Timothy Less: As for the region, the current settlement is not sustainable because it is not acceptable to Serbs, Albanians and Croats

Photo: Timothy Less @i038d.org


Posted on May 1, 2021 by Il Grido del Popolo©


Timothy Less is the lead researcher at the Centre for Geopolitics’ project on Disintegration Studies. His research focuses on the breakdown of the existing political order in Europe, the forces driving this process and the new political order. He is currently launching a programme of research into the Balkans as the current settlement in the region comes under growing stress. This builds on his doctoral research into the question of Bosnia’s survival as a state.

Outside CfG, Tim works as a consultant specialising in the politics of eastern Europe and speaks and writes frequently on European politics in the media. Prior to this, he spent a decade working as an analyst, diplomat and policymaker at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office where, among other things, he ran the British Embassy Office in Banja Luka (Bosnia) and the EU Institutions department in London. He is also a former lecturer in Eastern European Politics at the University of Kent and a former risk analyst for the financial sector.


These days, the political public in the Balkans has been agitated by the alleged non-paper, which allegedly comes from the office of the prime minister of the country that takes over the six-month presidency with the EU on July 1, which was completely denied by Janez Jansa and his cabinet. What do you think, are there some European centers of power behind this non-paper that do not like Jansa’s policy, which is close to that of Viktor Orban and Vladimir Putin?


TL: This episode is mysterious. It is not exactly clear who wrote the non-paper or why. The only thing we can be sure of is the reaction to it. Some, such as the Bosnian Serbs, have actively endorsed the paper’s idea of a reorganisation of the western Balkans. Most governments have not directly commented, meaning they either do not oppose the proposals or do not care. And others, for various reasons, have opposed it. Liberals and anti-nationalists, especially in Germany, dislike the idea of redrawing borders along national lines; Washington, which is responsible for the current regional settlement, does not like its authority questioned; and regional groups such as the Bosniaks and Macedonians reject any measure which would cost them territory. 

My best guess is that members of the senior leadership in Slovenia, including the prime minister and president, are convinced that a reordering of the Balkans is necessary and, with the end of the Trump presidency, concluded that Europe must take the initiative if this is to happen. With Slovenia set to assume the presidency of the EU, they took the opportunity to promote the idea, talked to other stakeholders in the Balkans such as Serbia, Croatia, Hungary and Austria, and found support for the idea of establishing nation states.

However, I suspect Ljubljana was always aware of opposition elsewhere in Europe and adopted a cautious approach which involved putting the idea into the political domain in the form of an anonymous non-paper in order to test the international reaction. When Ljubljana met this opposition, it could then deny ownership of the paper which is, in the end, what happened.


At one time, in some of your geopolitical analyzes, you presented somewhat controversial but very bold views on the revision of the borders of the Western Balkan countries in their closely national territories. Are these views of yours relevant today?


TL: Yes, of course. The underlying problem has not changed, nor has the solution. The western Balkans is burdened by the unfulfilled wish of the Serbs, Albanians and others to establish nation states and there can be no durable peace or meaningful development until this aspiration is fulfilled. 

The Western powers, which ultimately determine outcomes in the Balkans, have danced around this issue for years, attempting a variety of solutions, such as trying to integrate the region into the EU, all of which avoid the real problem and all of which have failed. It is a obvious point, which only diplomats and ‘Balkan experts’ seem not to see, that the problem of unresolved nation statehood can only be resolved by the establishment of nation states.


You ran the Office of the British Embassy in Bosnia for a while, so you know the opportunities there on the political scene well, as you know them well in Macedonia, where you also served as a diplomat for a while. These two countries, in addition to the international protectorate of Kosovo, are the focal points of the Balkans and Europe in terms of security. Are Bosnia and Macedonia still dysfunctional states with dysfunctional institutions that can become a trigger for the disintegration of this area at any moment?


TL: Yes, they are manifestly dysfunctional and for an obvious reason: the interests and objectives of Serbs and Croats are at variance with those of the Bosniaks, and the interests of the Albanians are at variance with those of the Macedonians. In such circumstances, it is hard to reach decisions on any matters of real importance. 

However, I don’t accept the premise that this institutional dysfunctionality will trigger the end of the current political settlement in the Balkans, for which the proof is that regional borders have held for the last couple of decades, despite institutional dysfunctionality in Bosnia and North Macedonia. Instead, the main effect has been to arrest the political and economic development of the region, to the detriment of everyone.


In the meantime, some political changes have taken place in this environment. Politicians like Thaci and Haradinaj have been completely denounced in Kosovo, while Kosovo’s new man has become Albin Kurti, leader of the Vetëvendosje party, who spoke during his campaign about a possible referendum on a united Kosovo with Albania if the international community does not allow Kosovo’s full integration. How seriously can these statements of his be taken seriously?


TL: Kurti’s statements are a clear indication of how he and others in Priština are thinking. The current state of limbo in Kosovo is clearly intolerable but their preferred option of independence is impossible to achieve without recognition from Serbia. Unless Serbia shifts its position, which it will not do without Republika Srpska as compensation, Kosovo has no real alternative to unification with Albania.

However, this is complicated. The main difficulty is a lack of international support for the unification of Albania and Kosovo. Albania is wary about opposition from Belgrade and certainly does not want to get into a war with Serbia over the future of Kosovo. There is also the problem that Albania is deeply criminalised and corrupt, and Kurti would ideally like it to be a well-governed state before he gives Tirana any sovereignty over the lives of Kosovo Albanians.

Put together, I don’t therefore expect any imminent unification of Albania and Kosovo. Instead, it is more likely that the two will take small steps in this direction and that the idea of national unification will gain increasing salience among Albanians, pending an eventual breakthrough in the longer term.


