Serbia and Croatia are updating their arms systems. Some are labelling it an "arms race," fuelled by continuing rivalry between the two countries. Others say, however, that both countries are simply pursuing much-needed military upgrades, and that talk of a fresh "Balkans Arms Race" is misleading rhetoric. They argue this narrative is coming from politicians seeking to paint a false picture of fear.
Yet concerns are rising about increasing instability in the historically volatile region. There are secessionist pressures in Bosnia, a parliamentary boycott in Montenegro, and ethnic tensions across the Balkans.
I travelled through Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia to find out what's really behind talk of an arms race.
Russian artist Ewa Leliwa works in her small gallery in downtown Belgrade. In the gallery window, an imposing image of Vladimir Putin is prominently displayed, smiling with his arm outstretched. There is a globe floating above the Russian leader's hand, which is tightly grasping a smart phone. To Putin's left is the Serbian Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vucic (who is featured confidently in another painting). To Putin's right is a portrait of the nationalist politician Vojislav Seselj – who stood trial at The Hague for his role in the war crimes committed during the 1990s, although he was controversially cleared in 2016 – shown poised in traditional garb with his "Great Serbia" party symbol stamped on his shoulder.
Many in both Serbia and Russia believe that Putin has the world at his fingertips, and that Serbia's leaders are instrumental to the Kremlin's soft power in the region. Leliwa is capitalising on the public's loyalty and admiration for the political figures, who instil a growing nationalistic pride. She says people are drawn into her gallery by the lure of the leaders' images in the window.
"Some of our history says if you punish Serbia, you punish Russia, and when this happens Russia automatically sees it as their problem and that's what is taking place right now," she says.
The Kremlin's influence is not limited to Leliwa's rotating artwork; it's also evident on the streets of Belgrade. Putin's face and armoured stature is plastered on T-shirts, with various versions of him showing his strength, nationalist pride or even softness. Fluffy Russian military hats and Russian flags are readily available for purchase at the same street stalls that sell cigarettes and chewing gum.
So when Serbia purchased six MiG-29 fighter jets from Russia in December, their amicable relations were again noted by international commentators. Some called it a "swift and dramatic response" to Croatia's plans to procure arms from NATO. The deal was a firm reminder of just who Serbia's most reliable allies are. A 2016 survey revealed that 82 percent of Serbians would oppose the prospect of NATO membership, Russia has seemingly, for now, secured Serbia firmly in its camp.
The Serbian military analyst Aleksandar Radic says Serbia genuinely needs new weapons. He was quick to point out, however, that politicians, political elites and media in the region are describing it as an arms race in an attempt to build support in the lead up to the elections.
"The constant need for politicians to call for people to mobilise, creates the perception of the ‘Balkans Arms Race,' I believe," Radic says. "It is created on purpose because the politicians in both Croatia and Serbia are portraying of themselves as the guardians of both countries."
Which begs the question, what is Russia seeking to gain through the resurgence of nationalism in Serbia?
Radic is quick to play down Russia's military support, but also says that it has "pragmatic and short term interests in the region." He believes that Russia's main objective may be to further destabilise the Balkans. A crisis would compromise the EU's efforts to expand the bloc, he adds.
And with the Balkans still suffering a deep security crisis, he feels it's working.
"The picture of Balkan countries adapting into EU society has been dissolved and weakened," he says. "Some countries have become full members of the EU and NATO while others are a long way from doing so."
Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, was mostly spared by the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. Its smoothly-paved streets are dotted with coffee shops and manicured gardens. The carefully restored old town looks out over the expanding urban sprawl below.
Croatia is the only EU member in the Balkans region, and is also one of NATO's newest members. The alliance generally has wide support here, particularly since NATO and the United States leant their support to the Croatians in the conflict following the breakup of Yugoslavia.
One of my first interviews in Zagreb was with the 31-year-old rookie politician Ivan Pernar. A comedian I interviewed the following day called him "Donald Trump for the far left." Others I met called him "populist." Pernar is against institutions like the EU and NATO. He wants Croatia to be a "neutral state" – aligned to neither Russia nor the EU. His opponents don't take him seriously and accuse him of being simply "anti-policy" without ever offering an alternative proposal. Yet his populist sentiments have galvanised the youth, and he enjoys a huge following.
When asked about Croatia's decision to procure arms from NATO and whether Serbia is a threat, he didn't hold back on what he believes is a proxy war in the making.
"Serbia is a defeated country," he said. "Serbia has a lot of internal problems and I think NATO is using Serbia in order to mobilise people in Croatia for a war with Russia."
While theories of a brewing proxy war in the Balkans have been appearing online for some time now, Penar was the only Croatian I spoke with who agreed with this assertion. Military analyst Igor Tabak was more cautious. He believes that any threat is a psychological rather than physical one. Croatia forged its independence through war, he stressed, and is therefore instinctively looking at its neighbour, wary of the rise of the new wave of "greater Serbia" nationalism.
"In respect of military and defence, in respect of fear and all this talk of an arms race, Croatia and Serbia act as kind of echo chambers," he said. "The media and the political scene echo the data from the neighbouring country."
Domestically, however, Croatia is battling its own nationalist agendas. According to the Serbian National Council, there was a 57 percent increase in hate speech, threats, and violence towards Serb Croats living in Croatia in 2016. Some blame Drazen Keleminec, the leader of the far-right Autochthonous Croatian Party of Rights, for fanning nationalism. Keleminec helped stage a neo-Nazi march in February on the streets of Zagreb. He's pro-NATO, and believes Serbia is a serious threat. He argues that Croatia needs to arm itself in order to prepare for a territorial war against Serbs both within its borders, and beyond.
In the eastern city of Vukovar, on the border of Serbia, the evidence of war is everywhere. Pock marks from bullet holes still mar many of the buildings, and the water tower – Croatia's symbol of independence – was partially destroyed. People I spoke with there say they have moved on from the war but have little to work for in the town after many of its residents left. They want jobs and a good life for their children. The prospect of another war seems unimaginable and any anger or resentment held towards Serb Croats has been put behind them, they said.
BOSNIA & HERZAGOVINA
Despite the foreign speculation about an arms race between Serbia and Croatia, the region's volatility is in fact most evident in Bosnia. Post-war Bosnia is fragile; some have gone as far as to call it a "failed state." Economic policy is failing, development is slow and the EU has been quiet on succession talks.
The chronic problem of a Balkan brain drain is felt nowhere more than in Bosnia. Unemployment is in the double digits, and many are fed up with the political and economic turmoil that continues to plague the country. Last year alone, some 10,000 Bosnians applied for work permits in Germany.
Memories of war are everywhere in Sarajevo. Loved and lived-in apartment buildings are dotted with bullet holes, yet the city has a sense of peacefulness. I heard pride in the way people talked about their pre-90's history, a knowing that the battered exterior of their capital contradicted the strength of their spirit. Prior to the 1990s, ethnic groups lived more or less harmoniously in Sarajevo. Churches sit next to synagogues which sit next to mosques. Yet despite historic pride and selected landmarks of prior peace, Bosnia is deeply fractured by ethnic and religious divisions.
Bosnian Serbs have never abandoned their goal of separation. The semi autonomous region, Republika Srpska, voted to celebrate its own national holiday on January 9, the date of its founding in 1992. Despite the Bosnian constitutional court declaring the vote illegal, Bosnian Serbs held it anyway, striking a blow to the weak authority of the Bosnian state. Milorad Dodik has said that the Republika Srpska will vote on secession in 2018 – a vote that could tear open the weak settlement that ended the Bosnian war, sparking fears of a fresh conflict.
NATO has declared goals to expand and stabilise the Balkans. Yet, so far, Bosnia has been left behind – a move arms expert Berko Zecevic believes is a big mistake.
"It is very scary that NATO didn't really understand that if you create peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and binding Bosnia to NATO, would create better conditions for people living here," he says. "And [thus] NATO's interests would be stabilised within the region."
With growing instability in the region, there are concerns that NATO could do more harm than good. In other vulnerable neighbouring states like Kosovo and Montenegro, corrupt leaders have argued that they are threatened by Russia and Serbia, accentuating their ambitions to join NATO. This raises concerns that the alliance will become "top-heavy" and complicit in the crimes of "quasi-democratic states."
There are multiple graveyards in Sarajevo. Soldiers and civilians killed in the war lie at rest on the city's hills, the same hills that saw them die in horrific battles two decades ago. In the surrounding suburbs, empty war-torn homes stand untouched, like stoic memorials for the families they used to be home to.
Whether an arms race is underway or not, if conflict did break out in the Balkans, it is likely to happen in Bosnia. And if a new power play between Russia and NATO has begun, then Bosnia, as an ally of neither, could once again pay the highest price.