The processes of European and Euro-Atlantic integration certainly contributed greatly to supporting reforms and building stability in countries that joined the European Union and NATO from Central and Eastern Europe. However, they were designed to assist accession to international institutions, not to manage conflict. The complexity of five, overlapping national questions – Albanian, Bosniak, Croat, Macedonian and Serb – and the legacy of war and ethnic cleansing has proved beyond the tools deployed to address them.
Whereas the European Union and the United States kept a tight grip on developments in South Eastern Europe in the second half of the 1990s and the early years of the new millennium, they subsequently downgraded their engagement to focus on more pressing conflicts elsewhere in the world.
Moreover, the chances of leveraging the desire of the majority of the region’s population for closer links to Western Europe to fundamental change depend, above all, on the prospect of eventual membership being real. As the European Union has become increasingly embroiled in internal matters – the sovereign debt crisis, responding to an unprecedented influx of migrants and Brexit – that prospect has also faded. As a result, reform processes have stalled, increasingly authoritarian elites have entrenched themselves in power, and irredentism has returned to the political agenda.
In addition to undermining Western influence, the vacuum created by failing policies has opened up opportunities for an assertive Russia to exploit throughout the region. Without expending much financial or political capital, Moscow has sought to bolster anti-Western sentiment, in particular among Serbs; to reinforce like-minded regimes; and to undermine further the prospects of Euro-Atlantic integration.
Specifically, Russia has invested in Serbian-language media – Russia Today radio broadcasts and a Sputnik News web site – to promote its worldview among Serbs. It has also invested in the energy sector in Serbia and Republika Srpska (the Serb-dominated entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina). Above all, it has used its clout in international organisations and in particular in the UN Security Council to support Serb positions.
Russia opposed NATO’s Kosovo air campaign, which it considered illegal, in 1999 and has subsequently systematically used its permanent seat in the UN Security Council to support Serbian positions in relation to Kosovo’s status. In this way, the UN Mission in Kosovo remains in place nearly 18 years after deployment on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 1244. Moreover, Moscow has blocked measures in the Security Council that Belgrade objected to, in particular a resolution condemning the Srebrenica massacre as genocide on its 20th anniversary.