21 August 2018

Russia and Turkey, major challenges for West Balkans’s stability and architecture

Stelian Teodorescu

We are now in a period when the world must face various unpredictable actions made by state or non-state entities, through a diversified palette of specific instruments and, not least, through exploiting the vulnerabilities of spaces like the West Balkans.

Image source: HEPTA

The actual economic, politic, military and security context in the region is extremely afflicted by assorted interest’s gamma, creating a favorable environment for the simultaneous apparition of unpredictable events, all generating insecurity and confusion regarding West Balkans’s future architecture.

The development of several power poles in the West Balkans and the consolidation of different risks perceptions of any kind, creates tough disputes regarding the principles and the actions methods in assuring a stable climate in the region. As a consequence, more than ever, in the strategic analysis environments are made extraordinary efforts to quantify the national, regional and global impact of challenges’ evolution the West Balkans is confronting with. Such a situation leads to adopting a proactive position in approaching these challenges due to the changes speed which sometimes surprise the international actors involved in the evolution of the situation in the area.

The West Balkans, advantageous environment for power games at a geopolitical level

It is a certitude that the world is in full development process of a multipolar system wherein, besides the other international actors, Russia and Turkey fortify their positions as important regional actors, by permanently adapting their strategies according to other states, especially to EU and NATO. The actions of the leaders of the two states are often afflicted by the “confrontation” perspective as a priority in the decision-making process, as well as in the planning, organizing and applying process of the actions of foreign, defence and security policy.

Therefore, the West Balkans must face such challenges, this region always being strategically important for its complexity created by the religious and ethnicity diversity, but also by its conflictual history, and, implicitly, the fragile stability which always characterized this space.

The dynamic complexity of the political, military and security situation in the region creates an advantageous environment for the power games and increases the influence of certain regional actors. West Balkans became that background which offers the necessary context to deploy a tough competition, at a geopolitical level, between EU, Russia, Turkey and, not least, China.  

Meanwhile EU tries to offer a real perspective for the regional european project of integration and China tries to transform the area in a commercial hub and an opened door to Europe, Russia looks, by any means, to bar the European and euro-Atlantic perspective of the entities in the region, but Turkey also wants, through a more and more assertive commitment, to fortify its cultural, political and economical influence in the area.

By accomplishing their own interests, the Russian and Turkish leaders are trying to directly interfere and develop the cooperation with the political elites in the West Balkans, by exploiting the regional ethnic and religious complexity, but also the existent vulnerabilities in the political, economic, military and security environment.

Even if the West Balkans entities are in full process of EU or NATO integration, this entire process can become an illusion as it increases the contradictions and the different point of views of the regional leaders regarding the geostrategic orientation. The West Balkans proved real gaps in the their european or euro atlantic integration process, due to incomplete reforms, maintenance of their historical disputes regarding territories and borders and a discontinuous transition from military conflicts to peace and from centralized economy to market economy.  

Along these internal issues of the regional entities, the mentioned geopolitical competition, and implicitly, the resulted effects, are a major challenge for the West Balkans entities, but also an opportunity to adopt some decisions and to develop some decisive actions to maintain the entire regional stability and development.

Russia, major challenge for West Balkans’s future architecture

West Balkans’s economic and strategical importance per se, the region’s position close to EU, and Turkey’s and China’s mounting role in the area contributed to the amplification of the leaders’ ambition from Moscow to make “Russia big again”, this being one of Russia’s foreign policy traditional objectives, which, at the same time, reminds us of 19th century’s geopolitics.

Russia is one of the major challenges for the region because has significant advantage in history, culture and religion. With such a favorable environment, the Russian leaders use a diversified palette of politic, economic, military or intelligence instruments to develop and consolidate their superiority against other competitors, especially against EU and NATO.

Throughout a strategy projected for the West Balkans, Russia takes advantage of the identified opportunities to protect its security and economic interest, to extend its influence area and to stop the european and euro-atlantic integration of the region. For this, Moscow’s main objective in the region is to discredit the basis and the principles of occidental democracy, but also the states and institutions which work upon these, including EU and NATO, to plan and implement their own power elements, regionally and globally speaking.

Throughout this skillful project and influence process of the power structures in West Balkans’s entities, Russia exploits the region’s vulnerabilities and opportunities, at the same time, aligning with the radical-nationalist’s elements from the civil societies, especially the Slav majoritarian, to make it easier to interfere in the internal businesses of the target entities in the region (ex. the electoral process). 

Sursa: Shining a Light on the Western Balkans Internal Vulnerabilities and Malign Influence from Russia, Terrorism, and Transnational Organized Crime (https://www.cna.org/CNA_files/PDF/DOP-2017-U-015223-2Rev.pdf)

As a consequence, like in several international cases, it is important to remind you that Russia successfully uses the disinformation and launches speculations and conspiracy theories in public debates, to diminish the credibility level of the information methods in the region and to push the products’ consumers to doubt the information regarding the european and euro-atlantic integration project of the space.

