The Western Balkans is the term commonly given to a group of seven countries: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia. The EU has briefly summarised the modern history of the region:
The economic and political crisis of the 1980s, coupled with the resurgence of nationalism, caused the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s along the borders of its constituent republics, generally preceded by armed conflict. Five independent countries were formed, and were joined later by Montenegro (2006) and Kosovo (2008). As for Albania, it was a completely isolated communist dictatorship until 1991, when it had to rebuild its public administration from scratch.
On 25 May 1993, UN Security Council Resolution 808 established the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to examine crimes that took place during the conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s. The tribunal was the first international tribunal for the prosecution of war crimes since the Nuremberg and Tokyo war crime trials following the second world war.
By 2017, when it closed, the ICTY had indicted 161 individuals. It sentenced 90 of these for crimes such as genocide; crimes against humanity; violations of the laws or customs of war; and grave breaches of the Geneva conventions.
Crimes included widespread policies of murder, rape and torture as part of a wider policy of “ethnic cleansing”. Use of rape and abuse of women was described by the UN as a “deliberate weapon of war”. The UN has estimated that there were 20,000 to 40,000 victims of rape during the conflict.
Events in Srebrenica in July 1995, when Bosnian Serbs overran UN-declared “safe areas” of Srebrenica and Zepa and murdered between 7,000 to 8,000 Muslim men and boys, were labelled a genocide by the ICTY.
On 14 December 1995, representatives of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Yugoslavia (then comprising Serbia and Montenegro) signed the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Also known as the Dayton Accords or the Dayton Peace Agreement, having been initialled in the US city of Dayton, Ohio, the Dayton Peace Agreement signalled the end to the war.
All the countries of the Western Balkans have applied to join the EU. On 1 July 2013, Croatia became the first of the seven countries to join. Albania, BiH, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia have candidate country status. Kosovo submitted its application for EU membership in December 2022 but has not been granted candidate status.
All the Western Balkans states except BiH, Kosovo and Serbia are NATO members. BiH is seeking membership of the group.
2. Democracy and freedoms
In 2022, a report by the European Court of Auditors said studies on the region have showed that “governments in the Western Balkans have managed to combine a formal commitment to democracy and European integration with informal authoritarian practices”.
A 2017 European Commission assessment of the Western Balkans’ progress towards joining the bloc said the region had “come a long way since the end of the 1990s”. It said overall significant progress had been made both on “overcoming the devastating legacy of war and conflict” and achieving “overall political and economic reforms with improved democratic processes”. It concluded, however, that “in order for the countries to meet all membership conditions and strengthen their democracies, comprehensive and convincing reforms are still required in crucial areas, notably on the rule of law, competitiveness, and regional cooperation and reconciliation”.
In its 2023 report ‘Nations in transit’, US charity Freedom House found that in 2022 “democratic institutions continued to falter” in the Western Balkans. Below are extracts from the report’s assessments of the six Western Balkans countries not in the EU:
- Political polarisation in Montenegro, largely over issues of national identity, led to the collapse of two governments. In addition, lawmakers pushed through legislation that undermined citizens’ basic rights, while the constitutional court lacked a quorum to review the controversial measures. Still, the recent defeat of Milo Đukanović, who has ruled the country’s political class for more than three decades, in the April 2023 presidential election raised hopes for generational change.
- In North Macedonia, similarly strong political polarisation and parliamentary blockades hampered the passage of legislation at the national level, but local governments’ steady improvements in transparency, civic participation, and intermunicipal cooperation had a noticeable positive impact on democracy and the delivery of public services. […]
- Albania’s democratic institutions are challenged by clientelistic party politics [relying on patronage], a lagging judicial vetting process, and rampant corruption. The country’s special anticorruption courts made small strides in addressing graft during 2022, resulting in a modest score improvement in [Freedom House’s] corruption indicator, but there was little opportunity for further reforms before local elections set for May 2023. […]
- Remarkable efforts by Kosovo’s civil society to effect positive policy changes on gender-based violence and ethnic divisions were overshadowed during the year by an uptick in violence in the Serb-majority north, where the Serbian government’s influence and activities continue to subvert Kosovo’s full authority over its territory.
