The Western Balkans, a sub-region of the wider European borderlands, historically has been a power vacuum filled by larger states or empires. The end of World War I saw the fall of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, the states that traditionally had ruled the Western Balkans. Serb-dominated Yugoslavia emerged from within the region to control the Western Balkans during the 20th century.
Twenty years after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the states of the Western Balkans — Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo — are back to the traditional model of being shaped by external powers, namely, the West, Turkey and Russia. The changing nature of these external powers, particularly the European Union and NATO but also Turkey and Russia, will be the force that drives the Western Balkans.
The critical driving force of geopolitics is the nation, regardless of whether the nation also takes the form of a nation-state. The European borderlands, which encompass Central Europe, Eastern Europe and the Balkan Peninsula, are composed of smaller, more numerous nations than Western Europe. Unfavorable geography largely explains this. A lack of access to the sea, numerous internal mountain chains, insufficient natural barriers and proximity to Asian powers define the region. These factors have hampered the formation of powerful states in the region, providing an opportunity for outside powers to dominate the nearly two dozen smaller states of the European borderlands.
The traditional external powers of the Western Balkans — Austria, Turkey and Russia — are not as active in the region as during their imperial phases, but they still have designs on the region in line with their imperatives. Though weaker than when they were empires, Russia and Turkey are experiencing a resurgence. These three countries are particularly active in the economic sphere: Austria maintains a strong banking presence in the Balkans, Russia is very active in the energy sector and Turkey is one of the region's largest trading and investment partners. This trio's financial and economic interests will continue to intersect in the region, just as they have for centuries.
The broader Western power is more complex since it comprises multistate entities, with the United States being the primary driver in NATO, and hence in all things security, and Germany and France the primary drivers in the European Union, and hence in all things political and economic. Complicating matters, both the European Union and NATO are being transformed by the many pressures each bloc faces. For the past 20 years, Europe has been reshaped by the enlargement of Cold War-era institutions, most notably the European Union and NATO, to include the former Warsaw Pact and non-aligned countries of Eastern Europe and the Balkans.
The Serbian Exception
Though technically part of the Balkans, as a member of the European Union and NATO, Slovenia is oriented much more strongly toward its Central and Western European neighbors than it is toward Serbia or Macedonia. Croatia, a NATO member set to join the European Union in July 2013, shares a similar orientation. Serbia, however, is different due to its central geography and legacy of intra-Balkans population movements. It has one eye on the West and the other on Russia, while internally it is consumed with issues in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Serbia does share a desire to integrate more closely with Europe and its Western Balkans neighbors, primarily in the form of EU accession. But given the current economic and political uncertainty in Europe, Croatia's impending membership to the European Union and EU demands for Serbian concessions in Kosovo, the European Union is looking less and less attractive to Serbia. Indeed, Serbia's troubled economic position was one of the primary factors in the recent victory of Tomislav Nikolic — whose interest in EU accession is unclear — over Boris Tadic in presidential elections. For its part, the European Union is in no rush to admit Serbia given all of its internal economic and political woes.
In the security sphere, Serbia remains the strongest military power in the Western Balkans, but NATO countries like Croatia and Albania, which joined in 2009, surround Belgrade.
Military action initiated by Serbia against its NATO-shielded neighbors is unlikely in the short- to midterm. The potential for instability and small-scale conflict remains in the region, particularly in Kosovo. But the degree to which these low-level conflicts escalate depends less on Serbia than it does on the outside powers that have interests in Serbia and elsewhere in the Western Balkans.
Ultimately, the region is not determined by Serbia but by the push and pull of outside powers. As a borderland, the external is primary. Right now, the main influence on the region comes from the European Union. A decade ago it was NATO. Before then it was the U.S.-Soviet confrontation, and before then it was Austria, Turkey and Russia, and so on.
The Western Balkans is a region that does not mold itself. It is molded and remolded on the broadest level, retaining its regional integrity to some extent. The era of Yugoslav primacy was the one period in which the Western Balkans were autonomous. The autonomy was imposed as a neutral zone between the two blocs of the Cold War, but the internal dynamic was shaped by Serbia. After 1991, Serbia was no longer the one to mold the region.
Therefore, as with most of the countries of the European borderlands, the region will be shaped more by external forces than by its internal dynamics. The Western Balkans cannot be seen as a self-enclosed geopolitical sphere but as a borderland shaped by outside forces.