Multi-ethnic States Have Failed in the Balkans

January 16, 2017
In response to Jasmin Mujanovic’s comment article, ‘New Partitions are the Last Thing the Balkans Need,’ Timothy Less maintains that the Balkan countries lack even the most basic elements needed to make multi-ethnicity work, so it is time to consider a new territorial settlement.

However, this chapter in the Balkans’ history is coming to a close, without resolution. With the political crisis in the EU deepening, the Europeans have lost their focus, their authority and their main policy lever in the region, namely the promise of EU integration. Meanwhile, the Americans have more important concerns than the Balkans on their plate. In the space vacated by the West, Russia and Turkey are asserting their presence and pushing their own self-interested agendas.

Unsurprisingly, disaffected minorities have begun to exploit the shifting geopolitics to advance the separation they have always seen as the only guarantee of their security and rights.

Last September, the Bosnian Serbs directly challenged the Dayton arrangements in a referendum endorsed by Russia, which met no effective resistance from the West. Now the Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik is threatening another referendum this year, probably on the authority of Bosnia’s Constitutional Court. If matters continue in this way, by early next decade, Republika Srpska may have cut most of its links with the rest of Bosnia.

Other disaffected minority groups are making similar moves to distance themselves from their political centres. Kosovo Serbs are threatening to establish an Association of Serbian Municipalities next month without authorisation from the Kosovo parliament. Bosnian Croats are sharpening their demands for a third entity. Macedonia’s Albanians are refusing to participate in government unless their Macedonian counterparts accept a new political settlement. There is now a risk of a breakdown in the interethnic power-sharing arrangements which have hitherto held the country together.

This is not the stuff of radical, fringe politics. It is being driven now by mainstream politicians acting on behalf of their electorates whose core political goal is to live in conditions of dignity and security.

After a period of stasis, it is becoming increasingly clear that the ground is now shifting, risking a fragile stability. Majority populations in multiethnic states stand to lose control of territory to which they are emotionally attached and, in some cases, from which they have been ethnically cleansed. In a worst-case scenario, they may forcibly resist any moves towards separation. 

So what is to be done?

The first task is to wake people up to the reality of what is happening, especially those who are committed to peace in the region. That is why I wrote a hard-hitting article in Foreign Affairs. Given the risk of a security breakdown, it is vital to start a proper debate about the future of the Balkans, at both local and international level, that gets beyond the paralysed policy of European integration.

After that, the task is to examine the options, of which there are four.

The first is to continue as now with what Jasmin Mujanović describes as the “generational task of genuine, grassroots-led reform and democratization”.

On the face of it, this is a noble objective because reform and democracy are undoubtedly good things. Unfortunately, however, there are two fundamental flaws with this approach. One is that, after 20 years of trying, efforts at nation-building have so far failed to yield any tangible results. The political atmosphere in the region remains poisonous, democracy is regressing and the various national groups are more divided than ever.

And the other problem, simply, is that time is running out. The Bosnian Serbs are making their plans to leave and the prospect of melding them and the Croats into a single, Bosnian political community in the timescale required to halt their departure and save the Bosnian state is precisely nil. As Jasmin himself conceded, this is “the stuff of fantasy”.

A second option is for the West to offer disaffected minorities some new incentives to accept the political status quo. In many ways, this would be the ideal outcome because it would neutralise the threat of separatism in a peaceful and orderly way.

Again, however, there is a basic problem with this approach. With EU enlargement in abeyance, there is nothing the West can really offer vulnerable minorities that could compensate them for their fundamental lack of security and political rights.

A third option, therefore, is to coerce minorities into accepting the status quo by threatening them with sanctions or some other form of punishment if they make any moves towards separation. However, as the aftermath of the referendum in Republika Srpska has shown, there is no international consensus on sanctioning separatists whose actions may be destructive but are ostensibly peaceful and do not directly threaten the West.

Meanwhile, it goes without saying that majority groups should not be allowed to clamp down violently on recalcitrant minorities. That would trigger the very outcome that everyone is trying to avoid.

This leaves a fourth and final option. If disaffected minorities cannot be made to accept the status quo and are willing, if necessary, to assert their separation unilaterally, then the interests of peace require the majority population to accept some kind of new territorial settlement for their minorities.

At this point, the salient question is how deep and how far this should go. The ideal is that majority and minority groups can together agree on a form of devolution which both preserves the state and satisfies the primary demands of the minority group. If this can happen, that is the end of the matter.

However, precedent from the region suggests that anything less than a hard international border is unlikely to provide the freedom from external interference and protection from the threat of potential aggression which minorities around the region fear. In the early 1990s, Slovenes, Croats, Bosniaks and others felt compelled to declare independence from Yugoslavia. Kosovo Albanians would not accept “maximal autonomy” within Serbia after 1999. And Bosnian Serbs reject even the deep autonomy that they have today.

