How might the next war in the Western Balkans look like

Marko Savković

08. June 2017

How might the next war in the Western Balkans look like

In his regular column for the daily newspaper Blic, Vladimir Djukanovic – MP, member of the delegation of the Serbian Parliament in the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and generally one of the more vocal representatives of the ruling coalition on issues of foreign policy and security – said recently that it is not a question whether the war in Western Balkans will break out, but when this will happen. Shortly after, the same newspaper published a front-page infographic in which it compared the military might of each of the countries in the region, declaring Serbia in advance the winner of any future confrontation (“because we are the strongest”).

Headlines appearing on front pages containing the word “war” – in which tabloid Informer leads – present an attempt to create an atmosphere in society by which the imminent outbreak of conflict is imminent and inevitable. But this is wrong: the conflict, of course, is not inevitable, and to think otherwise is very irrational, since in this way we write off all the mechanisms that contemporary societies (among which we include Serbia) have developed in order to prevent them, internal and external alike. To remind those interested: for diplomacy at any time there are dozens of ways and courses of action; while nonviolent action, civil resistance; and something called in theory, resilience – of one community to different challenges – have a role to play.

We do not believe that the so-called tensions – being raised every now and then – will evolve into a conflict. Tensions are raised by the political elite, for a very selfish motive with the “ordinary man” being just a passive recipient of the narrative, while remaining primarily interested in solving everyday problems of socio-economic background. Again, maybe it’s not bad to think this through. Entertain the idea, as they say. For precisely the reasons which may lead to the next war in the Western Balkans are the very same reasons why it will probably not come about. Maybe this will not bring too much comfort to the pacifists among us. Anyway: as researchers into the most important processes which have taken place in former Yugoslavia after its disintegration, we are obliged to consider every possibility. We therefore must imagine the unthinkable, what we fear the most.

The info-graphic omits key piece of information – that some countries in the region are already in NATO, still the most powerful military alliance in the world; which is why no one can guarantee Serbia will fight just one country, the next war in the Western Balkans could start in some of the existing hotspots and certainly would be a reflection of the efforts of political elite of certain ethnic groups to expand territory under its domination. Currently we do not see other possible motive for the conflict, and in this respect we have not moved much since the beginning of the 90s. The conflict would, viewed in a broader context, be preceded by further weakening the European Union (EU) and the perspective of European integration; or complete “withdrawal” the two countries – Germany and the United States, as the current “guardians” and “arbitrators” of the order established in the region (as the recent crisis in Macedonia has shown).A

A series of armed incidents would constitute a prelude to conflict. The conflict itself would – again – be limited in intensity; include, unfortunately, targeting of civilian infrastructure, because both parties would use it to cover their positions. Unless one of the parties to the conflict would have manifested such a (tactical) skill to achieve the planned results in the first 24 hours (48 at most) – front would soon be formed, with no clear prospects for advancement. The situation in that respect would resemble the one after the first week of the conflict in Georgia in 2008, just before the Russian intervention. One, a maximum of two days would be sufficient to key international stakeholders to achieve a ceasefire (truce). The painstaking process of negotiations would follow, which in many ways resembled the one conducted earlier – those leading to Ohrid Agreement perhaps more than all. The result would again was in some sort of power sharing agreement, with the difference to a greater or lesser extent, consolidated the ruling ethnic division and distance.

The question is – who will guarantee that other countries intervene again, if they had previously withdrawn?

It’s simple: this region is in geo-strategic and every other way too important, being Europe “entrance hall”, “garden behind the kitchen” (Vejvoda).

What are the consequences of which we expect? In the first place, like a soap bubble remaining hopes for reconciliation and normalization of relations between nations. Then, the Western Balkan countries involved in the conflict would risk permanently losing legitimacy in the eyes of most of the international community. All programs supporting development would be discontinued. Losing candidate status for membership in the EU would be almost immediate. The outflow of population would be accelerated – this time, all of those who are now just thinking about it; among the first to leave the remaining parts of the progressive-leaning elites (that still exist in Serbia). Investment from abroad would be suspended, while the existing ones, which were realized, would be brought into a situation where their lines of communication with the markets to which they sell their products are broken. The question would be when, how and who will pay for economic recovery. General decline in confidence in the elite (which is already at a very low level), society would become unstable, and so on.

The worst, or the craziest thing is that the conflict is absolutely nothing would be gained. If today the region still have a society that individual called protectorates, after a new conflict this would they certainly become. The established countries would face a new cycle of mistrust and questioning that – as we see in the case of Serbia – can last for decades. The few remaining multiethnic communities would be under tremendous existential pressure until the process of mutual ethnic cleansing can be completed. Finally a unique identity that this region offers would be lost.

In one sentence, if the war in the Western Balkans again comes about, the attitude “the last to come out, may turn off the light” will become a reality. The responsibility of all of us is to do as much as we can, each in their own domain and society, connecting, collaborating, exploring, so this does not happen.

Novi Pogledi, 8 June 2017