I once listened to an American army officer explain to a packed briefing room that the main difficulty the U.S. government faced in understanding the Balkans was a simple time zone issue. This prompted quizzical looks around the table.
“For example,” he said, “let’s say it’s noon at the Pentagon. What you have to understand is that in Kosovo, it’s 1389.”His reference to the 14th Century Battle of Kosovo Field cleverly illustrated how in the former Yugoslavia, memories are long and historical enmities are close to the surface.
Of the many potential conflicts incoming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis might face, one is a resurgence of acrimony in the former Yugoslavia.
Since the mid-90s Islamic radicalism has taken root in the Balkans in Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo, and parts of Macedonia. More than 300 ISIS fighters went to Syria from Kosovo, and a comparable number of Bosnians. Weapons from Bosnia were discovered at the Paris Bataclan attack.
The jihadi presence and ethnic clashes are simmering issues that have long loomed in the background, though, flaring up and receding. But recent incidents suggest serious confrontation could return to the region in the form of a Cold War-style proxy conflict between Russia and the West.
For example, in the second week of January, a train going from Belgrade to Mitrovica, in the predominantly Serbian north of Kosovo, was stopped by Serbian authorities.
The train was emblazoned with the Serbian flag and the words “Kosovo is Serbia” written in 21 languages. Serbian prime minister Vucic told reporters he had learned that the train was going to be blown up by Kosovar radicals, and Serbian president Tomislav Nikolic threatened to send troops into Kosovo to protect ethnic Serbs.
This narrative has echoes of Russia’s actions in places like Ukraine and Crimea, where the “protection of ethnic minorities” has been used to justify military action and annexation of territory.
Notably, the train to Mitrovica was manufactured in (and some say donated by) Russia, and inside was festooned with orthodox religious symbols; it was clearly intentionally provocative. Doing little to cool tensions, Kosovar president Hashim Thaci opined that Serbia was preparing military action to take part of Kosovo using the “Crimea model.”
But Kosovo is not the only place that Russia’s hand has been active in the Balkans recently. In late November 2016, details emerged of a plot by Russian-linked Serbs to assassinate the Prime Minister of Montenegro, Milo Djukanovic, on the very day of his country’s elections.
The mastermind of the plot was Serb nationalist Aleksandar Sindelic, head of the “Serbian Wolves.” Sindelic had been recorded saying he had helped send Serb volunteers to Crimea; he also claimed ties to the Russian defense ministry. Furthermore, Sindelic reportedly fought in “Novorossiya” Ukraine on the side of Russian-backed separatists.
The story doesn’t end there. Sindelic reportedly traveled to Moscow in September to meet with two Russians, Eduard Shirokov and Vladimir Popov, and received 200,000 euros to fund the plot. Though the Montenegrin government has avoided linking Moscow to the conspiracy, the country’s capital, Podgorica, is a small place, and news travels fast.
Montenegrin media believe the pair, who both now have Interpol red notices out on them, were Russian intelligence officers, maybe GRU.
Why would the incoming secretaries of State and Defense care about a failed coup in a little-discussed country of 600,000 people at the edge of Europe?
Well, as it happens, in December the U.S. Senate was on the verge of voting to admit Montenegro to NATO.
Given the plotter’s apparent ties to Russia, and considering the assassination attempt coincided with the country’s elections, one could be forgiven for thinking it looked a lot like a last-ditch attempt by Moscow to install a friendly government and avert Montenegro’s NATO accession. (The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted approval out of committee on January, 11.)
This places Montenegro squarely in the new administration’s court as they take office.
A few years ago, such an accession would have been pro forma — Slovenia, Croatia and Albania joined the alliance years ago. But Trump’s election has ignited a debate over the future of the North Atlantic Alliance. Without the new administration’s support, Montenegro’s bid could be doomed.
Vladimir Putin would be pleased to see Serbia annex part of Kosovo because it would lend legitimacy to his claim on Crimea (and throw Europe further into political turmoil). And given Moscow’s strong and sustained objection to Montenegro’s NATO accession, a “No” vote on the Senate floor (or no vote at all) would be a win for Russia.
The former Yugoslavia is a volatile place, and crises in the region take on greater importance due to their geographic position on Europe’s doorstep.
ISIS, Russia, and the Iran nuclear deal may be at the forefront of national security concerns today, but tensions in the Balkans have an uncanny way of flaring up — at the least convenient moment.
is a consultant and former CIA Operations Officer who has worked extensively on Iran and WMD-proliferation issues. Follow him on Twitter @BlogGuero.