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Belgrade Media Report 28 February

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LOCAL PRESS

• Vucic: It is not my job to stop Dodik, but to speak on behalf of Belgrade (RTS)
• Joksimovic: Confirming clear European perspective for Western Balkans (Tanjug)
• V4 advocates quicker accession process for all Western Balkan countries (Beta)

REGIONAL PRESS

Bosnia & Herzegovina
• Dodik reacts to HR’s statement: Bonn Powers are past, I will fight against Inzko and against anyone else (ATV)
• Dodik’s statements at his Thursday’s press conference cause reactions of B&H politicians (N1)
• Komsic, Dzaferovic host reception on occasion of B&H Independence Day, Dodik fails to attend it (N1)
• Dodik: Reception in Presidency is private party organized by Dzaferovic and Komsic (Srna)
• Komsic: Fight for independence of B&H ended because B&H is sovereign and independent country (Hayat)
• Dzaferovic: Current political moment in B&H is very difficult (BHT1)
Montenegro
• Brajovic: Support should be expressed in the elections, not on streets (CdM)
Republic of North Macedonia
• Spanish Congress of Deputies ratifies NATO Accession Protocol (Republika)
Albania
• Cakaj at Visegard 4 focuses on Albania’s EU accession and visa liberalization for Kosovo (Radio Tirana)
• German delegation: Germany will continue to support Albania in its EU accession process (Radio Tirana)

INTERNATIONAL MEDIA SOURCES

• Kosovo: Statement by the Spokesperson on the announcement to lift import tariffs (EEAS)
• Bosnia’s ‘Second Collapse’ is Starting to Look Inevitable (BIRN)

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LOCAL PRESS

 

Vucic: It is not my job to stop Dodik, but to speak on behalf of Belgrade (RTS)

 

SDA leader Bakir Izetbegovic, SBB B&H leader Fahrudin Radoncic, and DF leader Zeljko Komsic accused Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic on Wednesday of having a mild reaction to SNSD leader Milorad Dodik’s secessionist statements. Addressing media on Thursday, Vucic reacted to the accusations and said that he is fed up with moral lessons from “those who have least right” to lecture him. Vucic noted that it is not his job to prevent or not to prevent Dodik from doing something, but rather that his job is to speak on behalf of Serbia. Vucic reiterated that Serbia respects the Dayton Peace Accords (DPA), including B&H and integrity of the RS within that country. “Every time I did my best to act in the fairest way possible”, he noted. Vucic also said that there is a campaign in the region to accuse Serbia of all problems. Commenting Izetbegovic’s criticism that his reactions to secession threats were mild, Vucic stated: “When we ask them what I did or said, there is no answer to that. Instead, they ask why I failed to prevent Dodik. It is not my job to prevent or not to prevent Dodik. My job is to talk on behalf of Serbia. You cannot be telling me what to say on behalf of Serbia.”

 

Joksimovic: Confirming clear European perspective for Western Balkans (Tanjug)

 

Serbian Minister for European Integration Jadranka Joksimovic led on Thursday a delegation of Serbia at a meeting of foreign ministers of the countries of the Visegrad Group (Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland) and the Western Balkans in Prague. The meeting, which focused on an EU enlargement methodology proposed by the European Commission, was attended by new EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi, representatives of the Western Balkan countries and representatives of Austria, Slovenia and Croatia, which currently holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union. Joksimovic stated that the participation of our delegation in this meeting is important as the countries of the Visegrad Group proved to be honest friends of the EU enlargement policy, the region and our country. For Serbia it is important to see how exactly that new model would be applied on what has been achieved until now with the opening of the negotiation chapters, Joksimovic said and noted that Serbia is not negative about the new methodology and that it also sees its advantages. She said that Serbia will decide on this after the new progressive, stimulating economic plan for the Western Balkans has been presented at the summit in Zagreb and after we see which funds will be opened. According to her, Serbia has undoubtedly showed that it has the first-class capabilities for both integration and for reforms and is absolutely not interested in artificial competitions in the region. Joksimovic recalled that Serbia’s public debt has been significantly reduced, that the unemployment rate is dropping considerably, that serious reforms have been made in the areas that are a new trend in the economies of both Europe and the world – innovation, digitalization and generally a new type of jobs, as well as in the field of democracy and the rule of law.

