Game of Western Balkans

05.11.2018 | By Łukasz Kołtuniak

The Balkan Cauldron may have died down a little, but it still fumes. Today, the situation in Western Balkans is stable, which does not mean that it is problem-free. We can already identify the focal points of new ethnic conflicts in the region. Political and economic conditions of particular countries are poor, and the region itself became an area contested between the EU, China, Russia and Turkey. Poland also has a role to play.

Are the good times already gone?

The figure of Boris Tadic, a former president of Serbia who was named a Serbian Willy Brandt, perfectly captures the Janus face of Western Balkans. He took a highly-symbolic knee in front of the memorials of the victims killed by Serbs in Vukovar and Srebrenica. Therefore, Tadic together with a former president of Croatia Ivo Josipovic, may be treated as a symbol of a wide-ranging reconciliation dialogue between feuding Balkan nations, which was pursued in the first decade of the 21st century. Besides the politicians, historians also engaged in the conversation and the discussions were accompanied by exchanges of the youth. Unfortunately, in the last decade, these actions lost their dynamics.

Simultaneously, the same president Tadic allowed for the existence of an omnipresent corruption system in Serbia and did not enact any significant institutional reforms. Although Serbian authorities time and again justified their actions as undertaken in the name of democracy, reports of international institutions were regularly ringing the bells with the topics of the wide-spread corruption in the judiciary, the police and the government administration. They also warned that the level of human rights protection is insufficient. Moreover, the corrupted institutions were often linked to the henchmen of Slobodan Milosevic and the circles of Serbian neo-fascists.

The assessment of Bosnia and Herzegovina will be similarly ambiguous. It might seem that the situation gives reasons to cheer its progress. After all, since the Dayton Agreement of November 1995, the peace has been sustained, and the country has remained democratic. On closer inspection, however, one may see some domestic problems coming out to the surface.

In accordance with the Dayton Agreement, a federal state of Bosnia and Herzegovina consists of two entities: Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, also known as the Bosniak-Croat Federation. At the same time, the country is populated by three ethnic groups: dominating Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs. With regards to religion, it is divided along the lines of Islam, Orthodoxy and Christianity. The fundamental problem of Bosnia and Herzegovina is the lack of integration between the two federal entities. They do not even share a joint foreign policy. For example, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina at the same time strives for integration with the EU and maintains close ties with Turkey, while Republika Srpska gravitates towards Russia. But the real problem lies in the nature of the political system established in Dayton. With its many dysfunctions and a conflict-prone character, it in fact favours the state-level authorities and limits the manoeuvre of the federal ones. As a result, decentralist tendencies in Bosnia and Herzegovina are getting stronger. For example, Republika Srpska aims for secession, and in this respect, it is backed by Kremlin.

Other Western Balkan states have their problems too. Recently, a currently pro-European Montenegro accused Russia of a coup d’état attempt. The diplomatic crisis escalated to the point where Montenegro joined the EU’s sanctions on Russia and declared that its soldiers will be sent to the Latvian-Russian border as a part of NATO contingent. It does not mean that this course is fully stable, because an existing pro-Russian party may well take over soon. Macedonia, in turn, had its own problems with the changing of the official country’s name. For Skopje, this move was supposed to end a protracted feud with Greece and open the path to the EU and NATO. For now, however, the process has been halted. It turned out that the government was not able to work out a national consensus and too low a turnout during the advisory referendum stalled the whole process. Can it result in anti-western forces taking over soon? Albania has problems with mafia connections between businessmen and politicians, but also with frustrated youth, a result of high unemployment. Kosovo has a lot more troubles. It still has not selected true state elites, struggles with corruption, and unemployment among young people currently stands at 50%. Worse yet, international recognition of the government in Pristina is still an open issue.

Domestic problems are one thing. But there also remain interstate tensions resulting from the region’s ethnic mosaic.

As a consequence, we can identify some focal points:

  • North Kosovo, the territory eyed by Serbia;
  • Presovo Valley, Albanian-populated Serbia’s region, eyed by Albania
  • Interstate tensions resulting from the existence of Albanian minority in Montenegro

And what does the EU say?

In 2008, the European community presented four Western Balkan states: Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia with a vision of membership. The opening of subsequent negotiating chapters and structural aid were to be conditioned upon the effectiveness of broad political reforms, especially within the fields of government administration, human rights and minorities protection and fight against corruption. Within a decade, only Montenegro managed to close these two chapters. For Serbia, the critical problem concerns the legal status of Kosovo and Albanian minority in the southern part of the country. Macedonia and its issues with the name I mentioned above. Albania, meanwhile, has to resolve its corruption-related problems and clarify the obscure connections between political elites and mafia, but also take care of the rights of ethnic minorities living on its territory.

