Exlusive interview with Ian Lesser, Executive Director of the Brussels Office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and an expert on the Mediterranean, Turkey, and the wider Atlantic. The interview was conducted on the GMF Brussels Forum.
European Western Balkans: What is your opinion about the Russian and Turkish influences in the Western Balkans? Do you believe the Western Balkans are between EU and NATO on one hand, and Russia and Turkey as important external actors on the other?
Ian Lesser: I think the generally chaotic situation in politics but also in security terms, not only in the Balkan region but around the Balkans, is making it more difficult to manage these competitions. And sometimes they really are competitions. I think both Russia and Turkey are very conscious of their in essence competitive roles in the region, even if their own relationship is relatively stable at the moment. I think this is something that is likely to be with us for some time, in part because the EU and NATO prospects through the region are at an impasse, and given that, it makes these competitions much more intense and much more consequential.
EWB: Do you believe the biggest risks come from this crisis in relations between EU and Turkey, or Turkey and the US?
IL: I think there are real risks there because so many of the region’s crisis from Syria to the Balkans, and of course, the Eastern Mediterranean, depend on a partnership of some kind with Turkey. Especially on questions of refugee flows, but also on the foreign fighter issue, and in general on the economic and political and security development of the region. And if relations between Turkey and the European Union are in a very negative state, which they are at the moment, this makes it very, very difficult to have Turkey as a partner. Some of the key agreements that are in place, like the refugee deal with Ankara, may not be sustainable under those conditions in which case we are thrown back on purely national and sometimes very competitive approaches.
EWB: During last year’s infamous coup attempt in Montenegro, there were accusations of Russian involvement, and according to some senior US officials, attempts by Moscow to destabilize the region and in this way hurt NATO as well. Do you believe that in this sense Western Balkan is an important region and some kind of „battlefield“ between different actors?
IL: Well, I do not think we would like to see the region in that way. I think this is the region that ought to have its political and economic development and its security for reasons of its own. And I think, taken together, the integration of the region is something that is also important for Europe’s security. So, I do not think anyone would like to encourage additional geopolitical competition in the Balkans of the kind that we saw in the 1990s, which would be very, very destructive. I mean, if you remember that time, there was a very great concern that there would be a clash between, a kind of Muslim and Orthodox worlds in essence, in which Turkey and Greece would find themselves embroiled. In fact, that part of it at least never came to pass. I do not think there is very much of a risk of that today, but why increase that risk. It would be tragic to go back to the conditions that we had in the 1990s.
EWB: Do you believe that changes in the US administration, and therefore changes in US-EU relations, could impact on also Western Balkans?
IL: Yes, I think that is a factor to consider because, obviously, the European Union itself is quite distracted with its own problems at the moment and the whole process of enlargement clearly does not have very much energy anymore. The new administration in Washington is obviously rethinking American policy in many, many areas. The Balkans clearly is not anywhere near the top of their list. It is not even clear how far up the list European security as a whole will be. So, this is obviously something that will affect regional actors.
EWB: Now we have returnees coming from Syria and Iraq – but when it comes to Western Balkans, also from Ukraine. Do you believe these returnees can pose a security threat for their countries and regions where they return to?
IL: Well, it can certainly pose a security challenge. I have to believe that all of the countries of the region who have seen foreign fighters either going from their own societies or passing through their own countries, are going to be concerned about this phenomenon. I do not think it necessarily makes the Balkans a principle target for returning foreign fighters. I think in many cases their grievances tend to look beyond the Balkans and have more to do with their feelings about Western Europe and the United States. But that does not mean there is no risk at all, especially for countries where tourism and investment are a particularly important factor. Any hint of terrorist risk can have a negative effect on that.
This article has been produced with the support of the Balkan Trust for Democracy. The content of this article and the opinions expressed herein are the sole responsibility of the portal European Western Balkans and in no way reflect the views and opinions of the Balkan Trust for Democracy nor the German Marshall Fund of the United States.