Fragile Region:

The Balkans are headed into a new phase of political and military tensions which could exacerbate instability at the global level. This is especially true in light of the economic repercussions of the war in Ukraine and growing fears of a Chinese strike against Taiwan following Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the latter.

There are various signs that the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, also known as the Dayton Agreement, is coming to an end. Negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia have also reached a stalemate. At the same, the region is grappling with an energy crisis due to the Ukraine war.

Renewed Conflict

The signs of heightened tensions in the Balkans can be summarized as follows:

1. Kosovo intends to impose new laws on its Serbian minority: Tensions between neighboring Serbia and Kosovo have recently escalated as a result of the latter’s attempt to impose a new law to tighten procedures for issuing ID cards and vehicle licenses for Serbians. Serbia explicitly condemned these procedures, which it considers a provocative move that it will not tolerate.

If this law comes into effect, Serbians in Kosovo who live near the Serbian border—who currently make up 5 percent of Kosovo’s population—will not be allowed to use Serbian license plates. Instead, they will be required to begin using new plates from Kosovo within two months. The law would also require all Serbian passport holders to obtain a special travel document upon arrival to Kosovo, which is different from current entry procedures. Kosovo’s Serbian minority blocked the roads in the north of the country to protest these new measures. Police forces accused the protestors of firing shots, which led to the closure of the border between the two countries. The Government of Kosovo stated that it condemns "the obstruction of roads in the north of Kosovo and the firing of weapons by armed persons there," and said that this posed a threat to the country’s stability and the safety of its citizens.

2. Hate speech against Kosovo intensifies in Serbia: Some analysts argue that Serbia is exploiting the fact that the international community is preoccupied with various other internal and external crises in order to get what it failed to achieve in 2008. At that time, Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia, although the latter does not recognize its independence. Serbia claims that it has full authority over its citizens there and treats them as Serbian citizens who are not subject to authorities in Kosovo. In response to the recent measures taken by Kosovo, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said in a speech, "We will pray for peace and seek peace, but there will be no surrender [to external provocations], and Serbia will win."

3. Serbia seeks help from Russia against the West: The recent skirmishes between Serbia and Kosovo shed light on the Serbian stance on the Ukraine war. Belgrade and Minsk were the only two European capitals that did not impose sanctions on Russia. On the contrary, Serbia increased the number of direct flights to and from Russia at a time when the EU had imposed a ban on all Russian flights.

To further antagonize the West, Vučić reached an agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin in May 2022 to continue Russian gas imports to Serbia for three more years. The Serbian president justified this by arguing that Serbia is a small country and that he has to meet the people’s needs, including through access to Russian gas. Vučić explained that "we need to survive and thus we have to act rationally."

4. Threats to break up the union of Bosnia and Herzegovina: Some reports in July indicated that Christian Schmidt, the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, was preparing for changes in relation to the union of Bosnia and Herzegovina, including amending the elections law and constitution. A political crisis in the country and widespread protests in Sarajevo erupted as a result of these proposed amendments, which would impact the parliament, constitutional court, and elections scheduled for this year. This could work against the political parties that represent minorities such as Jewish and Roma people, and instead empower nationalist parties representing Muslim Bosnians, Serbs, and Bosnian Croats.

These new measures will intensify ethnic and religious tensions in Bosnia and Herzegovina. At least 100,000 citizens in Bosnia and Herzegovina have been dismissed from senior positions  based on their ethnic and religious affiliation. Some 300,000 others have also been dismissed from their jobs for living in areas outside traditionally dominant ethnic and religious clusters within the country.

5. Fragile stability between North Macedonia and Bulgaria: Macedonia and Bulgaria have historically experienced conflict, with Bulgaria demanding that North Macedonia acknowledge the rights of Bulgarian minorities. These disputes prompted Bulgaria to block North Macedonia’s attempts to join the European Union. In July, France brokered an agreement between the two countries in which Bulgaria would withdraw its objection to Northern Macedonia’s accession to the EU. In return, North Macedonia would adopt constitutional amendments including recognizing the Bulgarian language and the rights of the Bulgarian minority in North Macedonia in addition to reviving the Bulgarian-North Macedonian friendship agreement of 2017. However, the durability of this agreement is still uncertain, given ongoing opposition to the agreement in Northern Macedonia. This opposition is led by the VMRO-DPMNE, a moderate right political party and the primary opposition group in the country.

The recent agreement between the two countries could turn out to be a preliminary agreement that is later abandoned. Bilateral relations between the two countries therefore remain vulnerable to collapse at any time. Moreover, Moscow could exploit these circumstances to attract Northern Macedonia to its camp, especially if no progress is made in negotiations between Northern Macedonia and the EU.

Potential Repercussions

These ongoing tensions in the Balkans could produce the following repercussions in the region:

1. A worsening energy crisis in the western Balkans: The increased tensions in the Balkans are expected to impact the energy crisis there, as the war in Ukraine takes a heavy toll on energy-insecure countries. Countries in the western Balkans have suffered power cuts for extended periods during winter, which the Russian-Ukrainian war could exacerbate.

Albania depends on hydroelectric power to meet its energy needs, while Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Northern Macedonia depend almost entirely on Russian natural gas for their energy consumption.

Following the Russian intervention in Ukraine, all of the aforementioned countries except Serbia agreed to commit to European sanctions on Russia and halted imports of Russian natural gas. However, it is difficult to find a cheap alternative to Russian gas and these countries could later opt out of European sanctions and resume Russian gas imports, especially as winter approaches and energy demand soars.

2. Potential for increased pressures on Kosovo: A major energy crisis lies on the horizon for Kosovo, especially during the cold winter months. Like other Balkan countries, Kosovo relies heavily on Russian gas. The strong ties between Serbia and Russia now complicate the situation for Kosovo, especially since natural gas shipments pass through Serbia before reaching Kosovo. As tensions between Kosovo and Serbia escalate, the situation could worsen, although there are European efforts underway to address this issue. The Serbian president is expected to meet with Kosovo’s prime minister in Brussels on 18 August to discuss unresolved issues between the two countries. However, Serbia’s president said in a televised statement that he does not expect much from the visit, which could undermine the chance of reaching an agreement between the two parties.

3. Several bilateral energy agreements: These developments could push some countries to adopt alternative strategies to resolve the energy crisis and reduce their dependence on Russian gas. This stems from a realization that the energy crisis could heighten tensions in the region. For example, Bulgaria’s prime minister and his Greek counterpart commissioned a new gas pipeline to connect Komotini in northeast Greece with Stara Zagora in central Bulgaria.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Kirill Petkov said that this project would "go down in history," while Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis stressed the importance of the new line as Greece seeks to become a regional hub for transporting energy, especially fossil fuels, from the Caspian Sea to the eastern Mediterranean. Greece also aims to play a pivotal role in transporting renewable energy from Egypt to the Balkans. However, there have been reports that the interim government, especially interim Minister of Energy Rosen Hristov, had impeded the Bulgarian parliament’s adoption of a final agreement and ratification of the new line. This will limit the potential success of the new line for the near future.

4. Further challenges for the European Union: Tensions in the Balkans could complicate the issues that the European Union has faced since the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis with regard to expanding EU membership to countries such as Ukraine and Moldova. Although the EU Commission has issued a recommendation to accept both of these countries as EU members, the matter is still under discussion and is likely to provoke increased divisions within the EU.

Tensions in the Balkans are likely to cause problems for the EU because this threatens European security and ties with the Balkan region. A majority of Balkan countries believe that the best solution with the fewest negative repercussions is simply for them to join the EU, as Slovenia and Croatia have already done. However, this solution remains elusive, especially given internal disagreements between EU countries over the admission of new members, deep anxieties about the Russian-Ukrainian war, and the energy crisis. Moreover, the value of the euro has declined significantly. The global standing of the EU has also been on the decline as a result of the European Bank’s attempt to impose unified monetary policies. This has meant that current EU countries bear the cost of adding additional countries to the EU and take on the economic difficulties of these new member countries.

5. Exploiting tensions in the Balkans: Russia is likely to exploit existing tensions in the Balkans to exert more pressure on the West, and could start a new front of conflict, which would exacerbate the problems facing Europe as well as the United States. Moscow recognizes the importance of restoring Soviet influence and its legacy in the Balkans. The rapprochement between Serbia and Russia gives Moscow a point of entry to shaping the future of the Balkans and ramping up tensions in the region, which could drain Western capabilities on a new front.

A Difficult Scenario

The current tensions in the Balkans recall the region’s history of conflict and signal the potential for a new war. The option of going to war is on the table, especially given the ethnic and historical complexities of this region in addition to the fallout of the war in Ukraine and talk of a new international order. In other words, the war in the Balkans could become a tool for reshaping the world order. However, this will be difficult for Russia to achieve because NATO and the EU will not want to let a new war erupt in this fragile region in order to avoid jeopardizing their own stability and security.