Photo Gallery: The EU's Fading Attraction in the Balkans

Foto: Armin Smailovic / DER SPIEGEL

Europe's Backyard Tensions Rising in Balkans as Hopes for EU Future Fade

Fourteen years after being told they had a future in the European Union, countries in the Western Balkans are losing hope. Meanwhile, Turkish and Russian influence in the region is on the rise. So too is the nationalist rhetoric of old.

The man who hopes to become the prime minister of Kosovo has a past, documented under case file IT-04-84 at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. Forty-eight-year-old Ramush Haradinaj, aka Smajl, was accused of crimes against humanity in 37 cases, including murder and torture.

The allegations are from the 1990s, when he was a field commander for the Kosovo Liberation Army (UÇK) in the war against the Serbs. The court ultimately found Haradinaj not guilty, a product of witnesses declining to testify at the last moment or, in some cases, dying suddenly. The United Nations police force in Kosovo has accused the UÇK veteran of dealing cocaine, while Germany's foreign intelligence service, the BND, described him in a 2005 analysis as being the head of a group involved in "the entire spectrum of criminal activities."

Despite his past, though, Haradinaj's alliance of former fighters managed to emerge victorious in Kosovo parliamentary elections earlier this month. With 34 percent of the voters supporting his alliance, it is now up to him to form a governing coalition.

The news from Kosovo, the mini-republic located northeast of Albania, is consistent with the atmosphere in the Western Balkans these days. Kosovo, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, all part of former Yugoslavia, have spent years waiting to become members of the European Union, but it seems in the early summer of 2017 as though they have almost been forgotten. And people there are beginning to lose their patience. The result: increasing numbers of people leaving the region, accelerated Islamization  and rising nationalism. Violent protests recently in the Macedonian capital of Skopje along with ranting about a Greater Albania in both Tirana and Pristina, the capitals of Albania and Kosovo respectively, have served to demonstrate just how tense the situation has become.

Located at the historical intersection between the Orient and the Occident, the Western Balkans are something of a geopolitical no-man's-land. Between the territories of EU member states Croatia and Greece, there are six countries in the region whose chances of joining the European bloc any time soon are extremely limited.

Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania: All were promised a future in the European Union at the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003, a time when optimism was widespread in the Balkans. But their hopes have been dashed: Not long after that summit, the EU switched from expansion to naval gazing, its energies being rerouted to the euro crisis and the dangers presented by populism and, more recently, Brexit.

Way back in 2010, then-Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg blasted the lack of attention paid to the Western Balkans, saying the region threatened to become "nitroglycerine under our behinds." And now, it has become increasingly apparent that others are taking advantage of the West's lack of action, including autocratically governed countries with historic ties to the Balkans like Russia and Turkey, in addition to new sponsors and mentors from the Persian Gulf.

The Balkans, a region that has produced numerous crises in Europe, is once again threatening to become a security risk. The attraction of the EU is fading and the nationalist rhetoric of the past is returning. If the EU had a joint foreign and defense policy, this would be its test case: the sustainable pacification of the Balkans.

1. KOSOVO: The Threatening Scenario of Greater Albania

As a commander during the war, Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi's codename was Gjarpri, Albanian for "snake," because he hardly left any tracks. But for years now, criminal prosecutors have been on his tail.

In the 1990s, Thaçi was one of the founders of the paramilitary liberation army UÇK and has been president of Kosovo since 2016. And now, just as he has been handed the privilege of granting his old comrade Haradinaj the task of forming a government, he faces potential prosecution for war crimes by a special tribunal in The Hague.

Seemingly by chance, books about streetfighters-turned-politicians, such as Joschka Fischer and Gerry Adams, lie strewn about on Thaçi's desk in the capital of Pristina. The president of Kosovo is intent on demonstrating that the Thaçi of today no longer has anything in common with the man who, as a German intelligence report once claimed, controlled "a criminal network active in all of Kosovo."

Sitting amid the gold-gilded, Rococo chairs and crystal chandeliers in his office, the head of state makes it clear that he is interested in talking about Kosovo's future, and not about his own past. "The main threat," he says, "is that the EU will come too late to this region, thus leaving space for others, including radical Islamists." He says he is also concerned about "rising nationalism in the region and the increase of Russian influence wherever Serbs live." In April, Thaçi even threatened the unification of all Albanians in the Balkans in a joint state if the EU was to close its doors. Now, though, he says his comments were misunderstood.

