As most of Europe's attention is focused on Ukraine, it would be unwise to ignore the challenges currently brewing in the Balkans. The Balkans have long served as Europe's tinder box.

Although security in the region has improved dramatically since the 1990s, sectarian divisions remain and are exacerbated by sluggish economies, high unemployment rates, and endemic political corruption.

The social, economic, and political situation makes the region vulnerable to malign Russian influence, the rise of ISIL, and economic and political instability coming from Greece. If left unchecked, the region could once again become a problem for the international community.

Russia has played a historic role in the Balkans as the self-proclaimed protector of the Slavic and Orthodox Christian communities. Today, Moscow exploits the social and political tensions in the Balkans as an effort to advance a pro-Russia agenda. Russia has one main goal in the region; keeping the Balkans out of the Euro-Atlantic community.

Protector of the Slavs

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Serbia has long served as Russia's foothold in the Balkans. Moscow backed Serbian opposition to Kosovo's independence in 2008 and continues to use Kosovo's independence to justify its own actions in Crimea, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia.

Russia is also active in the ethnically Serb region of Republika Srpska, one of two sub-state entities inside Bosnia and Herzegovina that emerged from that country's civil war in the 1990s.

The leader of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, has long been an advocate of independence for Republika Srpska and has enjoyed a very close relationship with the Kremlin.

Recent events in Ukraine, especially the annexation of Crimea, have inspired more separatist rhetoric in Republika Srpska.

Rise of ISIL

Another challenge for the region is the increasing presence of ISIL and the rise of extremism. Thankfully, the region has not yet suffered an attack from the group, but the Balkans have served as fertile recruiting ground for ISIL.

This should come as no surprise. High unemployment and stagnate economies have added to the social pressures in the Balkans. Many young Muslim men feel marginalised from mainstream society and see little hope for their future.

ISIL recruiters have taken advantage of this situation. There are several hundred fighters from the Balkans fighting in Iraq and Syria. These foreign fighters have even formed a so-called Balkans Battalion for ISIL. The bulk of the fighters have come from Kosovo...

 

ISIL recruiters have taken advantage of this situation. There are several hundred fighters from the Balkans fighting in Iraq and Syria. These foreign fighters have even formed a so-called Balkans Battalion for ISIL. The bulk of the fighters have come from Kosovo, but others can be traced back to Albania, Bosnia, and the Republic of Macedonia.

The region is also important for ISIL for reasons beyond recruitment. The Balkans are becoming an important transit route for ISIL allowing fighters to travel between Western Europe and the Middle East. This is especially true for Greece and Croatia with their long coastlines.

It is only a matter of time before ISIL uses the Balkans to plan and launch attacks across the rest of Europe.

Greece - a new problem

Complicating the political situation in the Balkans is the uncertainty surrounding the new government in Greece. Led by Syriza, an extreme left-wing party (and its junior right-wing coalition partner, the Independent Greek) the new government has already shown that it will not be business as usual.

Worryingly, the Syriza-led government in Athens has the potential to bring even more instability to the region.

The new Greek finance minister is making the rounds across Europe telling his colleagues that new terms must be presented before Greece pays off its debt. The future of Greece in the eurozone is in doubt. If managed properly a return to the drachma might be beneficial for the Greek economy, but it is unlikely the new government has the ability to guide Greece through such a tumultuous transition.

Buying influence

The Russian ambassador to Greece was seen entering the headquarters of Syriza soon after the recent election results were announced. With all of Greece's economic difficulties it is anyone's guess what influence Moscow might be able to buy - literally - in the new Greek government.

Within days of taking office the new defence minister sparked controversy by visiting Kardak, a disputed islet just off the coast of Turkey that led Ankara and Athens nearly to the point of war in the past, to lay a wreath. Syriza has also questioned if Greece should remain in NATO and is expected to continue Greece's time-honoured tradition of blocking the Republic of Macedonia from joining the alliance.  

All of this is a recipe for instability that could spillover to the neighbouring region.

During the 1990s, the US and Europe spent a lot of blood and treasure stabilising the Balkans. Now is not the time for the international community to turn its back. The best way to ensure stability in the Balkans is to stay engaged.

There must be a real effort to keep the countries in the region on the path towards Euro-Atlantic integration. Ultimately this will bring prosperity and security to one of the most unstable areas of Europe.

Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States army.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera