Latest US-EU Discord Bodes Ill for Balkan Stability
US-EU differences over Belgrade-Pristina talks are adding fresh fuel to regional tensions in the Western Balkans – and opening up more space for other foreign influences.
Amidst the unrelenting COVID-19 pandemic and the Balkan region’s lingering ethnic, political and economic tensions, the beginning of September also brings the resumption of the US and EU initiatives for Belgrade-Pristina dialogue.
As a part of the initiative led by the special US Balkan envoy Richard Grenell, Kosovo Prime Minister Avdulah Hoti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic are to meet in the White House on September 4.
Three days later, Brussels is due to host Kosovo and Serbian delegations as a part of its own initiative, led by the EU special envoy for the Balkans, Miroslav Lajcak.
With the two initiatives run in parallel, with little or no coordination between Washington and Brussels, already slim chances of substantial success seem even smaller.
This time, the price of yet another American and European failure in the region may be higher than it was in previous years, however.
The desynchronized approach comes at a time of the deepening local crises as well as raised geopolitical stakes in the entire region.
Another Western stumble could undermine the Balkans, and create more space for new Chinese, Russian, Turkish or other foreign advances into the fragile region.
“This discord between the EU and the US spells new trouble for the Balkans, a challenge for EU and US respective positions in the region, as well as a new opportunity for other foreign influences already present there,” reads The Western Balkans: Between the EU and a Hard Place, a paper published on Wednesday by a leading European think tank, the Prague Security Studies Institute, PSSI.
The paper stresses that Kosovo-Serbia dialogue offers no low-hanging fruits and requires comprehensive long-term involvement, which neither Washington nor Brussels seem willing to provide when they have their own big internal and external challenges.
The situation in Montenegro, for example, requires immediate attention. Religious, ethnic and political tensions have spiraled there since last Sunday’s general election saw the surprise win of opposition parties, which threaten to end the long rule of the Democratic Party of Socialists, DPS and its leader Milo Djukanovic, after his three decades in power.
The unexpectedly strong showing of pro-Russian parties in the election has already resulted in attacks on ethnic minorities, fueling already heightened ethnic and religious tensions across the region and triggering fears that unresolved disputes are pushing the Balkan region back towards the kind of turmoil it witnessed in the 1990s.
Besides Montenegro, tensions are growing also in Bosnia and Herzegovina ahead of local elections in November.
The rest of the region is not in much better shape. All the countries struggle with persistent corruption, political populism and autocratic tendencies, weakening rule of law and governance systems, as well as a looming health, economic and social downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Montenegrin opposition supporters celebrate the election results in Podgorica, Montenegro, 31 August 2020. Montenegin opposition groups claimed victory against the Milo Djukanovic’s ruling party in a tense parliamentary election that could possibly see a change in the course of the small Balkan state.
COVID-19 sees regional and global quarrels intertwine
The years-long crisis in region took a turn to the worse at the beginning of the year with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, which has created an environment in which regional and global quarrels have intertwined.
“The coronavirus pandemic has intensified the years-long competition of key global actors for power and influence in the region,” reads another policy paper, COVID-19 Raises Geopolitical Stakes in the Balkans, also published on September 2 by the PSSI.
“China, the EU, Gulf countries, Russia, the USA and Turkey all rushed to help Balkan countries, but also tried to use this opportunity to strengthen their positions in this region in their ongoing geopolitical games,” it said.
While China and the Gulf countries have focused mainly on humanitarian and economic issues, Russian and Turkey have renewed their aggressive attitudes in the region.
Media and officials in both Serbia and Montenegro have complained about what they call direct Russian involvement in protests in both countries in recent months.
Russian officials have denied such allegations, but several experts insist Moscow is using all of its resources to stop or even reverse the expansion of NATO and the EU in the Balkan region.
Recent findings have also revealed that several Turkish nationals have been establishing footholds for criminal and/or paramilitary networks in the Balkans since early 2020.
This development raises questions about Ankara’s plans for the region in the context of its increasingly aggressive behaviour in the East Mediterranean and the Middle East, including in the conflicts in Syria and Libya.
