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Fighting violent extremism in the Balkans

By Andreja Bogdanovski

The term “radicalism” witnessed many different interpretations especially among the political elites across the Balkans in the not so distant past. As a narrative it was heavily in use in the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s during the ethnic conflicts that stormed the region. With the beginning of the civil war in Syria in 2011 and the emergence of ISIS, the term “radicalisation” received a rather different meaning in the context of the Western Balkans. Instead of being mis/used to polarise the public for political purposes, “radicalisation” is now being primarily utilized in reference to the Western Balkans in association with Balkan-born foreign-fighters going to the battlefields in Syria and Iraq.

However, the reminders of the past could have very easily jumped from Pandora’ Box with the latest large-scale police operation conducted between the 9th and 10th of May in Macedonia’s northern city of Kumanovo, close to the Kosovo-Serbia border. Macedonia’s police initiated a police action trying to detain an armed group which, according to official sources, planned attacks on strategic targets in Macedonia. The operation as such alarmed the entire region as neighbouring countries such as Serbia, Kosovo and Bulgaria increased their alertness levels and beefed up the security along their borders with Macedonia. Officials have stated that some members of the group in question had fought in the wars that swept across the region in the 1990s and that some have even been fighting in the Middle East.

Exactly this last segment of the official account poses a question of whether or not authorities in the Western Balkans link the Middle East portion of the story with foreign-fighter activities and groups like ISIS. Unfortunately, it is still too early to provide a definitive answer to this question, as the Macedonian Ministry of Internal Affairs has not shared many details with the public; however, there is an ongoing investigation which should provide more details about this claim. Yet, one of the most debated questions over the past several weeks has been whether or not it was correct to use the term “radical” (in all possible forms) as well as “terrorist” in relation to the recent events. While there seems to be a consensus among various communities and stakeholders that the word “radical” can be used in relation to affiliation with foreign-fighters and groups like ISIS, this is not the case when the word is used in an ethno-nationalism context.

The Kumanovo incident, for good or bad, may have provided a signal for authorities across the region, as well as the international community, to be wary of the deadly cocktail that is concocted when mixing whatever the foreign-fighters’ ideology may be with notions of ethno-nationalism, as this can be a recipe for fast-tracking radicalisation across the Western Balkans. If this occurs, then we would not be talking about lone-actors anymore but about well organised groups. This would make the existing efforts of the authorities across the Western Balkans extremely difficult on their journey to solve the challenges posed by the foreign-fighter threat, while inflating the ethno-nationalistic element of the dilemma would hinder regional cooperation on security issues. The moment ethno-politics enters the equation of how intelligence services, police and other relevant actors are to conduct their work, the entire response of the security system may become endangered and a security vacuum that could be exploited by radical groups to vast effect may emerge.

The concrete policies of the countries from the region that have been developed in the past two years to combat violent extremism suggest that, after a long time, the entire region is on the same page when it comes to making efforts to put a halt to this phenomenon. For example, the countries of the region have similarly amended their Criminal Codes and other legal mechanisms permitting intervention aimed at stemming the recruitment and participation of their nationals in armed conflicts abroad. At the same time, all of the leaders from the region have pledged vigorous efforts to fight ISIS. A few countries (through their political support) are even participating in the US-sponsored coalition against ISIS. Leaders from the region have also participated in several high-profile conferences on countering violent extremism, sending strong messages condemning radicalisation across the region. This level of commitment by leaders in the region is surely to be welcomed.

While the commitment to combating this issue is widespread across the entire region, there are visible inconsistencies in the policies that are implemented as well as gaps in regional security cooperation. For example, most of the actions undertaken by governments in the region with the aim of preventing citizens from going to Syria and Iraq are still externally driven. Here we have not yet witnessed a locally driven initiative in combating violent extremism. Up until recently, all events and conferences discussing this phenomenon were held outside the region. While initiatives have been taken when it comes to legislation, no efforts are being made in the area of rehabilitation and reintegration, thus leading to a partial as opposed to holistic approach.

Additionally, the type of activities that the authorities throughout the region are undertaking vary by country. In Kosovo, Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, the police have a more hands-on approach, which can be witnessed in the number of arrests of people connected to radical groups like ISIS. In Macedonia, however, the approach is somewhat different. In this case, there is an impression that the Macedonian authorities have had a tendency to focus more on employing intelligence methods and surveillance. So far no arrests have been made in Macedonia in connection with those fighting in Syria or those involved in the recruitment of Macedonian citizens. The premise behind this type of activity is that, according to officials, Macedonian citizens are not radicalised by locals but instead they are radicalised abroad. While this can be true to some extent, Macedonia’s former Minister of Interior Gordana Jankuloska announced for the first time in March (2015) at a conference in Vienna that around 100 Macedonian citizens had travelled to Syria and the Middle East to fight for radical groups. This is no small number, especially if the total population of Macedonia (about 2 million) is taken into account. The timidity of the Macedonian police in this matter can also be easily observed in their lack of (public) involvement in what, according to the leader of Macedonia’s Islamic Religious Community (IRC), has been regarded as a seizure of several mosques that are not under IRC control by radicals in the capital of Skopje. This hints that it may be exactly those few mosques that could breed the next generation of Macedonia’s foreign-fighters. Nonetheless, throughout this ordeal the police have remained idle, claiming that involvement in religious affairs does not fall under their official competences.

The fight against violent extremism in the Western Balkans, despite its limited successes, still lacks a comprehensive approach that involves the employment of a range of different methods, from prevention to rehabilitation and reintegration. We have witnessed a number of gaps in how the institutions of the system react and if these gaps are not systematically addressed, the region faces the possibility of struggling to resolve this challenge. Considering this, the Western Balkans should intensify regional security cooperation when it comes to these issues, and therewith reduce the possibility of abuse and destruction of the region’s solid track record in the ethno-nationalistic context.

Andreja Bogdanovski is a research fellow at Analytica Think-Tank, Skopje.

* This op-ed was first published in Analist Monthly Journal’s June issue in Turkish Language.

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The Journal of Turkish Weekly

JTW is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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