European Western Balkans

Rethinking Eastern Influence in the Balkans

Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; Photo: Wikimedia Commons / kremlin.ru

We can clearly observe a growing interest among Western and locally-based journalists, social scientists, and policy makers in recent years on the topic of Russian and Chinese influence on broader Eastern Europe.

Furthermore, in the Balkans, rumours have been spreading about the impact of Turkish and Gulf-state influence, due to the historically well-established ties with Istanbul/Ankara, while Arabic states and Iran also became involved in 1990´s by gaining influence primarily among various “Muslim” peoples across the region.

In this short article, I would like to open discussion on the importance/relevance of the Balkans for the geopolitics of Europe and Eurasia, sketch the scale of influence of the above mentioned “Oriental” powers across the peninsula, and discuss the actual character of the Eastern influences often labelled as malign by (pro-)Western actors.

Somewhat surprisingly, despite the alarmism about Russia returning to the Balkans among Russophobes and cheering from Russophiles, it is not easy to identify any mention of the Balkans in the current Russian Foreign Policy Concept from 2016.

As a matter of fact, the FP Concept highlights the importance of the so-called “near abroad” (territory of former Soviet Union), where Russia is currently losing its battle of utmost importance over the control of Ukraine that could prove fatal for Kremlin´s plan to resurrect itself as the superpower in Eurasia. It also highlights its relations with the EU, which is crucial for future development of Russia and the EAEU in economic terms, as well as for relations with the NATO/U.S. in terms of security.

Simply said, we cannot find a single Balkan country, any part of Southeastern Europe and its subregions, or even the particular favourite of the Kremlin, undoubtedly Serbia, mentioned in the FPC – unlike the FPC articles on remote (and from a European perspective insignificant) countries such as New Zealand, the Kingdom of Thailand, or even the small Georgian separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In this official and well thought through document, the Balkans are perceived only as the south-eastern periphery of the EU or the western periphery of the Black Sea region. For details see Russian FP Concept 2016. While the People´s Republic of China doesn’t reveal its strategic documents in such an open way, the Balkans still represents an important piece of puzzle in the strategic initiative of One Belt One Road.

Vladimir Putin and Aleksandar Vučić; Photo: Tanjug / Tanja Valić

In this light, the Kremlin´s so-called strategic partnerships with Serbia (and the “Serbian lands”) seems to represent rather a PR project for domestic audiences in Russia as well as in Serbia, when taking into account somewhat limited political, military and economic support for Belgrade, the supposed Russian champion in the Balkans.

Serbia has, in past years, received some investment and loans from Russia, with Moscow controlling approximately 10% of its economy, but compared to EU investments, aid, and especially mutual trade (Serbia-EU 64.4%, Serbia-Russia 7.2%, Serbia-China 8.2% in 2017), these seem to be of lesser significance.

The data on other important Balkan countries suggest significant but still minor mutual trade with the Russian Federation and China; Greece-RF 7% and GR-PRC 5.6%, Romania-RF 3.3% and RO-PRC 5%, Bulgaria-RF 10.2% and BG-PRC 3.7% in 2017, while “the rest” of the foreign trade of these countries is mostly within the common EU market. For detailed info see briefing paper External Influence in the Economic Sphere by Western Balkans at the Crossroads project and World Bank Database.

Naturally, questions about whether the Russians are just “making a mess” in the Balkans in order to draw Western attention from the post-Soviet space, or whether there is a real possibility that unless the West pays attention to the issue, some sort of Ukraine or Belarus scenario could come about especially in former Yugoslavia, remain serious.

We should indeed acknowledge that Russia holds important assets across the Balkans, particularly in local energy sectors. However, these investments, with all the security pros and cons, are primarily designed as a channel to bring yet more income from the profitable gas and oil business to Kremlin-related circles.

In this sense, it seems to be significant that Russian political leadership hasn’t so far used energy as a political tool vis-à-vis the Balkan states, unlike in the case of Ukraine, since Southeast Europe has recently been just a collateral victim of the Kremlin´s struggle for/against Ukraine. This is to change with the old/new project of the South Stream or Turk Stream pipeline bypassing Ukraine via the Black Sea and Turkey, that should guarantee stable gas supplies for the Balkans, naturally on the expense of Ukraine´s (not only energy) security, as well as its state budget income.

