The former military headquarters of Yugoslavia, bombed intensively by Nato. The former military headquarters of Yugoslavia, bombed intensively by Nato. Photo: First- Bombed Military headquaters - Wikicommons - Dennis Jarvis / cropped from original / shared under license CC-BY-SA 2.0. Second - NATO symbol Pixabay /shared under Pixabay license

Talk of war has returned to the former Yugoslavia, reports Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is the newest and most dangerous escalation of a new Cold War that has been developing for several years.

The Russian invasion has to be condemned, but we cannot understand Putin’s decision to send troops over the border if we do not place it in the context of NATO’s eastward expansion.

NATO was over 1,000 miles away from St Petersburg in 1989, but it is 100 miles away from it now, following the accession of 14 new states, starting in 1999.

NATO in the Balkans

On its road to eastern enlargement, NATO militarily intervened in the wars that engulfed the former Yugoslavia after its dissolution in the 1990s.

Its primary target was Russia’s Serb allies in the region. NATO helped Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina win wars against break-away Serb territories.

During the ‘Kosovo War’, NATO went on to bomb the rump Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, composed of Serbia and Montenegro, for 78 days, without a UN mandate.

The justification for NATO’s wars was humanitarian intervention: it claimed to be stopping very real Serb atrocities against others in the region.

But NATO oversaw the victorious states in reverse ethnically cleansing the Serbs. Moreover, it set up two undemocratic international protectorates in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.

The return of Russian power

In deep economic trouble in the 1990s, Russia was unable to help its allies in the Balkans. But it deeply resented NATO’s actions

On route to the US, Yevgeny Primakov, then Russian PM, turned his plane around to return to Russia after NATO started bombing Serbia in 1999.

Just after the Kosovo War, Vladimir Putin was appointed the new Russian PM. He assumed the presidency a few short months after that, when the liberal Boris Yeltsin dramatically resigned.

Putin used Russia’s position as an oil and gas exporter to rebuild the power of the Russian state and began to project it abroad.

In 2007, he protested NATO’s eastward expansion as contrary to promises made to Russia that this would not happen after the end of the Cold War.

In 2008, after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, Russia blocked its entry to the UN and other international institutions.

And later in the same year, he reacted angrily to Bush’s call at a NATO summit for former Soviet states Ukraine and Georgia to join the alliance.

Russia humiliated Georgia in a four-day war in a dispute around a break-away, pro-Russian region, South Ossetia.

Contest in the Balkans

The return of Russian power allowed Serbia to resist pressure to join NATO, even as most of its neighbours joined the alliance one by one.

Russia and Serbia have been keen to stop NATO attempts to centralize Bosnia and bring it into NATO as well.

Like Ukraine, Bosnia remains poor and bitterly divided. A federal state, it is comprised of the largely pro-Western Croat-Muslim Federation and the largely pro-Russian Serb Republic.

The Serb Republic has repeatedly threatened to secede, even holding a referendum to show support for that position in 2016.

The election of Joe Biden, a hawk in the 1990s wars in the Balkans, raised expectations in the Croat-Muslim Federation that the West will quash these secessionist threats.

Indeed, Valentin Inzko, the West-backed High Representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina from 2009 to 2021, took a hard line towards the end of his mandate, making the denial of the Srebrenica massacre as genocide a crime.

The threat of war

The Serb Republic subsequently threatened to withdraw from a variety of central institutions including the army in late 2021, causing real worry that the region may explode in warfare.

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, EUFOR, the NATO and EU-led military presence in Bosnia-Herzegovina announced it was doubling its forces.

Kosovo, too, called for a permanent US base on its territory, and called for its NATO application to be fast-tracked.

Serbia, meanwhile, refused to impose EU sanctions on Russia, even though it voted in the UN General Assembly to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

There have been pro-Russia demonstrations in Serbia, and the population is still deeply resentful of the 1999 bombing of the country.

That does not mean that war is inevitable. But, as in Ukraine, the West is egging Bosnia-Herzegovina on the road to NATO accession even though one of its constituent peoples, the Serbs, remain deeply opposed.

Russia may seek advantage in countering NATO’s moves in the region by supporting the break-up of Bosnia-Herzegovina or the separation of Kosovo’s Serb-populated north. It may find support in Serbia itself.

Moreover, the region as a whole remains desperately poor. Bosnia-Herzegovina saw an anti-neoliberal uprising in 2014, and a major miners’ strike in 2021.

Social discontent has often been channeled by local elites and their great power backers in the direction of nationalist conflict, meaning war remains a possibility.

This is why it is so important for the left everywhere to fight to de-escalate international tensions and end the new Cold War.

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Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.

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