Inside Europe's Balkan Tinderbox

  • Economic hardship helps fuel return of nationalist tensions
  • Russia renews efforts to forge closer ties with Serb allies

In the crumbling industrial city that produced Yugo cars before war tore apart the Balkans, Aleksa Djuraskovic is worried history is again catching up with his Serbian homeland.

After being laid off from the auto factory last year, he sees his hometown of Kragujevac going back to the hardship of the 1990s, when Serbia was under economic sanctions and ethnic conflict led to leaders being put on trial for war crimes.

“Then it was called the ‘Valley of Hunger’ and I’m afraid we’re headed for that again,’’ said Djuraskovic, 27, who lasted four years at the plant after it was taken over by Italy’s Fiat SpA. He used his severance pay to buy a car and now scratches a living as a taxi driver. “It was everyone’s dream to work for Fiat.”

It’s the kind of economic backdrop that helped propel Donald Trump to the White House, fueled the U.K.’s Brexit vote and lifted support for populist parties across Europe. But on a staging ground where Russian and western influences collided throughout the 20th century, disillusionment carries even greater dangers: blood-and-soil beliefs that triggered the Yugoslav wars are finding new life in the new world order.

As Trump belittles NATO and sends conciliatory signs to the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin is stepping in. He has pledged to strengthen defense cooperation with Serbia, a traditional ally, donating six used MiG-29 fighter planes to the army. He also offered the country to join a trade agreement that would be incompatible with Serbia’s plan to join the European Union.

Politicians in Serbia, run by one-time allies of late leader Slobodan Milosevic, have been emboldened. The president and prime minister have said better relations between Moscow and Washington can benefit Serbs, many of whom think the country has gone backwards since NATO bombs drove Milosevic’s forces out of neighboring Kosovo in 1999. Russia opposed the military action and, like Serbia, doesn’t recognize Kosovo’s independence. 

“The Balkans have always been a cauldron of risks boiling over, and in this sense, the situation is not much different from the situation 20, 50 or 100 years ago,” said Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the Russian upper house of parliament’s foreign affairs committee and a former aide to Yevgeny Primakov, prime minister during the Kosovo conflict who aborted a U.S. trip when the bombing started.

The changes in the U.S. and Europe are affecting the situation in the Balkans, which “is still far from being resolved,” he said.

Old Enmities

Less than a week before Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, emotions flared between Kosovo and Serbia when the government in Belgrade tried to send a train adorned with nationalist symbols across the border.

Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic halted the wagons, saying he heard Kosovar troops had been sent to attack them. President Tomislav Nikolic threatened to send Serbian forces to defend their ethnic kin, noting that he and his sons would fight, “not for the first time.”

A train in Belgrade decorated with the Serbian flag and declaring "Kosovo is Serbia” in various languages.

Photographer: Oliver Bunic/AFP via Getty Images

Elsewhere, the Russian government has rejected an accusation by Montenegro it staged a failed coup during an election in October in an attempt to derail plans to join the EU and the NATO. In Bosnia Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik, who heads the ethnic Serb-dominated part of the three-nation federation, has threatened to call for the Serbs to break away if the country’s Muslims, the largest single ethnic group, try to further centralize power. In response, Barack Obama’s administration imposed sanctions on him.

Dodik hailed Trump’s victory as a chance to end “meddling” in Bosnia by the U.S., which has poured aid and stationed troops in the country to keep it stable.

Risk of Neglect

The incidents have alarmed officials in the EU. Foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini called a meeting between the Serb and Kosovar leaders on Jan. 24. Officials resume talks in Brussels on Wednesday evening. “I hope it will be possible to talk with the other side in a way that will preserve peace,” Vucic told reporters this week.

While both sides have agreed to solve their differences peacefully, the EU must take further steps to calm the situation, according to Eduard Kukan, a former special United Nations envoy to the Balkans in 1999 and 2000.

“If we don’t do that, it could get out of hand,” said Kukan. “And we have seen what happens to the Balkans when it’s neglected.”

The Balkans has been a tinderbox since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. An uneasy peace between the ethnic divisions was broken up by brutal wars. The First World War was triggered in Sarajevo, now the Bosnian capital, when a Serb nationalist assassinated Austria’s archduke. The most recent cycle of violence left tens of thousands of people dead, tortured and raped.

Few people talk of a return to violence, though they do speak of their economic struggles and the risks they pose. While the principles of globalization and multiculturalism have driven an economic boom elsewhere in ex-communist Europe, billions of dollars of international aid haven’t done the same for Serbia.

Looking East

Living standards are languishing at about 36 percent of the EU average, compared with about 50 percent for the bloc’s poorest member, Bulgaria. The average salary is $400 a month and unemployment runs at 14 percent, higher in places like Kragujevac.

“I haven’t found any new job and, at my age, I’m practically unemployable,” said Zoran Lukovic, 47, who also worked for four years at Fiat and previously two decades at the Zastava plant making Yugos. “The severance money is almost gone.”

At a café in Kragujevac, which is home to 180,000 of Serbia’s 7 million people, Djuraskovic isn’t optimistic either, not least about the integration with western Europe Serbia has sought. He sees closer ties with Russia, which in contrast to Croatia shares the Orthodox religion, Cyrillic alphabet and a history of wartime alliances.

“We haven’t even joined the EU and I’m a Euroskeptic,” said Djuraskovic, whose family fled Croatia in 1991 as a two-year-old when war raged with Serbia. “The policy of being friendly with both East and West is impossible. The East is, after all, closer to us.”

New Order

Serbia is heading for presidential elections and possible contenders including Nikolic, the incumbent, and the nationalist Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj may use such themes in campaigning. A Trump supporter who was acquitted of war crimes last year, Seselj is now third place in opinion polls. He wants Serbia to resume control of Kosovo, strengthen ties with Russia, and end Vucic’s plan to ready the country for EU membership by 2020.

Trump’s victory may provide an especially strong impetus for illiberal political forces that can be compared with how the fall of communism ushered in a new world order, according to Ivan Krastev, head of the Centre for Liberal Studies in Sofia who was a member of the International Commission on the Balkans.

“Serbia sees that their understanding of the world was reconfirmed,” Krastev said. “In the way that communism could only be defeated in Moscow at the end of the Cold War, the idea of a liberal order and multiculturalism can be defeated only when the United States turns against it.”

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