Next year will mark 30 years since the United States recognized Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) as an independent and sovereign state. The Serb-dominated army of the disintegrating Yugoslavia had already been fighting Croatia’s independence declaration and was beginning to attack Bosnia, where the conflict exploded into what became the deadliest and most destructive of the Yugoslav wars. Ultimately, the U.S. helped secure the peace in BiH through the American-brokered Dayton Peace Accords. It did the same in Kosovo with the U.S.-led NATO intervention in 1999 and the negotiation of the Rambouillet Agreement that ended that conflict with the Serbs. With the later U.S. recognition of Montenegro and Kosovo, it expanded its diplomatic aegis to virtually the whole of the Western Balkans.
But as the United States stepped back in favor of European Union leadership on the Western Balkans, and with the EU now stalling on further enlargement, the nationalist Serb forces that once fomented violent conflict across the region have become ascendant again. It is time for Washington to recognize this central issue and step back in to preserve its legacy and help shore up the prospects of permanent peace in Europe. The international community’s new high representative for BiH, Christian Schmidt, just warned the United Nations of the “very real” threat of renewed conflict in Bosnia. The risks extend to the broader region, and the through-line is a resurgent Serb nationalist ideology.
Washington’s Legacy of Balkan Peace
Timely political and military interventions in the region’s recent past have proven the significance of a proactive Western approach. The 1995 Dayton Agreement ended genocide in Bosnia, the worst campaign of atrocities on European soil since World War II. The 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslav and Serbian forces put an end to the ethnic cleansing and attempted genocide of Kosovo Albanians. Likewise, the European Union’s involvement in the 2006 Montenegrin independence referendum was critical for its success.
As U.S.-led interventions in the last decade of the 20th century brought hostilities to an end, the prospects of NATO and EU integration for the region became realistic, and the states stepped up with an ambitious agenda to transform their countries into liberal democracies. They made remarkable progress, particularly in the first decade of this century.
Kosovo, Bosnia, and Montenegro Under Direct Threat from Belgrade
Today, EU accession has stalled, both reducing Brussels’ leverage and diminishing an important incentive for leaders in the region to develop and reform their countries. It may even lead to renewed conflict. The lack of a concrete, proximate commitment for Western Balkan countries’ ultimate membership in the EU has emboldened Serbia to undertake renewed aggression in the region and facilitated the increasing and malign economic and military influence of Russia and China.
We are among 12 organizations and 33 individuals who signed a recent historic joint open letter to the U.S. Congress foreign affairs committees and the Biden administration from the Albanian-American, Bosnian-American, and Montenegrin-American communities. We come together to appeal for the United States to act for peace and progress now by firmly responding to the current Serbian regime’s renewed threats to the security of the Western Balkans. The independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of BiH, Kosovo, and Montenegro are under direct threat from a revanchist regime in Serbia, one that likewise endangers the U.S. commitments to peace and stability in southeast Europe. Nearly three decades on from the wars that ravaged the region, U.S. leadership is needed now more than ever.
Yesterday’s nationalist “Greater Serbia” ideology that predated World War I and underpinned the genocide and ethnic cleansing of the most recent wars in the former Yugoslavia has morphed into today’s “Srpski Svet,” or “Serbian World,” as articulated by Serbia’s Minister of the Interior Aleksandar Vulin in a July speech in the presence of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. According to Vulin’s remarks, the task of the current political generation is to create a “Serbian World” that would unify all Serbs, no matter where they live, though he later tried to backtrack, reportedly saying, “Serbia will unite `peacefully … when conditions allow for it,’ comparing it to the unification of Germany,” according to a news report. But, one of this campaign’s major goals is to permanently divide Bosnia through the secession of the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska (RS) entity. It is also a direct affront to the sovereignty of Kosovo and Montenegro, each of which have significant ethnic Serb populations. In Kosovo’s case, it either means permanent refusal of Kosovo’s sovereignty and/or unending Serbian ambitions to partition the north of the country. For Montenegro, it means active and continuing Serbian political meddling (influence) in internal affairs.
In Bosnia, the Serb member of the three-person Bosnian state presidency, longtime hardliner Milorad Dodik, has maintained a months-long boycott and obstruction campaign of BiH’s state institutions. This has followed the imposition of a genocide denial law by the international community’s High Representative in BiH in response to more than a decade of explicit and vulgar denial of the Srebrenica Genocide and the broader Bosnian Genocide by Dodik and his associates.
More recently, Dodik has said Bosnian state institutions will be banned from operating in the RS, and he has begun to create RS-specific agencies such as one in health care for drug procurement. Now Dodik openly threatens violence and is taking his firmest steps towards secession to date.
In the meantime, Belgrade vehemently challenges the existence of Kosovo, an independent country since 2008, by actively pursuing the partition of the north of the country near its border from the rest of Kosovo and taking steps to divide the Serbs of Kosovo from the Kosovo institutions that aim to represent them. Just last month, for example, Belgrade suddenly decided to renege on a license plate agreement that the EU had negotiated between Kosovo and Serbia in 2011 and amended in 2016. Kosovo enforced the agreement, requiring reciprocal measures on Serbian car plates entering Kosovo, as Serbia required for Kosovo plates. Serbia responded by deploying its tanks, combat aircraft, and armored vehicles in close proximity to the Kosovo border.
