For an outsider, understanding the political landscape of the Balkan region is a mental quagmire because the conflict runs deeper than demographics, nationality, and ethnography – it is the psychological hatred and mistrust that drives the separation between the former Yugoslavian states.
That is Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, North Macedonia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, and perhaps Romania, Moldova and Bulgaria included – all of which underwent a series of brutal yet undeniably connected wars throughout the 90’s only ending in 2001 after the defeat of Albania in Southern Serbia.
For those that are perplexed by terms such as Yugoslavia and the Balkans – just know that one is the former name of the communist state that existed from 1945 until 1992 and the latter, a geographical region stretching from the Adriatic Sea until the Balkan Mountain region in western Bulgaria.
It sits at a unique point in Europe, straddling the divide between east and west, quite literally for that matter – diplomatically positioning itself as ‘non-aligned’ during the cold war despite its communist tilt, separating from the Soviet (Russian) sphere of influence whilst not siding with the American and Western European powers.
As a result, you can see the strength and fervor of their independence in a deep sense of tribalism which has been mutilated and amplified by the wars of the 90’s – so much so that the economy of the region has been limping for the last 25 years with the exception of Slovenia and Croatia which tend to overshadow the other nations – perhaps due to their proximity to western Europe or their ability to distance themselves in the eyes of tourists, who shout out the beauty of Slovenia’s lake bled or how Croatia has transformed itself into a hub for remote workers.
These opinions are rarely heard from the other nations which are experiencing huge drops in the number of people living there and consequently, a bleak economic future – thanks to mass emigration by young people, with the Serbian population projected to drop 25% by 2050 and Bosnian by nearly 30% according to research from the world bank.
With over 1.2 million vacancies in countries like the UK, there is no denying that better-paid opportunities can and will be filled by those that want them from the outside, but this is perhaps beside the point.
This migration will leave a huge power vacuum in the Balkan region who has already felt the ripple effects of the Russian invasion in Ukraine, with 4.5 million people evacuating the country for greener pastures further west – though not in their droves to the former Yugoslavian states, it has certainly been unnerving for governments across the region who see Serbia – of which does not share a border with Russia, as a friend, capable igniting past tensions in a region already suffering economically.
Serbian President Aleksander Vucic has indeed rejected sanctions on Russia citing neutrality and complete dependence on Putin’s gas as the reason for this – but it also goes much deeper for many Serbs who historically hold grievances toward NATO countries for bombing Serbia during the 90s. Polls have shown that 54% of Serbians see Russia as an ally – a figure that must not be ignored by foreign policy experts and heeded by other Balkan governments.
Considering the depopulation of the region there is every chance in the world that Putin views the Balkans, using Serbia as an area ripe for destabilization, casting a stone against a mounting threat from NATO and the EU.
Much of the recent focus has been on the immediate threat to the Baltic states or that of Poland and Romania who are viewed by Russia as still in its sphere of influence and sit on their doorstep, yet the media and governments at large, seem to forget that the Balkan states too, sit in a precarious position.
Your last name can be life or death in many of the former Yugoslavian countries, your ethnicity, a cause for bitter hatred, and previously, death. Bearing that in mind, it is one region that must be ready and responsive to potential Russian influence, perhaps by looking to accelerate their integration into the EU or NATO of which for some, Ukraine, was too late.
In just 8 years since the annexation of Crimea, many of us were taken by surprise in learning that the Russians were just miles from Kyiv and if history has taught us anything, it is that peace can be swept away in a matter of days.
For the Balkan countries, this is no different and for all their lived experience through deadly conflicts, a repeat is only welcomed by opportunistic despots looking to exploit long-simmering ethnic tensions because, for all we know, Russia may be closer than we first thought.