30 October 2020

Even during the pandemic, the Western Balkans are still the battlefield of influence spheres

Stelian Teodorescu

The Western Balkans region continues to be a competition area for different international actors, given that its entities are going slowly and unequally towards the European and Euro-Atlantic integration, continuing to suffer when it comes to economy and good governance, especially due to the general high level of corruption and ineffectiveness.

Image source: Mediafax

Meanwhile it registered some progresses and took some steps towards a European and Euro-Atlantic future, the Western Balkans entities are, again, in the middle of a competition involving many international actors, which reactivate the historical wounds and traumas, influencing the long-term development of region’s country.

The developing COVID-19 pandemic works as an engine of preexistent tendencies, like the democracy crisis and the nationalism’s intensification and development, but it is also highlighting the tendency of developing phenomena which created major changes lately.

So, one can state that the new coronavirus pandemic and the geopolitical and geostrategic competition which involve international actors will affect: the state’s role, the democracy, nationalism, social and economic resilience, migration and, not least, the national security and defence.

Therefore, the regional and global actors’ objectives were adapted to the new circumstances, and their communication to different audiences did not stop, but intensified.

Currently, the Western Balkans region proves it has multiple interests, sometimes contradictory, and relies on a complex system of relations and projects with the EU, NATO, Russia, China and Turkey.

Russia continues to play the key ethnic-political role in the region, seeking the status-quo preservation in the Srpska Republic from Bosnia and Herzegovina and the amplification of the tensions between Kosovo and Serbia – thus, delaying the regional normalization of the situation and the Euro-Atlantic integration of the Western Balkans entities.

China is significantly present in all entities in the region, except for Kosovo. Through this “offensive”, China admits the potential of the region and the need to invest in some fields, especially in infrastructure. From this point of view, China continues to invest in the region through the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) and the “17+1” format, to reunite, together with Beijing, 12 EU member states and 5 outside EU (all in the Western Balkans). The Pristine authorities did not join the “17+1” format, nor BRI, and do not take part to China’s annual forums. This stance comes from the fact that China does not recognize Kosovo’s independence.

Also, China does not encourage the regional political instability, but rather wants to capitalize the vulnerabilities of entities in the region. Beijing wants to establish “bridgeheads” in the region through strategic infrastructure projects, the main objective being for such investment projects to offer China the possibility to take control of the countries in the region, but also open the “door” towards Europe.

Therefore, the US president administration tried to convince allies in Europe and Asia to avoid the Chinese espionage on industrial and intellectual properties and forbid the equipment made in China to enter their technological systems or the access to sensitive information about citizens and private businesses.

However, Serbia signed two non-binding agreements with Huawei starting 2017 – one on a strategic partnership on large internet bandwidth, the other on the “smart cities, including the data collection, storage and management” project. “Huawei came to Serbia to stay”, stated for the reporters  Nenad Popović, a Serbian business man and political figure, a minister lacking a portfolio, responsible of innovation and technological development. Thus, it is noteworthy the remark Bosko Jaksic made, a commentator of Politika, from Belgrade, who criticized Huawei’s presence, calling it “a paradigm… of China’s aggressive expansion…” and who claims that “we are about to see the long-term consequences of this force”.

The EU continues to have a crucial role in Western Balkans’ future, opposing both the increasing authoritarianism and the foreign policy ambitions of Russia and Turkey, but also the economic expansion of China in the region. The EU becomes increasingly careful with Western Balkans’ connections with China, in terms of geopolitical and geostrategic developments.  Given these circumstances, we must also bear in mind that all the states in the region signed “Agreements of stabilization and association” (ASA) with EU and four of them (Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia) are, officially, candidate countries and have formally started the accession negotiations. We must also not forget that Albania, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia are NATO member states.

In terms of what people think, as Russia, China and other states continue to intensify their influence in the Western Balkans, the EU accession objective seems unreachable and the new coronavirus crisis has increased this idea even more.

As expected, within the EU, there is the question: “What should Europe do to prevent the end of democracy in this region, especially that there is an increasing influence of international actors in the Western Balkans”.

Besides the offensive actions of international actors in the region, the SARS CoV-2 crisis has negatively affected the entities in the region, through what we could call an “infodemic”[1] of disinformation. There is nothing unusual here, given that disinformation has seriously affected other countries, which are more developed.

Finally, we can state that the local environment, proper for Russia, China and other actors’ geostrategic and geopolitical actors, has intensified the competition among them, even during the coronavirus crisis, and the final result of this competition is still uncertain.

Translated by Andreea Soare

[1] An infodemic is a mixture of „information” usually referring to a quick and large-scale spread of serious and non-serious information about something.  As facts, rumors and concerns are mixed and dispersed, it becomes increasingly difficult to have access to crucial information about a certain problem.