She reiterated that the issue is not who will enter the EU first and added that judging by all parameters Serbia is the country with the greatest capacity in the region and is undoubtedly the regional leader. It is essential that the citizens feel even more benefits from European integration and that is why the national investment plan to 2025 has been presented and that is why Serbia remains on the European path in order to make even deeper reforms and create even more benefits for its citizens.

 

V4 advocates quicker accession process for all Western Balkan countries (Beta)

 

The EU commissioner for Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi and the foreign ministers of the Visegrad Four agreed after the meeting with the foreign ministers of the Western Balkan countries in Prague, that they would request that the European Union reaches consensus at its summit in March, for the start of negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, and for the speeding up of the negotiations of other candidate countries. Both countries have fulfilled the criteria, there is no reason to postpone the start of negotiations any further. It is important that European countries reach consensus at the summit in March, the Czech foreign minister, Tomas Petricek, stated after the ministerial meeting of the Visegrad Four and countries of the Western Balkans. The foreign ministers of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, and Europe’s Varhelyi, concurred that the Union’s enlargement in the Western Balkans was the strategic interest of the Union itself and, for the Western Balkans, enlargement is the path towards the stabilization of the region and of the whole of Europe. A memorandum was signed at the end of the meeting, on cooperation between the Western Balkans Fund and the International Visegrad Fund, while the executive directors of both funds informed the ministers about projects for strengthening the civil society in the Western Balkans and about the continuing of cooperation between the two funds.

 

REGIONAL PRESS

 

Dodik reacts to HR’s statement: Bonn Powers are past, I will fight against Inzko and against anyone else  (ATV)

 

After High Representative (HR) in B&H Valentin Inzko said that Serb member of the B&H Presidency Milorad Dodik “crossed the red line” by announcing he will not abide by the decisions of the Constitutional Court (CC) of B&H, Dodik responded, saying Inzko is attacking and undermining the constitutional order and fundamental freedoms of people in B&H and is exercising double standards. “Inzko hears only the things which we say but does not hear when they say that they will take up arms and provoke a war. Instead of calling for an agreement and asking why we are not satisfied with the decisions of the B&H CC he is threatening with disciplining the RS and this cannot be done,” Dodik underlined. He also stated (at the press conference held in Banja Luka on Thursday) that leaders of SDA, DF and SBB B&H, Bakir Izetbegovic, Zeljko Komsic and Fahrudin Radoncic respectively, had committed a joint attack on Serbia and its President Aleksandar Vucic with the aim of destabilizing Serbia. “The attack on Serbia and its president is an attempt to make Serbia collapse. Izetbegovic is bothered by stable and strong Serbia. If they remove Vucic, Serbia will enter a long period of instability and they favor  instable Serbia,” Dodik told a press conference in Banja Luka. Dodik said B&H is a “failed country” and many people in the world believe it to be “unsustainable”. He expressed satisfaction over the unity in the RS, as all political subjects in this entity proved they are willing to stand together, gathered around a platform that says the RS will no longer stand by and allow its rights to be reduced. “For them, the only thing that is acceptable is for us to stand, be quiet and to applaud to every situation in which our competencies are taken from us. For us to just get up one day and realize the RS is no more”, Dodik told the reporters. He promises such scenario will never take place. He also added that the RS is stable and strong, that it will persevere in this political fight, rejecting all talks on the new war in BiH. He said Izetbegovic is the one that made up the story of further conflicts in the country. Dodik underlined that the RS has no plan for secession, not one decision was made in regards to that and the RS is committed to the original Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA).

