As EU hopes fade, Russia, China fill voids across Western Balkans
The EU’s waning ‘soft power’ in the region allows other countries to step in with loans and influence, analysts say.
With the prospect of Western Balkan nations joining the EU seen as a target moving further away, Russia and China will step up their efforts to fill voids in the region, analysts tell Al Jazeera.
Before the EU-Western Balkans summit last week, Slovenia, which currently chairs the EU presidency, urged the bloc to admit Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Albania, by 2030.
The 27-member bloc rejected on Wednesday Ljubljana’s proposal for the six countries, all at different stages of the membership process, over migration concerns, but stressed the importance for the region ultimately joining the bloc.
“The Western Balkans are part of the same Europe as the European Union. The EU is not complete without them,” EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in Brdo, Slovenia, at the meeting.
But the fact that the countries will not be joining the EU anytime soon gives Russia and China the green light to step further into the region, analysts said, a concern that EU leaders also voiced at the summit.
Latvian Prime Minister Arturs Krisjanis Karins cautioned at the meeting: “Either Europe extends the hand and pulls these [Western Balkan] countries toward us, or someone else will extend a hand and pull these countries in a different direction.”
Austria’s Sebastian Kurz, the embattled, right-wing leader who recently resigned over a corruption scandal, said last week: “If the European Union does not offer this region a real perspective, we have to be aware that other superpowers … will play a bigger role there.”
‘Situation already deteriorating’
Political scientist Jasmin Mujanovic said Moscow and Beijing are already involved in the region, alleging the EU “lost the plot” in the Western Balkans a while ago.
“What’s really alarming is that there is still no Plan B. The situation is… already deteriorating, we’re already having to deal with new kinds of security, instability threats and still, the EU is not articulating any kind of post-enlargement vision for the region,” Mujanovic said.
In 2016, a coup plot engineered by 14 people – including two Russian military intelligence officers – failed to install a pro-Russia, anti-NATO leadership in Montenegro. Moscow dismissed the allegations as “absurd”.
Evidence has also shown that Russia has been undermining Bosnia’s stability in an attempt to keep the country out of NATO.
“Russia is very involved in Bosnia. It’s explicitly said it opposes Bosnia’s membership in NATO, that it considers it a threat to Russia’s security interests, which is of course preposterous. But it tells you the extent to which Russia has now elevated this region in its foreign policy thinking,” Mujanovic said.
In recent years, Western Balkan countries have witnessed more historical revisionism with the denial of the Srebrenica genocide, while concerns have grown over Serbia’s calls for a new “Serb World”.
In 2015, Russia vetoed a UN genocide resolution that would have condemned the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica as a “crime of genocide”, something international courts have already ruled.
Bosnia’s Serb member of the tripartite presidency, Milorad Dodik, a genocide denier, has amplified calls for the Serb-run entity Republika Srpska to secede.
In 2018, a Bosnian investigative news website reported that Russian-trained mercenaries were helping to establish a paramilitary unit to back Serb separatists. The report was confirmed by Bosnia’s minister of security.
Vesko Garcevic, professor at Boston University, told Al Jazeera that the developments he has analysed in the Western Balkans over the past five years were “not a good sign”.
The EU’s waning “soft power” will slow down the democratisation process in the region and “open space for other countries to walk in,” Garcevic said.
“There’s no such a thing as a limbo in international relations … in the last… particularly five years let’s say, China has been filling in the space which is neglected by Brussels.
“Moscow sees this as an opportunity and will increase its support to groups and politicians like Dodik in Bosnia or [Serbian President Aleksandar] Vucic in Belgrade or will do its best to keep the situation in Kosovo frozen.”
Analysts also noted that dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade – with the central issue of Kosovo’s independence – has dragged on for 10 years, with no progress.
While leaders at the summit stressed the importance of dialogue, it was unclear “how the process will exert its power if the perspective of membership is not clear anymore”, said Garcevic.
“With the EU membership perspective, the EU has a strong leverage to counterbalance negative trends in the Balkans … that leverage perspective has generated changes for the better in the region.”
Toby Vogel, senior associate at the Democratization Policy Council, told Al Jazeera the process of joining the EU has become increasingly difficult.
In 2019, for instance, the European Commission requested potential candidate Bosnia to fulfil 14 priority points for its membership application. A year later, Bosnia had fulfilled only one of the points.
PhD researcher Nedim Hogic noted in an article that more has been asked of Bosnia for opening negotiations than from any other country, and has led to incremental progress.
“By treating all 14 issues as being of equal importance and demanding substantial constitutional changes in exchange for candidacy status with an unclear perspective, the EU tries to achieve too much while offering too little, risking progress even on those issues that are not contested,” Hogic wrote.
Vogel said potential candidate countries are now lukewarm about joining the bloc.
“The EU has no strategy for its relations with the Western Balkans other than enlargement and as soon as enlargement hits a roadblock, the EU’s influence is reduced,” Vogel said.
“Whereas China and Russia – especially China – are coming with loans that are basically without any political conditions, no conditions attached about democracy, rule of law, etc. So a lot of leaders in the region saw this as free money.”
Beijing has provided major loans to the region. In 2014, Montenegro accepted a $1bn loan for a road, which it has since struggled to pay off.
“We need EU enlargement because it will make the EU and the Western Balkans a better place,” Vogel said.
Garcevic said ideals the EU promotes, such as good governance and accountability, “only [work] when the EU membership perspective is visible, something we can see on the horizon.
“Missing that horizon gives the impression to the people back home in the Western Balkans, to the political elites, that it’s a moving target… [membership] won’t happen in next 15 years and therefore, there is no need for reform. They will turn to China, it can do business better with them.”