Moreover, Russia exploits the nationalist feeling in the West Balkans to attract the target entities from the region throughout various forms of bilateral and multilateral alliances, which have the purpose, firstly, to accomplish Moscow’s geopolitical objectives on long term.

A first example for this could be Russia’s approach and support regarding the referendum organized in Srpska Republic, on 25.09.2016, when republic’s citizens were asked if they agree with 9th of January [1]being the national day of the state. At an international level, the referendum was seen as an attempt of plebiscite for a possible SR’s independency declamation in 2018. As a consequence, the international community launched firm warnings, BIH’s Constitutional Court refused such an initiative by saying that it could create a discrimination between Muslim Bosnians, Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats and, moreover, Serbia refused to support such an initiative as SR’s leader, Milorad Dodic, said that referendum’s cancelation decision is a direct attack against democracy.

Another example is Macedonia, where Russia contributed to increase the tensions between the Macedonian majority and the Albanian minority, trying to discredit Skopje’s political opposition by presenting them as being foreign agents and by launching false warnings which say that Albania and Bulgaria would try to divide the macedonian’s state territory.

The cultural and religious influence are Russia’s major asset in the West Balkans, Moscow identifying itself with the Serbian communities in the region with whom they share pan-Slav dreams and orthodox Christianism traditions. An edifying argument for this would be the position that the leader of the Orthodox Church in Montenegro adopted, who was against the Montenegrin government decision to abolish the sanctions against Russia.

In the same context, it is important to say that in Macedonia, the Russian Patriarchy builds its own churches, and moreover, Russia funds and promotes various cultural organizations in the West Balkans, this last aspect being the more noticeable in Serbia.

The economic influence and the energetic dependency are instruments that also create a significant advantage for Russia in the West Balkans region, in the competition with other international actors. Russia´s presence an influence in the economy in the region floats from 1% in Macedonia to 10% in Serbia, the Russian economic impression being focused on certain business sectors at a strategical level, like energy, bank sector, metallurgy, estate properties and implicitly, creating dependency.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Russian direct investments are 8% from this country´s GDP, especially in oil and gas sector, meanwhile in Montenegro the direct foreign investments from Russia are 30% from country´s GDP. We must underline that a third of the foreign companies in this country are owned by Russian investors, who dominate, also, the tourism industry (25% from Montenegro´s tourists are Russians).[2]

As a consequence, considering the economy of the West Balkans entities and their energetic dependency on Russia, the extensions of the Russian influence in the region became a pressure instrument in the process of adopting some strategic decisions regarding the foreign and security policy in the region. It is important to bring out that Russia interferes in other area too, as pro-russian orientation mass-media and ONGs and, not least, its influence in the political parties.

Therefore, Russia made it to look like an alternative for EU and NATO on various political, social, cultural economical, financial, military and security segments, creating the necessary breaches to exert its influence over the West Balkans’s national governments.

Turkey, a more and more assertive commitment in the West Balkans

 Alike Russia, Turkey exploits also its similar historical, cultural and religious advantages, especially in the area where the extremism ideology fortified throughout some muslim communities in the West Balkans. All of these are made because of the bad influences which come from the Middle East, the region’s fragile stability, but also because of some weak institutions whose activity is to manage the risk factors and the threats. All mentioned above contribute to creating the reforms and accomplishing the integration conditions in the european and euro-atlantic structures.

Starting with 2000, Turkey started to play a more and more active role in West Balkans, becoming one of the most actives economic partners, attributing a mounting importance to spaces with muslism majoritarian population, especially BIH and Kosovo, and trying to assume a mounting strong role as mediator in solving region’s issues through new approaches and pragmatic solutions.

Turkey majorly invested in the West Balkans, in the last 15 years, its actions deployed in the region being seen by the Turkish leaders as part of the natural influence ambit of a ex big power which dominated the region for a long period.

Turkey’s investments in the West Balkans focused on supporting region’s development, on infrastructure policies, on founding universities and restoring mosques, as well as encouraging Turkish companies to invest in the region. Turkey’s commerce with the West Balkans increased from 435 million dollars in 2002 to 3 billion dollars in 2016. [3]

As a result, in the West Balkans was created the idea that the Turkish states can be an alternative solution to the offered version by other international actors on economic, financial, cultural, social and even political domains. Hence, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, understood that is good to take advantage on this perception so he organized, in Sarajevo (BIH), a phase of his electoral campaign for his reelection as Turkey’s president, the event having thousands of Turkish citizens from the nearby countries. With that occasion, the Ankara Government gave the endorsement for the highway construction funding with 3, 5 billion dollars, which connects Sarajevo to Belgrade. In BIH, which is an extremely divided country regarding religion and ethnicity, where the muslims are majoritarian, Turkey invested 300 million dollars in various projects, including in restoring mosques and monuments from the ottoman epoque.

Turkey proves that it established strong relations not only with Balkan entities which have significant muslim communities on its national territory, but also with Serbia, a bilateral relation where the economic interests exceeded the historical disputes. It is for the first time when the two states share common objectives of foreign policy, except for Kosovo, whose independent statute was immediately recognized by Turkey and for which Serbia seems determined to resists against EU’s pressures regarding the independency of the ex Serbian province.