Ten years after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, the country - the majority of whose population is comprised of ethnic Albanians -- still finds itself among Europe's step-children. Five EU member states and 75 additional UN countries have declined to recognize Kosovo as an independent nation -- and it is the only European country west of Belarus whose residents require a visa to travel into the EU. Its isolation, combined with an official unemployment rate of almost 30 percent, has accelerated the exodus of mostly young Kosovars.

Increasing Islamism

"Every year, the German Embassy alone receives 55,000 visa applications," says political scientist Naim Rashiti, "but it takes up to half a year to process them. By contrast, citizens of Kosovo can travel to Turkey without a visa. The EU still represents the promise of a better future, but in some parts of society, this certainty is eroding through Turkey's growing influence in addition to increasing Islamism."

Per capita, more fighters from Kosovo have joined Islamist militias in the Middle East than from any other country in Europe. One-sixth of the jihadists from Kosovo have fallen in battle, but many of them have since returned home. The government in Pristina does what it can to combat radical imams, but in a recent statement, the German government noted: "Saudi Arabian missionary organizations are also active in Kosovo, spreading the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam by sending preachers."

For half a millennium, Kosovo was under Ottoman rule and now Turkish economic and cultural influence is again on the rise. Turkish investors have pumped a billion euros into sectors such as transportation and energy, but money has also been made available for private schools, student dormitories and grants for Koran students to study in Turkey.

The West, meanwhile, doesn't quite know what to do about Kosovo. In 1999, NATO launched air strikes to end Serbian autocrat Slobodan Milosevic's violent control over the Albanian-majority region and the international community pumped 33 billion euros into Kosovo in the period prior to 2008 alone. Indeed, the extent of that involvement might explain why Washington, Berlin and other Western capitals are unwilling to see Kosovo's Feb. 17, 2008, declaration of independence for what it is: a violation of international law. Russian President Vladimir Putin is fond of pointing to Kosovo when justifying his own country's annexation of the Crimea or de facto annexation of Abkhazia.


The U.S. was instrumental in paving the way for Kosovo's independence and saw Hasim Thaçi as the young republic's hope for the future - despite Thaçi's instrumental leadership role in the UÇK, a group the U.S. State Department had listed as a terrorist organization as recently as 1998. In return, the U.S. was able to establish a heavily guarded military base in Kosovo - and 18 years after NATO intervention, the former rebel leaders of the UÇK still control political and economic life in the country. Ahead of the last parliamentary elections, they formed an alliance for the first time.

Ramush Haradinaj, the lead candidate and victor of those elections, promised voters that, were he to become prime minister, he would even annex areas within the republic of Serbia. Initially, though, he would likely face more pressing concerns. The new special tribunal in The Hague will soon be issuing indictments against former members of the UÇK leadership, perhaps including head-of-state Thaçi. Charges could include offenses such as murder, torture, sexual violence and illegal organ trafficking.

A Symbol of Rapprochement

For many, he is a hero, for others, a possible war criminal - what is that like? Kosovo President Thaçi pauses when asked the question in his office. Then, he says: "First of all, I was the supreme political commander, not the military commander. Second, no special tribunal in the world can rewrite history. We have nothing to hide."

Hashim Thaçi complains that neighboring Serbia is treated as a model pupil. "Serbia is a failed state in the Western Balkans, nothing more," says the Kosovo president. "It is the root of all evil in this region; Serbia is blocking Bosnia and violating the sovereignty of Kosovo and of Montenegro." Thaçi says that Kosovo "fulfills 94 criteria for visa-free travel, but then a 95th is invented."

It's no wonder, he says, that his people are losing their patience and their trust in Brussels. Fellow Albanians in the neighboring states of Albania, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia see things the same way, he says. Thaçi denies dreaming of the establishment of a Greater Albania. Instead, he prefers to say: "Kosovo is Kosovo, we don't want to redraw the borders. But we Albanians would like to, at some point, live in the same geographic space, without borders."

Around 5 percent of the Kosovo population is still made up of Serbs. About an hour's drive north of the capital, one arrives at a structure of steel and concrete stretching across the Ibar River. Rebuilt with the help of more than a million euros from the EU, the bridge connects the Albanian southern part of the city of Mitrovica with the largely Serbian northern part. New wooden benches have been installed on the riverbanks to facilitate encounters between the two ethnicities, but only pedestrians are allowed to cross the bridge.

