How Europe’s Next War Could Start In The Balkans

by Muhammad Shahzad
The situation in Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in 2008 and has a substantial ethnic Serb minority, has been complex due to Serbia’s continued claim that Kosovo is its territory in open rebellion. The deadly gunfight between Kosovo police and Serb paramilitaries in April 2023, and the discovery of weapons and equipment allegedly belonging to the Serb militants, led to accusations of support from the Serbian government. Despite these tensions, Serbia’s government hailed the attack as a form of legitimate resistance, further escalating the situation. The tense situation between Serbia and Kosovo has resulted in military buildups and threats of invasion. Serbia has amassed troops and heavy artillery on its border with Kosovo, roughly doubling its military presence. This has led to fears of a potential Serbian invasion, with Kosovo’s weakness lying in its reliance on NATO peacekeeping troops for defense and the United States’ oppositional stance towards Bosnian Serb secessionists. The crisis came to a head when the United States authorized the sale of anti-tank weapons to Kosovo to better defend itself, prompting Serbia to withdraw troops from the border. However, tensions remain high in nearby Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the leader of the Serb-majority Republic of Srpska has threatened secession. The United States has made it clear that it opposes any such secession, and the possibility of renewed conflict in the deeply divided and ethnically sectarian country remains a concern. The Western Balkans have historically been a volatile region and the ongoing tensions could potentially trigger another violent conflict in Europe. Serbia tried to annex territories in Croatia and Bosnia to create a greater Serbia, while Croatia and Bosnians wanted to establish their states. This resulted in the deaths of over 120,000 people and the displacement of millions. Serbia supported these secession attempts through military action, leading to connected but separate wars in Croatia and Bosnia. The Croatian Serbs attempted to ethnically cleanse their territories, resulting in a massive demographic shift. In Bosnia, a bloody civil war ensued between Muslim Bosnians, Catholic Croats, and Orthodox Serbs. The war came to an end with the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995, which created a highly decentralized Bosnia and Herzegovina, made up of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, dominated by the Bosnians and Croats, and the Republic of Srpska, dominated by the Serbs. The Bosnian Constitution, still in place today, explicitly outlaws any secession attempts from the country. To prevent the country from collapsing back into war, the Dayton Peace Accords established the position of the High Representative, an internationally-appointed political authority wielding sweeping powers, who is responsible for enforcing the peace agreement. This system was designed to keep Bosnia’s previously warring and genocidal parties together, but it has been criticized for resembling a colonial protectorate rather than an independent country. The wars in Bosnia and Croatia led to another major conflict in 1998, in Kosovo, where the ethnic Albanian majority initiated an armed insurgency, and the Serbs responded with retaliation. In the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo when the Serbian Army and police forcibly expelled around 860,000 Kosovar Albanians from their homes, NATO demanded their departure and the deployment of peacekeepers to restore peace. Though lacking UN approval due to Russian and Chinese vetoes, NATO proceeded with an aerial campaign, killing over a thousand Serbian soldiers, police, and civilians while sustaining minimal losses. The Serbian economy suffered losses of approximately $29.6 billion, and the conflict led to the displacement of nearly the entire Albanian population. NATO forces remained in Kosovo, protecting the Albanian population and facilitating their return. However, the actions set crucial precedents. Serbia, despite not initiating hostilities, was attacked without UN approval, and NATO extended its territorial reach, resulting in paranoia from affected countries, particularly Russia. This pattern would continue, eventually leading to conflicts like the ongoing war on the Russia-NATO border in Ukraine.
