This past Saturday marked a tragic anniversary, 20 years since the massacre of around 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serbs in the town of Srebrenica. The massacre has been widely condemned by the international community, though Russia vetoed a United Nations resolution denouncing the events as genocide. Events of commemortion also serve as a reminder of the fragility of the region and the simmering conflicts that remain. The anniversary saw the Balkans come to international attention, albeit briefly, in a time when it is often overshadowed by conflicts to its East in Ukraine and Southeast in Syria. This is not to say that the former Yugoslav Republics are worth ignoring; many of the region’s states struggle with bureaucracies where corruption is the norm, democracy is still in its infancy and the rule of law isn’t universal.
Since the 2008 financial crisis, street protests have grown, with a month of daily protests in Zagreb, attended by some 10,000 people in 2011. 2013 saw the fall of the right wing government in Slovenia, in no small part because of nationwide protest. Anti-government sentiment has also been seen in Bosnia Herzegovina and Macedonia, with such protest effectively becoming the norm across Europe since the financial crisis, despite being a toxic ingredient when combined with the divisive local politics, long-term unemployment and opaque government of the Balkans.
Renewed assertiveness of Russia in the region has also put European policy makers on edge.
Croatia’s joining of the European Union in 2013 was a time of celebration and optimism as the targets made in Thessaloniki in 2003, which would pave the way for EU membership among Balkan nations, looked achievable. Recent events have brought that into doubt, however. Croatia is still struggling with unemployment and government ineptitude, whilst the economic bonanza expected upon entry into the EU continues to elude the country. The renewed assertiveness of Russia in the region has also put European policy makers on edge. Arguably the biggest danger to stability and EU progression in the region continues to stem from the state of Bosnia Herzegovina and fraught Serbian relations with its neighbours, as the stoning of the Serbian Prime Minister at the Srebrenica memorial on Saturday reminding us of both.
The first, Bosnia Herzegovina, is still locked into the Dayton Agreement. This created the State of Bosnia Herzegovina, made up of the Federation of Bosnia Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska. The state is highly decentralised, though still has a central government and many of the institutions of state, including a constitutional court and central bank. The Dayton agreement successfully ended the military confrontation between the Bosniaks (who came to majority control of the Federation of Bosnia Herzegovina) and the Bosnian-Serbs (who came to majority control of the Republika Srpska). Despite its success in ending hostilities, the Dayton Agreement has effectively left Bosnia Herzegovina to the control of the external organisations that were given oversight of the rebuilding of the country, leaving it frozen in a state of limbo as it struggles to similarly continue to implement the oft-criticised rigid Dayton Agreement, whilst also attempting to meet the other needs of a culturally diverse electorate. The risk is that as the Dayton agreements increasingly disappear into history and a new generation grows up in a country that is still divided, historical grievances will become pertinent once more. Unless the European Union reengages with the country, this is an issue that seems likely to be compounded, which may in the not too distant future find itself descending into racial and nationalist conflict.
Neighbouring Bosnia, the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo is also a continued headache for the region as it attempts to dislodge its conflict-wrought past. Since the 2008 declaration of independence by Kosovo, Serbia has deliberately soured relations with countries all over the world in protest of their legitimating Kosovo’s independence. The relationship seemed to be making headway after the Brussels agreement of 2013, which saw both countries agree to not block one another’s attempts to enter the EU. The move toward a normalisation of relations has come to halt recently though with the election in Kosovo of a more hard-line government, not helped by the election of Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić, who asserts that any decision on Kosovo by the Serbian government should be put to a referendum. A normalisation of relations between the two is an important step which the region would to well to better facilitate.
Simply put, the Balkan states are still important to the EU. The crisis in Ukraine has again focused minds in Brussels on the EU’s borderlands. Turkey has shown increasing disinterest in EU membership under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, taking an authoritarian turn. This should leave the EU free to speed up the pace of integration for others, further buoyed by the fact that, despite the rise of anti-EU parties across Europe, support for the EU remains strong among Balkan states. Continued instability in the Middle East and the growing reach of Islamic fundamentalist groups disproportionally impacts the Balkans sizeable Muslim communities, emphasising a need for EU, yet it does disappointingly little. Such criticism may seem unfair given the pertinence of the Greek crisis and the potential for ‘Brexit’ before the end of the decade, yet if the EU hopes to survive it must seek member states that are broadly Europhile, something that many of the potential Balkan members and their publics show themselves to be.
The anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre is a reminder to western policy makers of the continued fragility of the Balkans and the potential for tragedy that remains.
Accession to the European Union also requires adherence to the Copenhagen criteria demanding that the nation state applying for membership have a functioning market economy, effective preservation of the rule of law, adherence to maintaining human rights and the protection of minorities. The achievement of such criteria would undoubtedly be good for the millions living in the region.
The anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre is a reminder to western policy makers of the continued fragility of the Balkans and the potential for tragedy that remains. It should act as a driver of a new diplomatic drive for the countries of the region to meet the Copenhagen criteria. This would benefit not only the EU with the addition of Europhile voices in Brussels but more significantly, would greatly improve the quality of lives of millions.