- Within Serbia, the opposition returned to the political playing field after a 2020 electoral boycott, but the 2022 presidential and parliamentary elections were once again marred by irregularities, resulting in victories for incumbent president Aleksandar Vučić and his Serbian Progressive Party. Vučić has maintained his grip on power in part by positioning himself as the key to both domestic stability and regional security, using various self-serving crises to distract from his government’s ongoing capture of the media and silencing of critical voices in civil society. Negotiations between Vučić and Kosovo prime minister Albin Kurti have been plodding, despite frantic attempts by US and European envoys to resolve the countries’ protracted dispute over Kosovo’s sovereignty. […]
- Without reengagement [in BiH] from the transatlantic alliance, corrupt elites will continue using state institutions to empower themselves at the expense of Bosnian citizens’ fundamental freedoms. BiH’s national democratic governance score declined to ‘consolidated authoritarian’ levels last year  […] reflecting the constant dysfunction across Bosnian institutions.
It concluded that “across the Western Balkans, elite-driven politics and diplomacy have excluded the voices of civil society and ordinary citizens, allowing antidemocratic and authoritarian leaders to control their countries’ future”.
However, a 2022 EU report argued that in spite of many challenges, “recent elections in the region have often challenged ruling elites”. It cited the following events:
- In Montenegro, after more than 30 years in power the ruling party lost the August 2020 parliamentary elections to a wide-ranging opposition coalition.
- In the November 2020 municipal elections in BiH, citizens abandoned candidates from the three main ethnic parties and supported political outsiders.
- Kosovar voters withheld their vote from established parties, so a former opposition movement emerged as the relative main winner of the February 2021 Kosovo elections.
- In Albania, the May 2021 elections saw the return to the ballot of all parties, the first time this had occurred since 2017. While observers reported concerns relating to the misuse of state resources or functions by the ruling party and other public figures, the general prosecutor’s office launched investigations into several reported cases.
3. Russian influence
Russia has traditionally had a strong influence in the Western Balkans. Some argue this influence has grown as citizens of Western Balkan countries have become disillusioned about the prospect of joining the EU. However, others have argued that Russia’s influence is now waning as its actions in Ukraine diminish its attractiveness as a partner.
Russian economic activity in the region has been declining relative to the size of the regional economy, notes a briefing by the European Parliamentary Research Service:
Although Russian investment in the region has increased in absolute terms, Russia’s economic footprint as a share of the total economy in the Western Balkans has shrunk or stagnated in the wake of international sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Even though Russian economic influence is heavily concentrated in the energy sector, its share as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) is declining across the region.
All Western Balkans countries except Serbia and BiH have joined EU sanctions against Russia after its invasion of Ukraine. Opposition from ethnic Serbs in BiH meant the country did not impose the sanctions, in spite of support from other groups in the country. Serbia has, however, voted in support of UN resolutions condemning the invasion of Ukraine.
Writing for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Maxim Samorukov has argued the war is pushing Balkan states towards the EU and away from Russia. He states this is because as Russian resources are consumed by the war it has become a less attractive economic partner and cannot be seen as a co-mediator in regional conflicts because of its own aggression. In addition, he argues that the EU has become more assertive in making it clear countries in the Western Balkans must choose to align themselves either with Russia or the EU if they want to continue on the path to EU membership.
A 2021 report by the Nato Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence examined the extent to which Russia influences the information environment in the Western Balkans. It found that Russia promoted disinformation in order to gain influence, inflame existing divisions and promote its narrative of world events in the region:
The research has shown that Russia favours the influence tools of subversion and co-optation, exploiting existing vulnerabilities and tensions to sow further division in the region. In pursuit of these goals, Russia promotes disinformation and anti-western narratives in the Western Balkan information space.
A European Parliamentary Research Service briefing highlights that Sputnik Srbija, the online news website in Serbia established under the umbrella of the Russian state news agency Sputnik (now under EU sanctions), provides free content that is often republished by local media.
4. Recent tensions in Kosovo
In March 2023, long-running negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo following Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 appeared to have concluded with an agreement that the two would normalise relations. However in the following months violence broke out, following a disputed election in Kosovo; the dispute arose because ethnic Albanians won mayoral posts in the majority-Serb part of northern Kosovo after Serb residents boycotted the vote. Tensions flared again in September 2023 when gunmen stormed a village in northern Kosovo, resulting in a stand-off with police and the death of a police officer. The US stated it had observed a build-up of Serbian forces on the border with Kosovo, but Mr Vučić denied this. He responded that it would not be in Serbia’s interest to send troops to the border because it would jeopardise Serbia’s position in EU-sponsored dialogue talks with Kosovo’s authorities.
Leaders in both Kosovo and Serbia have called for more Nato-led peacekeepers in northern Kosovo. Nato has stated that 600 UK soldiers will be deployed in Kosovo as part of its peacekeeping efforts.
5. Bosnia and Herzegovina
5.1 Dayton Peace Agreement and governance structure
The governance arrangements created by the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995 remain in place today.