Moscow´s campaign launched to create impression of its supremacy over the West, ranging from invincible weapons to haute culture, seems not only to be met with cheers in certain Balkan political circles and even among the broader public there, but also impresses Western policy makers and their “soulmates” in the region.

Again, Serbia, which is an EU candidate country and also cooperates extensively with NATO, appears to be a good example of this campaign´s achievements. In 2017, polls showed that only 5% of respondents expressed a positive opinion on the country´s possible NATO membership, 50% wouldn’t care if the EU disintegrated, while 32% were in favour of joining the Eurasian integration under Russian leadership and only 22% against. Such an outcome, however, is not just a result of the cunning Russian campaign, but simply due to NATO, the EU and the West putting themselves in an unflattering light by their questionable actions and often tactless propaganda since the early 1990s.

Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk, Li Keqiang: Photo: EU

Recently, we could also hear rumours about the Chinese aggressively penetrating the economic landscape of the peninsula. Naturally, analysts have been asking the question whether the Belt and Road initiative is about fixing the Balkan bottleneck on the way from China to European consumers (bypassing Russia), or alternatively to breed future Beijing-friendly EU members, or even to impose China as a great power in broader Eastern Europe.

What shall be the internal political and economic consequences of the Chinese economic drive in the region? For now, apart from the investments to sea and land transport infrastructure, it seems that Beijing is just using a splendid opportunity for predator investment in an economically vulnerable region, where one can buy good-quality assets for little money with inter-governmental guarantees. Taking into consideration the Chinese need to invest outside of its incentive-overheated economy, languishing Balkan industrial giants and rotten infrastructure perhaps represent a much better investment opportunity, both in economic and political terms, than U.S. bonds.

When it comes to Turkish influence in the Balkans, we can clearly see not only the limits of Ankara’s power in the light of its fading economy and the current domestic troubles of president-sultan Erdoğan, but also the general limits of Turkish neo-Ottoman policies, based primarily on his personal relations with Balkan leaders mainly within the “Ottoman crescent”, ranging from Istanbul to north-western Bosnia.

The role the Gulf States and Iran play in the Balkans, excluding the issue of inspiring and financing the spread of religious extremism, appears to be rather insignificant both in economic and political terms.

Perhaps a much more important question is what the actual U.S. role in the Balkans is, especially in light of President Trump’s populist struggle with mainstream American foreign policy.

The above mentioned points outline the limits of the influence exercised by Eastern powers in the Balkans; Russia has invested its scarce funds primarily in profitable businesses where it already possess know-how and into low-cost but often effective propaganda, China the economic giant has got no real cultural connections with the peninsula and as of yet no considerable political influence, the Arabs dwell far away and Turks seem to be currently occupied with their internal political struggles and economic problems.

Only if all these actors worked in concert, they could possibly achieve some sort of strategic parity with Western or EU power in all its diverse spheres. However, Russia, China, Turkey and the Gulf States often appear to be competitors, or even opponents, rather than allies in the Balkans. This is evident in the case of the OBOR, as this China-Europe route goes around Russian territory, thus challenging Russia’s position as the pivotal country in Eurasia.

Aleksandar Vučić and Xi Jinping; Photo: Tanjug / Dimitrije Groll

But why are Russia and China so popular, especially amongst the Serbs? Is it not simply because the EU deals too often with the Balkan states and treats its peoples like adolescents in a neo-colonial manner?

In this sense, the austerity measures imposed on Greece appear to be the most visible case, not mentioning the horrible long-term socioeconomic consequences of the cuts. Russia and China, on the other hand, are not teaching lessons and asking much in symbolic terms from the Balkan countries, their elites, and their peoples. The Eastern powers mostly operate on the policy of “business first”, opposite to the approach of the EU.

Besides, for the Kremlin, the Western Balkans, or better said the Serbian-populated lands, possibly can serve as a playing card to be exchanged with the West for much more important assets in the Russian “near abroad”.

The actual character of Eastern influence is yet another issue in the heated discussions on their supposedly malign interference in the Balkans. Concerns over widespread corruption accompanying Russian, Chinese and Gulf investments and the “Eastern way of doing business” in the Balkans in general are certainly justifiable, but we have to bear in mind the fact that even Western companies often backed by their respective national governments exploit workers, devastate nature, undermine state institutions and expect servility of weak political elites in developing/poorer countries across the globe.

