ANALYSIS

‘Greater’ Balkan dreams a potential nightmare

Years after the wars and the collapse of the Eastern bloc, the embers of nationalism are still burning under the surface in the Balkans

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‘With his recent statements in which he has set the unification of Albania with Kosovo in a Greater Albania as the main goal of his political career, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama has lifted the lid of a Pandora’s box of dangerous Balkan “Great Ideas.”

The reaction of the other Balkan “Great” wannabe, Belgrade, was swift: Serbia’s Internal Affairs Minister Aleksandar Vulin said that Serb unification is “the only barrier to a Great Albania.” And looming behind Belgrade was the Kremlin, which bared its teeth at Rama and the West by applauding “Belgrade’s humanitarian initiatives for the Serb people,” that is, “Greater Serbia.”

As the Serbs put it – not unfairly, in a sense: “You cannot forbid the Serbs what you allow the Albanians. And those who keep silent on Rama’s statements about creating a ‘Greater Albania’ should remain silent when we, the Serbs, talk about the ‘Serbian World.’”

Albanians and Serbs have been testing the waters at every opportunity lately, with increasing frequency, looking forward to future Balkan border realignments through which they will achieve their much desired national integration, through integration into some sort of common national home of their ethnic brethren who remain “trapped” in neighboring states, as they emerged from the bloody Yugoslav Wars and the collapse of the Eastern bloc.

Bulgarian nationalism is not far behind, reviving historical claims against North Macedonia; Croatia is waiting for the chance to expand in case of border realignments, with the aim of grabbing land from Bosnia.

It is not the first time Rama has been talking about an Albanian union the way his predecessors in Tirana and Pristina always did. Neither has Serb irredentism abandoned its dreams of domination over Balkan Slavs, and deep-seated Bulgarian nationalism has never stopped dreaming of a new Treaty of San Stefano (signed in 1878 between the Russian and Ottoman empires, and which provided for a Bulgaria much larger than its present borders). 

Ideas of irredentism have always been lurking in the Balkans, surfacing when historical and geopolitical circumstances permitted. We would like to believe that with the end of the Yugoslav Wars, when nations butchered each other in order to found their own states and were met with outside interventions, nationalism has been defused. The gradual abolition of the borders through the promised integration into the European Union was part of the Western strategy to consolidate peace and stability in the region and also to create a safe zone of influence in the land corridor from the Adriatic to the Black Sea.

‘Malicious’ players

However, the embers of nationalism are still burning under the surface and, now and then, are channeled by powerful players – or “malicious” ones, as North Macedonia’s President Stevo Pendarovski described them in an interview with Kathimerini – to further their interests. Are the high priests of Balkan irredentism sensing the troubles to come and rushing to shape their agenda?

Many see the danger of the whole post-war settlement in the area crumbling, with woeful consequences. Former US ambassador to Belgrade William Montgomery (the one who, before his appointment there, led the campaign to oust Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000) told Croatian TV recently of his fears that new conflicts could erupt in the Balkans, because, as he said, none of the problems has been solved, warning that the area is no longer a priority for US foreign policy. This fact, the gradual waning of US interest in the region in the name of other geopolitical priorities – the Pacific, China, the wider region of East Asia – makes some shudder.

It was the Americans who imposed the post-civil war Balkan map and remain the guarantors of the agreements underpinning the existing peace and stability. Like it or not, the US is the dominant power in the region and its absence will create a dangerous power void that will unleash centrifugal nationalist and irredentist forces powerful enough to plunge the area into chaos. Whether, in fact, the United States will extricate itself from the area, only it knows; however, this fear is widespread. Diplomats and politicians are anxiously trying to imagine the day after in the Balkans, without the powerful US hand on the controls, which guarantees peace and stability and maintains geopolitical alliances.