Under the agreement, BiH is a single state composed of two political entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH), whose residents are mostly of Bosniak and Croat ethnicity, and the Republika Srpska (RS), home primarily to people of Serbian ethnicity. The agreement recognises a multi-ethnic top tier of government that conducts foreign, diplomatic and fiscal policy. The presidency is composed of three members: one Bosniak and one Croat from the FBiH and one Serb from the RS. These three individuals chair the presidency on a rotating basis.
The Dayton Peace Agreement also recognises a second tier of government, in which governments of the FBiH and the RS oversee most government functions in their areas.
Additionally, the Dayton Peace Agreement established the Office of the High Representative (OHR) to oversee the implementation of the agreement. The high representative is chosen by the Peace Implementation Council (PIC), a body of 55 countries and agencies that aim to support the peace process by providing financial assistance or troops, or running operations in BiH.
The high representative, currently former German minister Christian Schmidt, has the authority to impose legislation and remove officials. These are termed the ‘Bonn powers’ because they were conferred by the PIC in Bonn, Germany in 1997.
Responsibility for the implementation of the military aspects of the Dayton Peace Agreement was given to Nato. In 2004, Nato forces handed over responsibility for supporting the stability of BiH to an EU-led force.
In February 2008 the political directors of the PIC steering board agreed the ‘5+2 agenda’, a set of conditions to be met before the OHR could be closed. These are:
- acceptable and sustainable resolution of the issue of apportionment of property between state and other levels of government
- acceptable and sustainable resolution of defence property
- completion of the Brčko final award
- fiscal sustainability (promoted through an agreement on a permanent ITA co-efficient methodology [concerning allocation of resources between regions] and establishment of a national fiscal council)
- entrenchment of the rule of law (demonstrated through adoption of national war crimes strategy, passage of law on aliens and asylum, and adoption of national justice sector reform strategy)
In addition to these objectives, the steering board agreed two conditions to be fulfilled prior to OHR closure:
- signing of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement [this was signed in June 2008]
- a positive assessment of the situation in BiH by the PIC steering board based on full compliance with the Dayton Peace Agreement
For further background on BiH and the Dayton Peace Agreement, see the Lords Library briefing ‘Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Dayton Agreement’ (9 December 2021).
5.2 Russian and Chinese opposition to the high representative
The appointment of Mr Schmidt as high representative was challenged in the UN security council by Russia and China. Both countries oppose the continuation of the Office of the High Representative. In July 2021 the UN security council rejected a draft resolution, supported by Russia and China, to support Mr Schmidt’s appointment only on the understanding the office would be closed in July 2022. The resolution would also have removed the Bonn powers from the high representative.
Explaining the motion, the Russian representative said BiH had “more than once demonstrated its sustainability” and no longer required “the tutelage of the high representative”. He argued the appointment should not go ahead without UN security council approval, and that the motion would get rid of “post-colonial powers”. China agreed the appointment should not proceed without security council approval. Representatives of other countries, including the US, UK, Ireland and Estonia, said security council approval was not required for the post, and supported Mr Schmidt’s appointment. The US representative said that while closing the Office of High Representative was a long-term objective the conditions for doing so had not been achieved.
5.3 Commentary on the agreement
The Dayton Peace Agreement brought an end to a major war and was received positively by the international community. The Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic, wrote in 2020:
[…] the Dayton Accords contained crucial elements for building a society based on respect for human rights and the rule of law. That includes the direct application of the European Convention on Human Rights and its priority over all other law; a constitutional status for human rights; and human rights institutions that have delivered some landmark decisions regarding the protection of the rights of returnees and minorities.
However, some, including Ms Mijatovic, have argued that the Dayton Peace Agreement has created an overly complicated governance structure and has fixed ethnic divisions in place.
While acknowledging the significant achievement of the agreement in ending the war, US think tank the Wilson Centre argued in a 2020 paper, ‘Fixing Dayton: A new deal for Bosnia and Herzegovina’, that the agreement is no longer serving the country well:
Today, however, the Dayton arrangements are associated less with peace than with dysfunction. In part that is because Dayton was more a truce than a settlement. The elaborate governing architecture created at Dayton froze in place the warring parties (Republika Srpska and the Federation) and rewarded their commitment to ethnically-based control of territory. Since then, kleptocratic ethno-nationalists have manipulated Dayton’s provisions to entrench their power at the expense of the country’s viability.
Ms Mijatovic notes that the European Court of Human Rights has judged BiH’s electoral system to be discriminatory. This is because it excludes from election to the presidency and the country’s national legislature anyone who does not belong to the constituent ethnicities or were unable to meet the requirements of ethnic origin and place of residence.
