In the Balkans, ‘Stability’ May Not Be the Answer

How the West's desire for agreement at any cost has created chaos

In the Balkans, ‘Stability’ May Not Be the Answer
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić is joined by other government and military officials at a 2019 parade in Nis, where Russian-made weapons were featured / Sasa Djordjevic / AFP via Getty Images

In the months leading up to the resumption of open Russian aggression in Ukraine, another European country consistently made international headlines concerning renewed threats of conflict: Bosnia and Herzegovina. Beginning last summer, Serb nationalist authorities in the country’s Republika Srpska entity (RS) — one of the two administrative regions within Bosnia created after the conclusion of the Bosnian War (1992-95) — launched a renewed secessionist bid following the imposition of an anti-genocide denial law. By January, the regime of Milorad Dodik and his SNSD party in RS had begun the legislative process of creating breakaway institutions — and suffered another round of U.S. sanctions as a result.

Yet even though Dodik has firmly entrenched himself as a pariah among Western officials, attempts at engagement with him and his associates continue, even by the U.S. Moreover, the expansive support structures that have kept Dodik in power — from the regime in Belgrade to his curiously warm relations with the president of Croatia — have remained almost wholly unsullied from the stain of his radicalism.

The reasons for this are partly rooted in Bosnia’s quixotic postwar status — especially its sectarian, U.S.-designed constitution — but more broadly they stem from a pernicious brand of Western diplomacy pursued on the “margins” of Europe that has focused on accommodation rather than transformation. Entrenched autocrats, illiberal strongmen and ethnic chieftains have been the preferred interlocutors of European and U.S. officials in the Western Balkans for much of the past three decades.

While officially advocating for the Western Balkans’ integration into the EU and NATO, critics have referred to the dominant thrust of Western policy in the region as “stabilocracy”: the pursuit of political stability at the expense of democratization, and thus the normalization and even expansion of political, economic and security ties by the West with illiberal and authoritarian regimes who are able to “deliver” on that stability.

In Ukraine, we see such a policy taken to its extreme, bloody conclusion. Decades of diplomatic double-dealing and rapprochement with the Kremlin by the West resulted in President Vladimir Putin’s decimation of Chechnya, his occupation of large chunks of Georgia, indiscriminate bombardments of Syrian civilians and now, of course, the horror in Ukraine — eight years in the making since Moscow’s initial occupations of Crimea and parts of the Donbas.

But it is in the Balkans where the West’s use of stabilocracy was pioneered. And it is there that the workings and results of this pernicious form of diplomacy can most readily be seen: elite accommodation over accountability, a preference for illiberalism over democracy and finally, appeasement rather than reform.

The continued deference of U.S. officials to Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić is a classic example of this agenda. Although Serbia is the only country in Europe to have explicitly refused to impose sanctions on the Russian government because of its aggression against Ukraine and has spent billions on Russian arms, U.S. Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland recently praised Vučić for his “support for Ukraine” and “commitment to regional stability.”

Vučić’s government is the primary foreign sponsor of Dodik’s secessionist activities in Bosnia, and it’s noteworthy that he has shown a willingness to use muscle on behalf of Serbs outside his own country. In September 2021, for example, Vučić dispatched armored vehicles and fighter jets to the Kosovo border over a dispute concerning license plates with Pristina, whose sovereignty his government still does not recognize. For Vučić, appealing to Serbs in Kosovo is as important as appealing to Serbs in Bosnia.

Why is Washington so wedded to placating a known Russian (and Chinese) ally in the Western Balkans who has a revanchist political agenda? Precisely because he is a threat, albeit one whom leading decision-makers in the U.S. and EU do not want to deal with and believe they can instead appease.

The trouble is, the price of that accommodation has come at the expense of the democratic aspirations of neighboring polities, like Bosnia, Kosovo and Montenegro, and even Serbia’s own populace.

Nor are Vučić and Dodik the only such objects of Western diplomatic fetishization. Other reactionary local actors have seen the benefits of political blackmail and are deploying their own schemes to curry accommodation and appeasement from Washington, Brussels and other EU capitals. Another little-known but highly influential such agent in Bosnia is Dragan Čović, the leader of Bosnia’s Croat nationalist HDZ party and, incidentally, Dodik’s closest political ally in the country. Čović’s activities make for such a striking case study of the stabilocracy phenomenon precisely because he is so closely aligned with Dodik but has suffered almost none of the political or reputational damage.

Once hailed as a “champion of European integration” by the EU’s chief representative in Sarajevo, Čović has long been one of the preferred interlocutors of the political West in Bosnia. It has been a role he has played with significant diplomatic assistance from Zagreb, an EU and NATO capital. But the Ukrainian crisis has revealed the depths of Čović’s duplicity.