In the recent elections in Albania, Prime Minister Edi Rama’s ruling Socialist Party won convincingly and secured a third term in a row. Given that Rama and Serbian President Vucic are the biggest advocates of the “Little Schengen” project in the Balkans. Is this election victory a confirmation of the formation of that project after the French blockade of Albania and Macedonia on the road to the EU?


TL: Rama’s re-election is significant because he is keen on the mini-Schengen project and is already working with Vučić to try and realise this. However, the project does not depend on Rama alone but is a fundamental national interest, and whoever is prime minister in Albania will be bound to pursue it. The country is in a predicament because its bid for EU membership has failed, leaving multiple problems unresolved. To develop economically, Albania needs to be part of a larger market and the mini-Schengen offers that possibility. Albania also needs to integrate the Kosovo Albanians, who are clearly in trouble, and the establishment of a regional organisation which dissolves international borders, can help to achieve this.


In addition to Bosnia and Kosovo, a growing problem for the international community is the bilateral dispute between Macedonia and Bulgaria over the identity, language and history of the Macedonian nation and state, which are disputed by official Sofia. Parliamentary elections were also held here recently where there was no clear winner and new elections are increasingly certain. Does this development threaten to endanger the stability of Macedonia as the poorest country in Europe, but also the entire region, and jeopardize its survival as an independent state?


TL: I agree that the survival of North Macedonia is uncertain, although I think this is due to deep structural problems rather than the outcome of last month’s election in Bulgaria. The country is weak: small, poor, with no real international allies, contested externally by Greece and Bulgaria and contested internally by its large Albanian minority. 

In my view, the future of the country depends fundamentally on the question of Kosovo and, more specifically, the formation of an Albanian nation state comprised of Kosovo and Albania. If and when this comes into being, the Albanians in North Macedonia will want to join it, leaving the rest of the country exposed to absorption by Bulgaria or division between its neighbours.

In such circumstances, North Macedonia’s best option is to seek protection from Serbia which at least accepts the country’s existence. This is not what the Macedonians’ want by any means: they would rather ensure the country’s long-term survival by joining the EU. Practically, however, the leadership in Skopje appears to have recognised that Serbia is the key to its survival – hence its enthusiasm for the mini-Schengen project.


The political and security situation in Ukraine is becoming more and more relevant, and therefore the focus of the international community is on the periphery of Europe. The new US administration is also more focused on this problem than Trump’s, and less on this Balkan one, which seems to remain in the hands of Europeans. Does this approach in the priorities of political issues show the readiness of the United States in crisis management against the indecision of the EU?


TL: There are several things going on here. It is certainly true that the US is better able to address the problems of eastern Europe than the EU, and not just the problems of eastern Europe. The US is a nation state with a strong centre and efficient decision-making procedures. By contrast, the EU is a quasi-confederation comprised of twenty-seven independent states, all with different interests and objectives, and all of which must agree before the EU can act. As a consequence, the EU has proven to be ineffective even in its own backyard.

As for the US and the Balkans, my reading is that the Biden Administration is opting out because it has limited interest in the region and doesn’t know what to do with it anyway. The Trump Administration was willing to try and unblock the region’s development by moving borders, but the Biden Administration is opposed, on principle. Short of this, there’s nothing the US can meaningfully do to help the Balkans and, for as long as the people are not actually at war, Washington can live with the status quo. Instead, the easiest thing is just to pass the region back to the Europeans and let them try and work out a solution.

On Ukraine, it’s worth mentioning that the US may not be so activist from now on, following developments last month. Time will tell, but there’s no escaping the reality that the Biden Administration threatened Russia, that Moscow tested American resolve by threatening Ukraine and that Biden then backed down by offering talks with Putin. That suggests there is no consent among Americans for a confrontation with Russia at a time when the US must deal with the rise of China and multiple problems at home. In this context, I suspect the Biden Administration will now soften its approach towards Russia and downgrade its ambitions in Ukraine because it has learnt that the price for angering Russia is a renewed flare up of violence in the Donbas.


And for the end of this interview, what are your forecasts for the Western Balkans region and its eventual integration into the EU, or perhaps a possible redefinition of the status quo situation that could lead to a new Dayton?


TL: I don’t see the Balkans entering the EU because France and other western European states, backed by a large majority of European voters, do not want the Balkans to join. Moreover, they can easily block this by insisting on strict adherence to the EU’s criteria for entry which countries that are burdened by problems of state cannot meet. In the background, there are also major questions about the survival of the EU itself, at least in anything like its current form.

As for the region, the current settlement is not sustainable because it is not acceptable to Serbs, Albanians and Croats, who constitute the overwhelming majority of the people in the region, and the borders will eventually have to change, once outside actors accept this, or at least acquiesce to it.

As I said, the key to the future to the region is Kosovo which the political leadership in Serbia accepts is lost and is willing to recognise. Its precondition for doing so is to gain Republika Srpska as compensation so change will come once outsiders can accept the breakup of Bosnia. After that, Kosovo can unite in some form with Albania, the Albanians of North Macedonia can join this new state, Bosniaks and Macedonians can establish nation states in which they exercise sovereignty, unincumbered by discontented minorities, and the region can finally make progress.

However, this will be a major wrench for outside actors, especially the US which has invested its prestige and authority in Bosnia’s survival as a state, and for Germany which will have to suspend its aversion to nationalism. So, the precondition for any change in the Balkans is a change in the mindset of the leadership in both these countries. Until then, the Balkans will remain stuck, the economy stagnant, the political atmosphere poisoned by unresolved national disputes, and the region will lurch from one political crisis to the next, punctuated by occasional localised outbreaks of violence.




The interview was prepared and made by Gordan Stošević