 

Dodik’s statements at his Thursday’s press conference cause reactions of B&H politicians (N1)

 

Commenting Izetbegovic’s statement where he defined Banja Luka as “seher” (Note: Word used in Ottoman period for urban area), Serb member of the B&H Presidency Milorad Dodik said that Banja Luka was never and will never be seher. “It does not belong to (Bakir) Izetbegovic, but to Serbs, Serb people and the RS. It belongs more to and supports Vucic more than it ever supported Izetbegovic and his followers”, explained Dodik. “Their policy is continuation of Islamic Declaration written by Alija Izetbegovic that was imposed and accepted by part of the international community (IC)”, emphasized member of B&H Presidency Dodik. Dodik’s statement about Banja Luka sparked reactions on Thursday afternoon. Vice President of the RS Ramiz Salkic said that similar statements have been inciting religious and ethnic hatred.

 

Komsic, Dzaferovic host reception on occasion of B&H Independence Day, Dodik fails to attend it (N1)

 

On the occasion of 1 March – the Independence Day of B&H, solemn reception was organized in premises of the Presidency of B&H on Thursday evening. Hosts of this event were members of B&H Presidency Zeljko Komsic and Sefik Dzaferovic. Reporter noted that same as it was the case in previous years, member of B&H Presidency from the rank of Serbs did not attend this reception.

 

Dodik: Reception in Presidency is private party organized by Dzaferovic and Komsic (Srna)

 

In a statement for Srna, Dodik commented on the reception organized by Komsic and Dzaferovic on the occasion of so called Independence Day of B&H – 1 March. Dodik stated that this is a private party organized by Dzaferovic and Komsic, adding that for Serbs the date they celebrate represents a symbol of the beginning of a civil war and outvoting of one of three constituent peoples. He reminded that joint institutions have never adopted the law defining 1 March as some holiday in B&H.

 

Komsic: Fight for independence of B&H ended because B&H is sovereign and independent country (Hayat)

 

Chairman of the B&H Presidency Zeljko Komsic was guest of the Hayat central news via a video link from the building of the B&H Presidency that hosted a reception on Thursday. Komsic stated that the fight for independence of B&H ended because B&H is a sovereign and an independent country, but the fight for a better, more organized and more prosperous B&H is still underway. Komsic added: “Of course, if the fight for independence  of B&H comes again into question, we know what will be the response. This is not disputable and everyone understands this which is why I hope that no one will play with the devil when we talk about independence of B&H. We can politically confront, argue, present different ideas and this is not a problem, but to speak about secession of a part of the country, about dissolution of B&H, i.e. jeopardizing its territorial integrity and sovereignty and thus, independence, is a devil’s play. I would not play this game and my advice is to not to start this game. It started in 1992 in a difficult way, a bloody way and way more weapons and bigger powers was behind those who wanted to destroy B&H and yet, they failed. Therefore, they will not succeed to ruin B&H now, especially not because so many years of independence of B&H”.

 

Dzaferovic: Current political moment in B&H is very difficult (BHT1)

 

Commenting on the current political atmosphere in B&H, Bosniak member of the B&H Presidency Sefik Dzaferovic (SDA), stated that the current political moment is very difficult, but he reminded that B&H “had more difficult political moments in the past”. Dzaferovic called on “those who provoked such a situation” to enable the B&H institutions to function, in order to deal with important issues such as economy, the European path and the NATO path. According to the Bosniak member of the Presidency, politicians are not expected to create destabilization and nothing can be achieved through blackmail and ultimatums.

