If there is an evergreen thesis in international political commentary, it is that whatever ails Southeastern Europe, some new borders will surely fix it. The most recent proposal comes from John R. Schindler, columnist for Observer and a one-time American intelligence official. Schindler’s piece is interesting only in that it couches a 19th century canard in 21st century geopolitics. Namely, he argues the international community should partition the Balkans to establish new mono-ethnic nation-states, but this time to check Russian influence in the region.
Schindler never quite explains how or why new ethnic Bantustans in the Balkans would curb Russian incursions into the region. If anything, he echoes popular Kremlin tropes about the need to return to great power politics by suggesting that “we [i.e. the U.S.] treat the Kremlin as a full partner in any territorial changes in Southeastern Europe… This will resemble an updated version of 1878’s Congress of Berlin.”
Will it, though? After all, Balkan nationalists with irredentist fantasies—the primary audience for Schindler’s machinations—are well known for their reasoned approach to geopolitics. Accordingly, Schindler assures us that “the locals” too will be consulted on how the U.S. and Russia should go about re-fragmenting the Balkans.
Bosnia and Herzegovina? It’s a “ramshackle pseudo-state”, but the West will consult its constituent people as we amputate half the country and merge it with Serbia. Macedonia? Create a “Greater Albania” with large chunks of its territory—but all the while consulting, always consulting. Serbia itself will get a final say over what happens to the province of Vojvodina and the Sandžak region—presumably as a gesture of goodwill to Moscow. The rest of the region will presumably not get such a veto.
If all of this sounds suspiciously familiar (and absurd) it is because Schindler’s piece is essentially a rewrite of Timothy Less’ piece in Foreign Affairs from last December. All of the same beats are here: partition Macedonia, dissolve Bosnia, and rejigger Albania and Serbia. Spiritually, of course, both writers are indebted to Robert D. Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, the influential 1993 book that popularized the “ancient ethnic hatreds” line to explain all events in Southeastern Europe since time immemorial.
And like Kaplan and Less, Schindler is not one to get bogged down in the details of history or current events. In his timeline Albania is already an EU member state (it is not), Vojvodina suddenly came into “autonomy” in 2008 (try 1974), and Serbia—an EU candidate country steadily opening new accession chapters—is being “isolated” by the West (astronomically far from the truth). Nor is there any reflection on how a region with an average unemployment rate of 21% (and nearly 50% among youth) could avert the almost certain economic catastrophe that would follow social engineering of this sort.
But beyond economics, it’s important to keep the big picture in mind: the last time this was tried, the result was a decade of war, some 150,000 deaths, the displacement of millions, and the worst atrocities in Europe since the Second World War. Neither Schindler nor Less ever quite gets around to explaining why their proposals would not precipitate the same horror.
Still, the situation in the former Yugoslavia and Southeastern Europe more broadly is not stable. As I noted last year for the European Council on Foreign Relations, the region is on an accelerated drift towards authoritarianism. The crisis plaguing the Balkans then is not a dearth of mono-ethnic nation-states; it is a crisis of governance and a lack of substantive democracy.
Indeed, mono-ethnicity itself has little if any relationship to political stability or the rule of law; witness only the democratic rollback in ethnically homogenous Central Europe, or the autocratic climate in Bosnia’s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska entity which Schindler, recall, proposes to join to likewise increasingly illiberal Serbia.
After nearly three decades of international presence in the region, the Balkan states have all the overt trappings of parliamentary democracy but with few of the substantive norms of genuinely liberal societies. Part of the reason for this is a decline in meaningful democracy assistance on the part of the U.S. since 2006 at least, and the EU’s pernicious focus on “stability” (rather than democratization) in the ensuing vacuum. The latter especially is a policy which has empowered illiberal leaders across the region.
The other part of the story is local. Unlike the rest of Eastern Europe, the Western Balkans never had their 1989 moment. In fact, it was precisely in order to avoid such democratic revolutions (and the continued agitation of civil society in the former Eastern Bloc) that the most conservative and reactionary elements of the old Yugoslav regime—those in Belgrade—orchestrated the dissolution of that state in favour of a “Greater Serbia.” Insomuch as these architects of chaos relied on ethnic narratives to navigate the end of the Cold War, it was no more than a sleight of hand to preserve them in power. And many of these elites, like Montenegro’s Milo Đukanović, are still there to this day.
With much of the democratic world gripped by reactionary nationalist fervour, now is no time to go inventing troubles in the Balkans. Instead, the U.S. and EU would do well to re-invest their diplomatic muscle in buttressing the efforts of genuine local democratic actors, like the activists behind Macedonia’s “Colorful Revolution” and the students protesting the lurch towards one-man rule in Serbia. This is where new ideas, new leaders, and new options will emerge.
There are no shortcuts to democracy. If the West wants lasting stability in the Balkans it cannot achieve as much by carving up actually existing illiberal polities in search of some buried democratic ethnos. We get there by insisting and enforcing the rule of law, free and fair elections, and the vibrancy and autonomy of civil society.