Serbia’s foregone parliamentary election results on December 17 will embolden the Aleksandar Vučić government to intensify its mini-imperialist agenda in the Western Balkans. At the same time, Serbia’s democratic opposition will remain too weak and divided to challenge Belgrade’s neo-Milošević objectives. In order to defend themselves more effectively from any expanding subversion and aggression, several countries neighboring Serbia should pursue a coordinated plan of regional resistance.
Serbia is expanding its hegemonistic goals by pressuring, destabilizing, or dominating neighboring governments in Sarajevo, Prishtina, and Podgorica, as well as by pursuing regional integration formats such as the Open Balkans. It is high time for Kosova, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina to demonstrate that they are not prepared to be supplicants or passive bystanders. The Greater Serbia project can be resisted through a pan-Balkan freedom initiative in which each state pledges to uphold their mutual independence. Such an initiative will require inter-governmental and inter-societal coordination in four primary arenas – national, political, economic, and informational.
The core of statehood is either a strong ethno-national identity or a binding multi-national civic identity. European states commonly combine both, in which loyalty to the country does not necessarily depend on your ethnic origin but the state still possesses an ethno-national base with a historic national identity. In the case of states that are challenged by imperial neighbors or ethno-national separatist movements sponsored by these neighbors, an effective assertion of both national and state identity is necessary. Hence, Bosniak and Montenegrin political leaders, activists, and intellectuals need a more active domestic and international campaign to promulgate their distinct histories, cultures, and languages. Montenegrins in particular need to protect themselves against growing Serbianization promoted by Belgrade and its political proxies including the Serbian Orthodox Church.
In the political realm, subordination to Serbia would not only eradicate state sovereignty and national independence; it would also contribute to establishing Russian political bases around the region that will diminish Western integration and cohesion. Hence, the US administration and EU governments need to be lobbied more intensively to preclude any scenarios that challenge state independence, as this will undermine the region’s European and Atlanticist orientation. In effect, the capabilities of separatists in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosova need to be thwarted.
Reports that Serbian security forces and nationalist radicals are storing weapons in Orthodox churches and monasteries in Montenegro and Kosova in preparation for organized violence must be fully investigated. Any illicit arms caches must be confiscated, the perpetrators arrested, and Belgrade’s goals exposed. Reported Russian-sponsored paramilitary training camps in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska cannot be allowed to operate and the EU can either demonstrate its strategic autonomy by closing these premises and defusing armed conflicts or request direct assistance from NATO.
NATO itself needs to take a much more proactive role to deter anti-state violence throughout the region by increasing troop numbers in Kosova, patrolling the entire northern border with Serbia, and positioning forces and equipment for a swift intervention in case of provocations. Moreover, each targeted state needs to prepare their armed forces and devise contingency plans for dealing with armed clashes engineered by Belgrade and Moscow through their local collaborators. They can also coordinate their planning with neighbors and boost intelligence collection and sharing on any emerging threats.
In the economic dimension, a region-wide initiative is long overdue in exposing and acting upon politically linked corruption. Cooperating governments can boost their efforts in rooting out subversive Russian money in their economies and unearth the political leverage that hides behind it. Any companies in the Balkans connected with the Russian state, its agencies, subsidiaries, and oligarchs must be sanctioned in a common front with the EU and US against Kremlin aggression. Any Bosnian, Montenegrin, or Kosovar companies that continue to collaborate with Russian businesses are in effect betraying the national and state interests of their countries.
At the same time, the region’s governments need to better coordinate their EU aspirations. It clearly benefits each state to have their neighbors qualify for Union membership. Cooperation toward meeting the legal and regulatory requirements of the EU Chapters can also enhance perceptions in Brussels that serious efforts are being intensified in the region regardless of Serbia’s essentially anti-EU position. The EU candidate states in the Western Balkans can emulate the Visegrad Four initiative, in which Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia assisted each other in qualifying for the EU and NATO. A similar process was also evident between the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
Pan-regional resistance to Serbia’s hegemony also needs to be undergirded by a comprehensive informational initiative. Inexplicably, despite years of Moscow’s information war, Western diplomats are insufficiently responsive to the ongoing campaign of political disinformation and anti-Westernism emanating from Belgrade through the state media, internet influencers, and Vučić’s regional allies and proxies. Greater regional coordination between governments, credible media outlets, civic society organizations, and European and American counterparts can better expose fake information that influences public opinion, undermines state institutions, engenders inter-ethnic hostilities, and destabilizes societies.
Above all, Russia’s plans to spark another war in the Balkans by encouraging and manipulating Vučić’s pan-Serbian ambitions need to be revealed and defeated. As an intimate collaborator in Moscow’s strategic designs, the government in Belgrade must be held accountable and stripped of EU funding until it condemns and thwarts Moscow’s objectives. Instead of engaging in joint initiatives with Serbia, a common front in the Western Balkans can ostracize the Vučić regime as Russia’s imperial proxy. Why provide legitimacy through interactions with a government that is intent on destabilizing, partitioning, or subordinating your state? The strategy of regional resistance cannot wait until armed conflicts are again ignited.
Janusz Bugajski is a Senior Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington DC. His recent book is Failed State: A Guide to Russia’s Rupture. His forthcoming book is titled Pivotal Poland: Europe’s Rising Strategic Player.