EU Can’t Afford to Lose the Battle for the Balkans

China, Russia and the USA are using the corona pandemic to strengthen their positions in the Balkans, although their divergent interests threaten both the region’s EU perspectives and its long-term stability.

Over the last two months, the corona pandemic has thoroughly changed the world in many different ways, on the global, regional, local and individual levels. 

One of those changes has been the accelerated return of geopolitics, as manifested in the Balkans by China, the Gulf states, Russia, Turkey, and the US, who have been using medical assistance, political and PR moves to pursue their interests and strengthen their positions, with the mediation of some of their new (or old) allies in this volatile region.

These geopolitical moves are undermining the Balkans’ EU perspectives, and with it the region’s long-term stability, since for the past two decades hopes of EU membership have been the main, if not the only protection against the potential chaos underlying the region’s unresolved ethno-political issues. 

The EU response to this challenge was initially marred by a major blunder, as EU countries blocked exports of their medical equipment to other member and non-member countries, triggering furious criticism, from Italy and Spain, to Albania and Serbia.

Feeling shunned by the EU, in one of the most precarious moments of recent history, may prove to have been the last drop in the Balkans’ overflowing bucket of frustrations and dismay, and the final proof to local leaders that their interests will be better served in alliance with some other foreign actors.

At the end of April, the EU eventually corrected its course and provided a whopping €3.3 billion package for health, economic and social challenges in the Balkans. Yet this intervention may be coming too late for at least a part, if not all of the Balkans, where the EU has lost much – if not all – of its influence. 

In recent years, months and weeks, the region has been slipping away from the path towards the EU and its democratic practices, and turned towards autocracy, nationalism, corruption and other foreign influences. 

While EU leaders and officials are still pondering what further steps they should take in the region, most of them still do not seem to grasp the urgency or the seriousness of the situation. Even those who are aware of the risks seem to be at a loss as to what to do in the difficult and troubled region where – as some of them believe – they have already tried everything. 

Whether because of the EU’s ignorance, its own mounting internal problems, or because of the Balkans’ traditional complexity, the region is still far from the top of the EU agenda. The EU seems to have forgotten how dangerous the Balkans can be – for itself, the continent and the entire world – when divergent foreign influences rekindle the region’s unresolved national, religious and ideological differences.

The most flagrant such example happened more than a century ago, when the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, which triggered the start of World War I. 

The Balkan powder kegs smoulder again

As this anniversary draws near, the geopolitical situation in the Balkans seems to be ever more complicated and dangerous. 

In addition to the new health, security, economic and social challenges caused by the pandemic, the region is witnessing a rekindling of many of its old problems, such as rampant corruption and internal ethnic & political divisions. Furthermore, most of the Balkan countries are already gearing up for elections this year, adding yet another flammable ingredient to the volatile concoction. 

Many experts and reports have been pointing to the serious democratic downturn in the region.

“The breakdown of the democratic consensus has been most visible in Central Europe and the Balkans, which experienced the greatest gains after the end of the Cold War,” warned the Freedom House’s global ‘Nations in Transit’ report, published on May 6.

The report noted a considerable decline in democratic practices in Montenegro and Serbia, as well as in the EU member Hungary. These three countries were “no longer democracies,” the watchdog organisation concluded, and added them to the group of ‘hybrid regimes’ with the rest of the Balkan countries.

The latest developments across the region have added more reasons for concern.

In recent days alone, Albania has seen clashes between the police and opposition supporters and activists over the disputed demolition of the National Theatre in Tirana. The demolition was carried out overnight, against the advice of EU officials and their efforts to find a compromise solution. The subsequent violent protests reflected growing tensions between the ruling and opposition parties.

Similar tensions are simmering in Montenegro, where the ruling regime of Milo Djukanović has been facing off against the opposition parties and the Serbian Orthodox Church, ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for the end of the year. The situation is no better in Serbia, where supporters of the ruling and opposition parties have been holding reality show-style protests against each other, while gearing up for parliamentary elections in June.

In Bosnia & Herzegovina, a complete political deadlock has been blocking the formation of a new government in the BiH Federation entity for some 18 months now, since the 2018 general elections, and is also preventing the adoption of the 2020 state budget. The latter will delay Bosnia’s upcoming local elections, which have currently been postponed until November, but will be delayed even further until the state budget is adopted.

