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The western Balkans: A region of secessions

Thomas Rosner
October 4, 2017

The Catalan referendum has been closely followed in the successor states of the former Yugoslavia. Separatist movements are still active here – and their voices are growing louder.

Kosovo erklärt Unabhängigkeit 2008
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Camus

Last weekend the Catalan flag was flying not only in Barcelona, but far away in Serbia, too. All the offices of the regional party "League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina" (LSV) in the autonomous province of the EU candidate country raised the red-and-yellow striped banner of the "Estelada Blava" with its emblematic white star. Nenad Canak, the head of the LSV, even traveled to Barcelona on the weekend to form his own impressions of the controversial Catalan independence referendum. "This referendum will have serious political consequences," he said. "Centralized Spain as we know it today will no longer be able to exist."

Meanwhile, in the Croatian city of Rijeka the local autonomist party "List for Rijeka" is calling on the Croatian prime minister and president to break their silence and finally condemn the "brutal violence" perpetrated by the Spanish police against Catalan citizens." The party has issued a statement declaring that a country that called on the world to show solidarity on its path to independence had "no right" to look away from "Spain's shameful intervention."

A region of secessions

Whether out of consideration for EU partner Spain or because of the ongoing debates, particularly in Serbia, regarding Kosovo (it has been independent since 2008, but Belgrade refuses to recognize its sovereignty), most of the leaders of the successor states of the former Yugoslavia have prudently kept quiet on the subject of the Catalan referendum. Yet there are few places in Europe where the struggle for Catalonia is being followed with such close attention than in this "region of secessions," still scarred by the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Poeple swim in a hotel pool in Istra
Istria has the strongest economy in CroatiaImage: picture-alliance/Arco

For many people here, especially older Croats, Bosnians and Serbs, the Catalan independence vote revives memories of the referenda in the early 1990s that heralded the violent breakup of Yugoslavia. Nowadays the only active separatist movements in the region are located in the multi-ethnic labyrinth of Bosnia-Herzegovina, but demands for greater autonomy are getting louder in other regions, too. As in Catalonia, in both Croatia and Serbia its the countries' strongest economic regions that are pushing in particular for more financial autonomy from their central governments.

Fear of redrawing the borders

Following the Catalan referendum, the Croatian website Index.hr already asked: "Does Istria have the right to independence from Croatia?" The relatively prosperous region of Istria pays far more to Zagreb in tax revenues than it receives in subsidies from the central government. However, even politicians from the regional party IDS, which is in favor of decentralization in Croatia, refute any desire for secession. Ivan Jakovic, who represents IDS in the European Parliament, told Index that there certainly were people who would like to see an independent Istria: "But that was never our policy. We want the greatest possible autonomy for Istria, but not an independent state."

Vojvodina in Serbia was granted the status of "autonomous province" in 1945, and this autonomy was extended in 1974. Its autonomous status was effectively rescinded in 1989 by the Serbian autocrat Slobodan Milosevic, then officially reintroduced in 2002, and extended along with changes to the Serbian constitution in 2006 to introduce greater financial autonomy. So far, though, demands by regional politicians such as Nenad Canak for a return to the far-reaching autonomy of 1975 have fallen on deaf ears in Belgrade.

Read also:  The new war of words in the Balkans

Secession aspirations as political calculation

The aspirations of Albanian nationalists for the parts of Macedonia and southern Serbia that have large Albanian populations to be united with the motherland and Kosovo to form a "Greater Albania" have come up against a brick wall, not just in Belgrade but in the international community, too. There are fears that redrawing the borders would spark fresh conflicts in a region that has long been marked by ethnic unrest.

Threats of secession are becoming most forceful in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bosnian Croats, who have until now been forced into a union in a federated state along with the Muslim Bosniaks, are demanding an entity of their own. Meanwhile, Bosnia's Serb leader, Milorad Dodik, has been threatening for years now, for tactical reasons, to hold a referendum on the secession of the federate state of the Republika Srpska (RS). Dodik is being deliberately confrontational: For more than a quarter of a century, stirring up longstanding ethnic tensions has proven to be the most effective way for Bosnia's canny political caste to hold on to power.

Read also:'Europe is the powder keg - the Balkans are the fuse'

Disappointed hopes

The separatist centrifugal forces in the political region of ex-Yugoslavia are also being curbed by the privations of their neverending economic transformation. Economically, at least, the independence they fought for – or had to, involuntarily, accept – has not so far brought the successor states the better times they hoped for.

Bosnien und Herzegowina Referendum Republika Srpska Milorad Dodik
Milorad Dodik has taken advantage of ethnic tensions to strengthen his powerImage: Getty Images/AFP/E. Barukcic

Today, only the Slovenes can boast a markedly higher standard of living than in the Yugoslav era. Even Croatia, now an EU member state, is plagued with high youth unemployment and a fresh exodus of guest workers. Poverty, unemployment and emigration are still trumps, even in the jaded EU waiting room. EU candidate countries Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia are indefinitely on hold; the only thing that keeps them going is the faint hope of better days to come.

For Bosnia-Herzegovina, which persists in blocking itself, even EU candidate status seems light years away. The prospects for Kosovo, the poorhouse of Europe, are also bleak. These days, even Georgians, Moldavians and Ukrainians can travel to the Schengen countries without a visa; Kosovars, on the other hand, still have to spend hours queuing up outside consulates. Belgrade continues to block their fledgling state at every turn, and its independence, celebrated so enthusiastically in 2008, has proven to be little more than a miserable extension of the endless postwar era.

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