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With Donald Trump in the White House, the Balkans whisper of war

FOREIGN POLICY

With Donald Trump in the White House, the Balkans whisper of war

A man takes pictures of a mural of Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump in Belgrade in December.

Nowhere in the world is tension higher than in this Southeast European region, where peace has largely been maintained by U.S. political will, and the possibility of its military intervention

It's just a few kilometres into northern Kosovo that you encounter the first billboards celebrating the election of Donald Trump.

"Serbs stood by him all along!" one reads, under a giant photo of the new President of the United States giving a thumbs-up.

Another shows Mr. Trump in an equally familiar pose – an annoyed shrug – beside a campaign-time quote from Kosovo's President Hashim Thaci, saying he expected Mr. Trump's rival, Hillary Clinton, to win.

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Locals say the billboards, which line the main highway south from Serbia, as well as the sides of apartment buildings in the Serbian quarter of the divided city of Mitrovica, went up the morning after Mr. Trump defied many predictions and won the U.S. election.

In some cases, posters of Mr. Trump were plastered over those of the long-time hero of Kosovo Serbs, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Read more: Russia wanted payback, not a President Trump

There's an unsettled feeling worldwide in these first weeks of the Trump administration, a sense that geopolitical plates are shifting quickly and unpredictably.

Conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine have grown perceptibly hotter since Mr. Trump's Jan. 20 inauguration, and China's army warned recently that talk of war with the United States during Mr. Trump's presidency was "not just slogans" but "becoming a practical reality."

Perhaps nowhere is the tension higher than in the Balkans, a region where peace in recent years has largely been maintained by American political will and the possibility of U.S. military intervention.

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The Balkans have experienced almost unbroken peace since the Kosovo war 18 years ago, but what could be called "the Serbian question" has never been fully resolved. For while Croats, Bosnian Muslims and Kosovo Albanians won their independence from Belgrade during the wars of the 1990s, sizeable and restive Serb minorities were left within the borders of some of the new states created from the former Yugoslavia.

Some Serbs hope Mr. Trump – perhaps in alliance in Mr. Putin – will allow for a reopening of that Pandora's box.

Men stand by bulldozers taking down a concrete wall near the main bridge in the town of Mitrovica on Feb. 5.

The wall in Mitrovica

Crossing from southern Serbia into the north of Kosovo is a surprisingly seamless affair, given that Serbia doesn't recognize the independence of its long-time province.

A Serbian policeman takes your passport at a checkpoint along the highway from Belgrade to Mitrovica and hands it back a few minutes later with a black "Republic of Kosovo" stamp in it. Travellers are required to pay €15 ($21.10 Canadian) for "Kosovo insurance," then allowed to continue on their way.

Despite the stamp and the insurance documents, you don't immediately get the feeling that you've entered a different country. Red, blue, and white Serbian flags hang from every second lamppost on the drive to the northern neighbourhoods of Mitrovica. It's only when you cross the Ibar River that divides Mitrovica in two that you start to see the gold-on-blue banner of independent Kosovo (and, nearly as often, the black-and-red Albanian flag).

The Ibar River is a narrow waterway that ambles through the north of Kosovo, providing a natural boundary between the Serb-dominated areas that sit north of it and the predominantly Albanian rest of the country.

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Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence – recognized by the United States, Canada and most Western countries, but rejected by Belgrade and Moscow – came following a 1999 NATO air campaign that drove out a Serbian army accused of ethnic cleansing. The peace, ever since, has been kept by a NATO-led force that currently consists of 4,600 troops under Italian command.

But it's the United States that has been seen as the real guarantor of the awkward status quo. Kosovo's Serbs are now hoping Mr. Trump's election will mean an American withdrawal – politically and militarily (the NATO force includes 621 U.S. soldiers) – from both Kosovo and the Balkans in general.

"If Trump gives up the Balkans, I don't believe France or Germany would fight for Kosovo without American support," said Marko Jaksic, a Mitrovica politician and one of three MPs for Kosovo who – because Belgrade still considers it a province – sit in Serbian parliament. "Kosovo, sooner or later, will be returned to Serbia's arms."