The COVID-19 crisis also saw a further shift in US policy towards the region, continuing a trend that became visible since the last US presidential elections in 2016.
Considerable and transparent financial assistance which US provided to all Balkan countries in the first half of 2020, has been overshadowed by US envoy Grenell’s meddling in Belgrade-Pristina relations, which undermined the Kosovo government’s ability to deal with the pandemic and led to the toppling of Albin Kurti as Prime Minister.
A number of US diplomats, academics and experts have said Grenell’s initiative not only hurt Kosovo but also undermined the US’s global and regional image, as it seemed focused mostly on providing Donald Trump with some quick wins ahead of the US presidential elections in November.
Josep Borell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy leaves a press conference following a meeting of European Union member states defence ministers 26 August 2020 in Berlin, Germany. The meeting, as part of Germany’s head of the rotating presidency of the European Council, is the first such meeting taking place with participants in person since begin of the coronavirus pandemic.
Caught between the EU and a hard place
The EU’s initial reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, meanwhile, revealed many of its internal problems. EU institutions seemed powerless to stop the re-establishment of internal borders and restrictions on the free movement of people, which each EU member country had established within the Schengen area.
While first China and later Russia started scoring easy PR points with their “mask” diplomacy, EU member countries suspended exports of their medical supplies, drawing angry reactions from EU and Balkan countries alike.
The EU only returned strongly to the Balkan arena at the end of April, when it offered its countries a 3.3-billion-euro assistance package to help them deal with the challenges of the pandemic. Local officials welcomed one of the most concrete EU moves the region has seen in years.
By late June, Chinese and Russian mask diplomacy seemed to be in retreat, the White House initiative for a Kosovo-Serbia peace deal had been suspended, and top EU officials – including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron – initiated the first round of negotiations with Serbian and Kosovo leaders.
Several senior EU officials admitted, however, that the aim of the EU initiative was as much to match or parry Grenell’s initiative as it was to improve Kosovo-Serbia relations.
This was not the first time the EU has jumped into diplomatic action to parry a similar US initiative. In November 2014, Germany and Britain launched a new surprise diplomatic initiative for Bosnia that the EU later accepted as a new strategy for the country.
But it turned out that the EU made this move mainly to prevent the US from launching its own already-prepared initiative on changes to Bosnia’s constitution, which the EU deemed unrealistic and potentially destabilizing.
The latest EU diplomatic efforts with Belgrade-Pristina talks seems destined to share similar fate. Despite high-level support, EU-led talks have brought no concrete results, showing only how deeply entrenched the disputes between Kosovo and Serbia are. The apparent lack of stronger engagement by the EU has enabled Grenell to renew his own initiative, several Western diplomats said.
In mid-August, Grenell announced that the White House would host the next round of Belgrade-Pristina talks on Septemer 4, just three days ahead of a new round of talks that the EU already scheduled in Brussels.
This discord between the EU and US threatens to weaken their respective positions in the Balkans and create more space for Chinese, Russian, Turkish or other offensives.
Given growing regional and geopolitical tensions, as well as the close links Balkan leaders have with different global actors in both East and the West, a new interweaving of these parallel processes could well further destabilize the region.
Many local and international experts believe that only the EU, with its enlargement perspective and huge financial resources, can provide a context for the gradual stabilization and normalization of the Balkans.
Yet they also admit that the EU’s position in the Balkans has been weakened by years of misunderstandings and mistrust, and overshadowed by other global actors’ involvement.
The EU needs “a fundamental change of direction” in the Balkans if it wants to cement its position in the region and help stabilize it, said Dusan Reljic, director of the Brussels office of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, SWP, a leading German Balkan expert.
He added that even the latest massive aid package offered in April 2020 will “do little to change the fundamental problems of the region if the EU does not treat the Western Balkans as an integral part of the EU”.
Reljic and other experts warn that some Balkan leaders have already grown so distant from the EU that they are almost ready to “write off” EU membership chances.
But the price of the EU’s “non-enlargement”, or the effective disappearance of the enlargement process, could be high, they warn.
“The EU’s continued failure in the Balkans would likely endanger the security of the region and of the entire Europe,” the paper The Western Balkans: Between the EU and a Hard Place concludes.