In both Kosovo and North Macedonia, the governments’ efforts to control the coronavirus pandemic have from the very beginning been overshadowed by political and personal battles. North Macedonia is also distracted by the preparations for its general elections, while in Kosovo the Constitutional Court is set to rule on the recent controversial toppling of the government and indicate how a new government should be elected.

The EU is squandering its influence in the region

The local and regional power struggles in the Balkans have been augmented in recent years by various global actors, which have exploited the steady decline of EU interest and influence in the region to strengthen their positions and pursue their individual interests.

Since the early 2000s the Balkans have been yearning to join the EU, which was supposed to provide the region with more job opportunities and better living standards. Yet equally important was the fact that only EU membership could fulfil another Balkan dream; to enable all the region’s ethnic groups to live with their ethnic kin within the same borders.

It has been this second motive that made the EU the only option able to guarantee the region’s long-term stability and enable the gradual transformation of its nationalist ideals. All other options, meaning the absence of the EU and the presence of divergent foreign influences, would inevitably add fuel to the local ethno-political quarrels, thus destabilising the region in the long run.

Nevertheless, in recent years the enlargement process has gradually screeched to a halt. 

The region never fully recuperated from the impact of the 2008-9 global recession, and its readiness and capacity for economic and social reforms weakened as politicians and politics became more and more conservative.

 The global recession has strengthened conservatism and undermined internal cohesion within the EU too, which has weakened the Union’s readiness to accept new members. 

As a result, the accession process – which was both the EU’s technical toolbox and its only strategy in the Balkans – has become an exercise in bureaucratic procrastination, a game in which the Balkan countries pretended to still be willing to reform while the EU pretended to be ready to accept the new member states.

The Balkan summits in Sofia and London in May and July 2018 were the turning point, as they revealed that enlargement into the Balkans had effectively, albeit not officially, been taken off the table. At those meetings, the EU leaders – increasingly troubled by their problems back home – would not even allow use of the word ‘enlargement’, using terms like ‘connectivity agenda’ instead.

The Balkan leaders got the message loud and clear, and started turning more and more towards their historic allies: the Serbs towards Russia, and the Bosniaks towards Turkey and the Gulf countries – as well as towards the new, wealthy kid on the block – China. The Albanians, on the other hand, had always been linked much more closely to the US over the past two decades, but America’s new, chaotic foreign policy under Donald Trump threatens to change that too.

Global actors use the pandemic to strengthen their Balkan grip 

The new European Commission appointed at the end of 2019 seemed to be aware of the growing trouble in the Balkans, and appeared determined to restore at least some of the influence the EU has lost during the time of the previous Commission. Yet its efforts have been interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, and the EU’s initial abysmal reaction to this difficult challenge made things only worse.

On the other hand, China and Russia proved once again to be better at the game of winning over Balkan hearts, and used the situation to gain additional leverage in the region by sending masks and other medical equipment early on.

Their assistance – in line with their strategic orientation in the Balkans – focused on Serbia, the biggest country and biggest market in the region. Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić did not spare the theatrics in thanking China and Russia for their aid, as it helped the country to fight the coronavirus while at the same time boosting his own popularity ahead of the elections.

China and Russia proved once again to be better at the game of winning over Balkan hearts.

With every new planeload, Vučić and other Serbian government officials made major public displays of gratitude, while Russian and Chinese flags, as well as billboards boasting ‘a friendship of steel’ with China and ‘historic relations’ with Russia lined the streets of Belgrade.

On the other hand, this assistance raised many eyebrows. Some experts warned that a significant portion of the Chinese aid deliveries seemed to be of poor quality, or that it was superfluous. Others questioned why the Russian health assistance was being coordinated by the Russian Ministry of Defence, why it includes military personnel, and why these military teams were allowed to move across the country, and even into Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska, without any oversight or control.

In neighbouring Kosovo, meanwhile, America was also using the pandemic to pursue different but equally self-serving and potentially even more detrimental tactics. Thanks to the direct intervention of Richard Grenell, the acting Director of the US National Intelligence, the US Ambassador to Germany, and the Special Presidential Envoy for Serbia and Kosovo Peace Negotiations, the government of Albin Kurti was toppled in Kosovo on March 25.

