Protect Western Balkans from Putin, EU leaders tell Biden

Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov (L), Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer (C), and Lithuania's President Gitanas Nauseda (R) chat prior to a European Council Summit in Brussels, Belgium, 25 March 2022. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

The Western Balkans, though not officially on the agenda of the three summits in Brussels on 24-25 March, turned out to be the background tune of the high-level meetings as some EU leaders used their time with visiting US President Joe Biden to insist on the region’s importance.

“We, as Austrians, have the chance to speak to the Americans here today, and it will be about two topics: on the one hand, the war in Ukraine and, at the same time, on the need not to forget the Western Balkans,” Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer told journalists on Thursday (24 March).

Nehammer was one of the eight EU leaders, along with his peers from Latvia, Luxembourg, Poland, Cyprus, Sweden, Austria, and Spain, who got to address Joe Biden due to time constraints.

“Measures here are to ensure that the Western Balkans do not become a sphere of influence of the Russian Federation or other great powers such as the People’s Republic of China,” Nehammer added.

Austria has historically been invested heavily in the fate of the Western Balkans countries and their path towards EU membership, which has been painfully slow in the last three decades. Meanwhile, Russia’s war in Ukraine has raised questions about Moscow’s influence in that region as well.

Bosnia-Herzegovina, which has been going through a protracted crisis some consider to be the most tumultuous since the war ended in 1995, is one area of concern.

The Russian ambassador to Bosnia, Igor Kalbukhov, recently commented that if Bosnia “decides to be a member of any alliance, that is an internal matter. Our response is a different matter. Ukraine’s example shows what we expect. Should there be any threat, we will respond,”.

In response, Austria’s Nehammer told President Biden and his fellow EU leaders that maintaining the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina was of crucial importance to prevent “destabilising influences.” Furthermore, the country’s EU candidate status was also a priority for Austria, according to informed government sources.

EU leaders also discussed Bosnia and Herzegovina last night (24 March). However, the discussion had less to do with Russia’s influence and more with EU neighbour Croatia looking to push the interests of the Croat minority in the country, in view of the upcoming election in Bosnia in the fall.

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Zagreb used the political momentum in Brussels to push for the interests of Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) at EU summit on Thursday (25 March).

Corruption, corruption, corruption

However, concerns that the country may fall apart along ethnic lines often overlook the underlying issues such as a stagnating economy and corruption, as well as a lack of market reforms and opportunities, which increasingly drive young people to leave the country.

BiH “is classified not by ethno-nationalist movements but by deep-seated corruption and
dysfunction”, one senior US government official told EURACTIV.

Arriving at the EU Council on Friday (25 March), Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said he had discussed with President Biden corruption as “the instrument of [Vladimir] Putin in the Balkans”, and said Biden had agreed.

Petkov said he described to the US president an example in Bulgaria of a pipeline built upon Russia’s initiative, with Bulgarian money:

“This is the instrument: Putin works with the political elites, he makes them pay national money for his projects, and you do it via corruption schemes. This, it appears, is an instrument Putin has been using to attain his geopolitical goals across the Balkans.”

Petkov said it was of utmost importance to work for the Western Balkans’ stability because, in his words, “as it was expressed across the table, there is strong [Russian] influence there”.

Asked by EURACTIV about BiH, Petkov said the issues had been discussed but did not provide details.

He added that the war in Ukraine makes the security of the Western Balkans even more critical.

“Bulgaria has its role. The European path of North Macedonia and Albania are part of this stability. We have work to do there, and you know the Bulgarian government is doing its part. But we need progress because the last thing we want, geopolitically speaking, is instability in the Western Balkans. In this moment, we all need to increase our efforts and get the job done”.

Green EU lawmaker MEP Tineke Strik voiced hope that “the atrocious war in Ukraine serves as a wake-up call for EU leaders, that stability and security on the European continent are not guaranteed”.

For too long, we have neglected the situation in the Balkans, allowing autocrats to get in power and Russia and China to gain influence. We should seriously step up our engagement in the region, and realise that EU integration is a geopolitical necessity, to guarantee our own stability,” she added.

*Georgi Gotev contributed to reporting

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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