25 May 2020

Who is playing the cards in the Western Balkans?

Stelian Teodorescu

The Western Balkans’ states integration in the European and Euro-Atlantic structures is seen as an advanced process, with tied connections and interdependencies. Apart from Serbia that is still actively participating to the Partnership for Peace process, all states in the regions want to join EU and NATO or they are already NATO members. Also, the European countries are still the main investors in the region, as 73% from region’s abroad market is done with EU states. Lately, the accession promises made in Thessaloniki, in 2003, are increasingly reiterated, the Western Balkans being an absolute priority for EU.

Image source: Hepta

Five of the seven entities emerged after the collapse of the former Yugoslavia – Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo – represent one of Europe’s last regions which were not integrated in EU and, except for Montenegro and North Macedonia, in NATO. Given that the Western Balkans were always seen being full of internal conflicts, the US decreasing involvement in the region and the tiredness of the EU enlargement process, along with the global geopolitical balance created enough space for other international actors to be present in the area.

Therefore, Russia, China, Turkey but also other states in the Gulf, through their intense influence process, are disputing the pro-western orientation of the region, through many economic, social, political, cultural, religious, ethnic and military tools. The application and commitment type is extremely different, their interests being often contradictory and the influence different. Despite the fact that within the ethnic communication level the competition is mainly positive, none of the involved parts is offering a real alternative to Western Balkans’ “European path”.

It is noteworthy that, less than a year after the Thessaloniki statement, Slovenia joined both NATO and EU. In 2009, Croatia and Albania accessed NATO and, after four years, Croatia also joined EU. In 2017, Montenegro joined NATO and, in 2020, North Macedonia also became the 30th member of the Alliance.

Despite these progresses, the non-Western actors can exploit local and regional vulnerabilities. Their activities want to slow down the European and Euro-Atlantic integration or to endanger region’s stability. Therefore, to better its actions, the West has lately been more active in the Western Balkans, having more concrete and clear incentives for the countries in the region.

The European Union (EU) reiterates its support for Western Balkans’ European perspective, the European leaders promising a “strong economic and investments plan”, worth of 3,3 billion euro, to help the post-coronavirus recovery.

Through statements, the Balkan states are asked to follow EU’s foreign policy, referring to the too tied connection with Russia and China. EU calls again its partners to follow the EU foreign policy line, especially in matters that involve the major common interests and to act accordingly.

Therefore, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, has underlined that it will prepare a new package of measures, to be presented at the end of 2020. It will focus on the transport and energy resources infrastructure, but also on EU’s priorities, like the climate changes. There was no indication on its values, but, in return, EU leaders asked for assurances that the 5 entities are ready to start the political, democratic and economic reforms, warning: “The increase of EU assistance will be related to rule of law and social-economic progresses, as well as to Western Balkans’ partners accession to the EU standards, values and rules”, EU leaders underlining, 6th of may, 2020, that “the European support and cooperation go beyond any other partner offered the region”.

However, in Serbia, Serbian president, Aleksandar Vucic, criticized EU for the lack of solidarity at the beginning of the crisis, praising the Russian and Chinese assistance, publicly thanking Chinese president, Xi Jinping and the Chinese people.

Russia’s foreign policy in the Balkans changed in the last three decades due to foreign factors’ influence. In the 90’s, the Balkans were outside Russia’s foreign economic and political interests, mostly oriented on building relations with the EU and US. During the “pragmatic cooperation” years with EU (first half of 2000), Russia came to the Balkans through economic diplomacy. As the Moscow-Brussels contradictions were growing (starting with the second half of the 2000’s), the military and political issues come to the forefront. Hereof the idea of a conflict of interests in the contact areas, among them the Western Balkans.

It became clear that the main purpose of Russia’s activity in the Western Balkans is to postpone region’s Euro-Atlantic integration.  Although it seems that it accepts an eventual integration of the entire region in the EU, Russia opposes the NATO enlargement.

Even if the Western Balkans has a secondary strategic importance for Russia, this region is part of its historical influence sphere.  Despite the economic, energy resources and technical cooperation and, lately, the mass-media one, Moscow strengthens its Slavic-Orthodox connections with Serbia and Srpska Republic (RS) / BiH.

Everyone knows that currently Moscow has a greater influence in Serbia and RS, until recently also in Montenegro and North Macedonia. However, Moscow seems too get adapted in defensive.

The most relevant examples to that end can be Montenegro, which since its NATO accession from 2017 has cooled down the bilateral relations with Moscow, despite the private Russian investments in hotels and the properties along the coast, but also in North Macedonia, where the democratic changes and developments have diminished Moscow’s influence.

