[Opinion] : Failure is definitely an option

Daniel Serwer - Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

“The sources of threats in the Balkans to peace, stability, and progress towards the EU are clear. They lie in Banja Luka and Belgrade. Moscow supports both. But Brussels and Washington remain blind to the obvious”.

By Daniel Serwer,  @DanielSerwer ,

Washington, 11 September 2023, / – Things are coming apart in the Balkans, where a sometimes uneasy peace has prevailed for more than two decades. War in the 1990s mode is unlikely. No one can sustain a conflict like the one in Bosnia, which lasted more than three years. Nor would the NATO-led forces in Kosovo tolerate a full-scale Serbian invasion of its entire territory. But instability, armed clashes, ethnic strife, and dysfunction are more than possible. They are likely. US and EU policies and practices are not helping.

Dodik threatens Bosnia and Herzegovina with secession

Milorad Dodik is back as president of the Serb-majority entity (Republika Srpska, or RS) that governs on 49% of the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina. He has continued to salami-slice his way towards independence, de facto if not de jure. Recent moves include two notable ones. The RS Assembly has passed legislation that purports to invalidate the jurisdiction of Bosnia’s judicial system. In addition, Dodik himself has declared that the international community High Representative, responsible for the Dayton peace agreement, will be arrested if he enters RS territory. Both moves violate both the spirit and letter of the Dayton agreements. But apart from declaring the former invalid the HiRep, Washington, and Brussels have done nothing to counter them.

Dodik has also built up the police forces of the RS, obtained ample armaments and financing from Russia, and successfully enlisted Hungary to block any EU sanctions Brussels might propose. Washington has sanctioned him both for his challenges to Dayton and for blatant corrupt practices. But the lack of a unified Western response invites further salami slices. So too does Dodik’s warming relationship with Belgrade, which is seeking a “Serbian world” that incorporates the Serb populations of neighboring countries.

Vucic threatens part of Kosovo

That is an even more serious threat in Kosovo. Serbia already controls four Serb-majority municipalities north of the Ibar River contiguous with the border Belgrade calls a “boundary.” With encouragement from Belgrade, the Serbs there have abandoned the Kosovo institutions, boycotted recent elections, and rioted against installation of the non-Serb mayors who were consequently elected. Serbia has kidnapped Kosovo police from Kosovo territory, mobilized its army along the border/boundary, intimidated Serbs into leaving the Kosovo Security Force, threatened North Macedonia and Montenegro for having recognized Kosovo, and rejected agreements reached with Prishtina that the US and EU claim are legally binding. The Americans and Europeans have responded only with mild verbal reprimands.

That has not been true for Prishtina, which has incurred “consequences” for its insistence on installing the non-Serb mayors in their offices and deploying paramilitary police in response to disorder. While northern Kosovo has calmed since the spring, US and EU diplomats are still insisting on their own demands for withdrawal of Kosovo police from Kosovo’s sovereign territory. Meanwhile, Serbian President Vucic has been busy trying to prevent Ukraine from recognizing Kosovo independence, in clear violation of the agreement the Europeans and Americans say is binding.

Vucic also threatens the whole of Montenegro

The situation is even less salubrious in NATO member Montenegro. It lacks a fully empowered government following June elections. The President wants Russophilic political parties in the government. The Prime Minister-designate does not, but he also resists bringing in the former ruling party, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS). The result will either be a government with a thin majority in parliament or new elections. In any new election, Serbia will pull out all the stops to support the Russophiles, who are also pro-Serbian.

The obvious solution would be a coalition between the Europe Now! winners of the June election and DPS, which is also pro-European. But Belgrade will exert enormous pressure on the President and Prime Minister-designate to prevent such a combination. Serbia sees the possibility of regaining de facto, if not de jure, control of all of Montenegro. That would eliminate a potential rival for EU membership. It would also render Montenegro’s NATO membership a practical dead letter. Podgorica would continue to be a member, but serve Russian interests.

Blind to the obvious

The sources of threats in the Balkans to peace, stability, and progress towards the EU are clear. They lie in Banja Luka and Belgrade. Moscow supports both. But Brussels and Washington remain blind to the obvious. They are still trying to bend Bosnia, Kosovo, and Montenegro in directions the majority does not want to go. Failure is an option. Now is the time to re-assess and correct course. Democracy and rule of law require it.


Daniel Serwer is a Professor of the Practice of Conflict Management as well as director of the Conflict Management and American Foreign Policy Programs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.  

This opinion was first published at website.                

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of .  

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