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The Guardian view on problems in the western Balkans: Europe should do more

As tensions grow between Serbia and Kosovo, Russia must not be left to advance its divisive agenda in the region

In early December, European Union officials headed to Albania to make a symbolic point. The latest EU-Western Balkans summit, held in Tirana, was the first to be actually held in a region whose populations mostly long to belong to the Brussels club, but have begun to doubt they ever will.

The gesture – along with concrete measures such as inclusion in the EU’s Erasmus programme – went down well. “Things are changing,” Albania’s prime minister, Edi Rama, observed at the summit’s conclusion, as other leaders hailed “a new mindset”. A couple of weeks later, Bosnia and Herzegovina was granted the status of candidate country to join the EU.

The new mood music is not hard to explain. As EU enlargement fatigue set in over recent years, the western Balkans – and its seemingly intractable, unresolved tensions – fell far down the Europe’s list of geopolitical concerns. But the war in Ukraine has concentrated minds in Brussels, as Russia seeks to expand its influence in the region at the expense of the EU and Nato, and leverages political instability to its own advantage.

This renewed western focus is much-needed but, given a darkening context, more than warm words is required. Last month, local disputes led to barricades being briefly erected in the northernmost part of Kosovo, which is mainly ethnic Serb. Relations between Pristina and Belgrade – which enjoys the Kremlin’s enthusiastic backing and refuses to acknowledge Kosovo’s independence – look worse than at any point during the last 20 years.

The EU’s capacity to mediate is complicated by Serbia’s dependency on Russian gas, and Belgrade’s refusal to impose sanctions on Moscow. But unless the 2013 Brussels agreement is finally implemented this year – linking political autonomy for Kosovo Serbs to a normalisation of relations between the two countries – the risk of imminent conflict is real. Were that to happen, the wider ramifications would be serious, not least in terms of a new refugee crisis.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the situation is also bleak. Moscow gives generous support to the secessionist agenda of the Bosnian Serb nationalist leader, Milorad Dodik. At the same, the Kremlin cultivates Bosnian Croat nationalists, who are equally determined to entrench and deepen the ethnic divisions enshrined in the country’s Dayton constitution.

The German high representative appointed to oversee that constitution, Christian Schmidt, has appeared to cooperate with this agenda, controversially changing election laws after national polls closed in October. That has been taken as a sign by many Bosnians that the west has given up on the idea of the country ever becoming a normal, unified democracy. Meanwhile, in North Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania, the relatively upbeat Tirana summit followed a period of growing disillusionment, as negotiations over joining the EU stalled.

Given the geopolitical stakes, and the growing influence of Chinese investment in the region, the EU needs to up its game. The success of anti-immigration, Islamophobic parties in countries such as France and the Netherlands means enlargement to the east is unrealistic for the forseeable future. In Serbia, popular support for accession has dipped below 50%, as Belgrade refuses to participate in European sanctions on Russia. But the EU can still exert influence as well as do the right thing by reversing the years of neglect. Short of accession, far more should be offered in terms of gamechanging economic assistance and greater EU market access. In exchange for progress on issues such as corruption, rule of law and free expression, a truly engaged approach could generate the goodwill necessary to defuse regional tensions and uphold democratic values.

The unpalatable alternative is to allow a strategically vital region to look east as much as west, empowering ethno-nationalist illiberal forces and advancing the Kremlin’s agenda in Europe’s back yard.

Source: The Guardian