Grenell pushed for Kurti’s removal as he was standing in the way of a US-sponsored agreement intended to at least nominally resolve the dispute between Serbia and Kosovo. The no-confidence vote in Kurti’s government opened up a new and complicated legal and political crisis in Kosovo, which is threatening to undermine Kosovo’s ability to deal with the health, economic, social and all the other consequences of the pandemic.

Over the last two months Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and all the other Balkan countries eagerly awaited and carefully counted the planeloads coming from China, Russia, Turkey and the Gulf states, as they meant not only a difference in fighting the pandemic, but also indicated the status of each country in relation to a different global actor.

The EU comes back strong, but is it too late?

The EU eventually realised that China’s ‘mask diplomacy’ and Russia’s military-driven health assistance was threatening to undo years of the EU’s strong presence in the Balkans. 

On March 26 EU leaders finally agreed to set dates for the start of negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, yet this move was too little and too late to make a major difference. 

This step, which for the EU was just a small technical move, but which it nevertheless delayed, had been eagerly awaited by these two countries and the rest of the region for years – but it was almost completely buried under the avalanche of reports related to the fast-spreading pandemic. 

At the same time, EU leaders are still withholding the visa-free regime for Kosovo, despite the fact that the European Commission has proposed this already back in 2016, having concluded that Kosovo’s authorities had met all the agreed criteria. People in the Balkans see these and many similar cases as examples of the EU’s own inconsistency, duplicity and constantly changing criteria.

On April 29, the EU came back strong, announcing a massive package of financial assistance for the region. This included €38 million of immediate support to the health sector, as well as exclusive access to EU instruments and medical equipment; almost €1.2 billion euro in aid funding for the region’s social and economic recovery; and almost €2.2 billion to support businesses and public sector investments.

EU officials in Brussels, as well as around the EU and in the Balkan capitals, also stepped up their communication efforts to make sure that the Balkan peoples and their leaders understood that the Union still cared for the region.

The news was welcomed across the Balkans, although in Serbia it was still overshadowed by the Serbian government’s ever more emotional reactions to the much smaller gifts coming from China and Russia. 

The fact was not lost on Western officials and local experts. Many of them have expressed concerns that Vučić may have ‘passed the point of no return’ – that he may have concluded that, at least during his reign, Serbia’s future looks brighter in alliance with China and Russia, rather than with the EU.

The EU tried to further restore its position in the Balkans by holding a virtual Balkan summit on May 9, an event that was originally supposed to take place in Zagreb as a part of Croatia’s presidency of the EU.

The joint declaration which the EU and Balkan leaders adopted during the conference reiterated “unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans”, and stressed that the EU’s support to the region went “far beyond what any other partner has provided.”

Yet by the end the Balkan leaders and their citizens remained clearly unimpressed by the event, whose biggest achievement seemed to be the fact that it was held in such a difficult situation, and which, once again, deliberately avoided even mentioning the word ‘enlargement’. 

As EU leaders and officials now ponder how to move on with the pledged assistance, including the conditionality that will be applied, experts say that the Union is still far from securing its position in the Balkans, warning that they cannot afford to lose it.“The European Commission promises €3.3 billion to help the Western Balkan countries mitigate the impact of the pandemic and bring them closer to the EU. Without a fundamental change of direction, however, this initiative comes too late,” a leading Balkan expert Dušan Reljić said in his analysis published on May 5.

“Governments can band together in a fight against China and authoritarianism, but the real threat is more from inside” – interview with Mathew Burrows

Dr. Mathew J. Burrows, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security

What would you expect to be the possible geopolitical fallout/aftershocks that will shape the post-coronavirus world? 

The obvious path that we are on at the moment is a world shaped by bipolarity, in particular by the competition between the U.S. and China. Within the West there are some common concerns about China. The Chinese side seems to feel more and more embattled, becoming more defensive in their diplomacy and announcements. There is very little multilateralism. The US pullout of the WHO, while a terrible idea, is also a leading indicator of the mood inside the Trump administration. There are other measures too: the Trump administration not allowing the US government pension system to invest in Chinese stocks; there is growing support for the repatriation of the supply chains in order to have far less dependence on China (especially for pharmaceutical supplies). If anything, I would say that we are seeing less globalisation (at least in terms of trade and investment flows), more political antagonism between the US and China and very little global cooperation. There will be less economic growth, a downturn in trade and investment across borders, and the movement of people will diminish, but none of all this will disappear unless the US and China get into a conflict which would end this period of globalisation.

