Correction: An earlier version of the column incorrectly stated that three western Balkan states had joined NATO. Montenegro is also a member, along with Croatia, Albania and Slovenia. This version has been corrected.
Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark is a former NATO supreme allied commander. He is a senior fellow at the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations and CEO of Wesley K. Clark & Associates.
It has been more than two decades since I worked with Richard Holbrooke and our team to negotiate an end to the war in Bosnia. NATO deployed and then acted to halt Serb ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.
Today, four western Balkan states (Croatia, Albania, Slovenia and Montenegro) have become members of NATO. Croatia and Slovenia have joined the European Union. Kosovo is now an independent nation. Most Americans and Europeans have mentally filed away that brutal conflict as a problem solved.
Sadly, this is far from true. Lingering political conflicts over the ethno-religious character of these nations consistently threaten to metastasize into national and regional crises, making the region a prime target for meddling by foreign powers. A combustible mix of poor governance, economic stagnation and weak democratic institutions has left a small yet significant minority vulnerable to recruitment by violent jihadists. All of this leaves the region ripe for exploitation by terrorist organizations and meddling by outsiders, including Russia, China and Turkey.
To make matters worse, the region is suffering from neglect by democracies that were instrumental in bringing the Yugoslav wars to an end. Believing that the Balkans’ democratic future lay in E.U. membership, the United States largely handed over responsibility for the region’s political, institutional and economic development to Brussels. Yet political inertia within the E.U. has kept Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia waiting in the wings. And while the United States and Europe sleep, other powers are taking notice.
The Kremlin is steadily increasing its influence. The Russians are working to foment anti-E.U. and anti-NATO sentiment. They are supporting extremist groups (one of which is under investigation in Bosnia for suspected paramilitary activities) and dispensing targeted military aid. The Kremlin has also fanned the flames of ethnic division through disinformation campaigns that pit Orthodox Christian populations against Muslims, intentionally stoking the tensions that fueled the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
Meanwhile, Turkey and the Gulf states are also investing heavily in the western Balkans. Turkey is the third-largest investor in Bosnia, and the leader of Bosnia’s main Muslim political party travels to Istanbul regularly for photo ops with the increasingly authoritarian Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Saudi Arabia and its neighbors in the Gulf have focused their contributions on supporting religious organizations, building new mosques and offering religious instruction to local imams. The strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam that is often the basis of such training bears little relation to the moderate tradition that has been practiced in the Balkans for centuries, and has been tied to rising fundamentalism in the region.
An estimated 1,000 foreign fighters (primarily from Kosovo and Bosnia) have fought with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Although the number of foreign fighters from the Balkans is trending downward, the environments in which these individuals became radicalized, and the vulnerabilities to recruitment among disaffected segments of the population, continue to be a concern. The problem of reintegrating returned foreign fighters poses an even more vexing challenge.
Finally, China is also seeking to augment its influence in the region. Under its “One Belt, One Road” initiative, Beijing is poised to provide the massive capital investment needed to undertake badly needed infrastructure projects in the Balkans. But as we’ve seen in Africa, such investment almost always comes with strings attached.
Clearly, the United States and Europe must remain committed to the western Balkans — with a particular emphasis on strengthening democratic institutions so that governments can address the needs of their citizens.
A western Balkans free-trade zone recently proposed by the region’s leaders could be a step in the right direction. But such an initiative should not be viewed as a substitute for the potential guarantees to be provided by NATO and the E.U. A serious road map for E.U. accession would provide countries in the region with the incentives to make necessary political and economic reforms, increase their cooperation and address rising inter-ethnic tensions.
Of course, such efforts would need to secure popular support in order to go forward — a challenge in a region where the population remains sharply divided in attitudes toward institutions like NATO.
Yet according to one recent poll, although Bosnians of Serb, Croat and Muslim backgrounds are divided on many issues, they are united in their opposition to the Islamic State and their desire to tackle economic problems. NATO membership would be easier to sell to the region’s ethnic Serbs (who tend to be pro-Russian and anti-NATO) if membership were pitched as helping to foster greater regional stability.
We can ensure that the billions in taxpayer dollars invested in this region were not wasted by supporting the work of democracy development implementers such as the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. We’ve seen the continued importance of this kind of work with initiatives such as the newly established Task Force on Counter-Extremism, which is helping lawmakers in Bosnia adapt to the ever-shifting challenge of violent extremism.
We have many tools at our disposal to avert the creeping destabilization in the western Balkans. Let us ensure that we do not squander the tremendous investment we have made in this troubled region, and renew our commitment to helping these fledgling democracies to achieve their full potential.