Initially, the span was intended as a symbol of rapprochement, but it has instead become emblematic of a lasting conflict. Fully 90 percent of the Kosovar Serbs still say that don't want to live in a state with Albanians North of the river, Serbian flags still fly in the divided city.

Thus far, a resurgence of violence between Serbs and Albanians has been prevented primarily due to funding and pressure from the EU. That money is distributed on both sides of the river and houses and streets are being fixed up across the entire city. Brussels has also pressured Serbia into no longer providing Serbian residents of Kosovo with passports, with which they could enter the EU without a visa.

And in Belgrade, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has left no doubt that he is willing to sacrifice the Kosovo Serbs on the altar of an EU future.

2. MACEDONIA: Ethnic Tensions and European Hopes

The further south you drive from Pristina toward the border with Macedonia, the less ubiquitous becomes the blue flag of Kosovo - and the more prevalent the double-headed eagle flag of neighboring Albania. It is the symbol of that which binds across all borders.

In Macedonia, formerly the southernmost republic of Yugoslavia, Albanians represent 25 percent of the population. They tend to be concentrated near Macedonia's western border and traditionally feel closer to their fellow Albanians in Kosovo, Albania, Serbia and Montenegro than to their Slavic countrymen.

On April 27, Talat Xhaferi became president of Macedonian parliament, the first time ever that an ethnic Albanian had been chosen for that position. A mini-flag with the double-headed Albanian eagle can be found on his desk as well. After he was elected, violence broke out, with followers of long-time nationalist-conservative ex-Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski storming the parliament and assaulting their political adversaries. In the eyes of Slavic-Macedonian ultra-nationalists, Xhaferi's election represents the first step toward the country's partition, and they are concerned that a "binational" arrangement could ultimately lead to the establishment of Greater Albania.

Removing the Srebrenica Massacre from the School Books

This worry is partly the result of a trip taken to Albania in late 2016 by three senior Albanian-Macedonian politicians. In the capital of Tirana, they joined Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama in signing a "platform" with a long list of demands. Later, both Rama and Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi hinted that the Albanians, disappointed as they are with the EU, could seek to shift borders in the region.

The rift between political parties and ethnic groups in Macedonia has become deeper in recent years, despite it having long been a model country in the Balkans. It achieved independence in 1991 without the firing of a single shot and quickly applied to join Western political and military alliances.

Macedonia, population 2 million, has had an Association Agreement with the EU for 16 years, has been an accession candidate for 11 years and, fully nine years ago, was at the cusp of becoming a member of NATO. Yet neither membership in EU nor NATO has come to fruition, and Macedonia's southern neighbor Greece is primarily to blame. Athens has consistently exercised its veto right, complaining that the name Macedonia is historically the provenance of ethnic Greeks. Greece wants Macedonia to change its name.

Prime Minister Gruevski, who stepped down in 2016, was initially considered to be pro-European, only changing course once he realized that the EU and NATO couldn't even solve the name conflict with Greece. He developed into an autocrat and he now stands accused of electoral fraud, corruption and large-scale surveillance of civilians. He also transformed the center of Skopje into a nationalist-Macedonian Disneyland - with gigantic, totalitarian-esque bronze statues recalling a glorious past.

A pro-European protest movement, known as the Colorful Revolution, developed in the country in response to Gruevski's rule, with demonstrators throwing paint bombs at monuments to the premier's government. In spring 2016, Simona Spirovska became the face of the revolution; the red-headed actress still wears a military jacket flecked with paint from back then, when she would frequently join the paint throwers. "The useless buffoon," as she says, got on her nerves. "Recently, a lot of EU money flowing into Macedonia has been diverted."

The government, accusing the demonstrators of being Albanian though the movement was in fact diverse, used the protests to enflame ethnic conflict. Ultimately, the EU was able to negotiate a deal with the parties to the conflict which led to new elections. With Albanian support, Social Democrat Zoran Zaev won - a representative of the political old guard who has been under investigation for corruption.

Currently, there is no obvious way out of the dead-end into which Macedonia has maneuvered itself. "The EU is slowly losing its regulative power here and support for united Europe is falling," a Western political consultant in Skopje warns. And Simona Spirovska, the actress and activist, says: "Our mission isn't over. It has only just begun."

