Briefing Paper I:
EAST vs. WEST
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This text is an executive summary of the Briefing Paper 'East vs. West' which represents the first from a series of six briefing papers presenting the results of the ongoing research within the project “Western Balkans at the Crossroads: Assessing Non-Democratic External Influence Activities” launched by PSSI in the spring 2018.
The first briefing paper provides the background of the project topic and positions the debate within the political and geostrategic context of today’s Western Balkans. It aims to outline a comprehensive overview of the geopolitical and strategic context of the project and focuses on historical context and general assessment of the involvement of individual actors. Unlike the next briefing papers, it focuses also on the EU, NATO and US influence in the region to capture the West vs.East dimension of external powers politics in the Balkans.
In the past couple of years the former Yugoslav states that are not members of the EU or NATO, notably Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro (which joined NATO in June 2017) and Kosovo, have been confronted with a wave of rising ethnic and social tensions, authoritarian impulses and corruption scandals. These tumultuous events have led to democratic backsliding in a number of cases.
Despite these worrying developments and growing warnings from some several senior European and U.S. officials and experts, both the EU and US administration remain mostly disengaged and lack a clear policy towards the region due to several pressing challenges in other regions and own internal problems.
The Balkans has always been a zone of great-power rivalry and the diminishing European and US involvement has created a space for other players to fill the vacuum. Several external forces with historical, cultural and economic ties to the region – most importantly Russia, China, Turkey and the Gulf states (Saudi Arabia, Qatar or UAE), have demonstrated their continued determination to increase their influence at the expense of the West and democratic institutions by employing a wide spectrum of tools, including economic, political, cultural and religious leverage. Main objectives of these players are two-fold – to obstruct further integration of the Western Balkans into the Euro-Atlantic structures and to establish an accommodating political and business environment to advance national and strategic interests.
The EU and the EU Integration Process
The European Union (EU) represents one of the key actors in the Balkan peninsula. Its active involvement dates back to the mid-1990s when the region was in the mids of ethnic conflicts.
A fast-track enlargement was perceived as the main element of the security of the region by many EU officials until the early 2000s’. With the time passing, the focus has shifted to reforms.
The Union’s involvement in the Western Balkans (WB) was underlined by the adoption of the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe in 1999 and cemented by initiating the Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP) in the same year. Furthermore, the 2003 Thessaloniki European Council summit, during which the EU recognized the WB countries as potential candidate countries, represented a fundamental milestone in mutual relations.
The financial and migration crises and the unprecedented challenges of Brexit, however, have led to EU’s disengagement in the region and questioned prospects of the Western Balkan integration into the EU.
The weakening presence of the Union in the Balkans has created a political, ideological and financial vacuum for other regional and international powers to exert own interests. The lack of EU’s engagement is further feared to add to the rise of nationalism and separatist tendencies in the WB, which could turn into new ethnic conflicts in the volatile region.
With more EU officials getting alarmed by the situation in the Balkans, the enlargement process has recently seen a slow return on the EU agenda.
Following President Juncker's 2017 State of the Union address confirming the open doors for the European future of the region, the European Commission adopted a strategy for 'A credible enlargement perspective forand enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans,' in February 2018. EU-Western Balkans summit was held in Sofia in May 2018 and a summit organised within the Berlin process took place in London in July.
Despite these efforts, however, thereare strong calls for still more attentive and urgent EU engagement in the Balkans among the expert community in the Balkans.
Read about individual Western Balkan countries relations with the EU, about the development of their integration process and about public perception of the EU in each of them in the full BRIEFING PAPER – it is easy to navigate to the section of your interest.
Follow Balkan Crossroads to read about potentially disastrous impacts of the hesitant EU approach to the WB enlargement manifested during the latest EU-WB summits in an opinion article by Srečko Latal and another one by Adnan Huskić, to be published soon.
NATO and Perspectives of Membership
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)’s role in the region has been crucial during the conflict in Yugoslavia as well as in its aftermath.
