Belgrade’s ‘Serbian World’ Fantasies Jeopardise Balkan Cooperation

There’s little chance of cross-border economic cooperation projects like the ‘Open Balkan’ initiative being truly successful while political leaders in Belgrade continue to dream of a greater Serbian state encompassing the territory and citizens of neighbouring countries.

Damir Marusic and Benjamin Haddad of the Atlantic Council, a US think-tank, published a provocative essay in Foreign Policy last week about the new ‘Open Balkan’ joint initiative established by the governments of Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia.

The essay makes for sobering reading, and centres on the idea that the era of EU enlargement has definitively ended, and so local states are necessarily turning towards developing intra-regional mechanisms to promote political and economic cooperation.

For their part, Marusic and Haddad are decidedly optimistic about the project’s significance, writing: “Coming on the heels of the breakthrough Prespa agreement between North Macedonia and Greece, initiatives like Open Balkan signal that something important, and indeed healthy, is happening on the ground: Local leaders are taking ownership of their fate and showing creativity.”

The trouble with this narrative, however, is that it is not borne out by the facts of what is – as the authors put it – happening on the ground.

As Marusic and Haddad themselves acknowledge, the fact that only three of the ‘Western Balkan Six’ states have joined the plan is significant. But the absence of Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro is not, as the authors argue, because the “three holdouts remain sceptical, arguing that the new initiative duplicates the development of a Common Regional Market that was agreed to by all six in Sofia, Bulgaria, last year as part of the Berlin Process”.

For one thing, the EU-backed Berlin Process regional cooperation initiative for the Balkans, much like the EU enlargement project, is moribund. It is no more than a discussion format at this juncture, and in the seven years since the inaugural Berlin Process summit, it has produced little of any political consequence. Indeed, the fact that a Common Regional Market was already agreed to, and is now being supplanted by this trilateral initiative, speaks to how insignificant the Berlin Process has become.

The reason why Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro have not signed up to the Open Balkan idea is not because they continue to hold out hope for an EU-initiated Common Regional Market. They have not signed up for the same reason that the Common Regional Market has failed to become anything more than another in a long line of international ‘concepts’ for the region (recall, ‘local ownership’, ‘connectivity’, the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, etc).

The problem remains Serbia, and its machinations towards most of the region – machinations which have nothing to do with political and economic cooperation, and everything to do with the revanchist and hegemonic fantasies of Belgrade’s ruling elite.

Aleksander Vulin, the Serbian interior minister and close confidant of President Aleksandar Vucic, has promoted the idea that Serbia is seeking the formal political and institutional unification of all ethnic Serbs in the Western Balkans. That is, a Greater Serbia, with Belgrade as its capital, and Vucic as its undisputed leader. He has labelled this the ‘Serbian World’.

Vulin has openly championed the ‘Serbian World’ idea at political rallies and on national TV, and he has used the concept as a cudgel to wield against neighbouring governments, especially in Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro.

Unsurprisingly, as those three countries contain most of the populations and territories which Vulin and Vucic believe will, eventually, be incorporated into the new Serbian mega-state.

Milosevic’s ideals live on

In short, Serbia is perceived in at least half the region as a threat to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the states in question. As such, few people in Pristina, Sarajevo, or Podgorica are interested in deepening ties with such a regime.

That is the inescapable political reality of the contemporary Western Balkans. Alas, very few people in either the US or EU appear willing to address this fact. Instead, one hopeful policy programme replaces another, like the passing of the seasons. And like the seasons, each one fades away, only to be repackaged some time later. So, the Common Regional Market becomes Open Balkan, and so on and so on.

It is a futile effort, however, because policy can never be a substitute for politics. So long as Belgrade remains committed to the ideals and aspirations of the former regime of Slobodan Milosevic, no progress can be achieved in this region. This is not merely a matter of implementation; it is a matter of substance.

To be clear, the Open Balkan concept – much like the Common Regional Market, like EU enlargement, like all these grand schemes that have been proposed for the region for the better part of two decades – is a fine idea. Such ideas would doubtlessly improve lives and livelihoods for all involved were they ever to be implemented.

However, the region would also be immeasurably improved if the most populous country in the Western Balkans were not governed by a genocide-denying, irridentist, militant autocrat. But it is. And because it is, there is not real future either for the Open Balkan initiative or a Common Regional Market.

The dramatic and, at times, humiliating American withdrawal from Afghanistan has understandably led to soul-searching among foreign policy experts on both sides of the Atlantic. Presumably, one of the main lessons of the war in Afghanistan should be that one must make policy based on the conditions that actually prevail on the ground, not those we would like to prevail.

In the Western Balkans, the Serbian World is a fact on the ground and a threat to be confronted; concepts like the Open Balkan initiative are just fine ideas on paper.

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