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Serbian Subversion: How the European Union is Failing in the Balkans

In the 25 years since war engulfed the Balkans, the region has reached a peaceful, if somewhat tense, equilibrium. War criminals have been prosecuted and cities have been rebuilt. Balkan states have developed post-war economies, and Croatia joined the EU in 2013. Serbia is expected to be the next Balkan state to join, but the EU has insisted that it first reject the ethnic chauvinism that fueled conflict in the 1990s. In 2013, Serbia took an important step toward doing so when it signed the Brussels Agreement, which normalized relations between Serbia and Kosovo. However, in the aftermath of Brexit, the Greek debt crisis, and the influx of refugees into Europe, joining the EU is appearing less and less attractive to the Serbs. As Serbia’s interest in EU membership declines, so has its incentive to improve its interethnic and international relations. If the EU fails to incentivize accession to Serbia, ultranationalism could reemerge and further escalate ethnic tensions in the Balkan states.

When countries in the western Balkans first became eligible for EU membership in 2003, there was widespread support for joining the organization. Polls show that 73 percent of Serbs backed membership in early 2003. Since then, however, Euroscepticism has grown dramatically. In February 2016, similar polls showed that only 48 percent of Serbs wanted in, and there is reason to be wary of a continued campaign for membership. Unless it can negotiate a special exemption, Serbia, like every EU member state, is required to join the Eurozone once its economy meets certain criteria – a concerning prospect to many Serbs.

Serbian diplomacy is a balancing act between Western Europe and the country’s historic ally, Russia. As such, the EU would likely not grant Serbia a British-style opt-out of the Euro. Joining the Eurozone would inherently link the country more closely with the EU, precluding a Serbian alliance with Russia that would outweigh its relationship with Western Europe. But the flaw in this grand strategy is that the Serbian economy may not be healthy enough to withstand transitioning to the Euro. While Serbia falls short of a few of the criteria required to join the Eurozone – its debt as a portion of GDP has risen beyond the 60 percent Eurozone standard – some analysis suggests that Serbia could quickly reach target measures and be ready to join the common currency. Moreover, the EU has been flexible in admitting countries to the Eurozone in the past when it believed accession was politically beneficial, and it would be reasonable to suppose that the EU might bend again here.

But the consequences of bringing an unstable economy into the Eurozone would negate the political benefits. As could possibly be the case with Serbia, Greece was admitted to the EU for political reasons despite its struggling economy. Brussels believed it was symbolically important to include the ancient seat of European civilization in the currency of the new millennium. But moving to the Euro can be harmful because it deprives countries like Greece and Serbia of a crucial policy instrument: the power to inflate or deflate their currency in response to economic stress. In turn, Greece had to accept punitive austerity measures in 2015 in exchange for debt relief while also remaining unable to use individualized monetary policy to stabilize their economy. While government-induced inflation certainly can’t stop a country’s financial decline, countries with large debts, like Serbia, are nonetheless disadvantaged by the inability to regulate their own currency.

While a Eurozone-related debt crisis is still a hypothetical for Serbia, a refugee crisis is already a reality. The Balkans have been a common route for refugees trying to reach Western Europe, with estimates on the number of refugees in Serbia ranging from 2,000 to over 8,000. While these numbers are modest in comparison to other EU states such as Germany or countries closer to the conflict, such as Lebanon, the smaller Serbian government is stretched thin. EU membership would probably do nothing to alleviate this crisis and could make it worse. While the Dublin Regulation stipulates that refugees are to be relocated so that hard-hit countries are not overextended, few transfers have taken place out of countries like Greece, despite the obvious strain the high numbers of refugees has placed on the country.

With political and economic crises chipping away at the EU’s prestige and power, there is far less incentive for Serbia to bend to demands made in Brussels in the name of accession or even to follow through on previous promises. After Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, diplomatic relations between the two countries have been rocky. However, in 2013, Serbia signed the Brussels Agreement, which warmed relations with Kosovo and was effectively a condition of potential EU membership. Now, as interest in membership has waned, politicians in Serbia, including some in the ruling coalition, are calling to scrap the agreement.