In the first instance, NATO intervened in the conflict in BiH. Its rather symbolic and political involvement gradually turned more decisive, particularly in the form of air operations, as a result of heavy criticism and worsening situation on the ground. After the signature of the Dayton peace agreement, which ended the war in Bosnia in 1995, NATO was the main implementer of the peace settlement, and it began its Implementation Force mission replaced by SFOR (Stabilisation Force) one year later.
In 1999, NATO intervened in the war in Kosovo by two-and-half-month-long bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. The Operation Allied Force aimed at forcing Yugoslav armed forces’ withdrawal from Kosovo to prevent further escalation of the conflict and bloodshed. NATO launched its ‘humanitarian intervention’ without the UN authorisation blocked by China and Russia. This fact, together with Serbian civilian losses and massive destruction of Serbian industry, make the operation probably the most controversial in NATO’s history.
NATO has then continued its presence in the Balkans with the aim of fostering a sustainable peace in the region. Its activities were underpinned by launching a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo – KFOR in 1999 and putting an end to the armed conflict in South Serbia by reaching a settlement with Albanian extremist groups in 2000–2001.
Croatian accession to NATO in 2009 gave an important boost to other countries of the region, further cemented with Montenegro joining the Alliance in 2017 as the only of the countries this project focuses on.
On the one hand, the NATO membership represents one of the main foreign policy objectives of Macedonian, Kosovo or some Bosnian leaders. On the other hand, due to the historical development and power-plays in the region, Serbia does not aspire to NATO membership and the West vs. East tendencies remain relevant for some Balkan political elites.
The public in most countries also remains divided regarding the question of NATO membership with many Serbs viewing it as a hostile organisation.
Read more about NATO’s involvement in the WB, about individual countries prospects of NATO accession, the public image of NATO as well as about reasons why Serbian politicians are reluctant to disclose full information about Serbia’s cooperation with NATO in the full BRIEFING PAPER.
The United States
The United States of America (the US) has continuously engaged in the region of the former Yugoslavia in various security, foreign policy or development aid issues.
During Bill Clinton’s presidency, it took a very active role in humanitarian aid and peace negotiations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, especially towards the end of the war, and engaged during the conflict in Kosovo in 1999. The US, often through the USAID (United States Agency for International Development), also invested in the war-torn region and assisted in the processes of the post-war reconstruction and strengthening of peace and democracy.
Due to other geopolitical priorities, however, the US became much less involved in the region in the new millennia and started observing it from afar handing over the control to the EU. Most of the US activities recently focus on the integration of the Western Balkans into the Euro-Atlantic structures, particularly to NATO. The growing presence of other foreign powers has recently triggered calls for more intensive engagement from some US officials as well as local actors.
Besides the traditional diplomatic links and official policies, the US presence in the region is very visible in the support provided to local non-governmental organizations or media by different private or state-funded foundations and organizations (e.g. NED, IRI, NDI). The US Embassy also often plays an active role in supporting various civil society initiatives and cultural events.
Blame-game between pro-Western and Russia-oriented media has been recently played in the public sphere in the region. Perceptions of the role of the US differ across the region, to a large extent as a result of the US involvement in the conflicts in the 1990s – while the US has a very positive image in Kosovo, many Serbs hold a negative attitude towards it.
The election of Donald Trump has had a significant impact on the perception of the US - caused concerns among those who would welcome the bigger involvement of the US in the region and raised expectations among those not sympathising with the previous course of the US policy.
Read more about US engagement in individual countries during the 1990s, about developments of bilateral relations with the US and about US public perception in the WB in the full BRIEFING PAPER.
Russia has rich historical ties to the Balkans dating back to 18th and 19th century. It has enjoyed a high degree of influence especially among the nations with which it shares Slavic and Orthodox Christian identity – most importantly among Serbs but also among Montenegrins or Macedonians.
Following the World War II, Yugoslavia became a part of the communist bloc but since Tito-Stalin split in 1948 it became largely independent on the Soviet Union’s control in contrast to the rest of Eastern Europe. Throughout the rest of the socialist period, Tito insisted on keeping the country non-aligned with either Eastern or Western bloc, yet at the same time close to both of them.