There will be less economic growth, a downturn in trade and investment across borders, and the movement of people will diminish, but none of all this will disappear unless the US and China get into a conflict which would end this period of globalisation.

Can the COVID crisis become also an opportunity – a change in mindset for a more united West, especially a Europe ready to embrace the great power competition against China? Even the debate inside NATO has lately taken a China angle. Is COVID an opportunity for the Atlantic system, for reinventing the Atlantic strategic unity & solidarity?

I see Europe being ambivalent about going along with the US on all the measures that the Trump administration is taking against China: on tariffs plus a prohibition against Huawei in Western networks. I don’t think many in Europe want to be too closely aligned with the US in such strident attacks against China. They understand the US point of view and share many of the concerns, but they are also fearful of bipolarity, of getting into a world that sends everybody back to a 1950s and 1960s-style Cold War. There is another issue within Europe, a division over China, as some are increasingly economically dependent, reliant on China as an investor: for some countries in the south and east that are already bending towards China, the crisis could accelerate this path even more. Moreover, the EU took a blow in this pandemic, where every member state had to fend for itself. Certainly Italy felt that it didn’t get the support from the other member states that it was entitled to or from the EU as a whole. There is an ongoing debate about the economic recovery: who pays? Many feel that Germany and Nordic countries should be much more generous in terms of the economic recovery support. There is a lot of division, and Europe remains far from speaking with one voice.

For sure, NATO is also split. A key factor on the European side is the distress created by the Trump administration. Germans worry that the Trump administration could impose tariffs on the automobile industry, an export which the entire German economy depends on. Of course, if there would be a sudden Russian move against the Baltic states, I would still see NATO coming together. The problem to me is when there is no major live external threat like that, and given that you have different interests by all the players and a US administration that is disengaged, disintegration has the upper hand.  

Europeans are also fearful of bipolarity, of getting into a world that sends everybody back to a 1950s and 1960s-style Cold WarThere is another issue within Europe, a division over China, as some are increasingly economically dependent, reliant on China as an investor: for some countries in the south and east that are already bending towards China, the crisis could accelerate this path even more.

How would you see the EU faring in a world in which power politics, not multilateralism is again the new normal? 

This is not the world that Europe expected. A decade ago the EU was looking forward to a postmodern world in which there were far fewer conflicts, where  European integration would become the model for others. Obviously that world is not happening. What is essential is Europe’s ability to reach or retain a political consensus. In the recent crises (whether the euro-crisis or the migration crisis) the end result has instead been a deepening of the divisions between east and west, north and south. The pandemic looks like that, too, deepening the same cleavages. That is what I worry the most about. Unless Europe finds a way of overcoming these divisions, the EU will gradually disappear or become irrelevant, particularly for younger generations. In general, the EU has a tendency of coming together at the eleventh hour, but in finding a solution at the last minute it allows hard feelings and resentments to accumulate. Trying to speed up some of the solutions will help the process of binding together the community again, necessary for remaining a force on the world stage.  

It is said that history rhymes. To some observers the current pandemic brings parallels with the type of world in which Spanish Influenza was spreading after WWI – intense geopolitical competition, inward focus and protectionism, nationalism on steroids and nation-first type of responses, democratic recession, a crisis of international architecture, all wrapped up in a profound economic recession. What can be done to avoid/ tame such an interwar cycle? What lessons should we be reminded of?