Russia is taking advantage of Western Balkans’ environment, Kremlin trying to stop the democratic advance of this region’s entities and provoking distrust among the people and the political leaders. Russia follows a less focused strategy on its limited influence in the region and more focused on disturbing the NATO and EU integration process. As the integration process is conceived to combat corruption and to strengthen the rule of law and the national capacities, Russia found the proper measures to exploit corruption and the weak institutions. Therefore, Russia used energy domination, actions specific to intelligence series and led disinformation and manipulation campaigns to increase its influence over the region. An example to that end is Serbia, where Moscow combined the coercive tools and the historical ones and its privileged position in the UN Security Council.

Russia has developed historically, culturally and religiously speaking its connections with Serbia but, still, their proximity teds to be exaggerated. Russia’s foreign policy on Serbia became just a competition with the West in the region, but Russia does not have long-term resources or vision. Russia got a significant presence in Serbia’s energy sector and, also, is increasing its market and political influence through local actors, including groups in the region supporting the anti-Western ideas and encouraging high-level repeated visits. Still, meanwhile Putin and Russia are enjoying popularity among Slavic people, the call for support in the region stays marginal comparing to the US, EU and even China’s.

In terms of influence and competition with other international actors in the Western Balkans, China's approach is more subtle, but its ambitions are much more significant, to enter Europe through a region that it considers weaker.

Recently, China has seemed a serious player in the Western Balkans, now in the top five markets for imports from most countries in the region, while Russia enjoys this status only in Serbia.

China has understood that its arrival in the Western Balkans will be met by resistance from small, investment-eager states, and that the region would provide a bridgehead for quick progress towards Europe. China has expanded its Belt and Road initiative, secured trade routes and market share, and diluted European solidarity on issues important to Beijing. Ultimately, the Chinese government is likely to seek to prevent Europe from joining the US in any effort to combat China's global influence. Beijing has mainly used the money to get influence, taking advantage of the weak investment climate and, implicitly, to provide loans to ensure long-term dependence on entities in the Western Balkans region.

China, another permanent member of the UN Security Council, it is, like Russia, considered an undisputed ally for Serbia, as it rejects Kosovo's independence. For China, Serbia has become a strategic partner, with both countries carrying out a cooperation process that is reflected in a number of large-scale economic projects. Compared to Russian investments, Chinese investments in Serbia are well diversified and range from the metallurgical and energy industries to technology and culture. Moreover, China has successfully created an influence sphere by supporting a diverse network of governmental and non-governmental actors, such as Confucius Institutes, cultural cooperation or student exchanges.

Unlike other powers outside the region, China has no cultural or historical ties to BiH, and unlike Russia or Turkey, Chinese practices have been largely ignored in the political, ethnic, or religious spheres. China's presence in BiH is still seen relatively positively, especially thanks to local officials who call Chinese projects as something that could improve local infrastructure faster than similar EU-funded projects. As in other countries in the region, bilateral cooperation has developed mainly under the umbrella of the Chinese "16 + 1" initiative and focuses on infrastructure projects and the improvement of thermal power plants. Compared to the situation in Serbia or Croatia, the economic marks, as well as the visibility in the cultural field remain limited.

Relations between Montenegro and China are mostly economic. Although bilateral cooperation remains limited, mutual relations are defined by the "16 + 1" format, which aims to strengthen cooperation in various fields. Infrastructure projects, such as the railway linking the city of Bar to Belgrade, or a highway between Montenegro and Albania, are the main areas of focus for Chinese involvement in the country. However, there are potential fears within the Montenegrin authorities, especially on the prospect of falling into a debt trap for China. In addition to economic cooperation, China is also active in promoting its culture and language through the Confucius Institute and academic cooperation.

The US wants NATO enlargement and the integration of new partners in this region, as a key component of a strategy to protect their interests and compete with other major competitors, such as Russia and China.

However, in the last decade, the US and the EU have become more ambivalent about commitments in the Western Balkans, with Moscow and Beijing authorities noticing such a breach and becoming more determined in their efforts to gain influence and leverage decisive action in the region.

It is noteworthy that, as early as the summer of 2001, the United States set the tone for its enlargement approach, when President George W. Bush said in Warsaw, "that we should calculate how much we can do to promote the cause of freedom." Brussels leaders later said, in Thessaloniki, Greece, that "the future of the Balkans lies in the EU".

These bold statements offered hope for a region that is still spinning in the context created by the effects of the 1990s wars. Corruption has remained endemic, the rule of law is fragile and democratic institutions are weak, but there has been a sense of inevitable progress. The clarity of the Western messages served as an incentive for the reform process in all entities in the Western Balkans.