 

Brajovic: Support should be expressed in the elections, not on streets (CdM)

 

Support for the politics and vision of the development of the society must be expressed in the elections, not on the streets, Ivan Brajovic, President of Montenegro’s parliament said during the meeting with the ambassadors of EU and NATO member states and head of the EU delegation to Montenegro. Brajovic said that citizens had delegated responsibility to opposition parties, not only the governing majority. “In a real democratic society, voice of the opposition must be heard as well. Our actions should be in favor of civil society and our citizens, regardless of the political affinity. We are ready for the dialogue. But we need the other side to have clearly defines views and straightforward policy,” Brajovic stresses. Montenegro is faced with further strengthening of the institutions, rule of law, economy and media work. “Governing structures have demonstrated high degree of understanding and tolerance. However, scores of citizens usually send offensive messages. I must say that we are glad that protests are peaceful, mostly thanks to state institutions,” Brajovic said. With the aim of framing its national and state identity, strengthening institutions and rule of law, Montenegro adopted Law on Freedom of Religion and Legal Status of Religious Communities. “That is how we show that we respect right to expression of opinion,” Brajovic stated. Head of the EU delegation to Montenegro, Aivo Orav, pointed out that it had been confirmed many times that enlargement policy was high on the agenda of the new European Commission. He thanked Montenegro for being important EU partner and praised its efforts at international level. Ambassador pointed out that dialogue was very important element for Montenegro and the region. “The EU delegation is monitoring the situation in Montenegro closely and urges all parties to come to solution,” Orav said. In introductory address to the resident ambassadors, Andrija Nikolic, president of the Committee on International Relations, said that nationalist rhetoric was still on the rise in the region. “It is necessary to react and anticipate certain processes that could sabotage further EU orientation of the Western Balkans,” Nikolic pointed out. He pointed out that enlargement policy should remain high on the EU agenda. “I firmly believe there’s always space for the EU to take more decisive approach to its most successful policy – the enlargement policy,” Nikolic said.

 

Spanish Congress of Deputies ratifies NATO Accession Protocol (Republika)

 

The Congress of Deputies, the lower house of the Spanish parliament, ratified Macedonia’s NATO Accession Protocol early on Thursday. The lower house in Madrid, ratified the NATO accession protocol this morning with 279 votes IN FAVOR and 1 against! Muchas Gracias! Next and last stop: The Senate… Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov wrote on Facebook. Spain is the last NATO member state that has not ratified the Accession Protocol yet. The process has been delayed due to the elections and the formation of the government. The protocol in our country was ratified with delay effect because of the Parliament dissolution and early parliamentary elections.

 

Cakaj at Visegard 4 focuses on Albania’s EU accession and visa liberalization for Kosovo (Radio Tirana)

 

Acting Foreign Minister for Europe Gent Cakaj attended a meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the Visegrad (V4) and Western Balkans countries, which took place in Prague. The meeting reiterated the support of the Visegrad countries for the European perspective of the Western Balkans, as well as the support for the opening of negotiations for Albania’s accession to the European Union. Cakaj emphasized that he raised two main issues  at the meeting, related to the region. First, Cakaj focused on the importance of opening negotiations for Albania’s membership in the European Union. “Albania, as the European Commission has confirmed so far, has fulfilled all the conditions necessary to start accession talks. The adoption of the new methodology has created a new political momentum within the European Union, which should be used anyway,” said Cakaj. Secondly, Cakaj emphasized the necessity of visa liberalization with the Republic of Kosovo, since Kosovo has met all the conditions necessary to ensure free movement. So any delay, according to him, would be unfair. “I also underlined that the Kosovo-Serbia agreement should not end with anything less than mutual recognition,” Cakaj said.

 

German delegation: Germany will continue to support Albania in its EU accession process (Radio Tirana)

 

Germany will continue to support Albania in its accession to the EU. That is the statement issued by the two representatives of the ruling Federal Land CDU-FDP coalition with the largest number of residents in Germany, North Rhine-Westphalia, who visited Albania from 25 to 27 February. During their visit to Albania, they held talks with representatives of the government, opposition and civil society to get information on Albania’s current situation and the situation following the November earthquake. Part of the program was a visit to the Port of Durres, during which the delegation spoke with the Port Authority’s directorate and the two German firms operating at the Ferry Terminal and one of the Cargo Terminals. At the close of their talks and shortly before departure, Deputy Minister Joachim Stamp and Minister for Federal, European and International Affairs Stephan Hothoff-Pförtner said: “There are very close relations between our Federal Land, Nordrhein-Westphalen and Albania. With this visit we wanted to demonstrate a sign of solidarity and confirm that we stand firmly on the side of Albania. This is especially true after the severe November earthquake. But Germany will continue to support Albania in its EU accession. It is essential that all political forces cooperate constructively, sit down and push the course of reforms in the country.”

