Growing disappointment is visible with the policies of the US administration in the Western Balkans. After Joe Biden’s election in November 2020 there was a widespread sense that the outstanding problems and conflicts would be quickly resolved and the region would face a more positive future, including a clearer roadmap toward EU membership. Instead, it now appears that the region has been hijacked by ethno-nationalist forces posing as democrats and Washington has either succumbed to their agenda or is distracted by more pressing global crises.
Frustration in Washington and Brussels has also been growing for several years in settling the remaining regional disputes. Two decades after the Yugoslav wars, Bosnia-Herzegovina remains deeply divided and institutionally dysfunctional, Serbia has failed to recognize Kosova’s statehood, and Montenegro faces a major challenge to its independence. Various plans have been proposed to settle the brewing conflicts, including territorial exchanges and border adjustments to construct more ethnically homogenous states, but without any success amidst fears that this could precipitate new armed conflicts.
Nonetheless, developments during the past year indicate that a blueprint may have been devised between Washington and Brussels for a new regional settlement. The purported plan is based on the premise that the core of the conflict is between Serbs and Albanians, with Croats as the third major regional player. If these disputes can be resolved, then the Western Balkans will apparently witness a prolonged period of peace and stability. Instead of border changes, partitions, and territorial absorptions, the objective is a tripartite division of regional influence that would evidently satisfy Belgrade, Zagreb, and Tirana.
Numerous Western initiatives during the past year give credence that such a plan exists. These have included electoral changes in Bosnia-Herzegovina that favor Croatian nationalists, the planned creation of a Serbian municipal association in Kosova that favors Serbian nationalists, and a government in Montenegro that legitimizes the growth of Serbian nationalist influence over state institutions.
The essence of the tripartite plan is to reward Belgrade, Zagreb, and Tirana with political and economic influence over smaller neighboring states and more direct control over kindred populations in neighboring countries. Hence, with the help of electoral manipulation Croatia will be enabled to use the HDZ to block the government in Sarajevo even without the creation of a distinct Croatian entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina. High Representative Christian Schmidt has been deeply complicit in this process despite persistent claims that he is simply promoting the development of a democratic electoral system.
According to the plan, Serbia would largely dominate the Serb entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina, even without formal partition and absorption. Serbian and Croatian nationalists could jointly paralyze central state bodies in Bosnia, while Zagreb and Belgrade could collaborate on other regional initiatives that would benefit both regardless of the interests of Bosniaks.
Through its allies and proxies, Belgrade would also be empowered to pursue its Serbianization of Montenegro with the help of the Orthodox Church and Serbian nationalist representatives in parliament and government. It could simultaneously develop the “Open Balkans” initiative with US and EU encouragement in order to gain deeper regional economic leverage. Serbia could use the municipal association and the Serbian delegates in parliament and government to block any decisions by Prishtina that are disapproved by Belgrade. The Vučić government could then claim that Serbia had encompassed the Serbian population throughout Kosova even without formally regaining any territory or recognizing the Kosova state.
Albania would also gain greater regional influence through closer links with Kosova even without any actual territorial or institutional mergers. Tirana could claim that it had established a larger “ethnic Albania” in line with historical aspirations even though borders had not been formally altered. Even Montenegro and North Macedonia could be embroiled in this process of state capture if the Albanian parties in both countries demand greater autonomy through their own municipal or district associations based on the Serbian model in Kosova together with closer links with Albania.
The tripartite plan would supposedly ensure the dominance of three regional powers and under international pressure the smaller states would be expected to comply in order to ensure regional stability. Nonetheless, despite the exalted hopes of its authors the tripartite schema also contains three serious defects that are likely to ignite fresh conflicts and collective violence.
First, Montenegrins, Bosniaks, and Kosovars, whose distinct national and state identities have been strengthened since the collapse of Yugoslavia through international recognition, will resist any attempts to limit their independence. The process of subordinating them to any broader political and economic arrangements will be fraught with opposition and national resistance that undermines multi-ethnicity and democratic development. Paradoxically, Western attempts to appease the majority nations will contradict and counter the Western agenda of democracy promotion and civil rights.
Second, Serbia, Croatia, and Albania can interpret the tripartite plan evidently approved by Washington and Brussels as simply an initial step and a green light toward outright territorial seizures. The new partition process will not occur overnight, but it could be accelerated as Bosniaks, Kosovars, and Montenegrins actively resist the pressure of large neighbors. Inter-ethnic conflicts generated by attempts at political dominance will give Belgrade, Zagreb, and Tirana even more pretexts to intervene forcefully and allegedly protect their ethnic compatriots.
The third negative result of the tripartite plan would enable deeper subversive penetration by Moscow as it cultivates more Western Balkan clients. The Kremlin would relish the opportunity of an influential Serbian state that could undermine the NATO alliance and it would have greater scope to subvert the Croatian and Albanian elites. In effect, a Western plan designed to permanently settle all outstanding disputes would in practice spawn fresh regional conflicts and reverse much of the progress that has been made over the past two decades.
Janusz Bugajski is a Senior Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington DC. His new book is Failed State: A Guide to Russia’s Rupture.