weak and divided. Now that it is growing strong, power play between Europe and Russia could again return to the Balkans.

Even if Germany backs away from conflict with Russia over fear of what could happen in the Balkans—as it probably will do—the Germans will still work to reduce Russia’s influence in the region and remove this card from Putin’s hand.