EU airplane with medical assistance to Serbia; Photo: Tanjug

A diplomatic bomb thrown by the President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić last month has taken up most of the attention in the discussion about the soft power struggle in the Balkans. Vučić’s proclamation that the EU solidarity is an illusion and kissing Chinese flag upon receiving the first plane of medical assistance have found their way to global headlines, hinting at a possible reinvention of EU-Serbia relations. Now that the dust has settled a little, perception of the EU in the rest of the region during the pandemic can also be assessed – and the Union should not be satisfied.

That the EU has a problem of visibility in some parts of the Western Balkans, even though it has been its biggest donor and trading partner for decades at this point, was already well known. However, the COVID-19 crisis currently seems to be unlikely to improve this state of affairs.

At least in the case of Serbia, the blame should not be put squarely on the EU’s shoulders. The Union has certainly made bad PR by restricting export of medical equipment on 15 March and not sending aid earlier, but President Vučić did nothing to ease the situation. In fact, according to MEP Viola von Cramon-Taubadel, he has instrumentalised the crisis to quite intentionally improve Chinese reputation at the expense of EU. It took the President weeks to even acknowledged EU’s assistance on his Twitter profile, despite thanking every other global actor, including China, Russia and Turkey, right away.

In the rest of the region, however, there have been no efforts by the country’s leaders similar to Vučić’s or, at least, not nearly to that scale. The EU has increased its diplomatic activities and stepped up the promotion of the assistance it has provided so far, amounting to more than €700 million. Ideally, it could have used the pandemic to strengthen its image as an undisputed and united leader in the region it seeks to fully integrate. Right now, there is not enough data for anything firmer than the first impressions. Nevertheless, according to EWB‘s interlocutors, the results have been mixed.

The most successful stories

It is sometimes good to begin with the positive side of a mixed outcome, and in this case, the example is Montenegro, in which the reception of EU assistance cannot be compared to that of Serbia.

“Both the Government and the EU promoted the EU’s support. The Government also signed an agreement on joint procurement of medical supplies and other goods becoming part of the mechanism created by the EU to ensure faster procurement of medical supplies, which was described by the head of the delegation in Montenegro as a sign that the country is already part of the European family”, says Jovana Marović, Executive Director of Politikon Network.

True to her interpretation, the EU seems to have kept its favourable status with Montenegro’s leadership. In his TV appearance on 16 April, President Milo Đukanović went with a completely different approach compared to his Serbian counterpart, not criticising the EU’s export restrictions, but praising the fact that they are going to be lifted soon.

“Let us hope that Europe, of which we are citizens, will learn from this problem and revitalise its fundamentals through the reforms that have already started”, Đukanović said, signaling that there will be no change of foreign policy course of his party.

Institutions of Montenegro were also eager to promote other forms of cooperation with the EU during the crisis. For example, the country’s parliament was one of only two parliaments of the region to publish the response of the European Parliament President David Sassoli to the letter signed by all six speakers of the Western Balkans (conversely, the website of the National Assembly of Serbia features Speaker Maja Gojković’s expressions of gratitude to the National People’s Congress of China).

The other national parliament to publish Sassoli’s report was that of Albania. According to Ardian Hackaj, Research Director at the Institute of Cooperation and Development Institute in Tirana, the news of EU’s assistance have been treated as positive, but expected.

In fact, according to Hackaj, the peace of news overshadowing all others was sending a 30-member Albanian medical team to assist Italy at the end of March. The doctors and nurses were accompanied to the airport by Prime Minister Edi Rama, the event which garnered attention of some of the global media outlets.

Albania’s medical team to Italy accompanied by acting FM Cakaj received by FM di Maio; Photo: Twitter / Gent Cakaj

The “little-Albania-helps-Italy” event was even more important in the news than the historic decision of the Council to open accession talks with the country couple of days earlier, Ardian Hackaj points out.

The saving grace for EU’s efforts in Albania this year has been the International Donor’s Conference taking place in February, during which 1.2 billion Euros were gathered for the November 2019 earthquake relief. According to Hackaj, this event was was very publicised and well received. He does not have the same assertion for the COVID-19 assistance.

“The € 410 million allocated by EU to the region to fight the pandemic and to help economic recovery, as usual, did not receive the proportional amount of local attention. COVID-19 exposed, yet again, the systemic problem that EU has with the visibility of its actions in the Balkans”, he concludes, adding that one of the solutions would be further integration of the region in EU’s protection and management system.

Unfortunately for Brussels, Montenegro and Albania, at least with the Donor’s Conference included, have been as good as it gets in 2020.

The (un)expected rivals

China now appears to be firmly in the region and more visible than ever before. The other “usual suspects” – Russia and Turkey – are unsurprisingly using the pandemic to score some soft-power points. However, where once the EU and the United States have been seen as a united block in the Western Balkans, they are now close to becoming rivals in some parts of the region. Apart from Serbia, the geopolitical game is most visible in the countries furthest away from the EU membership – Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“If one compares the financial aid provided to Kosovo, EU tops the list, followed by the US with 1.1 million dollars, and Turkey has provided masks and tests kits (the value is not shared with public). Kosovo did not receive any assistance from China, and if Russian assistance has been channeled to northern part of Kosovo – there is no official information in this regard, hence it remains in the margins of speculations”, says Donika Emini, Executive Director of the CiviKos Platform.

She emphasises that, despite what the numbers say, these three assistances have been heralded differently.

“The EU brought the money, but has very weak political power and credibility in Kosovo. This situation is not caused by the pandemic but it has derived from the lack of political will to deliver of visa liberalisation for Kosovo and the way the EU has managed the dialogue with Belgrade. In this regard, even the appointment of Miroslav Lajčák further contributed to this complex relation”, Emini explains.