On Feb. 24, the first day of the Russia-Ukraine war, Čović wrote on Twitter: “As part of the united European family, peace is the collective and permanent commitment of our country. With devastating developments, invasion and war in #Ukraine, we call again for an urgent ceasefire, solidarity, and dialogue.” Within minutes, his post caused a flurry of angry reactions among Bosnian users, whose view of the conflict was deeply informed by similar experiences with Serbia’s aggression against Bosnia in the ’90s and who saw Čović’s failure to mention Russia as intentional.

His post also drew the ire of prominent European politicians. Tineke Strik, a Dutch member of the European Parliament and member of the EU Committee on Foreign Affairs, slammed Čović, writing: “Deeply embarrassing and worrying that HDZ leader Dragan Čović is unable to clearly condemn Putin’s aggression. Anyone issuing these kind of ambiguous statements at this moment of time is evidently not interested in democracy, international law and European security.”

Why was a prominent member of the European Parliament so critical of a relatively obscure Balkan politician? Because Strik had learned that Čović was the closest coalition partner of Dodik, a secessionist. While Dodik’s repeated meetings with Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as well as a host of other Kremlin officials made his ties to Moscow explicit, Čović had increasingly entered their orbit. On March 3, for instance, when Dodik referred to the Ukrainian armed forces as “armed gangs,” Čović was pressed about his comments but categorically refused to condemn them. In contrast, in March 2020, speaking to Russian media in Moscow, Čović had bemoaned “the lack of Russian influence” in Bosnia.

It is the pursuit of stabilocracy that has led generations of Western officials to imagine malign figures like Čović could be partners. In fact, Čović, like Dodik, is perfectly willing to side with Russia to advance his narrow sectarian agenda and against the interests of the West, which continues to provide security assistance to Bosnia. Čović has continued this double-dealing, not only before the war in Ukraine when it was still plausible for small states like Bosnia to claim a degree of political “neutrality” but also in the face of bald Russian aggression.

Yet time and again, the desire of the West to strike deals, to reach an agreement — any agreement — for the sake of stability has triumphed over attempts at genuine reform and has empowered reactionary figures like Čović and Dodik. Indeed, Russia’s war on Ukraine overshadowed the most alarming manifestation of this political approach in Bosnia in the form of an ignominious attempt by the U.S. and EU to spearhead the reform of Bosnia’s election laws.

Bosnia’s constitution is arguably the most complex and convoluted such document in the world. For a country approximately the size of Wales and with a population of barely 3 million, Bosnia has 14 different governments on its territory, collectively composed of hundreds of ministers. Moreover, virtually all public offices in the country are staffed according to a rigid set of rules based on ethnicity, including the tripartite state presidency, which bars anyone other than the country’s so-called constituent peoples — Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats — from occupying the office.

Beginning in 2009, however, the state of Bosnia lost a series of landmark court cases at both the European Court of Human Rights and the country’s own Constitutional Court, all of which found in various instances that the existing constitutional regime was flagrantly discriminatory.

The end result was that Bosnia had to bring its constitutional and electoral norms in line with the liberal democratic standards that are meant to govern all member states of the Council of Europe.

The problem is that Čović’s HDZ — which won just 9% of the national vote at the last general election — recognizes that almost any form of substantive liberalization of the country’s constitutional and electoral norms would result in a loss of power for the party. Owing to Byzantine ethnic provisions in the Dayton peace agreement, the party at present controls vastly disproportionate swaths of power and for four years has successfully blocked a government from forming in the country’s larger entity, the federation. In short, democratic reform is an existential threat to the HDZ — yet it is precisely this spoiler bloc that U.S. and European negotiators have coddled and appeased in the process of amending Bosnia’s constitution.

In September 2021, the U.S. appointed an elections reform envoy, Matthew Palmer, to hammer out a new election regime for the country. Angelina Eichhorst, the EU’s head for the Western Balkans and Turkey, soon joined Palmer in the effort, and the two spent weeks meeting with leading Bosnian officials trying to secure a deal ahead of the October 2022 polls.

Initially, this all seemed like standard diplomatic engagement except for two significant issues. First, as Palmer and Eichhorst were attempting to deliver a new elections law in Bosnia, Dodik was unveiling his plans to break up the country. And second, neither Palmer nor Eichhorst had much to say about it, that is until Bosnian media began publishing details of the closed-door talks being led by the U.S. and European diplomats.

It turned out Palmer and Eichhorst were attempting to strong-arm actual pro-reform parties in Bosnia into accepting a new election law or to shut them out of the process entirely. More important, they seemed to be conditioning U.S. and EU support for Bosnia against Dodik’s secessionism on the adoption of that new election law.