In the meantime, the EU itself behaved rather oddly. Instead of putting emphasis on economic aid, politico-institutional reforms and the problems of ethnic minorities, most of its institutions decided to “skip” this stage of necessary reforms and expected the states of the region to comply with exorbitant ecological or gender equality norms. This approach could not succeed – and it didn’t.

It is sufficient to look at the basic economic indicators to see the challenges mounting ahead of the countries of the region. GDP ranges from 4000 USD per capita in Kosovo to approximately 6000 in Serbia. At the same time, average economic growth is between 1,9% in Serbia and 4,32% in Albania. If countries of the region wanted to catch up with the countries of Central or Eastern Europe, they would have to register a 9% annual growth on a continuing basis. It is indeed symbolic that in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the standard of living is lower than… at the time of Tito’s communist Yugoslavia.

Economic growth will not be possible without foreign investments, which will not show up until the countries of the region undertake a serious fight against corruption, mafia and the red tape. And without help from the EU, they are not going to make it.

Russia, Turkey, China

The EU is not the only power interested in spreading its influence in Western Balkans. Other countries try to leave their mark on the region, too.

As usual, Russia is an important actor in the region. Moscow managed to economically subordinate Montenegro and Serbia. In the case of the former, Russians invest in key sectors of its economy, primarily in tourism. Meanwhile, in Serbia, Russia is an active player in the energy production industry, and in Bosnia, it supports secessionist ambitions of Republika Srpska. Moreover, the authorities in Macedonia accused Kremlin of interfering in the consultative referendum concerning the change of the country’s name. It all does not mean that Russia has what it takes to dominate the region, but it is powerful enough to stoke up different conflicts within in.

Turkey tries to pursue its own agenda in the region. For Russia, a religious base for political influence is Orthodoxy, and in the same vein, Ankara seeks to present itself as an advocate of moderate Islam. Hence Turkey’s operations focus primarily on Bosnia and Herzegovina where they help with a key infrastructural project – a highway from Sarajevo to Belgrade. Additionally, Turkish companies are willing to enter the Bosnian energy production sector. Ankara also operates in Albania, where it drives Greek motor companies out of the market.

And while Russia and Turkey are focused on particular states, China tries to maintain cordial ties with all Western Balkan countries. Within the framework of “16+1”, Beijing offers economic assistance and investments to any interested party. Hence an increased activity in the Balkans of Exim Bank, the Chinese bank specialised in supporting export. A Chinese flagship project in the region is a railway between Budapest and Belgrade, which is under construction since February 2018. China invests mainly in railway and road infrastructure, but also in the energy sector, e.g. by building an energy plant in the Bosnian town of Stanari. According to Zorana Mihajlovic, Serbia’s minister of transport, “if we cannot count on the EU funds, what alternative there is for Chinese investments?”.

Additionally, for Serbia and Montenegro, Chinese money offer an alternative vis-a-vis Russian investments. It does not mean, however, that the Western Balkan states are uncritical of Beijing activities. They look at what China does in Africa and know that there is a risk of economic dependence on a dominant partner involved in dealings with China.

Four ideas to make the EU more effective

In the light of the Western Balkans’ domestic challenges and the regional activity of external actors, the EU should rethink its policy towards the countries, such as Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina or Montenegro.

First of all, economic support and structural aid should be preferred. The European Commission’s decision to allocate 1.1% of the member states GDP for Western Balkans in 2020-2017 is indeed a step in the right direction.

It should change priorities concerning human rights protection and give up on its pressure on gender equality to focus on national minorities scattered all over the Balkans.

Financially enhance youth exchange programmes between the Balkans and the EU countries.

Nip in the bud any unrealistic geopolitical ideas, such as border swap between Serbia and Kosovo. At the same time, avoid similarly overambitious aims, such as recognition of Kosovo by Serbia.

What can Poland do?

Our country’s help for Western Balkans can be twofold. First, we can offer our invaluable experience and know-how related to the effective (despite all reservations) politico-economic transformation after 1989. The countries aspiring to join the EU can make use of Polish experience of the process. Second, we can offer help in mediation efforts in the ethnic conflicts, for example in the Presevo Valley.

Moreover, Poland’s activity in the region should be included in the broader operations of the Visegrad Four. Hungarians, Czechs and Slovaks already try to play the role of Western Balkans’ advocates in the EU. In this circumstances, one should be glad that Poland is an organiser and a host of the 2019 Western Balkans summit.

Translation from Polish: Łukasz Gadzała


This publication has been cofinanced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within “Cooperation in Public Diplomacy 2018” programme.
This publication reflects the views of the author and not the official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.