She further adds that, in spite of its modest amount, the US still has immense political power and support by the citizens, who have widely praised its assistance.

“It was considered as ‘unlocking’ the US funds which had been on hold due to it’s stranded relation with the caretaker government led by (Albin) Kurti”, Emini says.

She reminds that it is Kurti’s caretaker government which is struggling to revitalize the role of the EU in Kosovo, but the things are not going so well – despite the message of EU’s support being spread by the government, in contrast to the US, she describes the reaction of the media and citizens as lukewarm.

“Unlike in other Western Balkan countries, the rivalry in Kosovo seems to be among the EU and the US, in which the EU brings the money but the US brings the political power”, Emini underlines.

That the story is even more complicated, according to her, has been showcased by the reception of Turkish assistance, which took place at a ceremony that looked like as if the help from Ankara has been the biggest and most important.

“This assistance was not only received by the Government but also by Presidents Advisors, as it was the President Thaçi himself who requested the aid from his political friend and partner President Erdoğan”, Emini concludes.

Presidents Thaci of Kosovo and Erdogan of Turkey; Photo: Twitter/HashimThaciRSK

The United States and Turkey have also offered their assistance to Bosnia and Herzegovina, while the complex nature of this country has enabled the involvement of another global player – Russia. Even though it has helped mediate the IMF loan for the country earlier this week, the EU seems not to be in the foreground.

“Although hit hard itself, the United States was the first to fly its medical aid to BiH. This was a clear reminder of relationship that the US has with BiH, regardless of the administration and current priorities, and a confirmation that the presence and the interest is not gone”, says Nedžma Džananović Miraščija, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Political Science, University of Sarajevo.

She adds that Turkey, with its simultaneous aid for BiH and Serbia, also reminded of its regional presence and pretensions.

“In addition, it payed much diplomatic attention to local political sensitivities in BiH and made additional clarification that Turkish aid was aimed and should be distributed to all the regions and ethnic communities in the country. Russia, however, was the first and so far the only one who delivered its aid selectively and discriminately, to one part of the country only – Republika Srpska”, Džananović Miraščija explains.

None of this, according to her, is particularly surprising.

“The coronadiplomacy in Bosnia and Herzegovina didn’t surface much novelties, but has made some positions of the international actors on the country itself much clearer. If the traditional diplomatic messages were somewhat coded and softened, the corona diplomacy apparently made them very blunt”, she concludes.

Perhaps the EU’s messages could be expected to become blunter in the future. It would first, however, need to determine whether it has a single voice.

European or bilateral assistance?

When an EU Member State adopts a highly controversial law granting its government a power to rule by decree during the state of emergency, raising alarm across the continent and triggering an even fiercer debate on its position within the Union, and then arrives with medical assistance to an EU candidate country, should the latter be grateful only to that Member State, or EU as a whole?

Of course, the question concerns Hungary and the assistance its Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó personally delivered to North Macedonia during the first week of April. Simonida Kacarska, Director of the European Policy Institute from Skopje, points out that this is not the only bilateral assistance that has garnered attention in her country.

Peter Szijjarto and Nikola Dimitrov in Skopje, 6 April 2020; Photo: MFA North Macedonia

“Macedonian public attention has been directed at EU and NATO member states such as Hungary, Slovenia, Turkey and the Czech Republic providing bilateral assistance in medical equipment. These bilateral assistance packages have been highly politicized, with political leaders in the country and but the sending states as well”, she says.

According to her, examples of Hungary and Slovenia illustrate this very clearly.

“Hungarian assistance package was delivered personally by the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and discursively associated with the capacity of North Macedonia to deal with upcoming refugee waves. The Slovenian aid package, which was a response to our request addressed through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, was politicised by the Macedonian opposition claiming credit largely due to its own good political relationship with the current Slovenian leadership”, Kacarska says.

A more coordinated effort seems to be in order for the EU if it wants to stay to the point in the Balkans. Meanwhile, Kacarska adds that further focus in North Macedonia has been given to EU wide instruments such as the Solidarity Fund, as well as the EU medical export restrictions. While the former is now presumably available to Skopje as it has received the green light to open accession talks, the latter has been described as an “uphill battle” by our interlocutor. It was Foreign Minister of North Macedonia Nikola Dimitrov who initiated the joint request to the EU to lift the export restrictions, which proved to be successful earlier this week.

Time for the second round

Internal divisions, institutional inadequacy, external challengers and, perhaps, lack of a more savvy communication strategy – all of this seemingly contributed to underwhelming perception of EU’s role in the Western Balkans at the times of pandemic.

It is not over yet, Professor Nedžma Džananović Miraščija stresses for our portal.

“We’re only in the first phase with no end in sight from this point. Immediate relief, a plane full of medical equipment, may have a strong effect on the public in this phase, as this is exactly what China and Russia are trying to exploit. China might even seem as a likely victor at this point because its coronavirus diplomacy has managed to reposition it from the cause of crises to the super-hero”, she says.

However, the EU’s strengths may become more apparent as we approach the second part of the crisis – the economic one. In Professor Džananović Miraščija’s opinion, there is no reason for EU not to step in confidently and readily.

“Structural support rather than immediate relief is what the EU does best. The tasks it will undertake in the post-corona period might even improve the structure of the support for the WB and its impact, especially if it changes the focus from technical support, consultancy and  twinning-projects to structural support for non-governmental sector”, she concludes.

In other words, the EU does not have to lose the coronadiplomacy game in the Balkans to China, Russia, Turkey and even the United States. It only has to play better in the second round.