In every case, the reason for this is the same: the Balkans lacks the most basic elements needed to make multi-ethnicity work, except in conditions of authoritarian rule. A weak tradition of constitutional liberalism means minorities lack confidence in shared institutions. A history of violence and atrocities has destroyed trust between different national groups. And endemic corruption and widespread poverty conspire to keep the people on edge.

That is why I have reached the conclusion that the optimal solution to the structural security crisis in the region is a transition to nation states based on the principle that political borders should coincide as much as possible with demographic realities on the ground.

The nation state has two main virtues. Domestically, the vast majority of its inhabitants belong to a single political community in which they can enjoy their rights and opportunities without any fear of ethnic discrimination.

And externally, nation states allow vulnerable groups to live in conditions of relative security behind an internationally recognised border. Relations between Croatia and Serbia, or Serbia and Albania, or Albania and Greece are far from perfect but they are basically functional because, except for minor border disputes, none of them makes a claim on the territory of any of the others.

This contrasts starkly with the situation in multiethnic states such as Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo where the territory on which the minority lives is simultaneously claimed by the majority group. In the first scenario, there is peace. In this second, the unresolved question of ownership contains within it the omnipresent risk of conflict. 

I should emphasise that, nowhere in this framework, am I suggesting that new nation states need to be pure ethnic states. If Bosniaks have chosen to live in Republika Srpska because they have ancestral roots there, or Macedonians have chosen to remain in the Albanian-dominated parts of the country, they should be encouraged to stay and all efforts made to uphold their rights.

This is not an impossible goal. Most regional states have demonstrated their ability to accommodate small numbers of a minority group for the simple reason that they do not pose any threat to the territorial integrity or identity of the state.

It is also a completely different proposition to the situation that exists in Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo today where large, disaffected minorities live in compact territories adjacent to their titular state, and consistently make demands that anger and distress the majority population.

While I have stated my position, I am not naïve about the difficulties involved in achieving a transition to nation states, given the resistance of majority populations to ceding land they consider to be an integral part of their state and whose secession they have a right to block under international law.

My suggestion is a graduated and negotiated approach, led by a broad international coalition, which steers the region towards this eventual outcome. Perhaps there are better solutions: these issues are profoundly difficult and policymakers have not even begun to think them through.

However, the point that must be kept firmly in mind is that, with the effective end of EU enlargement, the nature of the challenge has changed. Since disaffected minorities are already starting to extricate themselves from states they have long considered illegitimate, the question is no longer how to make these multiethnic states work. That was yesterday’s problem.

Today, the dilemma policymakers face is whether to let the region fragment in an improvised, uncontrolled manner, driven by local separatists, or whether to take control of that process and minimise the risk of violent reprisals by the majority population.

Others are free, of course, to criticise my proposal; where criticism is constructive, it will help to move the debate forward and ensure the outcome that everyone wants, namely a sustainable peace in the region.

However, those who defend the current political arrangements to the exclusion of all alternatives need to provide some pretty compelling answers to the following questions.

First, if multi-ethnicity is working, why are minority populations around the region all so concerned about their basic rights and security? Second, what do they plan to do in the short term to address these minorities’ manifest concerns? And third, if these plans fail, how do they intend to stop minorities unilaterally separating themselves from the rest of the state?

For the record, I do not accept the following answers.

First, that minorities are afraid because they are brainwashed by nationalist leaders spinning fictitious threats. Not only is this suggestion an insult to their intelligence but it also fails to understand how a crude democracy in the Balkans works.

Second, that minorities already enjoy full rights: only minorities can be the judge of that and they say otherwise. Nor is it permissible to withhold these rights from minorities because of crimes committed in the 1990s, especially when these minorities have themselves suffered historically.

And, third, the means of arresting separatism can never be the use of violence.

While the Balkans may be peaceful for now, the trajectory is not good. The problem of separatism, contained for two decades, is returning to the region, enabled by a shifting geopolitical environment, which has tipped the local balance of power in favour of revisionists.

If peace is to be maintained, it is vital that those who care about the region focus on how to manage this problem while there is still time to avoid a breakdown in security.

Stability is not served by pretending that everything is fine on the ground when the tectonic plates are shifting just below the surface. Nor is it helped by casting aspersions, closing down debate with moral exhortations, or insisting on “universal” solutions that clearly embody the interests of just one national group.

This is my viewpoint and some will no doubt continue to reject it. But while they cling to an abstract idealism and a set of outmoded policies in the belief that these are the only guarantee of peace, minorities on the ground are pressing ahead with their goal of separation.

That is political reality and the sooner others recognise it, the sooner the process of addressing this problem can begin.

Timothy Less is the Director of the Nova Europa political risk agency and a former British diplomat in Macedonia and Bosnia.

The opinions expressed in the Comment section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.