Montenegro peacefully declared its independence from Serbia in 2006, whereas Kosovo did so unilaterally without Serbia’s permission. While most European Union and NATO countries have recognized Kosovo’s independence, some notable exceptions – Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain – fear the precedent it sets for their territorial disputes and ethnic minorities. Kosovo remains a non-member of the United Nations and faces diplomatic challenges due to these unrecognized statuses. The dispute between Kosovo and Serbia has led to tensions with countries like Russia, China, and Armenia, citing the potential implications it could have on their separatist movements. Russia specifically has used Kosovo’s independence as a justification for its actions in Georgia and Crimea. The unilateral separation of Kosovo from Serbia continues to have geopolitical ripple effects and uncertainty around the world. Following Kosovo’s unilateral secession from Serbia in 1999, the Serb-dominated Republic of Serbska within Bosnia grew emboldened. Its leader, Milorad Dodik, has frequently asserted that if the Albanians and Kosovo deserved the right to self-determination, so too should the Serbs of the Republic of Serbska. In response to this threat, NATO, the United States, and the Peace Implementation Council have maintained that the Republic of Serbska has no legal right to secession. If the Bosnian Serbs were to attempt secession again, it could trigger a resumption of the war in Bosnia, which ended in 1995 after killing more than 100,000 people. The Bosnian Serbs would take roughly half of the country’s territory, despite making up only about 31% of the population. This conflict could have serious consequences for the Bosniacs, who would be left with a vulnerable and fragmented independent state, with no clear support from neighboring countries. The potential for further violence and instability in the region is a cause for concern. The Bosniaks are stated to have strong objections to the Republic of CSA (Republic of the Serbian Entity) leaving and dissolving Bosnia and Herzegovina, and they would go to great lengths to prevent it, including the resumption of war. The primary issue in the western Balkans is the uneven distribution of ethnicities beyond their respective nation-states, with many yearning to unite with their motherlands. Serbia continues to claim all of Kosovo’s territory, and the leader of the Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, openly threatens to secede and join Serbia. He has also refused to recognize the peace implementation council’s high representative and blocked their decrees from being implemented. The European Union peacekeeping force in Bosnia is minimal, and it’s unclear what would prevent Dodik from seceding and potentially destroying the country. There are also significant populations of Croats, Albanians, and Bosniacs in the region, adding to the complex ethnic tapestry and potential for conflict. Brussels has made it clear that both sides must fully normalize their relations, including Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence, for them to join the European Union. However, negotiations have been stalled due to these unresolved issues, with Kosovo hesitant to grant autonomy to ethnic Serbs in the north for fear of losing sovereignty and Serbia unwilling to recognize Kosovo’s independence without a territorial and population exchange deal. Serbia’s military relationships with Russia and China further complicate the situation. The lack of progress on the dispute risks creating a volatile situation in the Balkans, with Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina remaining the only countries in the region yet to join NATO. The possibility of war breaking out over the future of the Serbs in Bosnia or Kosovo is a concern, with both sides still nursing fresh memories of the conflicts from the 1990s. Serbia’s acquisition of Chinese military equipment adds to Western concerns about Serbia’s intentions. The deadlock in negotiations and the continued tensions raise the possibility of a new conflict in Europe. There is potential for a territorial and population exchange agreement between Serbia and Kosovo as a solution to the longstanding conflict. The logic of this solution could lead to peace between Serbia and Kosovo but could also spark a war in Bosnia. If the Serbian-dominated Republic of Serbs in Bosnia held an independence referendum and seceded from Bosnia, no clear force would stop them, potentially leading to another major conflict in the region. Furthermore, there is also the possibility of territorial changes, including a greater Croatia and a greater Serbia, which could lead to the secession of other ethnic groups and create a domino effect of instability throughout the Balkans. The history of border disputes and ethnic tensions in the region, which led to devastating wars in the 1990s, makes discussing redrawing borders a sensitive issue with the potential for unintended consequences.

Muhammad Shahzad Akram

Muhammad Shahzad Akram is a researcher at CISS-AJK. He holds an MPhil degree in International Relations from Quaid I Azam University, Islamabad.

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Center for International Strategic Studies AJK, King Abdullah Campus Chatter kalas Muzaffarabad, Azad Jammu and Kashmir