The economic, political and institutional crisis besetting the European Union (EU) close to a decade now has had significant fallout on countries and regions beyond its current borders. The Western Balkans is a case in point. The accession countries of the region have seen enlargement slowing down, with an EU busy fending off one crisis after the other. In fact, the Union is about to shrink given the imminent departure of UK following the June 23 referendum on Brexit. The Balkans is not in a great shape either.
Democratization has stalled as has economic growth following the crunch year of 2008. The refugee crisis of 2015-6 has also illustrated the paradoxes of the region’s relationship with the EU. It depends on and takes the consequences from the actions and decisions of Brussels and the member states, yet has no say. The countries succeeding Yugoslavia have been relegated to the position of a gatekeeper insulating the EU core from the turbulent Middle East. It is a form of inclusion but also of semi-exclusion.
In that uncertain environment, other powers have entered what EU sees as its back yard. One is Russia, which has embarked on a confrontation course with the West following the annexation of Crimea in March 2014. The other is Turkey, which views itself as a power center in its own right, not the perennial candidate knocking on Europe’s door. Each of the two pursues objectives that are at times compatible and in times competing with those of the West. Both have assets they could bring to bear, notably diplomatic clout, economic resources and soft power. Turkey parades as champion of the Balkan Muslims while Russia claims to protect Orthodox Slavs, not unlike the 19th and the early 20th century. Vladimir Putin and Tayyip Erdogan have their admirers spread across the region. That is why when the two clashed over the downed Russian jet last November Balkan pundits embarked on feverish speculation about possible Russo-Turkish proxy conflicts inflaming the Balkans.
These fears are overblown. They recycle historical myths and fail to take account of present-day realities concerning Russian and Turkish foreign policy and relations with the West.
Firstly, South East Europe is no longer a priority in either Moscow or Ankara. Under the so-called “zero-problems policy” enunciated by Ahmet Davutoglu, foreign minister between 2009-2014, Turkey engaged as mediator in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the wake of repeated Western initiatives to break the constitutional deadlock. Achievements have been modest at best. In the mean time, the Arab Spring, its violent aftermath turned Turkey’s attention to its neighbours to the south, Syria and Iraq first and foremost. Though the presence of foreign development agency TIKA testifies to the continued commitment to the Balkans, the region generates no vital security threats that would draw Turkey in.
It is no different with Russia. Together with Bulgaria, the Western Balkans came into focus in the mid-2000 when the Kremlin decided to diversify gas supply routes to Europe away from Ukraine. Between 2008 and 2010, Russia rallied together a coalition of friendly governments, from Belgrade and Sofia to Banja Luka and Skopje and even Zagreb, behind the South Stream pipeline. But the standoff with the EU escalating with the war in Ukraine spelled the death of the project. High expectations of mass influx of Russian investment have proven misplaced too. True, the Kremlin has sought to strengthen ties with Serbia, Macedonia and Republika Srpska to dent the Western sanctions — in modest ways. Its media and diplomats have used protests in Macedonia and Montenegro to score symbolic points – in the former case siding with the government and, in the latter, with the protestors. But Russian foreign policy has other priorities: finding a way out of the deadlock in Eastern Ukraine and getting sanctions relief, the ongoing intervention in Syria, striking a bargain with the West as well as with China over Eurasia.
Secondly, Russia and Turkey lag far behind the West in terms of power and influence. EU remains by far the main economic partner of the Western Balkans. Its External Action Service is the sole mediator in the Serbia-Kosovo normalization talks and plays a leading role in Bosnia, the two hotspots in the Western Balkans. The U.S. is “leading from behind” . NATO is to expand to bring in Montenegro. In a manner, which bears some resemblance of Tito’s Yugoslavia, Serbia strikes a complex balancing act between the EU and the U.S., on the one hand, and Russia, on the other. EU enlargement is not in its best shape but it is not dead. The so-called Berlin Process, which will convene for a third time this summer with a summit in Paris, is the focal point of the region’s politics.
Finally, the influence Russia and Turkey wield in the Western Balkans is dependent on their respective relationship with the West. Turkey is member of NATO and benefits from a Customs Union with the EU. Its economic penetration in ex-Yugoslavia and Albania is a function of the advanced level of integration of all parties in the pan-European trading bloc centered on Brussels. Turkey has its trump cards as well, now obvious with its largely successful attempt to link cooperation on stemming the flow of refugees and asylum seekers to visa liberalization. But playing hardball with the EU has not increased its influence in the Western Balkans. On the contrary, it turned Serbia and Macedonia into hostages of the crisis.
As for Russia, its influence in the Balkans peaked during the presidential term of Dmitry Medvedev, 2008-12. It was during the time when a security and economic partnership with the West looked tenable when daring energy projects made headway. Combined with the record-low oil prices, Western sanctions have exacerbated the recession and put strain on resources. Russia plays the spoiler — relying on media, friendly politicians, civil society with traditionalist and nationalist bent, Orthodox clerics to fight against the West. Yet this is a low-cost strategy, which cannot secure permanent allies amongst those who actually hold power. The likes of Serbian Prime Minister Vučić prefer to be on good terms with Europe and the U.S. too. And they know how to use the West’s fears of Russia to shield themselves from criticism regarding democratic standards and the rule of law.
Dimitar Bechev is a Visiting Scholar at the Center for European Studies, Harvard University, and a former Senior Visiting Fellow at the European Institute, London School of Economics (LSE). Until 2014, he was a Senior Policy Fellow and Head of the Sofia Office at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He is also affiliated with South East European Studies at Oxford (SEESOX), a research programme based in St Antony’s College, Oxford. He received his Doctorate in International Relations from the University of Oxford where he taught from 2006 to 2010. He was a visiting professor at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo and currently lectures at Sofia University, Bulgaria.
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