Former NATO commander Clark: Lingering political conficts in Western Balkans threaten to metastatize into national and regional crises, US and EU have to act

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Retired General of the United States Army and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) from 1997 to 2000 Wesley Clark belives that even though most Americans and Europeans have mentally filed away the brutal conflict in the region of Western Balkans as a problem solved, this is far from the truth. 

In an article for the Washington Post, Clark wrote that “lingering political conflicts over the ethno-religious character of these (Western Balkan) nations consistently threaten to metastasize into national and regional crises, making the region a prime target for meddling by foreign powers”.

A combustible mix of poor governance, economic stagnation and weak democratic institutions has left a small yet significant minority vulnerable to recruitment by violent jihadists. All of this leaves the region ripe for exploitation by terrorist organizations and meddling by outsiders, including Russia, China and Turkey”, Clark wrote.

Former NATO SACEUR noted that the region was “suffering from neglect by democracies that were instrumental in bringing the Yugoslav wars to an end”.  

And while the United States and Europe sleep, other powers are taking notice”, wrote Clark. “The Kremlin is steadily increasing its influence. The Russians are working to foment anti-EU and anti-NATO sentiment. They are supporting extremist groups and dispensing targeted military aid. The Kremlin has also fanned the flames of ethnic division (…) intentionally stoking the tensions that fueled the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s”.

Meanwhile, according to Clark, “Turkey and the Gulf states are also investing heavily in the Western Balkans. The leader of Bosnia’s main Muslim political party (Bakir Izetbegovic) travels to Istanbul regularly for photo ops with the increasingly authoritarian Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan”.

Saudi Arabia and its neighbors in the Gulf have focused their contributions on supporting religious organizations, building new mosques and offering religious instruction to local imams. The strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam that is often the basis of such training bears little relation to the moderate tradition that has been practiced in the Balkans for centuries, and has been tied to rising fundamentalism in the region”, warned Clark.

He noted that China is also seeking to augment its influence in the region. “Under its ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, Beijing is poised to provide the massive capital investment needed to undertake badly needed infrastructure projects in the Balkans. But as we have seen in Africa, such investment almost always comes with strings attached”.

Clark concluded that the United States and Europe have to remain committed to the Western Balkans - with a particular emphasis on strengthening democratic institutions so that governments can address the needs of their citizens.

A Western Balkans free-trade zone recently proposed by the region’s leaders could be a step in the right direction. But such an initiative should not be viewed as a substitute for the potential guarantees to be provided by NATO and the EU. A serious road map for EU accession would provide countries in the region with the incentives to make necessary political and economic reforms, increase their cooperation and address rising inter-ethnic tensions”, Clark wrote.

We have many tools at our disposal to avert the creeping destabilization in the Western Balkans. Let us ensure that we do not squander the tremendous investment we have made in this troubled region, and renew our commitment to helping these fledgling democracies to achieve their full potential”, he concluded.