Foreign Influence in the Balkans

The Balkans have always been fertile ground for foreign interests. Political intrigue in the region sparked the First World War and nationalist struggles after the dissolution of Yugoslavia filled world headlines in the 1990's. It was in the latter period, and specifically during the Bosnian War, that the door was opened to substantial investment from the Middle East. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran helped countries like Bosnia and Kosovo reconstruct their infrastructure, schools, and places of worship. They created several institutions of their own, like the Persian-Bosnian College in Lješevo and the King Fahd mosque in Sarajevo. But their investments also brought in individuals, charities, and schools that were later linked to extremism, and some of which were forced to close after 9/11. Krithika Varagur will report on the current state of religious investments and foreign-funded institutions in Bosnia and Kosovo, paying special attention to the region’s Salafi movement, the fundamentalist strain of Sunni Islam that has gained followers around the world due to systematic Saudi investments. 

The most recent wave of extremism in the Balkans is tied to ISIS, which rose to prominence in 2014. Kosovo was the highest per-capita contributor in Europe of foreign fighters to ISIS; extremism there was fueled in large part to the clerics and institutions funded by Saudi Arabia after its hard-won independence in 1999. The ISIS “foreign fighter” phenomenon has already peaked worldwide and almost no one is still emigrating to ISIS territory, but at least 250 individuals have returned from the terrirory to the Balkan states. Krithika will research the challenges of their reintegration and rehabilitation.

Finally, foreign influence is not constrained just to the religious sphere: in Bosnia, one of the world’s most complex democracies, there is also considerable Russian and Turkish political influence, coupled with receding involvement from the United States and the European Union. This project focuses on these dynamics and the Bosnian political situation in advance of the October 2018 election.