Turkey has recently become one of Serbia's most important trading partners, despite old enmity and strong support for Kosovo's independence.

Since 2009, Ankara has worked ambitiously to strengthen its political influence in the region through investment, cultural cooperation, humanitarian aid, religious contacts with Bosnians in Sandžak and mediated talks in Ankara between BiH and Serbia. Turkish interference became more visible after the attempted coup, in 2016, when Ankara began pressuring local leaders in Belgrade and Novi Pazar to shut down Gülenist organizations and quickly extradite Kurdish political asylum seekers, such an attitude leading to the rise of criticism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's policy in Serbia and the loss of percentages in support of Bosniaks in Sandžak, during the 2018 presidential election. Based on deep historical ties and cultural affinities, Turkey has maintained close and well-developed relations with BiH, especially with Bosnian Muslims, and similarly with Russia, relies on close ties with political leaders.

Turkey is an important trading partner and perceived as one of the main investors in BiH, but still ranks only 11th in terms of economic investment. The Turkish "soft power" approach is directed towards cultural, religious and academic cooperation, with the Turkish presence in BiH's public space being very strong.

Turkey is proving to be an important player in various areas of social life in Northern Macedonia, which is not surprising, given the long history of Northern Macedonia under the Ottoman Empire, but also the important Turkish minority that has political formations and representatives in legislative and executive plan.

The Gulf States, especially the United Arab Emirates, were seen as major investors in Serbia since 2012. As in Turkey, economic cooperation has developed despite old hostilities caused by the Middle East's relationship with the Muslim population in the region against Serbia, during the conflicts of the 1990s or their support for Kosovo's declaration of independence. The close political ties between political leaders, such as those between Aleksandar Vučić and Mohammed bin Zayed, have opened the door to investment in the United Arab Emirates and boosted Serbia's economy. Although the United Arab Emirates has invested in aviation, construction and urban activities and agriculture, the backbone of cooperation with the Gulf States is the export of ammunition and weapons from Serbia. In such a context, most of the announced projects and investments have never been effectively implemented, another critical point regarding the development of the presence of Islamic countries in Serbia is considered to be the spread of radical Salafism and the recruitment of dozens of Serb citizens in the Sandžak region for jihadists in Iraq and Syria.

Iran's ties with Serbia have also recently intensified, as both countries resumed diplomatic relations in 2015, after almost 30 years. However, despite the existence of the Cultural Centre of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Belgrade, or the recent moderate spread of Shiite Islam, in the Sandžak region, Iran's involvement and influence remains marginal.

The Gulf States and Iran have a limited political and economic presence in BiH, with their presence most proeminent during and after the war (1992-1995), with a slow recovery especially during the weakening of the EU and US presence in the region. The United Arab Emirates has become the third largest investor in the country.

The commitment of the Gulf and Iranian states to Northern Macedonia is also small. Cultural relations are largely limited to the Belgrade-based Iranian Cultural Centre and an Islamic Centre associated with the Gulf States that hosts religious sermons. Northern Macedonia's economic ties with the Gulf States and Iran are also weak, although this is a problem that the government of northern Macedonia has recently tried to address.

Therefore, we can say that the economic, political and ideological influence of important international actors making their way in the Western Balkans region in competition with the European Union (EU), the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) and the USA, has increased significantly in recent years, these actors being Russia, China, Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries.

The presence of many actors with divergent interests in the fragmented post-conflict Balkan area reveals that the situation in the region would be assessed more correctly not as part of the "Russia-West" or "Russia-West-China" competition paradigm, but within the multilateral competition paradigm.

Russia, China, Turkey and the Gulf States have recently increased their presence in the Western Balkans, using many methods and targeting different areas and zones at different levels depending on their own interests. Despite the positive perception within different levels of local population in the Western Balkans, there are no arguments to support the strengthening, at state and regional level, of the perception that these aforementioned international actors could offer a real alternative to the European and Euro-Atlantic integration process for the Western Balkans.

Compared to the Turkish and Russian presence in the Western Balkans, Chinese activity in the region is a relatively new and focuses mainly on the economic field.

Although the Chinese political presence has so far been limited to Serbia's support for the Kosovo issue, its economic activities in the region also seem to build political ties, and China's involvement in politics and culture is already noticeable. There are also several disadvantages of China's economic involvement, especially its large infrastructure projects, which could threaten, by increasing the long-term dependence level, the entire Western Balkans region.

Translated by Andreea Soare