In the 1990s, the West was slow to respond to the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. After much bloodshed, it eventually launched air strikes against Serb forces in Bosnia in 1995 and in Serbia and Kosovo in 1999, deploying tens of thousands of NATO forces to oversee the armistice and stabilize the region. In subsequent years, the United States and the European Union spent billions of dollars to help rebuild the region. Although they were often justifiably criticized for focusing on short-term solutions, their efforts were fundamental to ensuring the safety and stability of the Balkans.
But their attention waned. The United States, focusing more on its operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, had pulled out of operational engagement by 2010. It handed over responsibility to the European Union, which was supposed to ensure the region’s long-term stability by accepting its own countries joining it. Bloc. However, by 2019, as the European Union struggled with its own problems and divisions, it had become clear that the show had effectively been taken off the table.
Denied their European dream and denied full access to the bloc’s common market, Balkan leaders have reverted to the nationalism and populism of the past. The rule of law, human rights, and other key democratic principles fell by the wayside. In multi-ethnic countries with incomplete national projects, such as Bosnia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Kosovo, ethno-political divisions have exacerbated.
However, the main responsibility lies with the states themselves, especially their political representatives and their media, who based their popularity on spreading hostility towards other ethnic groups. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, ethno-nationalism has taken center stage. Mr. Dodik is not alone in his extremist ways: Muslim Bosniaks, the largest ethnic group, have moved for a united state, and Bosnian Croats have demanded autonomy for a Croatian region.
Crucially, the concession of the West not only allowed for democratic backsliding but also opened the region to other outside powers. Russia has shown a clear interest, establishing strong political influence in all Serb-populated parts of the region, while Turkey, the Gulf states, and Iran have done the same in Muslim-populated areas. China, using political pragmatism and its abundant economic resources, has become a major presence throughout the region. Moreover, Croatia and Serbia in particular began interfering in the internal politics of neighboring countries, increasing regional tensions.