We should be very worried about the economic recovery. High unemployment and income stagnation could bolster populism and widespread discontent in those countries where the middle class are already under pressure. If you look at the economic recovery after 2008, it led to more inequality and to a part of society, the lower middle class, feeling its interests were not being looked after, that they were losers. The bankers got bailed out, it was the ordinary guys that paid the price. So if you have another iteration of the same pattern, you will create a class that feels that they have few stakes in society or in a democratic government that doesn’t work for them. This would be a very dangerous turn of events, and we know that part of what happened in the 1920s and 1930s was a middle class which felt dispossessed (by the combined conditions generated by WWI and the economic collapse that followed). Consequently, it didn’t have any particular faith in democracy and saw its salvation in strong leaders. That could happen again, although we are much more sensitive to the signs of that happening. The tendency with many economic crises has been that they do prop up the strong, and those that are weaker pay the biggest price. This has to be our number one concern. Another concern should be not to fall in the trap (which we see the US falling into) of seeking shelter under protectionism, even if the feeling against China is running very high. This is another lesson of the 1920s and 1930s, that protectionism may feel good in the short term, but it will make it harder to recover in the long run.

Unless Europe finds a way of overcoming internal divisions, the EU will gradually disappear or become irrelevant, particularly for younger generations.

These days we see the revival of an old idea meant to fix to some extent the crisis of multilateralism, but also to respond to the new revisionism – a global concert/alliance of democracies (supported in the past by John McCain, embraced today by Joe Biden, promoted in a certain version also by Heiko Maas). Is such an idea feasible and operationalised?

I am not sure that it solves what I think is the real issue. People lost faith in democracies because they don’t seem to be working particularly well for the less skilled or the lower strata of the middle class. There are very few people in the US that think this democracy works. So governments can band together in a fight against China and authoritarianism, but the real threat is more from inside than from the outside.

Are you worried about the domestic resilience of the West? Are we already too far in this process of polarising ourselves and becoming more like Sunni vs. Shia/Hutu vs. Tutsi? Can we come back? 

During the pandemic there was an initial period where people were coming together. Congress passed in record time the 3 trillion dollar stimulus and rescue plans. In the recent weeks it has returned to the old pattern of partisanship. The pandemic seems to be reinforcing the division between Blue and Red states. Blue states like New York and California have suffered far more so far than Red ones. At the same time Donald Trump openly tries to deepen these divisions as part of his strategy is to keep his base mobilised. It is very hard for both sides to work across the aisle, because they are stuck in a system in which they derive more advantages from this polarised atmosphere. Partisanship is deeply entrenched. In the long run, you may have more populism on the left, the kind of Bernie Sanders type of socialism focused especially on providing free university tuition and better healthcare to those struggling in the middle class. What certainly will be different for the US is that the state is going to be a lot more powerful as a result of it having to save the economy in this pandemic. In this context, it is very likely that we are going to see a revival too of the Tea Party on the right, opposed to the big government and to moving the US closer to the European model.

Is the West, and especially Europe in danger of over-learning the lessons of the post-9/11 campaigns, in the sense of ‘never again’? Everyone is running away from the liberal interventionism, stabilisation operations or R2P today. But sometimes they might be needed. Can Europe recapture the patience of winning the peace? Especially in a world in which Europe continues to be affected by MENA instabilities that could be even more significant in a post-pandemic world?

High unemployment and income stagnation could bolster populism and widespread discontent in those countries where the middle class are already under pressure. If you look at the economic recovery after 2008, it led to more inequality and to a part of society, the lower middle class, feeling its interests were not being looked after, that they were losers.

I don’t really see anybody prepared to do what the US and NATO did in the Balkans in the 1990s. In Europe the main effort will be to protect itself against huge flows of refugees. The effort will be focused on not allowing the crisis to get to the worst-case scenario. It will be an effort to drive down some of the worst outcomes of conflict, but not to really settle them. 

In the 1990s, the West — both the US and Europe — was at the height of its power, which also made it confident of solving others’ problems. Hence the wish to solve the world’s ills, from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, to the disintegration of Yugoslavia. There are groups today within Western societies — NGOs and civil society — that remain activists. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has done enormous good in combatting disease in Africa and other developing regions. But because of the internal problems, Western governments don’t have the means or bandwidth to solve the world’s big problems. Instead of offense, it’s defence. They get involved if there is the threat of the conflict having the potential to spill over in the form of terrorism, threatening the West. And then the effort is to seal off the problem, not solve it. Syria is a prime example. The US effort was geared to combating ISIS, not supporting the rebels against Assad.     

Dr. Mathew J. Burrows serves as the director of the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He was appointed counselor to the National Intelligence Council (NIC) in 2007 and director of the Analysis and Production Staff (APS) in 2010. He was the principal drafter for the NIC publication Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds.