Turkey, Russia and China covet Western Balkans as EU puts enlargement on hold

A supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin holds his portrait and a banner reading 'Thank you, thank you' in front of the Saint Sava Temple in Belgrade, Serbia, 17 January 2019. [Andrej Cukic/EPA/EFE]

Unless the EU accession process of the Western Balkans picks up the pace, the six countries of the region may examine alternatives for their countries’ external orientation, including boosting relations with China, Russia, Turkey and the Gulf States, a report has warned.

According to the report by The Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group, the tendency of Balkan countries to build ties with the new partners results from an EU integration process which proved to be less smooth than they had expected.

The confidence about the accession perspective amongst the citizens of the Western Balkan countries has been shaken, as shown by the data collected by Balkan Barometer in 2018, with 26% of citizens in the Western Balkans believing their country will never join the EU.

“Western Balkan leaders are given the opportunity to convey to Brussels the message that if their countries’ EU accession does not advance, they may examine alternatives for their countries’ external orientations,” says the report.

Since the 1990s, the US and the EU were the most significant partners of the Balkan states, which seek to join the EU. Montenegro and Serbia have already opened accession talks, Albania and North Macedonia are candidate countries still waiting to start the talks, Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) has filed a membership application, while Kosovo, which is not recognised by five EU member states, lags behind.

Albania and Montenegro are NATO members and North Macedonia is close to NATO accession. Kosovo and BiH aspire to become NATO members, while Serbia has plans to join the alliance, which bombed it in 1999 to halt the Kosovo conflict.

Internal issues in the six countries, such as the democratic deficit, ethnic tensions, corruption and deficient law-enforcement, give arguments to European politicians sceptical about enlargement, like French President Emmanuel Macron who openly opposed any further enlargement in the near future last year.

The Western Balkans governments, on the other hand, have been welcoming new investors in the region, irrespective of strings attached and of compliance of their projects with EU policies.

Different areas have different geopolitical actors, often influenced by historic ties or religion. China is primarily focusing on economic relations, while Russia and Turkey put greater effort into building political and societal ties.

None of the geopolitical players openly sabotage the EU accession of the Balkan states, however, these six states may function as “Trojan horses” in foreign policy and destabilise the unity in the future, the report said.

Foreign investments

The EU is still the biggest foreign trade partner of the Western Balkan countries, with an average share of around 75%. However, the investments of other players should not be neglected.

Russia has focused on the energy sector, and some of its transactions are masked and transferred through third countries.

China has been investing a lot into the region since the 16+1 platform was created in 2012.

Dubrovnik 16+1 summit rolls the red carpet for China

From coal plants to airports and bridges, China is forking out for investments across the Western Balkans, laying groundwork for a new battle for influence on the European Union’s fringe.

The Western Balkan countries are also a part of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative.

China, the Western Balkans and the EU: Can three tango?

With China pouring loans into the Western Balkans, the EU must step in to ensure this money benefits the region, writes Wawa Wang.

The Chinese interests are not branded as political influence over Europe. Nevertheless, the Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn has expressed concerns about Chinese loans. According to him, some states are borrowing heavily from China and it is not certain whether they will be able to repay. In that case, they may be vulnerable to Chinese dominance.

In general, the Chinese approach is very much the same in every Western Balkan country. The most significant sectors are highways and railways.

Sitting on two chairs

For a number of historical reasons, Serbia has the closest relations with Russia. Serbs use their big Orthodox brother for blocking Kosovo’s membership of the UN, UNESCO and Interpol. President Aleksandar Vučić has support from the West to finally resolve the conflict with Kosovo, but at the same time, Russia’s Vladimir Putin is calling for Serbian territorial integrity and sovereignty over Kosovo.

Russia has also established a monopoly in Serbia’s energy sector, even though its overall share of investments in Serbia is not huge.

Russia-friendly narratives can be seen in media thanks to the presence of Russia’s Sputnik news agency and the television Russia Today. These soft power tools promote Russia in the Balkans. Russia has also been friendly with Bosnian Serbs and their leader, Milorad Dodik.

Bosnian Serb leader: I have friends both in Moscow and Brussels

The Serb half of Bosnia and Herzegovina wants to join the EU but opposes the Balkan country’s plans to become part of NATO, the Serb chairman of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency said on Monday (4 March). 

For Bosnian Muslims, Turkey means the same as Russia for Bosnian Serbs. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has close ties with the influential Izetbegović family in  Bosnia. Turkey uses several instruments of soft power for reinforcing its position. Its institutions renovate mosques and historical monuments, support local Muslim communities and Turkey also wields media influence through Anadolu agency.

Centre for sabotage

North Macedonia and Montenegro are in a similar position, Russia focuses there on the Orthodox Christian Community. Russia’s direct interventions in domestic politics are difficult to prove, but during the talks for solving the name issue between Skopje and Athens accused Russian individuals of conniving to sabotage the name deal.

Greece and Russia exchange furious statements over Macedonia

The Russian foreign ministry published on Tuesday (14 January) a statement voicing concern about “instability” in Greece following the ratification of the recent change of the constitution in Macedonia. Greece retorted with a warning to Russia not to interfere in its internal affairs.

Before that, one of the most evident examples was also a Russian-backed coup in October 2016 to sabotage Montenegro’s plan to join NATO.

Montenegro sentences Russians, opposition leaders for failed 2016 coup

A Montenegrin court sentenced 14 defendants, including two opposition leaders and two Russians, to prison terms on Thursday (9 May) over of a failed coup in 2016 that aimed to overthrow the government and install a pro-Russian alliance.

Turkey aims at Turkish and Muslim communities in these two countries. Ankara offers scholarships, supports student exchanges and exports Turkish soap operas that promote Turkish culture and glorify the Ottoman past. Turkey and Montenegro, both NATO members, also cooperate in the defence industry.

Erdoğan’s Muslim brotherhood 

Turkey’s strategy focuses on the Ottoman period legacy and Islam. It targets the common past, cultural heritage and Muslim population, reinforced by Erdoğan’s image of a leader and protector of Muslims. Turkey invests into language promotion, education, cultural centres and mosques.

According to the Prague Security Institute, an NGO, “different local and international sources have accused Erdoğan of using notions of ‘brotherhood,’ culture and a shared history as a means of pushing forward an Islamist agenda.“

Turkey is important ally of Kosovo and its presence cannot be neglected after 500 years of Ottoman rule in the region. The indisputable power of Turkey in Kosovo can be proven by the events from March last year, when Turkish intelligence service arrested six teachers accused of ties to Fethullah Gülen, without informing the Kosovo prime minister.

Erdogan vows to bring back Gülenists from abroad

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday (9 April) his country is determined to continue the fight against what he calls the terrorist movement of Fethullah Gülen and bring home all “traitors” from abroad. 

Kosovo is the third poorest country in Europe and, with no visa liberalisation with the EU, it remains the most isolated corner of the continent.

Russia used Kosovo’s 2008 independence precedent to justify its annexation of Crimea. Russia does not recognise Kosovo’s independence.

Because of its status, Kosovo is also excluded from Chinese 16+1 Initiative in which other Balkan countries are already participating.

[Edited by Georgi Gotev]

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