As EU hopes fade, Russia, China fill voids in Western Balkans | News from the European Union
With the prospect of Western Balkan countries joining the EU being seen as a receding target, Russia and China will step up efforts to fill gaps in the region, analysts told Al Jazeera.
Ahead of the EU-Western Balkans summit last week, Slovenia, which currently chairs the EU presidency, urged the bloc to admit Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and the ‘Albania, by 2030.
The 27-member bloc on Wednesday rejected Ljubljana’s proposal for the six countries, all at different stages of the accession process, due to migration concerns, but stressed the importance for the region to eventually join the bloc.
âThe Western Balkans are part of the same Europe as the European Union. The EU is not complete without them, âEuropean Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told the meeting in Brdo, Slovenia.
But the fact that the countries won’t be joining the EU anytime soon gives Russia and China the green light to further establish themselves in the region, analysts said, a concern EU leaders also have. expressed at the summit.
Latvian Prime Minister Arturs Krisjanis Karins warned during the meeting: âEither Europe reaches out and pulls these [Western Balkan] countries to us, or someone else will reach out and pull those countries in a different direction.
Austria’s Sebastian Kurz, the beleaguered right-wing leader who recently resigned over a corruption scandal, said last week: âIf the European Union does not offer a real prospect to this region, we must be aware that other superpowersâ¦ role there.
“The situation is already deteriorating”
Political scientist Jasmin Mujanovic said Moscow and Beijing were already involved in the region, alleging that the EU had “lost the plot” in the Western Balkans some time ago.
“What is really alarming is that there is still no plan B. The situation is already deteriorating, we are already facing new types of security, threats of instability and yet, the EU does not articulate any kind of post-enlargement vision for the region, âMujanovic said.
In 2016, a coup plot conceived by 14 people – including two Russian military intelligence officers – failed to install a pro-Russian and anti-NATO leadership in Montenegro. Moscow called these allegations “absurd”.
Evidence has also shown that Russia has undermined Bosnia’s stability in an attempt to keep the country out of NATO.
âRussia is very involved in Bosnia. It is explicitly said that he opposes Bosnia’s membership in NATO, that he sees it as a threat to Russia’s security interests, which of course is absurd. But it does tell you how far Russia has now elevated this region in its thinking about foreign policy, âMujanovic said.
In recent years, the countries of the Western Balkans have witnessed more historical revisionism with the denial of the Srebrenica genocide, while concerns have grown over Serbia’s calls for a new âSerbian worldâ.
In 2015, Russia vetoed a UN genocide resolution that would have condemned the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica as a “crime of genocide”, which international courts have already ruled.
Bosnian Serb member of the tripartite presidency, Milorad Dodik, a genocide denier, amplified calls for secession from the Serb-led entity, Republika Srpska.
In 2018, a Bosnian investigative news site reported that Russian-trained mercenaries were helping to establish a paramilitary unit to support Serbian separatists. The report was confirmed by the Bosnian Minister of Security.
Boston University professor Vesko Garcevic told Al Jazeera that the developments he analyzed in the Western Balkans over the past five years were “not a good sign.”
The decline of the EU’s âsoft powerâ will slow down the democratization process in the region and âopen up space for other countries to enter,â Garcevic said.
âThere is no limbo in international relationsâ¦ in the last fewâ¦ especially five years let’s say, China has filled the space that is neglected by Brussels.
“Moscow sees this as an opportunity and will increase its support for groups and politicians like Dodik in Bosnia or [Serbian President Aleksandar] Vucic in Belgrade or will do his best to keep the situation in Kosovo frozen.
Analysts also noted that the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade – with the central issue of Kosovo’s independence – has dragged on for 10 years, without any progress.
While leaders at the top stressed the importance of dialogue, it was not clear “how the process will exercise its power if the prospect of membership is no longer clear,” Garcevic said.
“With the prospect of EU membership, the EU has a powerful lever to counteract negative trends in the Balkansâ¦ this prospect of leverage has generated changes for the better in the region.”
Toby Vogel, senior associate at the Democratization Policy Council, told Al Jazeera that the process of joining the EU has become increasingly difficult.
In 2019, for example, the European Commission asked the potential candidate, Bosnia, to complete 14 priority points for its membership application. A year later, Bosnia had only fulfilled one of the points.
The doctoral student Nedim Hogic noted in a item that more has been asked of Bosnia for the opening of negotiations than of any other country, and has led to gradual progress.
“By treating the 14 issues as of equal importance and demanding substantial constitutional changes in exchange for candidate status with an unclear perspective, the EU is trying to do too much while offering too little, risking making progress even on issues that are not in dispute, âHogic wrote.
Vogel said potential candidate countries are now reluctant to join the bloc.
“The EU has no strategy for its relations with the Western Balkans other than enlargement and as soon as enlargement meets a roadblock the influence of the EU is reduced,” said Vogel.
âWhile China and Russia – especially China – offer loans that are basically without any political conditions, any conditions related to democracy, the rule of law, etc. So many leaders in the region saw it as free money. “
Beijing has made large loans to the region. In 2014, Montenegro accepted a $ 1 billion loan for a road, which it has since struggled to repay.
“We need an enlargement of the EU because it will make the EU and the Western Balkans a better place,” said Vogel.
Garcevic said that the ideals promoted by the EU, such as good governance and accountability, âonly [work] when the prospect of EU membership is visible, something we can see on the horizon.
âTo miss this horizon gives the impression to the inhabitants of the Western Balkans, to the political elites, that it is a moving targetâ¦ [membership] will not happen in the next 15 years and therefore no reform is necessary. They will look to China, she will be able to do business better with them.