Despite its clear stance on the issue of Kosovo and traditional support to Serbs, Russia did not play that significant role during the violent break-up of Yugoslavia as a result of its internal problems and general retreat from the world affairs and great power politics in the 1990s.
Russia’s presence in the Balkans has become more visible only after the early 2000’s under Putin and has risen since his reelection in 2012. The European and American renewed interest in the Western Balkans has been urged primarily by fears of Moscow’s growing influence in the region, particularly in Serbia, that might divert the countries from the path towards the Euro-Atlantic integration, most openly manifested by an attempted coup in Montenegro before its accession to NATO.
Russia’s economic presence in the region is most visible in the energy sector as it owns energy monopoly in Serbia, the Republika Srpska entity of BiH or Macedonia.
To increase its importance, Russia often capitalizes on its position within the international bodies, namely the Peace Implementation Council (PIC) in BiH and the UN Security Council, which combined with Russia’s strategic relationship with Serbia makes Russia an important player with regard to Kosovo.
Serious concerns about growing Russia’s influence stem from fears of its potential to exploit inter-ethnic tensions in the region, especially in Kosovo, BiH or Macedonia, since Russia often portrays itself as a protector of Serbs and their interests.
Russia supports various cultural and religious organisations and builds close links to leading Serbian politicians, often backing them at the international level when following openly nationalistic policies.
Russia has been also active in the media sphere. Balkan countries have become a target of fake news originating in Russia or being inspired by it, with the involvement of local language branches of Russia’s Sputnik or Russia Today.
The perception of Russia differs to a large extent along historical, cultural and religious ties to individual nations. Russia is popular among many Serbs, Montenegrins or Macedonians by whom it is viewed as a powerful country and an important balancing power to the West while it is generally very unpopular among Kosovo Albanians and less so among Bosnian Croats or Bosniaks.
Read a more detailed account of Russia’s involvement in the regional affairs in the full BRIEFING PAPER.
Or read an article on fears of Russia's meddling into the process of Macedonia's name change by our researcher Martin Naunov.
Historically, Chinese interactions with Balkans countries were limited to maintaining ties with the isolated communist regimes in Albania and Yugoslavia. China’s presence in the Western Balkans is, therefore, a relatively recent phenomenon, but one growing steadily during the past decade.
The 2008 global financial crisis marked the beginning of the relative decline in EU’s normative influence and the parallel rise of an emerging “China Model” of state-owned enterprises being allocated projects based on political bargaining.
Balkan countries have embraced some Chinese infrastructural projects that resemble the Chinese model and their realignment further accelerated with the creation of the “16+1” initiative in 2012, and especially with the PRC’s activist foreign policy under CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping since 2013, epitomised in the Belt And Road Initiative (BRI).
China supported Serbia in the Kosovo conflict, and its position further cemented with the 1999 US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Until today Kosovo is not diplomatically recognised by the PRC and is also not a member of the 16+1 grouping.
The remaining four countries have all been actively courted by China and became members of both the 16+1 and BRI initiatives. Unlike the other post-Communist 16+1 member states, the WB countries are not bound by the strict EU regulatory framework for procurement transparency.
Infrastructure development has been a big component of China’s relationship with the WB countries which are located on one of China’s strategic connectivity corridors, the China-Europe Land-Sea Express, meant to facilitate the transportation of Chinese goods from the port of Piraeus (purchased by Chinese COSCO in 2016) by rail to Budapest, Hungary, and on to the EU.
Chinese infrastructure development projects in the region have, however, been marred with delays, doubts about economic expediency and fears of debt traps, and - like in the case of two China-financed highways in Macedonia - outright corruption at a ministerial level.
Such incidents recently led the EU Commissioner for Enlargement, Johannes Hahn, to express concern that China’s activities in Western Balkans might affect the region’s prospect for EU accession.
Read the full version of the text on China in the BRIEFING PAPER .
After some 500 years of Ottoman rule over the Balkans which ended in 1912-3, Turkey has kept close ties with the region. As an EU candidate country and a long-lasting member of NATO, Turkey played an important role in the stabilisation of the region after the wars in the 1990s and in various integration initiatives.
