The Return of the Balkan Question

PARIS – “One must Europeanize the Balkans, in order to avoid the Balkanization of Europe.” I wrote those words with the French political scientist Jacques Rupnik in 1991, just as war was breaking out among Yugoslavia’s successor states. The fighting would last until the end of the decade, claim thousands of lives, and twice require the intervention of NATO (in Bosnia in 1995 and Serbia in 1999).

Nearly a quarter-century later, the Balkans continue to constitute a threat to European peace, just as they did on the eve of World War I and at the end of the Cold War, when Yugoslavia’s implosion led not only to Europe’s first war since 1945, but also to the return of genocidal murder. The recent fighting in Macedonia, which left eight police officers and 14 Albanian militants dead, raises the specter of renewed violence. It is difficult to know whether the bloodshed represents the festering of an old, unhealed wound or something new, a backlash against a majority-Slav government that seems bent on embracing ethnic chauvinism.

What is clear is that the region remains an explosive and confused reality, one capable of threatening Europe’s stability, already on a knife’s edge following Russia’s adventurism in Ukraine. The region is a volatile mix of rising nationalism, deep economic frustration, and disillusionment about progress toward membership in the European Union. The potential for a plunge into chaos obliges us to consider once again how best to handle the Balkan tinderbox.

When I was in Belgrade recently, the gunplay in Macedonia was the talk of the town. Some of my Serbian interlocutors decried the West’s blindness. In particular, they criticized the EU, NATO, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe for describing the upsurge in violence as a series of “isolated incidents.” From the Serbs’ perspective, attacks by Albanian nationalists were more likely the beginning of an attempt to enlarge their territory at the expense of their Christian neighbors, beginning with the weakest.