European Western Balkans

Tirana Summit: How important is the support of the Western Balkans to Ukraine?

Ukraine-Southeast Europe Summit 2024 family photo; Photo: X / Volodymyr Zelenskyy

During the “South East Europe Summit” held in Tirana,  leaders of Ukraine and Southeast European countries adopted a joint declaration, calling for “the whole international community to strongly increase support to Ukraine”.  The document also reaffirms countries’ determination to intensify joint efforts to advance toward the European Union, as well as the commitment to participate in the post-war recovery of Ukraine.

In the document, leaders confirmed their unwavering support for the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders as of 1991 and remain committed to providing Ukraine with the necessary support to prevail against the Russian war of aggression for as long as it takes to achieve a comprehensive, just and lasting peace following the UN Charter and based on the Ukrainian Peace Formula.

They called on the whole international community to strongly increase support for Ukraine in its ongoing struggle for freedom, independence, and territorial integrity.

Maria Simeonova, Head of Sofia office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) says for European Western Balkans that Western Balkans’ support for Ukraine is getting more important in the current environment.

“Against the backdrop of disappointing results of Ukraine’s counteroffensive and the 2024 US support package for Ukraine stuck in the Congress, Kyiv will increasingly rely on the Europeans. The Western Balkans and the wider region can tangibly complement the support for Ukraine by boosting domestic weapon production capacities. Beyond the material support, there is a political dimension to showcase regional unity against Russia’s aggression in Ukraine”, says Simeonova.

On the other hand, Serbian journalist Boško Jakšić believes the Summit is symbolic and boils down to confirming a unified European political response to Russian aggression. He adds that the region lacks the capacity for more substantial financial, military, or even humanitarian.

Security concerns in the region as a consequence of the war in Ukraine

Maria Simeonova believes that the war in Ukraine reasonably sparked concern over security risks in the region, adding that Russia has traditionally used the region to undermine EU’s interests so the fragility of the institutions in some of the countries, most notably Bosnia and Herzegovina presents a potential vulnerability in the overall security of the continent.

“The EU is investing significant resources in addressing bilateral disputes, encouraging reforms and capacity building. In the face of Russia’s aggression, these efforts must persist, in coordination with NATO, while recognising that it is the EU’s responsibility to project its strategic thinking in the region. I believe that Brussels and the capitals have now come to this realisation”, Simeonova says.

However, she believes that the war in Ukraine has led to a significant shift in the way the EU perceives enlargement.

“Undoubtedly, this marks a positive change, as the EU realized the geopolitical urgency and is now inclined to expedite the enlargement process.  However, this transformation necessitates a parallel discussion on adapting EU institutions and policies. It is now imperative that a responsible conversation on these matters unfolds not only in Brussels but also in the capitals to ensure that all issues are addressed in a sustainable manner”, Simeonova believes.

According to her, as for the WB, Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, beyond the formal accession process, the countries should also make a convincing case of their own by demonstrating alignment with EU’s foreign policy and commitment to EU’s ambitious climate agenda.

“The geopolitical urgency should not serve as an excuse not to advance on reforms – on the contrary, reforms in the region must now proceed in full speed, as enlargement criteria will not loosen up”, she concludes.

Vučić met with Zelensky

At the margins of the summit held in Tirana, the meeting between the president of Serbia and the president of Ukraine attracted special attention. Serbia is still the only Western Balkan country that has not yet aligned its foreign policy with the EU’s in terms of European sanctions against Russia.

Following their fourth meeting since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Zelensky thanked Belgrade for its support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and integrity, as well as for humanitarian aid and reception of Ukrainian refugees.

The Serbian president stated that Ukrainians are “Slavic brothers” to Serbia, just as Russians are. Regarding the joint production of ammunition between the Western Balkan countries and Ukraine, Serbia must assess its position, Vučić assesses. He also added that he informed Zelensky that Serbian reserves of ammunition are currently at 63% capacity.

“I have issued an order to fill it up to 100%, which means we have to work a lot through our factories in Lučani, Sloboda, and Krušik, so that we can fill all artillery reserves (shells) from 122mm to 155mmm”, Vučić stated.

In Serbian media, there is much speculation about exporting Serbian ammunition to Ukraine. In April last year, Reuters published a confidential Pentagon document stating that Serbia agreed to supply weapons to Kyiv while refusing to sanction Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

Boško Jakšić explains that  Serbia exports the majority of its own ammunition production to the US, and this channel is utilized to ultimately benefit Ukraine.

“Belgrade has received formal cover and pretends not to know, although it’s a public secret. Ammunition serves as a balancing factor for the Serbian authorities who often avoid joining criticisms of the Kremlin. At a time when Ukraine faces a serious ammunition deficit on the front lines, prompting the initiative to lean towards the Russian side, President Zelensky must be grateful to President Vučić even though the two don’t appear to be warm partners. The question is what comes next”, Jakšić says.

He assesses that Belgrade is certainly under intense pressure from Moscow due to ammunition exports, and in that light, the decision to reduce exports to replenish Serbia’s strategic reserves should be viewed.

“All signals indicate that Serbia has little to hope for on the European path unless it more consistently and decisively aligns its foreign and security policy with the EU. This is not a new message, but the question is how insistently the EU will press on it as the European Parliament elections approach. Belgrade will again be able to buy time, undoubtedly pleasing the authorities who demonstrate in various ways that they are not ready for genuine democratic reforms”, believes Jakšić.

According to him, membership in the Union remains a declarative goal, while practice shows that the country is increasingly distant from the EU. “It is only when new European institutions are established that renewed pressure can be expected, primarily on the financial front, which could be the only effective one”, concludes Boško Jakšić.

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