Over the past decades, the ever-troubled Western Balkans have been a perennial source of conflict in Europe. Concerned over recent developments in the area, which remains plagued by high unemployment, crumbling economy and internal strife, generous Norway is boosting its aid to support the EU aspirations of non-member states in the region.
Foreign Minister Børge Brende called the situation in the Western Balkans “the most dramatic in our neighborhood” and announced an increase in Norwegian aid in the 2018 budget.
“I am very concerned about the situation in the Western Balkans, not least the clear Russian influence and the increasing pressure from radical Muslim communities,” Børge Brende told the Norwegian daily Aftenposten during the Oslo Forum, which is dedicated to discussing conflicts.
In Kosovo’s recent election, a highly nationalist party led by former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army Ramush Haradinaj, who is still regarded as a war criminal in Serbia despite being acquitted or war crimes in the Hague, gained ground. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, friction between Bosnians and Serbs are increasing, as is antagonism between Macedonians and Albanians in Macedonia. Moreover, Montenegro recently became NATO’s 29th member despite fierce popular opposition and violent protests, which Oslo partly ascribed to “Russia’s influence,” as did Brussels.
“I am concerned that conflicts in the Western Balkans are developing by proxy. However, I am most worried about the development in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the conflict between Bosnians and Serbs has been exacerbated,” Brende said, venturing that Serbs might eventually establish their own republic, challenge the country’s leadership and aggravate the discord in the Balkans.
In addition to Serbian separatism in Republika Srpska, one of the two constituent autonomous entities which comprise Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Bosnian part of the federation has come under increasing influence from Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which both promote more conservative versions of Islam.
Apart from brewing ethnic strife, the region is plagued by a poor economy and social problems.
“In some countries like Kosovo, youth unemployment is up to 50 percent. Poverty is rampant, and it is not strange that frictions are increasing. We are also witnessing a strengthening of extremist forces,” Brende said alluding to Kosovo’s overrepresentation in jihadists, second only to Tunisia.
Bosnia-Herzegovina has the highest youth unemployment rate in the region, at a staggering 57.5 percent; youth unemployment in Serbia and Macedonia also hovers at around 50 percent.
Meanwhile, Brende is not the only one to have expressed worries about the situation in the Balkans. Recently, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini, who was also present at the Oslo Forum, urged the Balkan countries to set aside their differences.
In mid-May, Serbian, Albania, Macedonian, Montenegrin, Kosovan and Bosnian Herzegovinian leaders had talks with the EU leadership, indicating a shared goal of future EU membership.
In Norway, considerable Kosovan, Bosnian and Serbian diasporas have formed as a consequence of wars and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia in the 90s and the 00s.