Politicians in Belgrade and Mitrovica have already been probing the new world order, as if trying to establish what, if any, are the new rules of the game. In a gesture Mr. Trump would recognize, Kosovo's Serbs recently erected a wall along the north bank of the Ibar River, separating the Serbian neighbourhoods of Mitrovica from the rest of the city.

After weeks of high tension, the partially-built wall was pulled down on Sunday. Under an agreement mediated by the European Union, it will be replaced by a series of metal pillars that can rise or fall to either block traffic or allow it to pass.

On Jan. 14, six days before Mr. Trump's inauguration, a train painted in the colours of the Serbian flag – featuring the slogan "Kosovo is Serbia" in 21 languages – departed Belgrade toward Mitrovica. The Kosovo government, which says it received no advance notice about the train, responded by sending at least seven armoured personnel carriers with ethnic Albanian special-forces troops into the north, badly jangling nerves in the region.

In a statement that recalled the bad old days of the 1990s, Serbian President, Tomislav Nikolic, replied with a warning that "I will go to war, as well as my sons," if ethnic Serbs were harmed by Kosovo's forces, which withdrew south of the Ibar once the train was halted on the Serbian side of the border.

In Kosovo's capital city of Pristina, the government is preparing for more trouble ahead. Mr. Thaci recently warned that Serbia might be readying the ground for a snap Crimea-style annexation of the north of Kosovo.

"Why wouldn't they?" replied Ardian Arifaj, Mr. Thaci's top political adviser, when asked if he really believed Serbia would try and seize northern Kosovo.

He said Kosovo was already facing "hybrid warfare" of the sort Russia has been accused of waging against Ukraine. Mr. Arifaj said Serbian and Russian media outlets were conducting a disinformation campaign to make Kosovo Serbs feel insecure under Pristina's rule, a propaganda offensive with provocations such as the train incident aimed at escalating tensions.

"I don't think anybody know the rules," Mr. Arifaj said of what the Trump era might mean for the Balkans. "The only assumption is that the new administration will be more focused on [domestic] priorities and less on moralizing to the world."

A woman walks by a billboard in the Serb-dominated northern half of Mitrovica, Kosovo hailing Donald Trump’s victory.

No clear U.S. policy

Sometimes it's not what a U.S. president says, it's what they don't say.

Consumed, so far, with battling critics of his controversial domestic agenda – including an immigration ban targeting citizens of seven predominantly Muslim-majority countries – Mr. Trump has said relatively little about foreign policy during his first two weeks in office.

For decades, U.S. presidents, Democrat and Republican, have made a ritual of issuing condemnations every time Israel built new homes in the occupied West Bank. Mr. Trump said nothing when Israel announced the building of 2,500 new units on Palestinian land during his first week in office. So, a week later, Israel announced the building of 3,000 more.

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Palestinian leaders, furious about the construction spree, say the two-state solution that has been at the centre of every peace process since Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shook hands 24 years ago may soon disappear as an option, particularly if Mr. Trump follows through on his election promise to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem (a move that would recognize the divided city as Israel's capital). Talk is growing of a third Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

Former president Barack Obama routinely blamed Russia for the violence in eastern Ukraine that has taken more than 4,100 lives since Moscow-backed separatists seized control of the cities of Donetsk and Lugansk in 2014. But as violence has soared there in the past two weeks – following a Jan. 28 phone call between Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump – the U.S. President has avoided directly criticizing the Kremlin and suggested (as Moscow has insisted all along) that the conflict is an internal Ukrainian war. The fighting, which killed at least 35 people since the leaders' call, continues.

The new administration has been more vociferous about Asia, sparking open talk of trade wars, as Mr. Trump pressures American companies to move their factories – many of which are located in China – back to the U.S. mainland. There are whispers of worse after Mr. Trump's Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, used his confirmation hearings to lay out a plan for confronting Beijing over its construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea.