Until recently, the answer could have been: The Americans are leaving, but the French, the Germans and the European Union are coming. No longer. Western Balkan societies appear to have lost confidence in Europe. The EU powers are each engaging in their own discreet power play to further their state and economic interests. Brussels’ unwillingness to move the candidates’ membership process along has spread disappointment among the people, who sense the Europeans are fooling them. Both pro-European leaders and the people in the street appear fed up.

At one point, French President Emmanuel Macron was blocking negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia in order to haggle with Berlin; at another, Greece or Bulgaria put a stop to them because of historical conflicts; even the outgoing German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who had trumpeted the strategy of Western Balkan integration into the EU, stabbed them in the back at the recent EU-Western Balkans summit in Ljubljana by blocking the Slovenian presidency’s proposal to set 2030 as the target date for the conclusion of accession negotiations. In Western Balkan countries, the belief that “they do not want us” is prevalent.

The Russian proposal

“The United States is not so present in the area, it has other global priorities, and the Europeans rarely present a common front on many issues. The European perspective is losing its attraction and more and more people in the area are looking for other alternatives,” Pendarovski warned, alluding to the Russian proposal being bandied about in the Balkans to join the Eurasian Union.

In an atmosphere of anxiety about the next day in the Balkans, without the Americans, voices about a new border alignment to help solve the region’s three “hot” historical issues (Albanian, Macedonian, Serbian) for good are growing louder. It is no coincidence that a non-paper attributed to Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa – he denied it – was circulated last spring within diplomatic circles and media in the Western Balkans, causing a stir. Among its proposals was the “peaceful partition” of Bosnia-Herzegovina, with Croatia and Serbia annexing ethnically homogeneous territories, the union of Albania and Kosovo, and autonomy for Serb-held northern Kosovo.

“Border change would open a Pandora’s box,” said the then high representative for Bosnia, Valentin Inzko. “If someone wants to think about changing the borders, they should first visit the war cemeteries from France to Stalingrad,” while the BBC commented that the non-paper read like an “ethno-nationalist wish-list from the 1990s.”

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A woman walks past a mural vandalized with white paint depicting former Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic in Belgrade, Serbia, 10 November 2021. [Andrej Cukic/EPA]

Land swap

Why is a new territorial and population swap in the Balkans scary? The truth is that there are many conflict hotspots ready to explode, especially in two states, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, which remain unstable, Bosnia more so than Kosovo. 

“So, why not have a ‘peaceful transfer’ between the two metropolitan centers, Belgrade and Tirana, and once and for all solve the Serbian and Albanian issues, defusing the nationalism?” some say.

First, those whom this prospect frightens respond, because the ethnic mix among Balkan populations, especially in the former Yugoslavia, is such that a separation is impossible, unless it is imposed by the sword, as happened in the 1990s Yugoslav Wars, which means more conflict and more blood.

Second, let’s suppose that Albanians and Serbs somehow reach an agreement. What will the result be? The Serbs incorporate land from Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo and Montenegro and create a “Greater Serbia.” Its counterpart would be a “Greater Albania” by uniting the “mother state” with the rest of Kosovo, the western provinces of North Macedonia (Tetovo), tracts from Montenegro and southern Albania and, of course, Chameria, a region lying almost wholly within the Greek region of Epirus. As a reaction, Bulgaria claims the rest of North Macedonia, Croatia claims Herzegovina, and you have two expanded states in the Balkans and the balance of power, where no power currently dominates, is upset.

Will Greece and Turkey tolerate others growing around them, or even, in Greece’s case, at their expense? Will European, American and Russian interests allow a new geopolitical reality in the Balkans? In this case the gates of hell would open and that is why people are scared at the prospect of US withdrawal.

Repackaged nationalism

The abovementioned non-paper was not the first document to foster such scenarios and whetted appetites. Such wishes, in the form of proposals and scenarios regarding the settlement of issues, circulate from time to time, mainly from politicians and ethnic theoreticians in both Tirana and Belgrade. Recently, such proposals have been repackaged to assuage the fears of those who foresee new conflicts.