At times, however, its role had been perceived as biased due to favouring the Muslim population during conflicts in BiH or Kosovo.
As of 2002, under the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP)lead by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey started following a new, multidimensional and pro-active foreign policy and its "soft power" approach to the Balkans was introduced.
Besides traditional diplomacy new policy has been built on numerous institutions established by the government for this purpose, such as the Turkish Aid Agency (TIKA), which renovated hundreds of historical monuments, Yunus Emre Institutes or universities. The Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs (the Diyanet) has becomea main instrument of Turkey’s soft power on the religious front. It offers religious education, theological guidance, direct financial assistance and even mediates in disputes between regional governments and local Muslim communities.
Turkish state-backed media outlets broadcasting in regional languages, above all the local branch of the Anadolu Agency in Sarajevo, and popular Turkish TV shows has further reinforced Turkey's positive image. Due to visa-free travel, an increasing number of people from the WB visit Turkey or learn Turkish.
As for the economic influence, Turkey, in general, maintains a strong position in the Balkans both in foreign direct investment (FDI) and trade. It has invested, among others, in tourism, infrastructure, agriculture and food processing. Serbian-Turkish trade exchange has tripled in the period 2009-2017 after signing a free trade agreement. Turkey is also among the leading countries with direct investments in Kosovo, and a significant trade partner for Macedonia and Montenegro.
Erdogan has established close links with several Balkan leaders, particularly with the Bosniak member of the presidency and the leader of the main Bosniak Party of Democratic Action (SDA), Bakir Izetbegovic, or Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. The most telling sign in this regard was the presence of BiH, Kosovar, Serbian and Macedonian presidents during the Erdogan´s presidential inauguration ceremony in July 2018.
The popularity of Erdogan and Turkey in the region has grown over the past years but partly suffered in a consequence of the failed coup in 2016 and subsequent repression of Erdogan's political opponents both at home and abroad. For example Turkish influence in Kosovo became a hot topic of debate in April 2018 following a deportation of six Turkish nationals residing in Kosovo – you can find out more about the affair and its consequences in an interesting article written by our researcher Nektar Zogjani.
Perception of Turkey’s influence in the WB differ significantly from viewing it as a friendly country that brings in cultural and economic values and perspectives, to seeing it as an assertive power spreading its neo-Ottoman legacy.
Read more information about Turkish softpower approach or its economic activities and political links in the region in the full BRIEFING PAPER.
The Gulf States and Iran
The presence and influence of the Gulf States and Iran in the Western Balkans have been historically very limited. The role of the Gulf States and Iran most visibly increased during and after Bosnia's 1992-5 war and the war in Kosovo in 1999, during which Bosniak and Kosovar leadership was forced to seek and accept help from any willing Muslim country.
The Gulf Countries, especially Saudi Arabia, provided financial assistance for the purchase of weapons during the conflicts while Iran -during and after the war in BiH - held training camps for Bosniak police and military personnel.
These influences decreased significantly after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the subsequent global clampdown on Islamic NGOs and other groups. A visible legacy is, however, a presence of fundamental interpretation of Islam, Salafism, which is foreign to the Islamic tradition of the Balkans
Even though the number of Salafis is relatively low, they have attracted a lot of public attention, especially after 9/11 and in the context of the emergence of Islamic State and other jihadi groups that managed to recruit a several hundred Salafis from BiH, Serbia, Macedonia and Kosovo to their ranks.
In recent years, following the weakening of the US and EU presence in the Western Balkans, the involvement of the Gulf countries increased somewhat as the regional politicians moved to rebuild connections. Their influence has further risen through private investments and a considerable influx of tourists from the Gulf whose traditional vacation spots in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey became insecure.
These trends are visible especially in BiH and have drawn mixed feelings among Bosnians, some of whom welcomed the new business opportunities, while others complained because of major cultural differences as well as concerns that these newcomers could significantly change the ethnic, cultural and political map of the country.
The involvement and influence of Iran remain marginal, among other things because of Western sanctions against Iran as well as religious differences between Shia Islam, which is practised in Iran and traditional Sunni Islam present in the region.
Read the full version of the text in the BRIEFING PAPER.