3. BOSNIA and HERZEGOVINA: Faces of Ethnic Partition

Vernes Voloder lived not even 500 meters from the Stari Most, the famous Old Bridge of Mostar, in the Muslim eastern side of the city when the 1991 war began. He survived the siege by Orthodox Serbs and the following skirmishes between the Catholic Croatians and the Muslim Bosniaks, who had initially been allies. But by the time the Croatians blew up the famous Stari Most spanning the turquoise Neretva River in 1993, Voloder had already left his hometown. "This bridge, which connected the Muslim quarter with the Croatian quarter was a fact of life for us," he says. Mostar, one of the largest multi-ethnic cities of Yugoslavia prior to the outbreak of war, had lost its symbol. Today, a quarter-century later, the bridge is back, its reconstruction financed with millions of euros from the EU.

A slender 40-year-old in jeans and a hipster T-shirt, Voloder has since returned to Mostar and walks almost every day from the Muslim eastern part of the city to the Croatian sector in the west. He works for a non-profit institute as an "ethno-therapist," seeking to get Croats and Bosniaks talking to one another again.

Even 25 years after the war broke out, Serbs, Croatians and Bosniaks are still feuding with each other within the confines of the Bosnia and Herzegovina federation. The Serbian half of the republic is threatening to secede and to remove all reference to the genocidal slaughter of 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica from their school books.

In 1995, after U.S. air strikes put an end to the Serbian massacre of Muslims, Washington leaned on the three warring parties to sign a peace deal in Dayton. It is still in force today. The problem, however, is that the peace agreement solidified ethnic segregation. Bosnia and Herzegovina is made up of a Serbian entity - the Republika Srpska - and a federation of Croatian and Bosniak entities. Political offices are dispersed using a complicated formula aimed at parity and several institutions exist in triplicate, such as electricity suppliers, pension funds, water supply facilities and district councils.

In the street where Voloder works, there is a public transportation training facility where young Bosnians take classes until 12:30 p.m., followed by Croatians in the afternoon. There are two school directors and two different teams of teachers. It took Voloder months to get the teachers to sit down at a table together and talk about teaching Croats and Bosniaks together for at least a couple hours a week. He was successful until the moment when a television broadcaster showed up and interviewed a Croatian student who said he couldn't stand Muslims. That brought a premature end to the dream of joint schooling.

Billions in development aid from the EU has likewise been unable to change the fact that Bosnia-Herzegovina remains a poorly functioning entity. Its residents have shown little interest in stepping across the ethnic divide for the good of the commonwealth.

"Our politicians have made things comfortable for their clientele in the bloated public sector," says Amna Popovac, the Muslim founder of a citizens' initiative in Mostar. "Regardless of whether they are Croatian or Bosniak, Dayton marked the birth of a political class that has no interest in democratic controls." She says that city leaders have spent 300 million euros in tax money and EU aid in the last nine years.

To obscure the lack of progress, Bosnia's politicians continue to resort to the same nationalist language common in the 1990s. Milorad Dodik, president of the Republika Srpska, for example, has been demanding for years that the Serbian portion of the country secede, which would be a violation of the Dayton Accords. In the Croatian cantons, meanwhile, Dragan Covi is promoting the establishment of an exclusively Croatian region, with the ultimate goal of becoming part of EU-member Croatia. The EU, protector and sponsor of the cold peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, has remained silent on the issue.

Cutting off funding to the country is not an option, says an EU representative in Bosnia who would like to remain anonymous. That would be "welcome to the rabble rousers on all sides," he says. "We would produce martyrs."

In the early summer of 2017, there is no war in the Western Balkans, nor are there pockets of civil conflict. There is, however, a growing repudiation of the European project across the entire region. While it may be understandable that the EU is losing its attraction and influence as a symbol of security and prosperity, it is also dangerous. Peace in the Western Balkans is being threatened by the barely concealed Albanian ambition for a common state beyond existing borders just as it is by the megalomania of Serb nationalists.

What is currently taking place in the Balkans, says the EU representative in Mostar, is a total masquerade. Nobody in the EU believes, he says, "that Bosnia will become a member in the foreseeable future." As such, the country is making little effort to conform to European standards. "The attraction of the European Union has faded. We are no longer a role model."

In 2018, the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I will be celebrated. Three years ago, Angela Merkel launched the so-called Berlin Process, an attempt to build a bridge from Brussels to the Western Balkans. It was originally set to be completed in 2018, but given the current state of affairs, even small steps would be seen as achievements worthy of celebration: visa-free travel to the EU for citizens of Kosovo, for example, or Bosnian access to EU structural funds. Or a solution to Macedonia's name-conflict with Greece.

And in return: The promise of lasting peace in the Balkans.

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