What’s a Little Sabre – Rattling Among ‘Friends?’

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Enlargement Negotiations Commissioner Johannes Hahn are about halfway through their Balkan tour, having visited Albania, Macedonia, and Serbia, with trips to Montenegro, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina to follow. They will end with a gathering of Balkan leaders in Sofia, Bulgaria. At each stop, they are underscoring the EU’s and their own commitment to integrate the region, as proclaimed in the “new strategy” published earlier this month.

Johannes Hahn has in the past called Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić “my friend.” While the tour continues, what is remarkable is not what has been said, though some is commendable, but rather what has been utterly absent from the Commission official’s statements and talking points. For while in Belgrade on Monday, neither Juncker nor Hahn addressed remarks that once upon a time would have generated a great deal of Western policy attention and opprobrium: a Serbian head of state speaking openly about the potential for engagement in “war” in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), even attempting to recruit Croatian support (an EU member) for such an eventuality. This partition parlor-game was not raised over dinner with a note drawn on a napkin as in 1995, but in a high-profile interview in a Croatian weekly news magazine, Globus. The interview follows Belgrade and Zagreb’s apparent – and hardly unprecedented – support for a political deal among their respective partners in BiH to ensure exclusive ethno-territorial dominance – de factor internal partition which would through its essence dissuade “their” Croats and Serbs from being in the “wrong” part of the country. The journalist, writing in the Croatian daily Jutarni List, says:

“When I asked Vučić whether or not he thought about co-operation and alliance between the Serbs and Croats and in possible war situations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, he replied that he was counting, among other things, on that. The emphasis was – not to be a mistake – on the conjunction “and”: he did not mean strictly about war, but he did not rule out this possibility as well.”

Lest we forget, Serbia has fought tooth and nail to avoid legal responsibility for being directly engaged in the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, ensuring that evidence which would demonstrate its essential role was kept from the International Court of Justice in the interstate case brought by Bosnia and Herzegovina against Serbia, and rejecting voluminous ICTY testimony and associated objective scholarship as biased and “anti-Serb.”

So Vučić’s open musings about involvement in a war to support the Republika Srpska (which he supported directly and in person during the war) represent a brazen challenge to the commitments made at Dayton by his predecessor and former boss, Slobodan Milošević.

More importantly, they are a gauntlet thrown down to the West, in particular the EU, which has the UN Security Council-recognized legal responsibility to enforce Annex 1A of the Dayton Peace Agreement, to ensure a “safe and secure environment” in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Regular DPC consumers are aware that the EU’s deterrent force in BiH, EUFOR, poses little deterrent to any potential conflict actor, being understaffed and questionably capable of even protecting its own base at Butmir.

Vučić’s statement comes only weeks after Milorad Dodik proclaimed his intent to arm every RS police officer with a long-barreled weapon, a direct violation of the postwar dictum that only one such weapon per 10 officers was permissible. This has elicited not a peep from Brussels. And in addition to the hard security escalation, the attacks on social cohesion continue unabated as well. Vučić and Dodik have agreed to introduce textbooks and curricula from Serbia to schools in the RS to ensure smooth promotion of a greater Serbia identity at the expense of not only Bosniak and Croat students in that entity, but of any hope of a civic, shared identity – the emergence of a fourth voice in BiH that would pose the greatest threat of all to a tripartite ethnic cartel that rules on fear and patronage rather than results and accountability.

The rules have not changed, but the West’s willingness to enforce them has evaporated. This is but another demonstration of the rules-free environment which has blossomed in the absence of Western political will – a policy posture still vigorously advocated within the EU’s structures and by most member states. The resulting policy amounts to appeasement, masquerading as partnership.

Commission President Juncker and Commissioner Hahn evidently did not confront the leaders collectively in person in Sofia publicly, where it counts. Their silence is deafening. This constitutes a failure to avail themselves of that opportunity to attempt to remediate the damage the policies over which they – along with Vice President and EEAS chief Federica Mogherini (also in Sofia), EU representatives in the region, and the member states – have undisputed “ownership,” as they have failed to reverse long-failing policies during their tenure. They blew their chance to tell Vučić directly – and, importantly, publicly – that not only would such challenges to peace be forcefully deterred and resisted, but that such open demonstrations of hostility and disregard for solemn international obligations can have no place in the Union. Instead of confronting the challenge, Juncker glibly dismissed the reality of rearmament and advocacy of Belgrade-Zagreb collaboration in BiH’s dismemberment on the floor of the BiH Parliament yesterday. Happy talk remains the order of the day.

Rather than boosting their credibility and ensuring a positive legacy as intended with their tour, Juncker and Hahn presently seem intent on further underscoring the weakness, incompetence, cowardice, and outright collusion with blooming authoritarianism for which their tenures will almost surely be remembered in the Western Balkans.