A recent tour of the Balkans proved a potent reminder once again of the importance of this region to U.S. and Western policymakers. The Balkans are steeped in history and very much in the middle of today’s geopolitical great game. We ignore the area at our peril.
Most high-information voters are aware of the destabilizing Balkan wars of the late 20th century, and are surely aware of the spark that started World War I, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, Serbia, leading the great powers to start the War to End All Wars.
Today the region is once again simmering with discontent, with old and new great powers seeking to expand their influence, leading to dangers for the West.
The most obvious and underreported influence in the Western Balkans is Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is promoting a greater role for Islam socially and politically in Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and Bosnia. My last trip to Albania was in 2014, where I saw hardly any evidence of religious influence in the historically secular country. Today it is hard to miss the veils worn on the streets and the new mosques being built in the capital of Tirana.
With the Trump administration at odds with the Erdogan government for multiple reasons, including the detention of the American pastor and Turkey’s planned purchase of Russian weapon systems, the stability of NATO’s southern flank is in doubt. This makes the Balkans even more important from a strategic perspective.
Mr. Erdogan is inflaming old memories of ethnic and religious conflict dating back to the Ottoman Empire, as he promotes himself as a “protector of Muslims” in the region. NATO is currently injecting some funds to refurbish an Albanian air base to meet the alliance’s interoperability standards as it digests new members.
Speaking of NATO, the alliance is slowing taking most of the Balkan region under its protection, to the chagrin of Moscow, which has worked tirelessly to prevent this from happening. Serbia is firmly in Russia’s camp and a long-term ally. The bombing of Serbian forces by NATO in the 1990s is still fresh in the memory of Russian officials and ordinary citizens alike.
China has even made some attempts to expand its influence with Beijing’s typical infrastructure-financing offers (along with the long list of strings that come attached to such deals), as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.
For its part, the European Union is still stringing Albania and other Western Balkan countries along, with the promise of eventual membership — even though corruption is still prevalent in Tirana and Skopje, most likely preventing membership in the EU for now.
Perhaps the most disturbing situation in the Balkans at the moment is the abdication of diplomacy in the region by the Trump administration to billionaire liberal philanthropist George Soros and his son and new emissary, Alex. In their bid to create an economic open-border zone similar to Yugoslavia, Alex Soros has met with the Serbian, Albanian and Kosovar governments at least nine times in the last few months. Images of himself and Balkan heads of state are plastered all over his social media sites.
The goal seems to be an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo to exchange land for long-term recognition and peaceful coexistence. The danger in this thinking is that most European analysts remain very concerned about Kosovo being forced to give up territory, warning that this move could inflame old ethnic rivalries. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders are against the idea. But the Soroses push on, as they have done with the migrant crisis in Europe, without concern for the consequences.
Perhaps most alarming, the American diplomatic staff in the region is actively flouting the Trump agenda, with Obama-era holdovers pursuing policies that don’t advance America’s true interests.
National Security Adviser John R. Bolton has raised eyebrows by asserting that the White House has no problems with the Balkans governments coming to their own agreements over land swaps and territorial issues.
If we have learned anything over the last century, it is that this region of the world needs active Western engagement to prevent what might be called the “re-Balkanization of the Balkans,” a policy that history has repeatedly shown leads to conflict and death.
The Trump administration’s ambivalence toward the Soros agenda will not end well.
• L. Todd Wood is a former special operations helicopter pilot and Wall Street debt trader, and has contributed to Fox Business, The Moscow Times, National Review, The New York Post and many other publications. He can be reached at LToddWood.com.