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Tensions in the Balkans: “There is a potential for war on which Europeans must act very quickly”

Florent Parmentier is a doctor in political science and secretary general of CEVIPOF, the political research center of Sciences Po Paris.

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Tensions in the Balkans: “There is a potential for war on which Europeans must act very quickly”

Florent Parmentier is a doctor in political science and secretary general of CEVIPOF, the political research center of Sciences Po Paris. He is also the author of a thesis with Jacques Rupnik, French specialist in the Balkans.

LE FIGARO. - In a statement on March 26, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic declared that his country's "vital interests" were threatened, casting doubt on the "great challenges" awaiting the Serbian people. And this, in a context of tensions between Serbs and Kosovars, but also in the Serbian Republic of Bosnia, which threatens to declare its independence, or even to request its attachment to Belgrade. What do you think he was referring to?

FLORENT PARMENTIER. - We can decipher this statement in two ways. This is either an element of oratorical demonstration - in this case, Serbia will remain in a negotiation game - or we are on the eve of a conflict. Personally, I argue more for the first proposition. We could be at the prelude to a conflict if and only if Serbia considers itself sufficiently armed to launch an offensive, knowing that Russia will not come to defend it, even though it is occupied in Ukraine. It should also be borne in mind that in the case of negotiations with the European Union, it is common to raise the stakes.

Being a member of the Council of Europe since 2003 and an official candidate for membership in the European Union for over 10 years, could Serbia take the risk of militarily supporting a secession from the Bosnian Serbian Republic?

Militarily, this remains doubtful. But the war in Ukraine still opened up a second front in the Middle East. If there is ever a time in the last 25 years where there is an opportunity for conflict to resume, it may be now. Would the Serbian president take the risk of being excluded from the Council of Europe? Probably. Would he be able to take revenge for the scenario from 25 years ago? This is not the most likely outcome. [Serbia accused NATO of having bombed Kosovo and several Serbian regions in violation of Articles 5 and 6 of the NATO statutes. These texts stipulate that the organization is not an offensive structure, but a defensive one, Editor's note]. But if this scenario is to occur, it will certainly happen in the near future.

Could the Serbian president’s ties to Vladimir Putin be one of the reasons why Aleksandar Vucic is “blowing on the embers” of tensions in the Balkans?

This plays like a context effect. Aleksandar Vucic wants to push Serbia's interests as he sees fit. Russia is a useful card because it makes it possible to rally some of the nationalists on an internal level and to show that Serbia is not alone on the international scene. If Russia moved further into Ukraine, then the balance of power would certainly change for the Serbs and their relationship with Bosnia. The conflicts are linked, they do not evolve on isolated islands thousands of kilometers away. There are interconnections.

Serbia would therefore have little interest in opening an armed conflict?

There are two aspects. First, to wage a high-intensity war, you need men and a lot of ammunition. I have no doubt that there are nationalist groups who want to fight it out. However, the Balkans today find themselves in a relatively weakened demographic situation. Both the demographic factor and the reservoir of weapons do not argue in favor of a long-term war as we see in Ukraine. In the event of a high-intensity war, I do not see how Serbia could sustainably maintain its gains.

Conversely, the prospect of armed conflict would force Bosnia to make concessions and cede the Serbian republic of its territory. Furthermore, the overall geopolitical situation does not work in favor of Bosnia because the Europeans certainly have less possibility of helping them than two years ago. Production capacity and stocks being directed to Ukraine.

Would Serbia have much to lose in such a conflict?

The less you have to lose, the greater the opportunity to take action. Serbia has already lost Kosovo de facto. It is obvious that a war would postpone its accession to the European Union. Part of public opinion, the youngest, would view this very unfavorably, of course. But the promise of EU enlargement dates from 2003, since then, almost nothing has changed for Serbia. 20 years after this promise, the country is still not a member. On the side of Brussels, there is also fatigue with enlargement which does not encourage Serbia to be optimistic either.

If I put myself in the place of the Serbian leader, two choices are available to me. Either start a conflict by obtaining an immediate gain and recovering a territory that I consider to be populated by my own people; or continue a hypothetical uncertain accession process, which began 20 years ago, and of which I do not yet see the end. While integrating a European bloc less attractive than twenty years ago and being forced to recognize the independence of Kosovo. From this point of view, the calculation parameters are quite flexible and scalable.

To return to the parallel with Ukraine, 15 days before the start of the war, doubt could persist about the fact that it was only a very muscular negotiation. Five days before the war, on the other hand, doubt no longer existed when the independence of the republics of Donetsk and Lugansk was recognized by Russia. In my opinion, the real phenomenon heralding a war in the Balkans would be the recognition of a form of independence of the Serbian republic of Bosnia. Even below this threshold, there is a potential for war that Europeans must act on very quickly. We are no longer at a time when we can let the situation deteriorate, including in the Balkans.

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