On November 20, the secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Jens Stoltenberg, declared that the alliance wholly supports Bosnia-Herzegovina’s territorial integrity. Stoltenberg was speaking in Sarajevo, his first stop on a five-day tour of the Western Balkans that included Kosovo, Serbia, and North Macedonia (NATO, November 20). The secretary-general added that NATO is concerned about “malign foreign interference … including from Russia” in the restive Balkans. He also warned against “secessionist rhetoric” after months of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Serbian community leaders declaring publicly that they want to secede. This region was plunged into a devastating civil war in the 1990s following the disillusion of communist Yugoslavia. The war effectively split Bosnia-Herzegovina into two entities: the predominantly Muslim-Croat Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Serbian-controlled Republika Srpska enclave. Threatening that fragile union, the Serbian leader of Srpska, Milorad Dodik, has increasingly asserted his agenda for the republic’s secession in recent months and for the enclave to join neighboring Serbia (Dnevni.ba, November 27). These developments highlight rising tensions throughout the Balkans that have brought increased attention from NATO and the European Union in hopes of finding a peaceful resolution.
NATO has historically provided significant support to Bosnia-Herzegovina in preserving its territorial integrity. Under the Dayton Accords marking the end of the Bosnian War (1992–95), Bosnia-Herzegovina emerged with a federal structure uniting the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska with a Croat-Bosnian Muslim federation. At the time, NATO deployed approximately 60,000 troops to Bosnia-Herzegovina. In 2004, they were replaced by an EU peacekeeping force known as the European Union Force Bosnia and Herzegovina (EUFOR) as part of Operation Althea to ensure the implementation of the Dayton Accords. In early 2022, concerned that instability from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” against Ukraine could spill over into the Western Balkans, the European Union almost doubled its EUFOR contingent to 1,100 troops (Euforbih.org, November 4). According to Stoltenberg, the NATO headquarters in Sarajevo helps coordinate the alliance’s support for Operation Althea.
The wars in Ukraine and Gaza and the imminent presidential elections in Serbia have all contributed to rising ethnic tensions in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Serbia’s irredentist claims, which date back to the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1992, are further complicating regional stability. The Serbian leadership in Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Republika Srpska has now taken up those claims in threatening secession.
Russia’s war against Ukraine dominated discussions during the meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels on November 28 and 29. The meeting’s agenda was centered on the first foreign minister-level meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council, which was created at the July summit in Vilnius to prepare Ukraine for eventual NATO membership (NATO, July 13). The foreign ministers also discussed related issues arising in the countries carved from the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and possible actions the alliance could take to ease tensions between Kosovo and Serbia.
The NATO leaders seemed hopeful on finding a peaceful resolution to the regional discord, For his part, Stoltenberg remained optimistic about the Western Balkans’ future with NATO, though he highlighted current complications. The secretary-general pointed out that there has been a rise in “incendiary rhetoric in Bosnia-Herzegovina; serious violent incidents in the north of Kosovo, including attacks on NATO soldiers; as well as an armed attack by a Serbian paramilitary group in the village of Banjska in September that killed three Serbian attackers and one Kosovo police officer.” Stoltenberg reiterated, “Be assured, NATO will do what is necessary to maintain or ensure stability in the region because this is important not only for the Western Balkans but also for the whole of Europe” (Akta, November 28).
Regional leaders are calling for NATO to increase its military presence in the Balkans amid concerns over possible secessionism in Bosnia-Herzegovina. They also fear that hostilities between Serbia and Kosovo could escalate to an outright conflict. Stoltenberg’s visit to Kosovo took place just a few weeks after a sharp escalation between the country’s ethnic Albanian and Serbian populations in the north (Rossiyskaya gazeta, November 20). Violence between the two groups has broken out twice in recent months. Western countries worry that Moscow may use these developments to foment trouble in the Balkans to avert attention from its stalled war against Ukraine.
Amid these rising tensions, Bosnia-Herzegovina remains hopeful of attaining EU membership in the near future. Sarajevo first applied for EU membership in February 2016. In December 2022, the country was granted candidate status. At this month’s European Council meeting, Slovenia plans to propose opening accession talks between Brussels and Sarajevo immediately or simultaneously with negotiations for Ukraine and Moldova’s accession. In a letter to European Council President Charles Michel, Slovenian Prime Minister Robert Golob wrote, “In light of the war in Ukraine, the EU integration process must, above all, be treated as a stabilizing tool and instrument for deterring the influence of foreign players interested in obstructing [Bosnia-Herzegovina’s] European integration” (Dnevni.ba, November 14).
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has placed future enlargement at the top of the European Union’s agenda. On November 22, the European Commission proposed opening entry talks with Ukraine, Moldova, and Bosnia-Herzegovina while recommending candidate status for Georgia (see EDM, November 14). The commission also cautioned all potential EU enlargement members, including the six Balkan states Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia, that they must implement the necessary EU-mandated political, economic, and administrative reforms before qualifying for admission (Financial Times, November 12).
The European Union and NATO’s increased attention to the Balkans is a direct consequence of Russia’s war against Ukraine. In this author’s opinion, NATO must acknowledge that Serbia’s population, economy, and military make it the predominant power in the Western Balkans. Given the country’s unresolved anger over Kosovo’s independence, it remains to be seen how NATO’s simplistic territorial commitments and Brussels’ ambiguous expansion dreams will play out. A century ago, great-power rivalries unleashed World War I in Sarajevo. Today, sophisticated diplomacy is needed to unpack regional economic aspirations tied to EU membership mixed with more ambivalent attitudes toward NATO membership to avoid yet another war erupting from conflicts already poisoning the continent.