This has been clearly manifested inter alia during the 1990s in the Central-Eastern Europe, where the Western businessmen were “securing” their acquisitions with plastic bags full of cash, in exactly the same manner as the “Russian way”.

Another issue is the Eastern, mainly Russian, influence over the various public debates regarding basic social values, historical, and cultural ties, but consequently also geopolitical orientation of the Balkan countries and societies.

It brings us to the question, what should be the West’s and more specifically the European Union’s response to Russian propaganda? Shall it be dirty contra-propaganda or more sincere policies and the provision of critical information on the European integration project, with all its pros and cons? Should the pro-Western stakeholders meddle in or even insist on restricting the ongoing public debate on certain sensitive issues concerning basic social norms, e.g. LGBTIQ emancipation? Is it desirable to in any way restrict, in sociocultural terms, the natural contact of the Balkans with the Eastern-Slavonic world and the Middle-East? Are these cultural, economic and political ties with the East/Orient contradictory to the Westernization and Europeanization as desired by most Western policymakers, or is Russia and even the Orient perhaps part of our common European cultural space?

Should the European Union, instead of only focusing on “empty words” on democratic values and practices, while in the same time effectively supporting Balkan “stabilocracies“ with more or less obvious tendencies towards authoritarian rule, turn its attention towards concrete green and socially sensitive economic development assistance and investment in order to counterbalance the growing Chinese influence? Could European values and European progressiveness be manifested perhaps in ecological projects designed to help cleaning polluted Balkan cities or by encouraging Western companies known for satisfactory treatment of employees and nature to invest in the region with certain EU-run incentives and guarantees?

Photo: Flickr / Western Balkans Summit 2018

Generally speaking, we can speak about the malignity and rivalry in the Balkans, as seen through the lenses of geopolitical strategists and sold by their propagandists, as a quasi-battlefield between the forces of good and evil in an area lost somewhere in-between the EU, Russia, and the Orient.

In this sense, the Balkans only appear on the global chessboard as an insignificant square in the slowly shaping geopolitical power relations between the various players of the West and East, the global South and North, and even in the highly uncertain future relationship of Washington and Brussels.

Besides, while observing internal political developments in the European Union, concerning Brexit, the slightly authoritative turn in some of its Eastern member states and so on, some of the debates resemble the last years of socialist Yugoslavia, a supranational community sacrificed for the narrow political interests of its numerous national(ist) elites.

Russia and China might perhaps be facing the dilemma whether to help or hinder the accession of the Western Balkan countries to the EU, or in other words whether to introduce some new Eastern-friendly member states to the EU, or whether to try to develop a unified strategy towards the region to counterbalance the EU influence there, perhaps with some help of Trump’s men in Washington.

However, the rest of the Balkans which is already a part of the EU, represents much bigger and important part of the peninsula. Therefore, we should be asking the question of how European integration is working for the Greeks or Bulgarians. When it comes to the geopolitical rivalry, concrete evidence often shows different logic at work.

An inspiring example can be the ongoing reconstruction of the trans-Balkan-railway connecting Thessaloniki with Budapest realized by joint efforts of the EU, Russia, and China. Generally speaking, it should be much more desirable, and I am almost convinced that it shall be, to pursue the goal of cooperation among mutually-dependent global players, not only in the Southeastern Europe.

The biggest threat to the EU’s superiority in the Balkans seems to be of internal nature, because without the unity of EU member states, there can be no real common foreign and security policies, and with the neo-colonial or negligent attitude towards the new member states, candidates and even the “cradle of Europe” – Greece – the EU has simply been losing its appeal in many Balkan eyes.

Regarding the further enlargement of the EU and the deepening integration of new member states, the crucial question, not often asked, is what can Balkan states and societies offer as their contribution to the EU, other than sunny beaches and tasty food? This is not just the question people in Western and Central Europe have been asking and will continue to ask when it comes to enlargement, but also the very painful question Balkan societies will have to ask themselves. Not because of the EU “homeworks”, but primarily for their own future’s sake.

This covers difficult issues concerning liberté, égalité and fraternité as well as sustainable economic prosperity. And that includes problems in mutual inter-state and inter-societal relations in the Balkans, namely solving of a century old disputes and healing new wounds from 1990s.

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