Despite the fact that Serbia is the state with the strongest relations with Russia from the West Balkans and proved to have significant cultural and religious disputes comparing to Turkey, according to Serbian’s Commerce Camera, 20 turkish companies were opened in the last year or are still under construction.

Still, not only BIH and Serbia benefited Turkey’s investments, but also Kosovo (airports), Albania (banks) and Macedonia (manufactures). With the 400 million dollars invested, the majority in funding an energy transport company and an airport, Turkey became the third biggest investor in Kosovo.

Even if at a first look the actions agenda of the Ankara leaders in West Balkans does not seem to have as objective the subversion of region’s integration process in the euro-atlantic and european structures, but to offer the idea that it completes these structures, Turkey’s mounting influence in the West Balkans offers the Ankara leaders a stronger position in the relations with EU and NATO. This is creating serious difficulties for the occidental policies in the negotiation and development processes of cooperation with the Ankara leaders on solving serious problems that the international community is confronting with. Eloquent examples for this would be the dynamic security situation in Black Sea’s Region and Middle East, but also the migration phenomena.

Will EU make it to dominate the geopolitical competition in the West Balkans?

Considering the entities vulnerabilities from the region, but also the significant foreign influences coming from official or non-official actors, the countries’ stability from the West Balkans seems to be a key-priority for the european collective security.

EU’s policy against the West Balkans became, also, complicated due to Brexit. Being known as one of the most important endorser of West Balkans’s accession to EU, Great Britain assured that is maintains its involvement in supporting the region, especially when, for the elites and the public opinion, Great Britain’s decision to withdraw from EU is a supplementary argument which undermines accession’s attractivity and benefits and, implicitly, justifies the West Balkans’s entities to look for alternative solutions.

As a result, Europe wants to bring back the West Balkan’s integration process, but continues to confront with the effects of other entities slow progresses, because of corruption, organized crime, ethnic tensions and opinion and strategy disputes regarding borders and migration, their solution involving serious intern reforms.

Hence, meanwhile EU tries to intensify its influence and to present the accession process as the best decisional alternative for West Balkans’s entities leaders, Russia and Turkey are making great efforts to consolidate their own connections with the region. If refortifying EU’s interest for the region was determined firstly by the concerns regarding Russia’s increasing influence impact over the integration process, we must not ignore that Turkey is a more and more important element, which can contribute to increasing West Balkans unpredictability stability and, implicitly, the difficulty level regarding the projection of region’s future architecture.

Alike Russia, Turkey invests in projects with major strategic interest, which have an important impact in the economic, political, social, cultural, and not least, security domain, for the entire West Balkans region. An eloquent example is president’s gesture, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who in order to show his commitment to Serbia, said recently that the turkish investments in Serbia, in 2018, will be 2 billion dollars’ worth, up to 5 billion dollars on long term.[4]

As stated, considering the efforts made to build a more realistic and predictable perspective to integrate the West Balkans, we can appreciate that the EU did not identified yet Russia’s and Turkey’s counteracting methods and instruments in the region.

The summits’ high frequency organized by EU on West Balkans subject tries to be Europe’s attempt to get back the region to refortify and value more the declaration made years ago, according to which “Balkans future is inside EU”, but all these actions are happening when Europe itself confronts with a significant intensification of nationalism and populism.

As a consequence, considering the issues West Balkans is confronting with and Russia’s and Turkey’s increasing influence in the region, it should not be ignored the evolution of the situation in the region on short term, because on long term West Balkans’s instability could become a major issue and hard to predict effects.

After the projected solution of the dispute between Macedonia and Greece (as a positive result of the referendum organized by the Skopje leaders on 30.09.2018) the european and euro-atlantic institutions have the responsibility to commit even more in solving the second biggest issue of West Balkans, which is the Kosovo file, looking to identify viable solution politically, economically, military and security speaking.

If not, EU and NATO should not be surprised if some West Balkans entities would be motivated to look to alternative solution on various segments in politic, economic, military and security domains, some being already seen as more attractive and similar with their interests, as Russia and Turkey. Such an evolution could divide the region on ethnic, cultural and religious criteria, and, implicitly, could generate instability or could lead to reactivating some disputes, now lurking, and implicitly generating unpredictable effects for the nearby states or even for the entire Europe.

A failure regarding the region’s european integration could lead to one part of West Balkans final entrance in pan-slavism influence area, and for the other part in the Islamic extremism influence area, one of the negative consequences being the unpredictability increasing evolution of the general situation in the area.    


[1] On 9th January 1992 was proclaimed Srpska Republic, the war from the 1992-1995 period leaving behind 100.000 dead people

[2] https://tsarizm.com/news/2018/03/12/western-balkans-russia-increases-influence-in-slavic-states/

[3] Turkey’s increasing influence in Balkans worries EU, https://ahvalnews.com/western-balkans-turkey/turkeys-increasing-influence-balkans-worries-eu

[4] The Serbia-Turkey-Russia Axis: Alarm Bells for Europe, https://www.theglobalist.com/serbia-balkans-turkey-russia-eu-nato/