 

INTERNATIONAL MEDIA SOURCES

 

Kosovo: Statement by the Spokesperson on the announcement to lift import tariffs (EEAS, 28 February 2020)

 

Prime Minister Albin Kurti has announced on Thursday that Kosovo would lift tariffs on imports of raw materials from Serbia and from Bosnia and Herzegovina. We welcome this announcement as a first step and are looking forward to seeing more details. This step could have a positive effect on restoring regional trade and offer an opening for the resumption of the Dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina facilitated by the European Union. Too much time has been lost. Trust needs to be urgently restored. Serbia and Kosovo need to create an environment that is conducive for the Dialogue to resume, to the benefit of both. High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell stands ready to play his role as the facilitator of the Dialogue on behalf of the EU.

 

Bosnia’s ‘Second Collapse’ is Starting to Look Inevitable (BIRN, by Timothy Less, 28 February 2020)

 

As the external scaffolding propping up a united Bosnia falls away, Serbian threats to secede from it have never looked so realistic.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is heading for its second collapse, three decades after the independent state first disintegrated, at the moment of its birth. The trigger is the ruling of Bosnia’s Constitutional Court, that publicly owned agricultural land in the Republika Srpska, RS, is the property of the Bosnian state rather than the RS itself, a decision which undermines the Serbs’ claim on their territory. The ruling followed an appeal by Bosniak parliamentarians, which passed with the support of the non-Serb members of the nine-judge panel, including three foreign judges. The Serbs claimed the decision was political and, in response, the Bosnian Serb leader, Milorad Dodik, backed by Republika Srpska’s parliament, the Serbian Orthodox Church and much of the electorate, has issued an ultimatum to the Bosniaks: agree to the removal of the foreign judges from the Constitutional Court within 60 days or the RS will unilaterally restore its full autonomy and initiate a referendum on independence. In the meantime, the RS parliament has called on Bosnian Serbs not to participate in state institutions, rendering them ineffective.

It is easy to dismiss this as yet another empty threat in a succession of rhetorical demands by Dodik for the Republika Srpska’s independence, dating back to the mid-2000s. Instead of ignoring the Constitutional Court ruling, as he is free to do, Dodik is distracting Bosnian Serbs from their economic hardships by manufacturing a crisis, then reaping the rewards in local elections due in October. However, this analysis misses the broader strategic picture – that the external scaffolding supporting the Bosnian state has all but collapsed, creating circumstances in which the RS can break away from Bosnia.

 

Battle of wills that began at Dayton:

In common with other secessionist groups, the Bosnian Serbs view themselves as a separate political community whose interests are irreconcilable with those of the majority group, the Bosniaks. In the early-1990s, they fought a war not to be part of the newly independent state of Bosnia and the reason they remain in the country is only because they failed to win this war outright. Instead, the conflict ended with a reluctant compromise, the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement, in which Bosnian Serbs gained far-reaching autonomy but within a formally unified Bosnian state. This triggered a short-lived internecine dispute between Serb hardliners who rejected Dayton because it conceded too much and moderates who accepted Dayton because it gave the Bosnian Serbs de facto independence. The second camp prevailed, spearheaded by Dodik, who argued that Bosnian Serbs should give their consent to the Bosnian state on the terms set out in Dayton. However, the settlement was unacceptable to most Bosniaks who refused to cede control of territory they considered an integral part of their homeland and on which they had lived in large numbers until they were brutally expelled during the war.

