The Russian aggression against Ukraine has led to a reassessment of Germany’s longterm Russia-centric Eastern European policy. The moral and political credibility in Europe that Germany rebuilt after WWII and enjoyed since the end of the Cold War is now spent.
Berlin’s reluctance to help Ukraine has shattered many convenient illusions about its eastward approaches. Critics argue that former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s appeasement of Russian President Vladimir Putin paved the way for what is now the largest armed conflict on the continent since the Second World War.
The uncomfortable truth is that this disillusionment with Germany should not be confined to Ukraine. Merkel’s Western Balkans policy complemented her approach to Russia. As Merkel’s disposition towards Putin further softened in the years following Moscow’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, so did her Christian Democratic Union’s (CDU) position shift in Southeast Europe’s former Yugoslav countries, eventually befriending authoritarian-leaning, ultra-nationalistic parties and leaders throughout this region.
In the Western Balkans, CDU’s relations are arguably strongest with the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), a fellow member of the European People’s Party. The European Union 2019 parliamentary elections were a mere week away when then-Chancellor Merkel came to Zagreb to campaign together with the HDZ.
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This particular spectacle was capped off with a jovial musical performance of a song by ultra-nationalist singer Marko Perkovic Thompson, notorious for glorifying Croatia’s fascist past in his lyrics and performances, where, as the New York Times noted, Thompson would routinely shout an infamous WWII Ustasha slogan and his fans would respond with the Nazi salute.
There, in Zagreb, Merkel clapped and swayed along with her hosts to a song celebrating the Croatian government-sponsored ethnic cleansing campaigns in parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s. After intense public criticism from the campaign’s survivors and media backlash, Merkel’s office pleaded ignorance, claiming that the Chancellor "was not familiar with what songs will be played…nor did she know of the content of those songs."
That Merkel’s EPP allies in the Western Balkans vehemently deny the Srebrenica genocide and the Serbian and Croatian aggression on Bosnia and Herzegovina – both judicially established by the EU-supported Hague Tribunal – will remain a lasting stain on the CDU and on Merkel’s legacy.
With Merkel’s tacit support, pro-Russian leaders in the Western Balkans became only more entrenched and empowered to openly side with the Kremlin. Elements of Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party and Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic’s HDZ – including in particular its eponymous sister party in Bosnia and Herzegovina, led by Dragan Covic – all have been willing agents of Russian influence in the Western Balkans.
By the end of Merkel’s chancellorship, her endorsements of such leaders became more pronounced and explicit, such as when she used uncharacteristically undiplomatic language to praise Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.
While the rest of Europe tacitly endorsed bedrocks of Merkel’s Western Balkan policy, approaching the region with willful ignorance and tactical opacity, frustration in the Western Balkans’ democratic circles grew. Bosnia’s Croat Member of the Presidency, Zeljko Komsic, expressed this frustration when he described Merkel’s treatment of Serbia as "the boss of the Balkans."
After all, it was Merkel who allowed those in power in Belgrade to pursue the srpski svet (Serbian World) project – the Western Balkan’s version of Russkiy mir (Russian World) – while touting them as leaders of the Western Balkans’ EU integration process.
Not surprisingly, Germany under the CDU was indifferent to the EU’s unjust treatment of Kosovo. Throughout her years in office, little to no pressure was put on Belgrade to recognize Kosovo’s independence, which impeded the young country’s economic growth and its people’s freedom of movement throughout Europe and further entrenched Serbia’s leverage for regional domination and intimidation.
In the neighboring Montenegro, Berlin considers the pro-Russian, Belgrade-backed, Serb nationalist parties in the "For the Future of Montenegro" to be legitimate part of government, while most other Western democracies hold them at arm's length due to their extreme nationalism and reactionary rhetoric.
Bosnia and Herzegovina arguably is the country most affected by Merkel’s misguided policies in the region. Still emerging from a bloody war of Serbian and Croatian aggression, by late 2005 Bosnia was making major strides in institution building.
The Office of the High Representative (OHR) was the key institution for the U.S.-led international community’s efforts to reverse the effects of genocide in Bosnia and pursue post-conflict state building, including the creation of crucial state-level institutions such as the unified military, security, intelligence, tax collection, and border service.
But the Merkel-led German government broke with the U.S. and the UK on the utility of the OHR in early 2006, and demanded that the office be shut down. The severe weakening of the OHR allowed the pro-Putin Serb nationalist Milorad Dodik to maintain power in the Bosnian entity of Republika Srpska and prevented any meaningful progress towards NATO membership, EU ascession, and democratic consolidation.
The Republika Srpska government, led by Dodik’s Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, organized an unconstitutional referendum in 2016 to undermine state-level institutions, which led to sanctions against him by the governments of both the U.S. and UK. Yet despite Dodik’s numerous violations of the Dayton Peace Accords, Germany never sanctioned him, nor promoted any significant collective action against him on the part of the EU.
The only logical explanation for Germany’s serial inaction towards Bosnian Serb irredentism was its policy of appeasement towards the government in Moscow, and Dodik’s close ties to Putin. Germany’s unwillingness to cut off links with Russia – even after it invaded Ukraine – supports this assumption even more.
The Scholz government now has a chance to change course, adopting policies that do not allow Putin’s allies within the EU to paralyze its decision-making processes, weaken Europe’s collective power, or leave smaller states not aligned with Moscow vulnerable to interference, bullying or worse.
Plans to send German troops to Bosnia, either as part of EUFOR or NATO forces, is a very good and unexacting first step. Even more encouraging would be the Scholz government’s unequivocal endorsement of stronger executive decision-making authority, in form of the so-called Bonn Powers, by Christian Schmidt, the German conservative politician presently serving as the High Representative in Bosnia.
Joining American and British sanctions against Dodik and his stooges would further be an clear signal that Germany understands its historic responsibility for a region that suffered egregiously under Nazi occupation and that it has no interest in allowing it to fall under Russia’s "sphere of influence."
There is no basis – geostrategic, political or moral – for Berlin to continue with Merkel’s policy of endorsing malign pro-Putin actors in the Balkans.
Germany’s reluctance to cut off ties with Russia could be somewhat justified by citing the economic costs, but standing up for democratic principles in the Balkans comes with no economic downsides. To persist with the Merkel government’s policy is to invite Russian destabilization of the Balkans.
Scholz should know that his government will not be able to escape responsibility for the consequences. Europe is a very different continent since Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine on 24th of February.
Should Berlin’s approach to the Western Balkans remain on Merkel-era autopilot, Germany's political class will only be throwing a lifeline to Putin’s minions, deservedly sinking together with his nightmarish vision of a greater Russian empire.
Reuf Bajrovic is the Vice President at U.S.-Europe Alliance and a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Twitter: @reufbajrovic