EUISS: Euro-atlantic integration the main driver of resilience in the Western Balkans

Flags; Photo: European Union

PARIS – As long as political, legal and economic conditions in Southeast Europe show no signs of converging with the rest of the continent, the region will remain unstable, it was stated in the Report „Resilience in the Western Balkans“ by the European Union Institute for Security Studies, produced in partnership with the European Fund for the Balkans.

Challenges of the WB region such as poor economy and weak state democracy, paired with Juncker’s 2014 statement that there will be no enlargement, have made the fertile ground for external influences, points out the report.

“By nurturing state and societal resilience in the Western Balkans, the EU is not only directly addressing the region’s capacity to cope with multiple challenges, but it is also making a long-term investment in the interest of its own citizens,” it was stated.

Political experts from EU and Western Balkans have gave an insight on the resilience in the region.

On the question – is democratisation of the Balkans a driver of resilience, Corina Stratulat gives a positive answer. However, she believes that political and economic problems became resilient, too.

“Corruption is more the norm rather than exception in the region,” believes Stratulat, adding that the important indicators of democratic government – political parties, are the least trusted institutions.

Rosa Balfour believes that the Western Balkan has shown a remarkable resilience over the past two decades.

“The EU is a driver of both fragility and resilience in the Western Balkans, where one is the obverse of the other,” states Balfour.

When it comes to fragility, she thinks that lack of the EU’s involvement, as well as the interest of the US in the region made other external actors such as Turkey, Russia and the Gulf States main contributors to its destabilisation.

The main driver of resilience would be the prospect of Euro-Atlantic integrations, considers Balfour.

Prospect of stonger cooperation such as the Berlin Process is also seen as the driver of resilience in the region, thinks Tobias Flessenkemper.

Initiated in 2003 at the Thessaloniki Summit to prepare the region for the integration did not fall short of expectations, when it comes to shifting the EU focus to the region. However, it failed to deliver on broader cooperation.

“No Berlin Process secretariat or permanent structure has been established. While the initiative remains intergovernmental, other actors such as civil society and business groups have come to play a limited role,” says Flessenkemper, adding that the process excluded interested neighbour countries, as well.

Aside from the EU, one more external actor helped building resilience in the Western Balkans, and that is NATO, considers Sandro Knezović.

“NATO took over responsibility for ending the military conflict and undertaking the peacekeeping and peace-building activities,” says Knezović.

With Slovenia, Albania, Croatia and Montenegro, the region seems to be on the same page when comes to fostering resilience. However, Serbia with no intentions of joining NATO is seen as a driver of fragility, as it remains open to the influences of other actors, as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina, believes Knezović.

When it comes to the influences of external actors, one of the main is believed to be the US, who helped building resilience in the Balkans, through the government, but also through many foundations.

“There have been periods when the US has been less actively engaged in the region due to other geopolitical priorities,” explains Ivan Vejvoda, but it always kept an eye on the region. With the growing presence of Russia and Turkey, it is believed that the US will promote resilience in the Balkans.

On the other hand, Russia is believed to be undermining the region’s resilience.

“As long as political, legal and economic conditions in southeast Europe show no signs of converging with the rest of the continent, the region will remain unstable,” says Dušan Reljić adding that there is a way to avoid this – if the EU enables access to the European Structural Funds before formal membership, in order to raise living standards of the region.

Together with Russia, Turkey and the Gulf States are seen as the actors which undermine the resilience. Those countries have intensified their presence in the Balkans, as the EU enlargement have slowed down. However, they are not as big donor to the region as the EU is.

“The region is not a strategic priority for them while their economic and political clout is still much less significant than the EU’s. Moreover, in contrast to Russia, which openly undermines the EU’s influence in the Western Balkans, both Turkey and the Gulf States still treat the region as a bridge to the EU,” explains Filip Ejdus.

With the “16+1 initiative”- enhanced economic cooperation initiative which includes five countries of the WB, China’s role in the Balkans became significant. Lack of unified EU’s strategy for China could strongly influence the region fragility.

“The fact that China-Western Balkans cooperation takes place almost exclusively on Chinese terms could be challenging for the regional governments,” thinks Anastas Vangeli. He, however, reminds that China can be a driver of resilience because it supports the EU integrations of the region.

While keeping an eye on the external actors, there is a possibility to oversee the internal ones, which are important as well.

Florian Bieber believes that the main internal challenge of the region is its ability to absorb crisis.

“The continuous crises in the region have made citizens resilient to upheaval; however, this resilience can be best understood as an ability to endure crises, rather than the ability to overcome and become less vulnerable to future crises,” thinks Bieber.

As a drivers of fragility, he emphasises structural economic underdevelopment, centrality of the state and informal networks and practices.

To previous fragility drivers, we can add backsliding of democracy, closing space for civil society organisations and independent and critical media, says Srđan Cvijić. He believes it is sort of paradox, since all of the WB are on the EU path.

The biggest fragility, he considers to be the Juncker’s 2014 moratorium on enlargement.

“The absence of a political momentum in EU enlargement had two consequences: it showed that the EU’s membership carrot is illusory; and it simultaneously weakened the stick that could be used to enforce reforms, thus leaving the region’s civil society vulnerable to increasingly intolerant ruling elites,“ thinks Cvijić.

Shrinking perspective of the EU enlargement has made Western Balkans sceptical of the process, while the EU Member States are being sceptical when it comes to the transformative power of the process, say Igor Bandović and Nikola Dimitrov.

“This has created an unhealthy symbiotic relationship between the Balkan strongmen on one hand, and European political elites under pressure from the far-right and an increasingly Eurosceptic public opinion on the other hand, which ultimately plays in favour of maintaining the status quo,” they explain.

This leads to the rise of authoritarian leaders which lead the countries backwards, they concluded.


Publication of this article has been supported by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States