Testing US, EU, NATO Resolve
Serbia’s open threat of war against Kosovo was alarming but not surprising. Serbia’s increasing escalation of tensions in the region has been consistent and on the rise. Belgrade is testing U.S., EU, and NATO resolve in the region. Each time its destabilization is left unchecked, the Vučić regime becomes emboldened to continue its destabilization campaign.
The Serbian meddling in Montenegro has two obvious goals — to challenge the country’s civic character as a successful ethnically diverse state and to change its strategic foreign policy orientation. With a population made up of 45 percent Montenegrins, 29 percent Serbs, 8.65 percent Bosniaks, and 4.9 percent Albanians, Montenegro can prosper only as a multiethnic, open, and inclusive society. The recent enthronement of the new metropolitan of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro sparked ethnic tensions across the country, as a symbol of continuing meddling in independent Montenegro by the government in Serbia, which has historic ties with the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC). The church also has a dark history of fomenting ethnic division during the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Supporters of Montenegro’s independence want an Orthodox Christian church that is separate from the SOC. The threat is multiplied by close ties between the SOC and the Russian Orthodox Church, which itself is closely aligned with the government in Moscow.
The main opponents of Montenegro’s 2017 NATO membership and its EU future are now in government. The Democratic Front, the largest coalition partner in the current Montenegrin government is a staunch supporter of the Serbian hegemonic policy in the region. The Front has several times publicly denied the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica, despite recognition of the atrocities by a previous government and parliament, and called on the government to lift sanctions against Russia, withdraw Montenegro from NATO, and revoke the recognition of Kosovo.
Washington’s Response is Critical, As Is NATO Membership
Washington’s previous interventions in the region achieved peace and cemented the creation of strong U.S. alliances. But as international attention waned, the United States has not followed through with a clear enough message to Serbia, whose efforts today threaten not only Kosovo, Bosnia, and Montenegro, but peace on the continent. Serbia is openly adversarial to the United States in undermining the sovereignty of its neighboring countries.
In fact, Serbia’s leaders are undertaking precisely the kinds of actions and policies under their “Serbian World” strategy that should subject them, if they aren’t already, to sanctions under President Joe Biden’s June executive order. The order outlines sanctions for any persons that are deemed “to be responsible for or complicit in, or to have directly or indirectly engaged in, actions or policies that threaten the peace, security, stability, or territorial integrity of any area or state in the Western Balkans.”
Belgrade’s threats and the coordinated regional NGO response represented in our joint letter make clear that the United States – and its partners in the EU – face not multiple intractable issues in Montenegro, Bosnia, and Kosovo, but rather that Serbia is the locus of all of those issues across the Western Balkans. Therefore, The United States can support its democratic allies in the region against an emerging, subversive regional hegemon by confronting, admonishing, and ultimately balancing against the Serbian political and military threat.
Perhaps even more importantly, the U.S. response to Serbia is a means to counter an unstable, autocratic regime that is today a vehicle for Russian and Chinese influence in the region. That influence, particularly from Russia, aims to undermine both the development of democracies in the region as well as their aspirations for Euro-Atlantic integration.
A clear message must also be sent from the United States to its allies Kosovo, Bosnia, and Montenegro. For BiH and Kosovo, a U.S. commitment to reinvigorating NATO enlargement would, as we said in our open letter, “definitively foreclose the threat of Serbian (or Russian) aggression, and finally allow socio-economic priorities to come to the fore.” Indeed NATO membership has become only more critical as EU enlargement has become far too distant. Calls for NATO expansion, the need for collective action in the region, and a warning that conflict is imminent in the event of inaction, have been echoed by British MPs in their recent Politico Europe op-ed.
A renewed push for NATO will also mean convincing a few European holdouts to recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty, thus bringing finality to another U.S. priority in the region. For Montenegro’s leadership to remain within the Euro-Atlantic domain will mean more, rather than less, attention from the United States and a renewed push to defend its sovereignty and press for its EU accession. We welcome the recent House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the Balkans. Congress’ continued interest is highly important for peace, stability, and democracy in the region, but, in our view, the hearing came short of recognizing Serbia’s central role in regional tensions, and the need for the United States to recognize areas where it must adjust its policy and respond.
This is not a request to indefinitely solve the problems of the Balkans. It is to maintain American leadership in the Balkans against those who challenge the United States and its military, political, and moral investment in the region. The recent appointments of accomplished diplomats to serve as new American envoys in the region are steps in the right direction. As recent history teaches us, diplomats with strong Balkans experience combined with the significant, continuous political commitment of Washington can prevent the region from sleepwalking towards a crisis that would have dire security implications for Europe. This can also recognize and strengthen the democratic strides that much of the region has made, with U.S. support.