The swirling crises have stoked some fears that institutional and political crises in Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo, but also Montenegro and Albania could descend into new ethnic and geopolitical confrontations.
A renewed EU engagement in the western Balkans is very timely. It is a reminder of the 2003 Thessaloniki promise of membership . This signals a clear effort to prevent further damage from the “reform fatigue” that is already manifested in the western Balkans, and respond to increased external influence from the East. The EU should remain the anchor power in the region, despite the “enlargement fatigue” in its own structure and the struggling internal challenges, but also the pervasive sense of pessimism that has captured the western Balkans. The prolonged transition process and the dire perspective for an eventual convergence with rich European countries have contributed to a plunge of public support for the EU, with only 39 percent of people in the region thinking that EU membership is a good thing, while a large majority (36 percent) have a neutral opinion . Albania and Kosovo are the only exceptions.
Internal structural weaknesses became glaringly evident in the aftermath of the 2009 global economic crisis that hit the western Balkans through the Eurozone finance and trade spillover effects. After battling a double-dip economic recession, the western Balkans are experiencing a sluggish recovery, weak economic performance, skyrocketing unemployment, and dangerous sovereign debts.
Things are getting more chaotic in the region, with political and ethnic divisions more entrenched than before, mainly as result of a spectrum of issues from economic underperformance and corruption to lack of opportunities and vision for the future. Democratic reforms are crumbling in the region. The vacuum of power created by instable and weak institutions and a lack of meaningful political action in the enlargement process since the 2014´s five-year moratorium, has left an ample space for new external players to exploit. The biggest challenge is the EU´s weakening appeal to deal with the unresolved issues in the region.
Russian influence in the western Balkans is increasing with the objective to project its power as a global player in the region. The geo-political rivalry with the West has grown larger. Beyond the abstract influence, Russia has strong economic interests in the region in the form of energy transportation routes, and arms control. While western attention is mainly focused on Ukraine, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its activity on eastern Ukraine, and the saber-rattling in the Baltic countries, Russia’s meddling in the western Balkans´s affairs has increased. With the exception of Serbia, all the other countries in the western Balkans have indicated their desire to be part of the NATO alliance (Albania and Croatia are NATO members). Each of them have EU integration as their main foreign policy goal. In an attempt to weaken the ties of the region with the West, complicating, or even excluding NATO and EU membership, Russia´s main objective is the creating of a “non- alignment zone” in the region.
The Russian presence is not confined to Serbia, as its natural strategic long-time partner, but stretches across the entire region. The western Balkans is the new block in the Russian area of interest, but the strategy to achieve foreign policy goals is no different than what was used in Eastern Partnership countries. Through a mix of hybrid tools, Russia is acting as an opportunistic spoiler to achieve its influence through corruption, coercion, businesses, and state propaganda, with the objective to destabilize the region and stall its Euro-Atlantic integration.
Moscow is actively politicizing and exacerbating existing ethnic and religious tensions in the region. Russia publicly opposed Montenegro´s membership to NATO, allegedly even supporting a failed coup attempt at the end of 2016 designed to stop the process.
Macedonia, an EU candidate country since 2005, in recent months is witnessing a flare-up of political clashes. In text book fashion, Russia is openly meddling into political affairs in opposition to western partners. By exploiting the constitutional crisis in Macedonia, Moscow backed Macedonia president’s decision to block a parliamentary majority to form a government, and even accused NATO and the EU for creating the crisis. Russia is inflaming internal political tensions in Macedonia but also relations between Serbia and Kosovo through traditional propaganda themes and dangerous rhetoric of clashes between “Greater Albania” and “Greater Serbia” . There are serious concerns that this summer’s upcoming and the political elections in Albania may be the target of a disinformation campaign and cyberattacks that could manipulate the results .
Russian interference will likely undermine efforts to consolidate democratic transition in the western Balkans by supporting illiberal tendencies and the surging populist elites through promoting alternative paradigms. Some of the leaders in the western Balkans are seeking to leverage “the Russian challenge” to extract concessions from the western partners while paying lip service to reform efforts. On the other side, EU enlargement fatigue is also used as a scapegoat for not pressing with internal reforms.
European Union is the only game in town. But the European idea cannot be promoted without changing the current political habitus in the western Balkans. Mature stages in the EU integration should bring along questions about transparency and accountability of the elites.
Only a more serious commitment and higher scrutiny of the EU in the western Balkans will foster fundamental political, economic and social transformation.
(*) The views presented in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Department of Defense or the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.