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Citizens of the region fear the spillover of the conflict in Ukraine to the Balkans

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BELGRADE – Two-thirds of Serbian citizens believe that the status of Kosovo could be the cause of a potential conflict in the region, according to the research of the Belgrade Center for Security Policy (BCBP) “Echoes of War Strengthen Fears – Attitudes of Serbian Citizens on Relations in the Region”, which was presented on Tuesday in Belgrade at the conference “Walking on a (Barb)wire: the Balkans Between War and Peace“. Contrary to 2020, when more than half of Serbian citizens were not afraid of conflict, the survey from 2022 shows that only one-third do not fear the outbreak of conflict.

As BCBP researcher Ivana Ranković explained, the main reasons for increasing fear of conflict in the region are the war in Ukraine, the spillover effect of that conflict, and the incendiary rhetoric used by politicians that raises fear among citizens.

She stated that the survey results showed that citizens believe that relations with Montenegro have improved. One-third of respondents believe that the bad relations between the two countries are primarily ethnically motivated.

At the same time, half see the influence of politics on the relations between the two nations. As it was said, a better picture of the relations between Serbia and Montenegro was caused by the signing of the basic agreement on relations between the government in Podgorica and the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) after the controversial Law on Religion.

Olivera Injac, former Minister of Defense of Montenegro, commenting on the results of the research, said that the signing of the Basic Agreement caused a lot of political tension in Montenegro because there was no debate on the agreement itself, and that the prime minister signed the agreement in a technical mandate.

She assessed that in the previous period, there was a lot of aggressive rhetoric in public discourse and the media and that such narratives have a negative

Injac also referred to the political crisis in Montenegro, the government that is in a technical mandate, and emphasized that the stability of institutions would positively affect regional relations as well.

Speaking about the attitudes of the citizens of Serbia towards the situation in BiH, Ivana Ranković stated that one-third of respondents believed that Republika Srpska should separate, and this attitude had more support in 2020.

“This lower support is consistent with other findings showing an increased fear of potential conflict. Only 4% believe that integrating Republika Srpska is a condition for Kosovo’s independence. Generally speaking, in the past two years, more focus was placed on Kosovo and the security crisis than on the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” said Ranković.

She added that attitudes toward the “Serbian world” concept are a good example of deep ideological and political polarization in Serbia. The survey showed that most people who support the separation of Republika Srpska from Bosnia and Herzegovina also support the creation of a “Serbian world”.

Lejla Ramić-Mesihović, president of the Foreign Policy Council of the BiH Presidency, assessed that Bosnia is a deeply traumatized society and that many fears are generated from the past and are passed down from generation to generation.

 “The rhetoric of politicians in our region is often underestimated as a factor.” When you have aggressive rhetoric or repeated denial of certain countries or identities, it makes us even more afraid,” said Ramić Mesihović, commenting on the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

She pointed out that BiH is a country where political power is still generated from ethnic identities and constitutionally privileged identities. “Political elites prefer to talk about such topics at the end of the day because it is good for them. But that makes people more afraid”, added Ramić-Mesihović.

 Olivera Injac assessed that the “Serbian world” concept is not a dominant topic in the public debate in Montenegro but that the awakening of nationalism in the Western Balkans is a significant concern. “All our countries are vulnerable to attempts to promote any concept that awakens nationalism. Fears and feelings from the 1990s are still present, especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” she said.

 Part of the BCBP research also dealt with citizens’ attitudes towards the Open Balkans initiative. As it was said, during 2022 due to the great attention in the media given to the meetings of the leaders of North Macedonia, Albania and Serbia, the number of those familiar with the initiative has doubled. Citizens support this kind of cooperation but have yet to explain why they consider it useful.

“There are still no tangible results of cooperation within the framework of the Open Balkans. It is positive that relations between Serbia and Albania have partially improved, but the ethnic distance between Serbs and Albanians is still present. A quarter of citizens believe that the status of Kosovo should be resolved first, and only then work on the implementation of the Open Balkans,” said Ivana Ranković.

Ramić-Mesihović pointed out during the panel that it is difficult to determine the added value of the Open Balkans about the Berlin process and the Common Regional Market.

“When you think about any initiative, you have to think about whether there is a budget, reporting, what is the purpose, content, results, which measures resolutions and whether there are regular meetings at the technical level.” This gives us a true picture of whether something that was created works,” she pointed out.

Speaking about the situation in Montenegro when it comes to the Open Balkans initiative, Olivera Injac pointed out that within the government, there are very strong opponents of joining Montenegro to this initiative. According to her, questions are mainly asked about the economic benefit of Montenegro from OB, given that the main importing country is Serbia.

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