Home / Europe / Trump, the Western Balkans and Russia: Reigniting the Powderkeg?

Trump, the Western Balkans and Russia: Reigniting the Powderkeg?

March 4th, 2017

By Irena Baboi – Research Assistant

The Western Balkans have been receiving their fair share of attention from the international media lately, and this time three separate events seem to have found a common denominator. A United States Congressman’s claim that Macedonia is not a country, Montenegro’s delay in accession to NATO, and the Russian-made train with the words “Kosovo is Serbia” in 21 languages have all been seen as signals that newly-elected President Donald Trump is handing the Balkans to Russia’s Vladimir Putin on a silver platter – and that the return of conflict in the region is not only inevitable, but imminent. These talks of war, however, verge on the alarmist side, with those in favour of this view clearly forgetting the toll a conflict takes on the countries and people involved. This is a region that is still recovering from recent bloodshed – and one that has more to lose than gain from its return.

All three events, in fact, are isolated ones, and all three have prompted renewed declarations of support from United States politicians and policymakers for peace and stability in the region. The integrity of Macedonia, Montenegro’s path towards European integration, and Kosovo’s independence have all been reiterated as commitments Washington intends to maintain. An uncertainty over President Trump’s foreign policy stance, however, coupled with a known interest on the part of Putin in the countries of the Western Balkans, Ukraine as the most recent example of what this can imply, and an idea that these countries are prone to conflict due to their ongoing tensions, has allowed analysts to create a doomsday scenario in which the United States’ seeming readiness to favour Russia will undoubtedly translate itself into a war that will ensure the latter’s continued and even strengthened influence in the region. Republika Srpska even made an appearance, with Bosnia-Herzegovina on the brink of collapse due to Moscow’s fuelling of nationalism and encouragement of separation.

These events are easy to explain when scratching beneath the surface. Macedonia, much like Kosovo, is an easy target for lawmakers and politicians looking to find a pressure point in the region, and the country’s long-lasting political crisis caters to a view that it will eventually implode. Montenegro’s integration into NATO is, in reality, merely a matter of time, and the delay is most likely due to different issues taking priority over the vote rather than a sufficiently hard push from Russia to oppose it. The train decorated with nationalist slogans, coupled with the responses to it, particularly from both of Serbia’s heads of state and government, become clearer when looked at in a broader context – the imaginary resumption of hostilities between Serbia and Kosovo is always an easy way to attract votes ahead of the former’s April elections. Placing the events in an even broader context, and including Republika Srpska in the mix, the following picture forms: much like elsewhere in Europe, Trump’s victory is potent fuel for the nationalist fire smouldering in the region, but one that can still be prevented from building to dangerous levels; it is also a chance for Russia to fill some gaps and attempt to maintain and even gain a little influence in the continent.

The simpler reality is that political chaos in the Western Balkans works in Russia’s favour, and that it is one of the last places in Europe where Moscow can still exert a certain degree of control. It is also doubtful that the Western Balkans rank high on President Trump’s foreign interests list, which makes it even more important that his administration takes a definitive stance on the region. The best case scenario seems to be that the United States will leave things largely in the hands of the European Union; the worst – that they will leave them in those of Russia.

This is not to say, however, that Russian involvement in the Balkans will inevitably lead to open conflict. Much like Trump’s, Putin’s interest in the region is fairly limited, and only extends to a desire to maintain a certain degree of influence. Serbia is important, but not Ukraine-level important – and a resumption of hostilities is not an outcome that will benefit Moscow either. Inciting a conflict would mean having to become involved in one – and going up against NATO in the process.

Furthermore, it would be out of character for both Putin and Russia in general not to call Western involvement in the Balkans an affront to the Slavic Orthodox world, and to stand by watching while NATO continues to grow and expand. It would also be hypocritical not to support Serbia’s threat to annex Mitrovica, not to mention counterproductive to their desire to further their relationship with Belgrade. Despite this, Moscow is yet to send clear signals of support for the idea, and the shaky grounds of its reliance on Russia mean that Serbia has no intention of renouncing its aspirations of joining the European Union.

Trump’s admiration for and desire to have a closer relationship with Putin is a natural cause for concern, but overstating the dangers that lay ahead can be damaging in the long-term. Aside from painting an inaccurate and even misleading picture of the region, it creates a sense of abandonment internally – and the image of a lost cause externally. The focus should be, instead, on why Western interest and involvement in the region should be maintained, and why these countries are and should be important for the United States. Montenegro joining NATO will make the entire northern shore of the Mediterranean NATO territory. Stability in both Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina set a welcome example for the rest of the region, with the added bonus of a decrease in Russian influence when it comes to the latter. Kosovo’s counter-terrorism and demining experience and expertise could be an asset to Western military and intelligence; and having Serbia, arguably the most important country in the region, as an ally is a valuable outcome from all points of view.

The case of Ukraine shows us that it is important not to underestimate Russia; it also shows us that sustained Western interest and involvement in the region is crucial. President Trump’s seeming U-turn with regard to Russia means that the latter will be testing the waters in the coming weeks and months to see how far it can go. Trump, in his turn, will also only go as far as he can in terms of staying true to his campaign rhetoric and promises. As we have seen with the so-called Muslim ban, the American system has limits that Trump has not been willing to cross so far. Opposing Montenegro’s accession to NATO indefinitely, for instance, would mean a serious confrontation with a Congress controlled by his own party, something he is most likely unwilling to risk to please Russia. In light of the delay, however, the latter cannot accuse him of not having tried.

The situation in the Western Balkans is, of course, far from stable, as evidenced by the lack of breakthrough at the recent Kosovo-Serbia talks in Brussels. Similarly, the Dayton experiment clearly did not reach the intended outcome in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia’s political crisis is yet to be fully resolved, and Montenegro’s former president did favour organised crime and the creation of a corrupt and near-authoritarian system. At the same time, however, a recent survey conducted by the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy found that 74% of Serbian citizens are unwilling to wage war to win Kosovo back, Bosnia’s entities are aware of their better chance of survival as part of the same state, Macedonia’s opposition expect to form a government this month, and Montenegro has fulfilled all criteria necessary to become a NATO member. Moreover, faith in the West continues to be stronger than reliance on the East, and the choice between the two has yet to become a difficult one.

Trump’s presidency and the apparent shift in US-Russian relations give the impression that the world is heading towards a future filled with uncertainties and unexpected changes. Similarly, if there will be an all-out war to be fought in Europe, the age-long conviction is that it will inevitably begin in the Balkans. These are scenarios that are worth taking into consideration, but only if the goal is to prevent, counter or prepare for them; and a look towards the future that takes into account all influencing factors and the wider context is a look towards the future that suddenly becomes a lot less scarier.


Picture: Kosovo Security Force personnel – credit: SUHEJLO

About Irena Baboi

Irena Baboi is a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow, researching the future of European Union involvement in the Western Balkans. She also obtained both of her previous degrees from the same university, having completed an MA in Politics and Central and East European Studies and an MSc in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies. Irena’s previous work experience includes internships with AKE Intelligence Group in London, as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and United Nations Information Centre in her hometown of Bucharest, Romania, fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support, freelance writing and editing for Oxford University Press. She has also been a volunteer with the British Red Cross since 2013. Irena’s research interests include human rights, peacebuilding and statebuilding, conflict prevention, management and resolution, transitional justice, and post-conflict development.