The gloom over the Balkans

The gloom over the Balkans

I attended a session recently with a group of Balkans experts–including many who had worked in the region for years. The overwhelming feeling in the room was gloom and resignation. It was all but taken for granted that the expensive and prolonged international involvement in the region had failed. The continuing dysfunctionality of the Bosnian state and the deep corruption in Kosovo were exhibits A and B. Participants also worried about stagnant economic growth and chronically high unemployment across the region.

In the longer term, the perceived unwillingness of the European Union to accept more members from the Western Balkans (Croatia excepted) worried many observers. If the EU’s door is indeed closing, the consensus seemed to be that the western Balkans would be left in a geopolitical no-man’s land, with potentially dangerous repercussions. Several participants hinted darkly that new violence could erupt at any time and noted that the international community’s tools for responding to violence have grown much weaker; most NATO forces have withdrawn over the years, and there is only a rump international military presence in Bosnia (Kosovo hosts a larger NATO force). 

For someone who used to follow events in the Balkans closely, the mood was striking. My assessment is that while serious problems remain, the international stabilization efforts in the Balkans have been broadly successful. There has been no large-scale violence in the region since the Kosovo war ended in 1999. Bosnia has been at peace since late 1995, when NATO troops arrived to enforce the Dayton peace agreement. Almost all of those indicted by the international tribunal created for the region have been apprehended, including, finally, Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. A new generation has grown up without ethnic conflict and atrocities as their dominant reality. Tens of thousands of refugees have returned to their homes. Kosovo’s government may well be thuggish, but at least a small Serb minority no longer oppresses the Albanian population.

What seemed mostly absent in the discussion was a recognition of how vastly different today’s problems are from those of the mid-1990s. Then, the problems weren’t corruption or economic stagnation–they were massacres, rape, and ethnic cleansing. Tens of thousands of Bosnian refugees had flooded into western Europe, and there was deep concern that violence might soon extend to Macedonia and Albania.

None of this is meant to encourage complacency–only greater perspective. I’ve argued before that one of the most significant obstacles to public support for international peacekeeping and stabilization efforts is the difficulty in appreciating degrees of dysfunctionality and misery. The UN mission in Congo today is often derided as a failure because violence persists in its eastern provinces; it’s easily forgotten that only a few years ago the country was immersed in what was described as Africa’s first "world war," which killed hundreds of thousands.

The transformation in the Balkans–while far from complete–has been even more remarkable. As diplomats, economists, and aid workers wrestle the region’s still devilish problems, it’s important to every once in a while acknowledge how much has changed.

A reader writes:

The foreign intervention in the 1990s to today is massive (in terms of aid) by the standards of humanitarian interventions, Western supremacy is undisputed, and the region is reasonably developed, and yet still many objectives were not achieved.

We have achieved NO RECONCILIATION WHATSOEVER between ethnic Serbs/Croats/Muslims/Albanians in either Kosovo or Albania. There will be no multiethnic democracy in those countries for at least several decades. This makes me supremely pessimistic our nation-building efforts in rougher places, like Iraq or Afghanistan.

This is a good (and sobering) point. When it comes to resources for nation-building, the Balkans is really as good as it gets.