In early January, Serbia sent a train into northern Kosovo with the slogan “Kosovo is Serbia” emblazoned on the side in 21 languages. Kosovo is officially recognized by 113 countries, but not by Serbia. And while the assistant director of the train company insisted that the design was meant to be benign, many Kosovans understandably took it as an ultranationalist provocation. Over 90 percent of Kosovans are ethnically Albanian, but the 1.5 percent of the Kosovan population that consists of border-dwelling Serbs largely believe that their territory is rightfully part of Serbia. In a trope that sounds all too familiar, Serbs in a Kosovan town even began constructing a wall to divide the town’s Serbian and Albanian neighborhoods.

This dangerous Serbian ultranationalism has also been sweeping across the highest levels of government. Reacting to the Serbian train being stopped, President Tomislav Nikolic announced in January that if the need should arise for him to fight in a war against Kosovo, he would resign from office and head into battle, adding that the Serbian-majority regions of Kosovo were part of his country. While the incentive of membership formerly deterred such aggressive behavior, it seems as though the promise of accession doesn’t hold the weight it once did.

In response to this aggression, Kosovar President Hashim Thaci announced in early March that he would transform the Kosovo Security Force (KSF) into a national army over the objections of Belgrade and the concerns of NATO and the United States. Currently, NATO forces protect Kosovo and train the KSF, which numbers about 4,000 active-duty troops and 2,500 reserve soldiers. Thaci’s plan would increase the former number to 5,000 and the latter to 3,000. This pales in comparison to Serbia’s 50,000-man standing army, but nonetheless enraged Serbian officials and ultranationalists. This escalation in Serbian-Kosovar tensions is incompatible with the conditions the EU has placed on Serbia’s accession.

This disinterest in the EU coincides with a pivot toward Russia. Serbia is one of a few countries in Europe that refused to adopt EU sanctions against Russia. In December 2016, it finalized a major arms deal with Russia despite intense opposition from the EU and neighboring countries. In particular, Croatia spoke out against the arms deal, to which the Serbian foreign minister responded, “If Croatia is the one to decide Serbia’s EU accession, then I must say, my interest in the EU [has] suddenly dropped.” This type of flippancy underscores Serbia’s increasing contempt for both the EU and its neighbors.

Alarmingly, if Serbia were to fully abandon its bid to join the EU and turn to Russia as its primary ally, not only would it lose the economic incentive to repress ultranationalism, but the Russian government would most likely encourage it. Euroscepticism weakens Russia’s closest and most powerful opponents, allowing the country to gain allies in small neighbors like Serbia and rise to historic levels of power with far less resistance. One member of the European Parliament explicitly accused the Russian government of organizing the spread of anti-EU and ultranationalist propaganda. Of course, the Kremlin’s support for Serbian ultranationalism is hardly new. Its recognition of an independent Serbia and support for ultra-nationalists in the early 20th century led to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and triggered World War I. Without significant work on the part of the EU, Russia’s attempt to exploit divisions to weaken Europe may once again provoke conflict.

As relations between Serbia and Kosovo deteriorate and Serbia’s Russian ties grow stronger, the European Union must persuade Serbia to continue working toward accession. Indeed, Serbia’s recidivism may mean that it is abandoning its bid for EU membership in favor of fully aligning with Russia. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini suggested that without careful strategizing on the part of the organization, the Balkans could “easily become one of the chessboards where the big power game can be played.” The EU’s best course of action is clear. It must reaffirm its commitment to Serbia and once again make membership a desirable incentive to commit to peace – potentially exploring options from diplomatic posturing to even offering an opt-out from the Euro. International organizations have infamously failed to make peace in the Balkans time and again. Serbian forces carried out a massacre of Bosniaks in the UN Safe Zone of Srebrenica in 1995, and NATO led a controversial air campaign during the Kosovo War that contributed to the mass flight of Serbs out of Albanian-controlled parts of Kosovo. When Serbia and its neighbors became eligible for accession in 2003, it seemed like the allure of EU prosperity would finally compel Balkan countries to put aside their historical ethnic aggression. But with the EU showing signs of fracturing and the Russian government encouraging ultranationalism, it appears that the EU may just be the latest organization to fail to make peace in the Balkans.