Thus, the Albanians have replaced “Greater Albania” in their rhetoric with “Natural Albania,” or, depending on the audience, with the “National Union of Albanians,” in which they include their ethnic brethren in Kosovo, North Macedonia, South Serbia, Montenegro and, the more daring ones, Greek Epirus, where almost no Chams remain but where some members of the expelled population and their descendants hope to return.

The Serbs, in the place of the Milosevic dogma “all Serbs in one Serbia,” propose the more palatable goal of a “Serbian World” that would of course mean the annexation of the parts of Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo and Montenegro where Serbs live (or used to, in the case of Croatia). This point, about the change in rhetoric but not substance, has been made clearly by Montenegro leader Milo Djukanovic.

The Bulgarians do not openly speak of a “Greater Bulgaria” but, pushed by hardcore nationalists, have entered into the agenda of bilateral relations with North Macedonia, as well as the EU, the “one nation, two states” narrative, with North Macedonia considered merely a stray sheep lost to 19th and early 20th century conflicts and which, given the right turn of history, will rejoin the national flock. This rhetoric compounds worries about a revival of nationalism, irredentism and a new Balkan madness.

Americans and Europeans have occasionally harshly criticized both Albania and Kosovo officials over irredentist statements and pronouncements about unification of the two states, but the ethnic Albanian leaders won’t modify their rhetoric. In a memorandum to Albania’s Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, the US State Department expressed its concern over the Albanian leadership’s stance, noting that it not only promotes inflammatory behavior and detracts from the region’s priorities, but that it potentially incites violence, undermines peace and stability and affects bilateral relations. The memorandum urged Albania not to force the US to denounce it publicly.

Florian C. Feyerabend, an expert on Southeastern European affairs at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, denounced Edi Rama’s statements about an Albania-Kosovo confederation in these terms: “Dreams of a Greater Albania, Greater Serbia or Greater Croatia have no place in the 21st century. We all know where Yugoslav irredentism led in the 20th century. We mourned hundreds of thousands of victims. But when these plans resurface in statements, we are concerned. The common European edifice is the exact opposite of nationalist-populist politics.”

Where will this paranoid talk lead and who, besides the Americans, can end it? For the time being, and as long as the Americans are players in the region, no one dares implement these plans, diplomatically or militarily.

Biden’s executive order

US President Joe Biden issued an executive order on June 8 (“Executive Order on Blocking Property And Suspending Entry Into The United States Of Certain Persons Contributing To The Destabilizing Situation In The Western Balkans”) that threatens with sanctions anyone who is responsible for or complicit in, or who has “directly or indirectly engaged in, a violation of, or an act that has obstructed or threatened the implementation of, any regional security, peace, cooperation, or mutual recognition agreement or framework or accountability mechanism related to the Western Balkans… including the Prespa Agreement of 2018; the Ohrid Framework Agreement of 2001; United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244; the Dayton Accords; or the Conclusions of the Peace Implementation Conference Council held in London in December 1995.”

It was a message to anyone intent on upsetting the current balance of power, that the US will not allow it to happen. 

This, however, was before the debacle in the disengagement from Afghanistan, nor had the US yet announced the pivot of its foreign policy to Southeast Asia and the Pacific, reflecting Washington’s new geopolitical priorities. Most likely, we will not see scenes like in Kabul, with American soldiers crowding airports to return home, in the near future.

However regional affairs develop, it is certain the US will not withdraw its military presence from Greece (the port of Alexandroupoli), Bulgaria and Romania, considered of utmost importance for its moves in the Bosporus, the Black Sea, Ukraine and the Caucasus. It remains to be seen what it plans to do with the Western Balkans. There, the equilibrium is so fluid and fragile, and the clash for influence with Russia such that even the perception of the Americans leaving could lead to dangerous upheaval.