Political scientists say EU has lost the battle for the Balkans

Screenshot from the 'Balkan Geopolitics conference'. From left to right: the moderator Georgi Gotev, George Friedman, Nemanja Todorović Štiplija, Mira Milosevich, Vesko Garcevic, Solomon Passy.

The EU has lost the battle for the Balkans, where Russia and China are offering bonuses without asking for reforms, geopolitical experts told an online conference organised by EURACTIV.bg this week, proposing increased cooperation and a Balkan common market as the best way forward.

The ‘Balkan Geopolitics’ conference was held on Tuesday (13 July), with the participation of  US political scientist George Friedman, founder of Stratfor.com and GeopoliticalFutures.com, as well as Solomon Passy, former foreign minister of Bulgaria and founder of the Atlantic Club of Bulgaria, and many stakeholders from the region.

According to Friedman, states have reasons not to trust each other and any action in favor of one country is perceived as a threat by others. That is why the outside world must work either with the entire Balkans or with none of its countries, he argued.

Friedman cautioned, however, that expectations should be low about what can be achieved in the Balkans, how much their culture can change and how long it will take. He was adamant that Washington US would not interfere in the region as it had done previously.

A Balkan Union?

Passy argued that the solution for the Balkans is for the countries to work together, and even called for a “Balkan Union” which in his words could function under the umbrella of the EU and NATO, and could mean unity in different areas – economy, defence, sports, culture.

As an example, Passy mentioned a hypothetical public tender in the telecom business launched in Bulgaria for its market of seven million people. A similar tender for the entire Balkans with 55 million people would be much more attractive, he argued.

“In the same way, we can have a common energy market, we can send a common nomination to participate in Eurovision or the soccer competition UEFA. (…) Or what about a joint Balkan Space Programme”, Passy said. He even suggested that all countries in the region subscribe to the same time zone.

He acknowledged that such a union faces minor challenges, and mentioned the Bulgarian veto on the start of EU accession negotiations of North Macedonia. According to him, however, this dispute can be resolved in a few months.

As another challenge, Passy cited Russia’s spy center in the Serbian city of Nis, which in his words does not seem to disturb the EU. He further stressed that Serbia was currently the region’s Achilles heel.

The influence of Russia and China is visible, but that of China is more important in the long run, explained the former diplomat. According to Passy, the Three Seas Initiative should take on board Serbia before Belgrade joins the EU and NATO.

Blackmail and mistrust

Mira Milošević, a Senior Research Fellow with the Elcano Royal Institute of Spain, stressed the notion that the EU had already lost the battle for the Balkans. She said Balkan nations do not trust each other, but added that they do not trust the big powers either.

“Kosovo or Albania, for example, see in the United States this savior. Serbia and (parts of) Bosnia and Herzegovina see saviors much more in Russia or even China”, she said.

In her words, Serbia is blackmailing the big powers with the argument – if you do not want to help us, we have a plan “B”, meaning turning to other foreign powers “who do not ask me to do anything special just to support me”.

Nevertheless, she said the EU is the only strategic player that can make a serious impact on the region and expressed hope that the ongoing Slovenian EU presidency will manage to revive the accession process.

She said Russia may be the more visible actor in the Balkans, but China was more important. Russia, she said, is present in the region purely historically but China, with its economic power and long-term strategy, poses a more serious challenge to European interests in the Balkans.

Milošević warned that they EU is failing to see that “they are not as attractive as they were 35 years ago. The EU has lost credibility and with the coronavirus they lost credibility much more”, she said, referring to the EU’s inability to provide vaccines for the region’s population.

Would anyone do what Sanader did?

Nemanja Todorović Štiplija, founder of the Centre for European Contemporary Politics in Belgrade, recalled Croatia’s experience in EU accession.

Croatia’s prime minister at the time of accession talks, Ivo Sanader, was considered the most successful Balkan leader in breaking with the past, until he resigned in 2009 and was then jailed and sentenced for corruption on multiple charges.

“A few years later, we saw that he was one of the most corrupt politicians in the Balkans. When he did all the reforms in Croatia, he realized he would be the first one to be arrested by the anti-corruption police he established. After that, no Western Balkans politician will end the reforms in the field of anti-corruption, organised crime or something connected with the judicial system”, Todorović Štiplija said.

According to him, the current Western Balkans leaders are not interested in the EU at all because they are doing quite well without it.

He said the influence of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in the Balkans is huge, especially in the media sphere, because the region “likes the Orbán system and Serbia is the leader in copying this model”, which means ruling without the rule of law and without free media, Todorović Štiplija said.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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