Over time, the West also cooled on the Dayton settlement because its multiple layers of government led to serious inefficiencies and its complex system of checks and balances, including ethnic quorums and national vetoes, allowed groups with divergent interests to block decision-making in the shared institutions. That posed an insurmountable obstacle to Bosnia’s integration with the EU and NATO, the Europeans’ and Americans’ exit strategy from the country. As a consequence, in the late-1990s, the West awarded itself powers to reform the institutions of state, transferring competencies from lower levels of government to central institutions and limiting the right of national groups to block legislation. However, the Serbs never accepted these reforms, which were imposed under duress. When the West eventually released its grip on Bosnia in 2006, and politics was again domesticated, Dodik started demanding a restoration of the earlier settlement, backing it up by threats of secession.

Unsurprisingly, the Bosniaks refused and have instead used all available political, legal and diplomatic means to continue the process of centralisation, which the West began. In turn, the Serbs have resisted this, leading to an agonising battle of wills that has retarded Bosnia’s political, social and economic development. The Bosniaks cannot win this battle because the basic balance of power on the ground favours those who want to break the Bosnian state rather than those who want to make it. The Bosniak goal, of establishing a democratic, multi-ethnic society, requires the active cooperation of the Serbs and Croats, and both groups are withholding this. But the Serbs do not need the cooperation of the Bosniaks for their plans. If the Bosniaks refuse to restore the original Dayton settlement, the Serbs have the option of unilaterally detaching their territory from Bosnia and uniting it with their mother state across the border. At some point, Dodik concluded that, if the Serbs cannot live in Bosnia on the terms set out in Dayton, by consequence they must leave.

 

Outsiders, not Bosniaks, are the Serb’s main obstacle:

In contrast to other secessionist disputes, the main constraint on the eventual Serb secession move has not been the opposition of the majority group, since the Bosniaks are too weak and divided to hold the Bosnian state together by force, but the opposition of outsiders, whose actions have rendered RS independence all but impossible. The United States, the ultimate guarantor of security in the Balkans, has maintained an implicit threat of punishment against the Serbs, including physical attack, if they attempt to secede. Russia, traditionally the Serbs’ main external sponsor, has opposed any breakup of Bosnia, initially because of its desire for good relations with the West and later because it wanted the Bosnian Serbs to stay put and block NATO membership for the whole of the country. Meanwhile, the Europeans offered the Balkan countries the chance to become EU members, with all the benefits that this implied – stability, good governance, prosperity and national unification within a borderless union – in return for abandoning nationalism and adopting a Western political and economic model. The EU’s offer had little impact in Bosnia, where politics remained fixated on the primary questions of population, borders and sovereignty. However, first Croatia and then Serbia accepted the Brussels’s proposal, and subsequently repudiated the secessionist ambitions of their compatriots in Bosnia. This constituted an insurmountable obstacle to the Bosnian Serbs’ and Croats’ goals, because they relied on their mother states to support them, politically, financially and, if necessary, militarily following any break from the rest of Bosnia. In a further complication for the Serbs, Serbia itself was forced last decade into a struggle with the US and others to retain its sovereignty over the former province of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008. As a matter of principle, Belgrade could not simultaneously oppose the partition of Serbia along national lines, and support partition in Bosnia. Nor could Serbia afford to alienate the US, which ultimately held the key to Kosovo’s future, by jeopardising Washington’s Bosnian state-building project.

 

Window of opportunity for Serbs has opened:

