Donald Trump’s rise to power, combined with the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, is neutralizing American and British influence in the Balkans. As a result, the volatile region is vulnerable to a surge of illiberalism that could result in the renewal of ethnic-based conflict.
American and European regional experts gathered recently at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute to consider the Balkans’ future. Columbia Professor Tanya Domi opened the roundtable discussion by noting that the post-World War II system established at Yalta appears to be “cracking up.” The Balkans stands to suffer from any weakening of the existing order.
“The long peace” may be drawing to a close, Domi said, referring to the past two decades of relative stability in the region. Noting that Balkans are still “plagued by history, memories and grievances,” Domi and others expressed concern about the growing possibility of a return of the violence that occurred amid the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.
Jasmin Mujanovic, a Balkans expert affiliated with Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, characterized the United States and UK as “checked out” of the Balkans. This dereliction of diplomatic duty creates a situation in which “all sorts of things are possible.”
Mujanovic said entrenched governments in the region are likely to become more authoritarian-minded and kleptocratic. “The game now is getting what you can, while the getting is good,” he said. He added that Russia and China appear set to become the region’s “new benefactors,” filling the void left by the US-British forfeiture of diplomatic influence.
“China and Russia prefer to work with authoritarian regimes that don’t care about rules,” Mujanovic said.
The European Union will not be much of a factor, said Tobias Flessenkemper, a regional expert affiliated with Köln University in Germany. The EU’s preoccupation with mass migration has shifted the emphasis of Brussels’ approach toward the Balkans from integration to containment, with the region intended to serve as a buffer zone that frustrates the flow of refugees into Western Europe.
Flessenkemper also acknowledged that the EU no longer had the economic appeal that it once enjoyed in Balkan states. Thus, there is less of an incentive for countries in the region to embrace liberal values.
“The tools we have developed aren’t sharp enough,” he said. “We don’t have convincing answers for the future.”
Among the roundtable participants, Aida Hozic, a University of Florida professor, offered perhaps the most sobering assessment of the Balkans’ future: “The former Yugoslavia could be a new Syria.”
She added that Trump’s election could prove the tipping point for the region, upending the “delicate balance” that had existed in recent years.
To hear the recording of the full meeting, click here.