[Opinion] : The West needs to rebalance Balkans policy towards tough love

Daniel Serwer - Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies


“President Vucic is hedging between East and West. He plays Washington and Brussels off against Moscow and Beijing, hoping to get all he can from all four. Belgrade has a policy of military neutrality, for example, and conducts exercises with both NATO and Russia. Serbia buys weapons from both East and West”.

By Daniel Serwer, @DanielSerwer ,

Washington, 24 July 2023, / – The US Congress has now conducted hearings on the Balkans in both the Senate and House. Members from both sides of the aisle evinced discomfort with Biden Administration policy. It has leaned heavily towards appeasement of Belgrade and has failed to react strongly to secessionist moves in Bosnia. What is the alternative?

The US is oblivious to the obvious

Administration officials are fond of reiterating the laudable 1990s strategic objective: Europe “whole and free.” They are oblivious to the obvious. It is not happening anytime soon. President Putin has forced the drawing of a new line in Europe. The Russian-dominated parts Europe will remain for now on the Eastern side of the line. This includes Russia and Belarus as well as parts of Georgia (Abkhazia, South Ossetia) and Moldova (Transnistria). The remaining questions are about Ukraine and the Balkans. Will the line go through them, or will they join the West?

In Ukraine, conventional warfare will answer the question. In the Balkans, it is already decided. For the foreseeable future, there is no serious prospect that Serbia or Republika Srpska (the Serb-dominated part of Bosnia and Herzegovina) will join the West.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

For the RS, that is obvious. Its president, Milorad Dodik, is a wholly-owned Russian proxy. He is doing his best to end any accountability to the Sarajevo “state” government. The RS parliament has already passed legislation denying the validity of Constitution Court decisions. It is only a matter of time before it passes legislation claiming state property, which the RS needs as collateral for its international loans. The international community’s High Representative will presumably annul all secessionist legislation from now on, but how he will enforce his decisions is not clear.

Dodik may not proceed all the way to declaring independence, as even Serbia would be reluctant to recognize the RS. But whether he does or not, RS will remain attached to the East so long as he is in power. The only hope for getting rid of him is to bankrupt the entity and bail it out with Western financing, conditional on his resignation and an end to secessionist ambitions. It is not yet clear whether Washington and Brussels have the stomach for that.


Serbia is different. President Vucic is hedging between East and West. He plays Washington and Brussels off against Moscow and Beijing, hoping to get all he can from all four. Belgrade has a policy of military neutrality, for example, and conducts exercises with both NATO and Russia. Serbia buys weapons from both East and West. It ships weaponry to both Russia and Ukraine. Belgrade has refused to align with EU sanctions against Russia, but it votes against Russia on some General Assembly resolutions denouncing Russian aggression.

This Yugoslav-style “non-aligned” foreign policy is linked with ethnic nationalist domestic politics and ambitions for regional hegemony. Judging from ongoing anti-Vucic demonstrations, there are a lot of Serbs who aren’t happy with the current regime, which they view as violent, corrupt, and repressive. But the only viable electoral opposition to Vucic stems from his Serbian nationalist right. He has all but obliterated the liberal democratic opposition, which was weak to begin with. He controls most of the popular media and judicial system in addition to the executive. The Serbian security services and their allies in the Serbian Orthodox Church are wedded to Moscow.

In the region, Vucic aims to create the “Serbian world,” analogous to Putin’s “Russian world,” an idea that supported the invasion of Ukraine. In its weakest form, the goal is Belgrade political control over the Serb populations in neighboring states. Belgrade has already achieved that in Montenegro and Kosovo. In Bosnia, only Dodik, whose interests are not congruent, stands in the way. In its stronger form, the Serbian world entails annexation of territory Serbs occupy in neighboring countries and creation of Greater Serbia.

Rebalance the policy

Belgrade has not moved one inch closer to the West in the six years of Vucic’s presidency, despite consuming a truckload of diplomatic carrots. Strengthening of his links to Beijing has more than compensated for any weakening of his links to Moscow. The RS has spent 17 years moving towards secession. It is not going to reverse course without vigorous pushback. This situation requires a more realistic Western policy in the Balkans.

We need to lower expectations and raise incentives. Dodik’s RS and Vucic’s Serbia are not going to voluntarily embrace the West. The US, UK, and EU will need to starve the RS of all Western funds in order to end Dodik’s secessionist ambitions. They will also need to end Serbia’s immunity from Washington and Brussels criticism. Washington recently sanctioned Aleksandar Vulin, Director of Belgrade’s Security Intelligence Agency, for corruption, drug and arms trafficking, and supporting Russia’s malign influence. That was a step in the right direction. The EU should do likewise. A public demand for Vulin’s removal as well as for the arrest and extradition to Kosovo of the thugs who attacked NATO peacekeepers in May would be another.

Possible benefits

Rebalancing toward Serbia and the RS would have the great virtue of testing not only their intentions, but also Moscow’s and Beijing’s. Moscow under current conditions is not going to want to increase funding to the RS. China hopes to use Serbia as an entry point to Europe. Beijing might think twice about investing in a Serbia that is on the outs with the EU. We could well be happily surprised if China and Russia decide to cut their losses and leave Serbia and the RS on the Western side of the new division of Europe. If they don’t, we will at least have saddled them with significant burdens.

Rebalancing could also help to revive the moribund dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. Washington and Brussels have focused their pressure on Pristina, which has no hedging option and has traditionally bandwagoned with the West. There is a long history of Pristina responding better to carrots than sticks. Even longer is the history of Belgrade responding better to sticks than carrots. If Vucic saw Washington and Brussels coming after him with a stick rather than carrots, he would be inclined to hedge more in their direction. Tough love would bring better results than appeasement.


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 his 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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