Where the EU Missteps, Russia Benefits – Who Gains from EU Mistakes in the Western Balkans

The historic challenges facing the EU-Western Balkans relationship have been thoroughly well documented. It is clear that it is no longer enough to blame the stagnation of the enlargement process in the Balkans solely upon the Balkan nations themselves, or even upon the spectre of Russian influence in the region; the EU’s vacillation over the Balkans has eroded political will for EU accession on both sides of the relationship, and potentially opened the door to a new global superpower – China – being able to exert more influence than ever before in the region.

The ongoing study of Russia’s longer-term influence in the Western Balkans provides no end of fuel for debate among analysts, mostly centered over the extent, nature and legitimacy of Russian involvement in the region. Although the Western Balkan region has been earmarked for EU integration since the early 2000s, the process has stalled frequently due to a continuous stream of obstacles that has at times appeared insurmountable; whether overcoming ethnic tensions, governmental corruption queries over the progress of democratization and the rule of law and economic regulation.  As of 2019, Romania has stated it intends to positively re-engage with the Western Balkans as a major goal of its EU presidency, intending to reinvigorate flagging EU-Western Balkans dialogue and revive the accession and enlargement process outlined in President Juncker’s 2017 State of the Union Address.

 

Russia likely views the Balkans as a means to an overarching end, namely the delaying and destabilization of NATO enlargement and European security endeavors.

 

Although a positive step, the EU’s decision to re-orient toward the Western Balkans and restart the accession and integration progress may be rather too late. Brussels has historically not displayed a unified approach when it comes to solving the problems in the Balkans, particularly in its objectives in negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo. The EU’s prior failings to fully appreciate the ethnic, regional and social dimensions of the challenges facing Western Balkan integration have left the proverbial door wide open for the involvement of a foreign power willing to capitalize upon the regional situation for its own benefit; and to a large extent this is exactly what has happened with Russian involvement in the region.

Russia does not seem to see the Balkan region in and of itself as an area of critical strategic value in the short-term. Instead, it is more likely that it views the Balkan states – particularly the Western Balkans – as an avenue for exerting indirect influence over the growth of NATO and the integrity of ongoing European efforts to create a cohesive security sphere. In this sense, Russia likely views the Balkans as a means to an overarching end, namely the delaying and destabilization of NATO enlargement and European security endeavours. Certainly this is apparent in Russia’s support of Serbia over the issue of the humanitarian intervention in Kosovo; it is equally apparent that Russia used the Kosovo intervention as a legitimization of its future military interventions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, lending further weight to the theory that Russia’s involvement in the Balkans is motivated by broader strategic priorities, rather than direct interest in the Balkan region. Taking this further, it may well be the case that Russia further views the Balkans as the last region of Europe yet to be fully integrated into the European Union or NATO before the former Soviet states of Ukraine and Georgia. In this sense, by exerting influence in the Balkan countries with the aim of destabilizing European integrative efforts in the region, Russia may view its actions as defending itself from future EU expansion incorporating former Soviet states.

 

The Financial Times found in early 2019 that China’s investments in the Western Balkans were very significant compared to its investment in other European nations and considered the ability of the Chinese to project political influence in the region as considerable.

 

However, it is very likely to be the case that Russia’s attitude toward the Western Balkans will change if EU policy toward the region solidifies and unifies around clear, attainable goals. Russia has so far benefited from strategic and political mistakes made by the EU in the Western Balkans, in what is very much an opportunistic policy toward the region; should the EU suddenly formulate a clear, unanimous policy toward the Western Balkans, however, in particular in offering membership talks to Albania and North Macedonia, it may call Russia’s bluff in the Western Balkans. Russia will have to decide if it is worth the strategic and political effort of stepping up destabilizing efforts in the region to counter the EU’s integrative activities, and should the EU’s membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia present a unified and attractive proposal to the Western Balkans states, Russia may find itself significantly reduced in its influence by sheer dint of being unable to match the EU’s potential added value to the Western Balkans.

 

It is no longer enough to simply address the Western Balkans in terms of a binary competition between the EU and Russia; the prospect of significant and long-lasting Chinese influence is already apparent and will be a political reality European politicians will have to deal with from this point going forward. 

 

Ultimately, all this presupposes a great deal of political will and unity on the side of the European institutions that so far has yet to materialize. Ahead of the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Poland in July 2019, it is becoming apparent that whilst the EU’s delayed reactions to developments in the Western Balkans have finally begun to take Russian influence into consideration, it may well be two foreign powers, not one, who have benefited most from the EU’s missteps in the Western Balkans. China “may have been underestimated [by the EU]” said the EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn, in an interview in March. Hahn pinpointed the practice of some Balkan countries of taking significant loans from China for infrastructure and development projects – some of which were of a size that may not feasibly be repayable in the near future – and of China’s large investments in the Western Balkans through the ‘16+1’ framework. Furthermore, the Financial Times found in early 2019 that China’s investments in the Western Balkans were very significant compared to its investment in other European nations and considered the ability of the Chinese to project political influence in the region as considerable.

In summary, it is clearly the case that the Western Balkans have, in the wake of crucial missteps by the European institutions, become open to significant influence by not one but two global superpowers external to the EU. It is no longer enough to simply address the Western Balkans in terms of a binary competition between the EU and Russia; the prospect of significant and long-lasting Chinese influence is already apparent and will be a political reality European politicians will have to deal with from this point going forward. Whether the trend in non-EU influence in the Balkans will prove to be reversible, or manageable, is an open question. This much is clear however:the future of the EU-Western Balkans relationship will be, for better or worse, largely decided by the forthcoming summit in July, and if the EU cannot provide a unified front to the Western Balkans, it may well prove to be a historic – and final – misstep in its relations with the region.

 

About author: Louis Cox-Brusseau

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