In the Balkans, which Mr. Trump made almost no mention of during his election campaign, the old checks and balances feel like they're disappearing. No one's quite sure what, if anything, will replace them.

Western officials talk about "power vacuums" and the dangerous absence of a clear U.S. policy in the region; then – fearful of drawing Mr. Trump's ire – they ask not to be quoted. But when the microphones are off, they allege that certain actors (namely Russia and its allies in Serbia) are seizing this uncertain moment to try and change facts on the ground.

Serbian nationalists and their territorial claims have always had an important backer in Russia, which shares their Orthodox Christian faith and has for centuries played protective big brother to its fellow Slavs. The First World War began when Russia mobilized its army to defend Serbia against the Austro-Hungarian Empire following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist. Ninety-five years later, Boris Yeltsin sent paratroopers to seize Pristina's airport ahead of a NATO deployment, resulting in a brief but dangerous standoff that ended when it became clear the Russians didn't have the supplies to hold their position.

Belgrade and Moscow have repeatedly raised the same argument: Why are some borders (such as the frontiers of the former Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union) changeable, while others aren't? Why can Kosovo secede from Serbia, or Ukraine from the Soviet Union, if northern Kosovo isn't allowed to leave Kosovo, or Crimea can't join Russia?

It was a purely philosophical question until 2014, when Moscow annexed the Crimean Peninsula and supported pro-Russian militias in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine in reaction to a pro-Western revolution in Kiev. Mr. Putin, at the time, was portrayed in the West as a land-grabbing villain, and the United States, Canada and the European Union responded with economic sanctions targeting the Kremlin's inner circle.

Mr. Trump comes to office questioning not only those sanctions against Russia, but also the U.S. role in conflicts far from its borders.

Pedestrians stand by a billboard of U.S. President Donald Trump with the inscription ‘Congratulations! Trump Serb!’ in Belgrade in November, 2016.

'Instability is rising'

War is coming, they whisper in the cafés of Belgrade. Dusan Janjic, who has spent the past two decades advising foreign governments on the ethnic and religious complexities of the Balkans, arrives at our table straight from a trip to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The trip left Mr. Janjic deeply concerned that the 1995 Dayton Accords, which saw the country's warring halves make peace under U.S. pressure and guidance, are on the verge of collapse. For the past 22 years, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, populated by Croats and Bosnian Muslims, co-existed with a Serb-dominated territorial entity – known as the Republika Srpska – under an uncomfortable power-sharing arrangement.

But, Mr. Janjic says, Bosnia never became a real country. Instead, Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims live in parallel societies that know and care little about each other. (Leaders of Bosnia's Croats have raised the idea of separating from the Bosnian Muslims to create their own mini-state akin to the Republika Srpska). Meanwhile, the economy has remained stagnant and plagued by corruption.

"People living in Bosnia are being pushed into a situation where they have no hope, no idea of how to have a better life. That's dangerous," Mr. Janjic said.

He said rumours abounded in Sarajevo that the country would somehow be sacrificed in a deal between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin. "People are really afraid that the whole situation is escaping control, that there will be another war."

The most likely catalyst for trouble would be a move toward full independence by the Republika Srpska. Milorad Dodik, the mini-state's arch-nationalist president, has vowed to hold a referendum on seceding from the rest of Bosnia by the end of 2018. Mr. Dodik – who was hit with U.S. sanctions for "actively obstructing the Dayton Accords" on Mr. Obama's third-last day in the White House – travelled to Moscow last fall, where he was hosted at the Kremlin by Mr. Putin.

Siebo Janssen, a history professor at the University of Cologne, says he also returned from a recent trip to Sarajevo worried that "war in Bosnia is again on the table" as the United States backs off and leaves the Balkans to other players.

Prof. Janssen said he believes Russia is encouraging Mr. Dodik's actions, while Turkey and Saudi Arabia are battling for influence over Bosnia's Muslim majority.