However, the position of these various external actors changed decisively in the second half of the last decade, creating a window of opportunity for the Serbs to make a break. Most importantly, the US made three key innovations to its policy. The first was to end its threat of physical attack on the Serbs, although, in truth, this shift was a long time coming. The risk to the RS fell dramatically with the withdrawal of US forces from Bosnia in 2006. By the time of Barack Obama’s presidency, aversion to overseas military interventions meant the threat was largely theoretical. However, the risk was all but eliminated with the election of Donald Trump and his rejection of “stupid wars” in peripheral regions like the Balkans. Questioned about Montenegro’s membership of NATO, Trump asked why he should deploy American forces to a “tiny country” with “very aggressive” people. In theory, the US could still impose a lesser punishment on the RS, such as sanctions. But Washington has already enacted a travel ban and asset freeze on Dodik, to little avail, and the White House is unlikely to advocate economic sanctions on a population that is acting peacefully and poses no direct threat to the US. The second innovation in American policy is its decision to fight the “New Cold War” in the Balkans, following the escalation of tensions with Russia, which the US now sees as the primary threat to the region’s stability. Following successes in Montenegro and North Macedonia, the US is now focused on neutralising Russia’s influence in Serbia, by getting it to recognise Kosovo and resolving the issue that gives Russia leverage over Serbian foreign policy. That has led to the third innovation – the end of Washington’s commitment to upholding multi-ethnicity in the Balkans, following its agreement to the partition of Kosovo. In part, this is a matter of practicality: Washington now accepts that if Serbia is to recognise Kosovo, it will need something in return, such as the Serb-dominated north of the country. It is also a matter of ideology: as a nationalist, Trump has little interest in multiculturalism and, as a disruptor, he cares nothing for preserving the reputations of officials in the State Department invested in the success of a multi-ethnic Bosnia. Meanwhile, in Europe, the EU has withdrawn its earlier offer of membership for the Balkans because of the growing resistance of powerful EU members to the region’s integration. France is the main opponent because it believes that eastward enlargement weakens the EU, and France’s position within the EU, and upsets the delicate balance of power between France and Germany, the main beneficiary of enlargement. Significantly, France has a democratic mandate for its stance because a majority of European citizens also oppose the integration of the Balkans due to its association with immigration, organised crime and political instability. Until 2018, Paris toed the EU line on enlargement to avoid a dispute with Germany and the UK, both supporters of the policy. However, with Germany politically paralysed and the UK gone, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, is now free to block the EU’s expansion into the Balkans. Formaly, Macron has not imposed an absolute veto on enlargement, and will probably allow the process to proceed in bureaucratic terms on the basis of a new, stricter methodology. However, a succession of public comments by Macron in recent weeks makes it clear that France does not want the Balkans to join the EU, and the new methodology will allow Paris to string the accession process out indefinitely. These international developments have inevitably had consequences for Serbia’s regional policy. Washington’s decision to neutralise Russian influence in the country has significantly strengthened Belgrade’s position since it is in Serbia’s gift to decide whether or not to end its relationship with Russia and, by extension, whether US policy succeeds or not. Meanwhile, France and others have removed the main incentive for Serbia to abandon nationalism in pursuit of an alternative future inside the European Union. Predictably, Belgrade has responded by reviving its historic goal of establishing a Serbian national state. If EU membership is off, Serbia has nothing to lose by redirecting its energies towards the unfinished business of the 1990s. At the same time, Serbia is able to leverage the US into supporting its plans, by making this the condition for Serbia’s support for Washington’s own plans. That has already forced the US into agreeing to Belgrade’s demand for a partition of Kosovo along national lines. However, this is unlikely to be the only item on Serbia’s wish list, because most Serbs outside Serbia live in Bosnia. For now, Belgrade is refraining from making explicit claims on the RS. It does not want to open up the Bosnian question just yet because it needs Washington’s help with partitioning Kosovo. However, at some point, the issue will become unavoidable, as the Belgrade government will have to gain the Serbian people’s consent for recognition of Kosovo, and they will demand compensation in kind, which will have to be the RS. As for Russia, its commitment to Bosnia’s territorial integrity is in the balance. Its desire to halt the advance of NATO still favours a policy of opposition to RS independence. However, Moscow’s position in the Balkans is not strong enough to determine political outcomes, but only to turn developments to its own advantage. Accordingly, if Serbs on both sides of the river Drina make clear their intention to unite, Russia will have to make the best of that new reality and recalculate its policy towards the Serbs. That means only one thing; ensuring that, if there is to be an expanded Serbia, that Russia is the new state’s main external sponsor, to prevent it from joining NATO. In the background to all this is Croatia, which has now adopted a revisionist position towards Bosnia and is in open dispute with the Bosniaks. The nub of the issue is Croatia’s concern that the position of the Bosnian Croats is deteriorating severely, with little chance of salvation in the form of Bosnia’s EU membership. This has led politicians in Zagreb to push the idea of a Croat entity in Bosnia as the means for Croats there to lead a normal life, under their own leaders rather than those chosen for them by Bosniaks. Unsurprisingly, Bosniaks have pushed back against a clear threat to the integrity of the state, leading to escalating tensions between Zagreb and Sarajevo. So far, this has not led Croatia to support Bosnia’s disintegration because Zagreb fears the consequences of instability on its border. To this end, it has opposed threats by RS to break away. The key question, however, is what Croatia would do if RS independence became a fait accompli and whether, against a backdrop of tense relations, Croatia would back the Bosniaks in a dispute with the Serbs.