They were, in other words, offering Bosnian politicians an invidious choice: Accept tepid changes that will keep Bosnia locked in perpetual political conflict, or the West will stand aside while Dodik seeks to tear the country apart.

When, finally, it was revealed that Palmer and Eichhorst were attempting to impose electoral reform models that were simply variations of existing initiatives proposed by Čović’s party, which would preserve the sectarian status quo and their power, a firestorm of public reaction followed.

Azra Zornic, one of the individuals who had successfully sued Bosnia at the European Court of Human Rights, accused Palmer and Eichhorst of “encouraging national chauvinist leaders to continue their fascist demands.” Other observers slammed this approach as leading Bosnia to still further ethnic polarization and segregation.

By February, the talks had all but fallen apart, and Čović’s nationalist HDZ announced its intention to halt the country’s elections in October, falsely claiming that “legal conditions” for these had not been met despite the Central Elections Commission publicly confirming this was not true. Concurrently, the party began threatening to reboot its efforts to establish its own breakaway region, as had briefly existed during the Bosnian War.

Palmer and Eichhorst’s efforts could scarcely have gone any worse. They had not only alienated most of the Bosnian public but also the parliamentary majority they needed to deliver genuine reform of the country’s elections laws, which would necessarily require constitutional amendments. Worst of all, few could explain why Palmer and Eichhorst had insisted on such an obviously foolish approach in the first place.

The answer is stabilocracy in action. Palmer and Eichhorst epitomize the collective Western approach to Bosnia and the broader Western Balkans in which decades of reform efforts focused exclusively on elite consensus. The benefit of such an approach for U.S. and EU officials was that it required next to no engagement. Washington and Brussels would facilitate talks but little else. The only objective was agreement, no matter its content.

For instance, prior to their stint in Bosnia, both Palmer and Eichhorst had been involved in championing the so-called land swap agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, which would have had the two countries “trade” territories along their border to create two more ethnically homogenous polities and win recognition for Pristina’s sovereignty from Belgrade. This absurd plan was nearly universally panned by local experts, who feared it would embolden nationalists across the region to initiate new attempts at ethnic cleansing. For advocates, however, this was no concern. If the Serbian and Kosovar leaderships could agree, the U.S. and EU would support the plan — even though it flew in the face of all their purported normative commitments to human rights and liberal democracy.

A similar situation thus played out in Bosnia. By evacuating their own principles and values from the broader reform process in the country, the U.S. and EU allowed the most obstructionist and extremist elements in Bosnia — i.e., Čović and Dodik — to successfully freeze virtually all progress for nearly two decades. Despite obviously deteriorating conditions, the policies of successive U.S. and EU administrations scarcely budged beyond hollow pleas for “compromise” and “local ownership.” Disproportionate power in the hands of the HDZ and SNSD resulted in invocations of compromise; that is, bona fide pro-integrationist elements in Bosnia were to find accommodations for anti-state actors.

Much has been made of the apparent geopolitical turn in Western policy toward Russia following the events in Ukraine. The robust sanctions against the Kremlin, including asset seizures, and the flood of weapons that have been dispatched to the Ukrainians by NATO states suggest the West has definitively pivoted on its relationship with Putin, recognizing him as an existential threat to peace and security in Europe. But the true test of the durability of that policy reset will be measured by how the West adjusts (or not) its posture toward less obvious spokes in the Kremlin’s influence networks, especially in the Western Balkans.

As the case of Bosnia’s election law shows, the prevailing wisdom for decades has favored accommodation and appeasement with recalcitrant elements at the expense of substantive reform. As in Russia, the result has been the gross empowerment of the very actors the West has claimed it wants to counter. In fact, this approach has created space for those malign actors, like Russia and China, to exploit the region’s instability for their own strategic ends.

With regional states, including Bosnia, seeking to capitalize on offers from Western capitals to “fast track” EU and NATO candidacy and membership application following Russia’s war on Ukraine, it will be vital that those capitals use their own resources to deliver credible and durable reforms within these societies. To be clear, Bosnia does require substantive electoral and constitutional reform, but it must be genuine reform that will move the country’s legal framework closer to the standards of other Euro-Atlantic democracies. Bosnian citizens will not settle, and nor should the West, for merely rearranging the country’s existing sectarian electoral and constitutional regime, as Palmer and Eichhorst have proposed.

After all, if the Euro-Atlantic community is serious about rebooting its security posture in Europe, we must recognize — as the valiant Ukrainians are showing — that democracy and the rule of law are the bedrock of free societies. The West should not shy away from actively working toward the realization of such regimes in the Western Balkans and Bosnia, above all. At the very least, NATO capitals can no longer be in league with the forces of democratic erosion. Surely, such an approach has been consumed by the fires of Mariupol.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy