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Trump, Putin, Europe and the Balkans: what happens next?

Sitting in the ‘Palata predsjednika Republike Srpske’, looking out across the autumnal vista in the adjacent park, Milorad Dodik is no doubt a happy man. As the last votes from Florida came in and one by one the swing states fell to president elect Donald Trump, Dodik’s (once unlikely) plan to split Bosnia in half and declare an independent Republic of Srpska just got a shot of epinephrine.

                                                       Photo credit: Reuters

When Americans voted to change the status quo, putting Trump into the world’s most powerful job, they changed they have potentially, changed the global status quo also, especially in the EU – and nowhere more so than the Balkans.

This piece suggests some ways in which these changes might occur. To what extent they might be right or wrong, time will obviously tell. It is written from a position of extreme concern for the stability of the region rather than an overriding preference for a candidate, party, position or ideology – and it is to be hoped that they are wrong.

Key to understanding just how and how much a Trump presidency with effect the Balkans rests on two things: firstly, whoever wins in the tussle for control between the GOP and the White House – will we have a GOP-led Trump, or a Trump-led GOP? What effects will this have directly, or bilaterally, between the White House and the capitals of the Balkans. Secondary effects, or knock on effects also need to be considered. This analysis looks at how the dynamics of the (possibly new) relationship between the Kremlin and the White House, or the White House and the European capitals subsequently affect the region.

Considering the first element: Trump vs GOP – Should the GOP emerge on top, predictions are somewhat easier to make. Take trade for example: with the Balkans featuring fairly far down the list of America’s important trade partners however, few countries are going to notice much difference in the short term in this arena regardless of whether Trump or the GOP comes out on top.

Foreign Policy: Republicans traditionally like to have big armies, but they don’t like to use them. Neither Trump, nor the current Republican leadership seem to be interventionist neo-cons (though Trump’s messaging is a little confusing: Iraq was mistake yet America needs to invade Syria to crush ISIS) and thus unlikely to take direct interest in the state of democracy in the Balkans. A Trump-led GOP would be highly unpredictable however, and may make destabilising moves in the middle east. These would however, have at best only tertiary effects on the Balkans, particularly on its Muslim population, prompting at most an increase in radicalisation. A GOP-led Trump would be much less likely to repeat the mistakes of their neo-conservative predecessors in Iraq and might continue to work with the EU to guarantee stability in the region.  

The question that most analysts must be asking themselves however, is how this relationship with Russia will play out. This is a complex one – but does have an impact on the Balkans. Russia’s long-term game plan vis-à-vis Europe and America has seemingly been to drag them down to its level, destabilising  and weakening whatever and wherever it can. The Balkans continues to serve as a playground for this, wherein Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro and Moldova are all subject to Russian interference or ‘support’ in a bid to both exert and extend the energies of the US and the EU, and to deter these countries from aligning with the EU and NATO. Worryingly, Bulgaria and Moldova are already ready to elect pro-Russian presidents

The US-led NATO has been the counterbalancing muscle in the region, with Greece, Albania, Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania having already joined. Montenegro is on the verge of joining. This leaves Serbia, Bosnia and Macedonia up for (Russian) grabs. Should Trump follow through on his questioning of the value of NATO alliances, the organisation would be weakened, much to Putin’s joy. Should the GOP come out on top, the relationship between Putin and the White House is a little harder to game. It seems that via Trump’s compliments of the Russian leader, the GOP mainstream is swinging into line. It is hard to imagine however, that a slight improvement in Putin’s approval ratings amidst the Republicans would lead to the dissolution of NATO. It might slow down the organisation’s expansion plans however – handing more time to Putin, allowing him to ensure that Serbia and Bosnia (via Milorad Dodik) are going nowhere fast.

Then there is question as to what nature the personal relationship between Putin and Trump might take. The mutual simpering could all just be for show – if it isn’t, then be prepared for a major reset in Russo-American relations – which would undoubtedly mean a cooling off in tensions, a reining back of NATO in the Balkans – again, a victory for Putin. A loss for its inhabitants. One certainty is, is that until these issues are resolved between Trump and the GOP, America will turn inwards – leaving a vacuum. There is one man who will strive to see it filled. 

And what about the EU/US/Balkan triangle?  Europe’s response to this event is key. There are several sub-scenarios:

The real nightmare scenario (and not just for the Balkans) is that, spurred on by Brexit, Trump and Russian cash, Marine Le Pen, running on an anti-EU ticket, wins the French presidential election. Poll suggest she won’t, but by now we should seriously question them. For the EU, a Marine Le Pen presidency would be a lethal blow. It is not unlikely that this would be followed by a domino-effect as nationalists Hofer, Wilders and Frauke Petry could do very well in the remaining 2016 and subsequent 2017 elections. Should the dominoes fall, the Balkans would be cut adrift. Again, to Russia’s benefit – and Dodik’s too. If Brexit and Trump haven’t shown Brussels that it is facing a crisis, then perhaps the chilling words of Marine Le Pen welcoming Trump’s win might help jar Brussels into action: “Their world is collapsing, ours is being built.” Of all those western Balkan countries striving to join the EU, Bosnia would be the worst hit, for there the absence of the EU could very realistically lead to a return to conflict. A recent paper from James Ker-Lindsay at LSE, provided a very strong argument as to why Bosnia wouldn’t break up, despite Dodik’s threat of a referendum. Ker-Lindsay’s rationale was at the time, sound: the international community simply wouldn’t countenance a Bosnian break-up due to the violence it could cause. Ker-Lindsay’s argument relies on a strong level of international consensus however. With a weakened, distracted or even dissolving Europe, a pro-Putin White House, there would be no consensus, and with the full support of Putin, and probably Le Pen and Hofer (both of whom have pre-existing warm relationships with Dodik) the RS could attempt to secede. It isn’t hard to imagine that this might provoke a violent response from within Bosnia. Faced with hostile and Islamophobic governments in America, Europe and Russia, to whom would, or could the region’s Muslim’s turn?

On the other hand, the second scenario is that the EU finds its feet in time, fulfil its potential and with skill and strength, counterbalance Russia to its east and a possibly highly unstable Trump led America to its West. A united Europe would be difficult for Trump to bully, and Putin knows that EU sanctions hurt. Brexit can come and go, with Britain left to fend for itself. Yet Europe can and must find a way to connect with its disgruntled inhabitants, do its best to meet their demands without abandoning its founding principles, continuing to ensure prosperity at home, whilst simultaneously signalling to the remaining Balkan countries that it is serious about them – and that they are indeed wanted. This might sound too much to hope for. A lot of virtually miraculous things need to happen simultaneously. We must do all that we can to ensure that they do. 

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