5.4 Recent developments
In July 2021, the then high representative for BiH, Valentin Inzko, made amendments to the country’s criminal code to ban the denial of genocide and the glorification of war criminals. The decision imposing the ban stated the high representative was:
Deeply concerned that prominent individuals and public authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina continue to deny that acts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes were committed during the armed conflict, that individuals and public authorities publicly question the legitimacy of judgements issued by the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia and the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina and that individuals and public authorities honour or praise convicted war criminals.
It also said he was “convinced that the behaviour described above creates a significant difficulty for the civilian implementation of the General Framework Agreement for Peace [Dayton Agreement]” and noted that “all legislative initiatives brought before the parliamentary assembly of Bosnia and Herzegovina to address this issue have been blocked”.
The then Serb member of the BiH presidency, Milorad Dodik, has denied that the events at Srebrenica constitute a genocide. Quoted in the German media outlet DW in 2018, he said it was an “arranged tragedy” that caused extreme vilification of Serbs and ensured “realisation of plans of some western countries to put collective guilt on the Serbian people”.
Following the high representative’s ban on war crime denial, in October 2021 representatives of RS said that in response it would withdraw from BiH state institutions including the army, judiciary and the country’s tax system. Mr Dodik said “we will not live in a country where someone can impose a law by simply publishing it on his website”.
In June 2022 Mr Dodik said the war in Ukraine had delayed its plans to withdraw from state institutions.
In December 2022, the RS parliament passed a law giving the RS ownership of rivers, forests and agricultural land on territory used by its institutions. The high representative subsequently suspended this law pending a high court decision on its legality. A similar law passed earlier in the year had been ruled unlawful by the country’s constitutional court. Mr Dodik has stated he considers the law to still be valid.
In April 2023 Mr Dodik said in a joint news conference with Mr Vučić, that RS was “considering in the most serious terms to bring a decision to declare independence and secede Republika Srpska unless the property issue is solved”. Mr Vučić said that Serbia considered the Dayton Peace Agreement crucial to the functioning of the country and that Serbia would “always support anything that all three constitutive peoples agree upon”.
In June 2023 the RS parliament passed a law to not recognise or implement any decisions by the multi-ethnic constitutional court. RS parliamentarians said it was a temporary measure adopted in response to the court saying it could continue to make decisions even though the tribunal’s Serb judge had pulled out of the court, on instruction by Bosnian Serb leadership. Also in June 2023, the RS parliament voted to prevent laws imposed by the high representative being published in the official gazette. This implies these acts will no longer be law in RS, in violation of the Dayton Peace Agreement.
5.5 International reaction to recent events
In April 2022 the UK government imposed sanctions on Mr Dodik, then Serb member of the BiH presidency, and Zeljka Cvijanovic, then president of RS (Mr Dodik and Ms Cvijanovic have since swapped roles, with Ms Cvijanovic becoming Serb member of the BiH presidency and Mr Dodik president of RS since 2022). The government said it believed they were “deliberately undermining the hard-won peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina”. The sanctions include travel bans and asset freezes and were the first under the UK’s BiH sanctions regime.
In September 2023 the government said “attacks by Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik against the high representative were illegal and anti-constitutional” and it welcomed the decision by the state prosecutor of BiH to take legal action against Mr Dodik for his failure to implement the decisions of the high representative.
The US sanctioned Mr Dodik in 2017 for obstructing the Dayton Peace Agreement and imposed new sanctions on him in January 2022 relating to corruption and further undermining the Dayton Peace Agreement. In June 2023 the US sanctioned three members of the RS parliament as well as Ms Cvijanovic for their role in passing the RS-level measure rejecting the high representative’s ability to make laws. The US called the law “a brazen attempt to undermine state institutions”. It said the law “threatens the stability, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of BiH as well as the country’s prospects for integration into Euro-Atlantic and European institutions, at the expense of the people of BiH”.
The US has also placed sanctions on other officials in the country, including former prime minister of FBiH Fadil Novalic for misusing pensioner data ahead of an election.
The EU has not imposed sanctions relating to recent events undermining the Dayton Peace Agreement.
Russia has publicly supported Mr Dodik, who has maintained and developed close ties with Russia and Russian president Vladimir Putin. Mr Dodik visited Russia in September 2022, a visit in which Mr Putin said he wished Mr Dodik success in upcoming elections. He added that he hoped “the results will strengthen the position of the patriotic forces in the country, allowing us to continue to develop productive and mutually beneficial cooperation”. In January 2023 Mr Dodik awarded Mr Putin a medal of honour in absentia for his “patriotic love and concern” for RS.
Source : UK Parliament