When Montenegro narrowly voted to break way from its loose union with Serbia in its May referendum, world leaders praised the peaceful election and embraced the re-emergence of the tiny nation. Attention quickly turned away from the Balkan region and back to the continuing trouble in Iraq, the nuclear standoffs in Iran and North Korea, and radical Islamic terrorism. However, the Balkan peninsula remains troubled; it still contains elements that could unravel the tenuous peace. To lay the foundations for peace and stability in southeastern Europe within the next decade, the European Union, the United Nations, and the United States need to reverse their inattentiveness toward the region and redouble their efforts in healing its painful past. Fortunately, the prospect of EU accession provides ample leverage for the trio toward achieving its goals.
Montenegro's break from Serbia has created difficulties that must be defused. That the close vote for Montenegrin independence broke down along regional and ethnic lines demonstrates that the country's greatest challenge is dealing with the ethnic tensions among its people. Montenegrin independence already has emboldened talk of Serb separatism in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the northern autonomous province of Vojvodina of Serbia. The ongoing talks between Serbian and Kosovar leaders on the status of Kosovo have produced few results, and Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica continues to insist that Kosovo must remain a part of Serbia despite the general consensus held by European nations that Kosovo should become independent. If ignored by the international community, the former Yugoslavian states face the risk of backsliding into militant nationalism and regional conflict.
With the region threatening to erupt again, the United Nations and European nations should carefully monitor nationalist and separatist feelings within the Balkans. Efforts to clamp down on extremist elements must begin without delay. Aid and capacity building projects by the United States and other allies should continue to be funded and even increased if necessary to bring calm during this volatile transition period. Besides harming the Balkans, constant fighting would ultimately divert more attention and resources from the international community than would a proactive approach.
Many Balkan states, especially Macedonia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, will likely welcome active international participation. These countries crave EU membership and are eager to follow EU advice to seem worthy of admission. Unfortunately, whether from fatigue at the ten-country enlargement two years ago, paralyzed politics due to narrowly divided governments, or ongoing debate over the EU constitution, EU nations have recently been noncommittal about further enlargement. In spite of these problems, the European Union needs to understand quickly it is solely the promise of membership that provides the impetus in these countries for change.
As it re-engages, the European Union should not handle the incorporation of the Balkans as a slow-moving and linear process. …