"These countries are not interested in a stabilized Balkans. … They're interested in zones of influence," he said. "Everyone, until now, said 'We have the USA, we have NATO [to keep the peace].' Now the question is what will happen if the U.S. is pulling back?"

The sense that something dangerous might be afoot in the Balkans began late last year, when the government of Montenegro, the smallest and youngest of the ex-Yugoslav states, declared it had arrested 20 Serb nationals in connection with an alleged plot to kidnap or assassinate Prime Minister Milorad Djukanovic and topple his government. The whole scheme unfolded as Montenegro was in the process of joining the NATO alliance – an accession that is expected to happen later this year – leading many to point fingers at Moscow.

The tale seemed improbable at first. Then, several days later, an initially skeptical Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic confirmed key details of the plot, which apparently unfolded as the head of Russia's security council, Nikolai Patrushev, a long-time head of the FSB intelligence service, was visiting Belgrade.

Many in the region still remain wary of the tale, details of which first emerged in the last hours of a parliamentary election campaign, possibly helping Mr. Djukanovic to victory.

But small, confusing incidents in the Balkans have led to large and bloody wars.

"Instability is rising, and nationalism is coming back again," Prof. Janssen said. "I think we are going to go through a very, very problematic time there."

Billboards boasting of Serbia’s support for Donald Trump line the highways of Serb-dominated northern Kosovo.

'Borders are not yet final'

The smiling statue of Bill Clinton – at the corner of Bill Clinton Boulevard and Tirana Street in central Pristina – always had two purposes. The first was to celebrate the U.S. president who oversaw the 78-day air war that lit the way to Kosovo's independence from Belgrade.

The second very transparent aim was to deepen the emotional tie between the United States and Kosovo. There's a George W. Bush Street too. No future U.S. administration, surely, would allow enemy tanks to roll down roads named after their predecessors in the White House.

Today, the Clinton statue feels like a poor bet, given Mr. Trump's animosity toward his defeated rival, Ms. Clinton, who was U.S. Secretary of State when Kosovo declared its statehood in 2008.

"For the Clinton family, Serbia and Kosovo were like a family business. It would have been a problem for Serbia if [Hillary] Clinton had been elected. Now we're in a better position," said Zoran Milivojevic, a retired diplomat who served first Yugoslavia then Serbia.

Mr. Milivojevic said he expected Mr. Trump, unlike his predecessors, would take the Russian perspective into account when dealing with the Balkans. "Serbia can benefit from this," he said. "The Kosovo issue determines the stability of the entire region. Because borders are not yet final in the Balkans."

Philip Pinnington, Canada's ambassador to Belgrade, says much of the recent spike in nationalist posturing can be attributed to April's presidential elections in Serbia, when Mr. Nikolic is expected to seek another term. "There is not a strong strain in society that's in favour of war," he said.

Mr. Arifaj, the aide of Kosovo's President Mr. Thaci, is also hopeful that this nervous period will pass. The U.S. political and military establishment, he believes, will convince Mr. Trump not to abandon Kosovo and the Balkans to Serbia and Russia.

But then, Mr. Arifaj adds: "It's a jazzy world we live in. You have to improvise."

Major-General Giovanni Fungo, the commander of the NATO mission here, known as KFOR (which includes five Canadian soldiers, down from almost 1,500 in 1999 when the total mission comprised 50,000 troops), uses a more alarming metaphor – comparing Kosovo with Mount Etna in his native Italy.

KFOR troops, he said, have noted a rising use of divisive symbols in the north of Kosovo, including the billboards of Mr. Trump and the wall in Mitrovica. Graffiti in both Belgrade and Mitrovica draw a direct link with the situation in Ukraine: "Crimea is Russia. Kosovo is Serbia."

Major-Gen. Fungo says the rising tensions are a reminder of what still lies just beneath the surface in the Balkans.

"It's a very stable volcano that you can walk on. But underneath, the magma flows very quickly, and you must be aware there are cracks."

Major-Gen. Fungo, who began his command in September, senses more activity in recent days. "I feel the magma flowing a little bit faster, and the [emissions] are more frequent," he said.

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