In the current circumstances, that seems unlikely. Instead, the probability is that Croatia would ignore the Serbs and concentrate on protecting the Croats from the ensuing political fallout by informally separating their territory from the rest of Bosnia – as Croatia’s new President suggested in leaked comments back in 2016. Put together, the shift in the positions of these outside powers leaves Bosnia without any external buttress, allowing the Serbs to make a renewed bid for independence. Unlike other secessionist disputes, it does not need anyone to recognise it (although some states might) because, formally or informally, the RS will merge with Serbia. All that is required is for Serbia to accept the offer of additional territory as compensation for the loss of Kosovo – and for the Great Powers not to resist this. Once the RS leaves, Croatia will then integrate western Herzegovina into Croatia. What remains will be a new Bosniak national state, based on Sarajevo, encompassing a territory around the size of Slovenia.

 

Washington faces some difficult choices:

However, it is unlikely that the US, which has reasserted its leading role in the Balkans, will passively observe a process which could easily spiral out of control. This leaves Washington with difficult choices. The temptation will be to patch Bosnia back together with another push at Euro-Atlantic integration, renewed promises of money and pleas for reconciliation and reform. However, events have moved way beyond the point where this tried-and-failed approach might have any traction. The Serbs are on the cusp of solving their national question and will not abandon it for the sake of a few hundred million euros and empty promises of EU membership. That leads to a second option, in which the US tries to impose a new settlement on Bosnia, designed to preserve the state a while longer. To have any purchase on the Serbs, it would have to meet their core demand for a restoration of the original Dayton agreement in which the Serbs enjoyed virtual independence, with an open border and multiple linkages between the RS and Serbia. The same would go for the Croats vis-à-vis Croatia. However, this outcome would not resolve the Serbian national question but would simply shift its focus from Kosovo to Bosnia and prolong Serbia’s dependence on Russia. If Washington wants Belgrade to end its relationship with Moscow, it will have to drop its opposition to Serbian national unification and accommodate Serbia’s claims on the RS. This leaves a third option, which is to accept the disintegration of Bosnia and the emergence of a Serbian national state, and steer this development towards Washington’s desired ends, probably as part of a wider reordering of the Balkans, which includes a merger of Albania and Kosovo – a process which is well underway. In return, the US could insist that the new, enlarged Serbia drops its opposition to NATO and joins the American camp. As an offer both liberals and nationalists could accept, this would have broad support among Serbs who would readily abandon Belgrade’s relationship of convenience with Moscow for a Serbian national state, integrated with the West, in a historic sell-out of Russian interests in the region. That would constitute a definitive victory for the US on the Balkan front, to the satisfaction of the New Cold Warriors in Washington – but the price would be the breakup of a multiethnic Bosnian state. As the contest with Russia for the control of the Balkans forces the US to ride the forces of Serbian nationalism, and as the Europeans retreat from the scene, Bosnia’s second and final collapse is surely drawing near.

Timothy Less is leading the Disintegration in Europe research project at the Centre for Geopolitics and Grand Strategy at the University of Cambridge.

The opinions expressed in the comments section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

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