Family photo at the Western Balkans Summit in Trieste, Italy

A new Euro-Atlantic strategy for the Western Balkans

  • A stronger NATO presence and EU investment are targeted at the Western Balkans
  • Defusing Albanian-Serbian tensions remains the key to regional stability
  • Russia continues to play on regional animosities to defend its sphere of influence

The European Union and the United States have shown increased interest in the Western Balkans this summer. Six leaders of states in the region met with their EU counterparts on July 12, 2017 to discuss Euro-Atlantic integration. Three weeks later, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, during his first visit to Europe, stressed American commitment to the Western Balkans and advocated further NATO enlargement at the Adriatic Charter summit in Podgorica, Montenegro.

The EU-Balkans Summit – held this year in Trieste, Italy – has gathered annually since 2014 to advance the so-called Berlin Process, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s plan for integrating the Balkan states into the EU. Leaders from Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina were in attendance, along with their counterparts from several major EU members.

Even 25 years after the end of the Bosnian War, peace is fragile in the Western Balkans, and so are its governments. Corruption is widespread and the Balkan states lack good governance, stable institutions and independent judiciaries. None of these needs will be met soon, posing economic, political and security challenges for the entire region.

The economic problems are different and the security threat is changed – with a weaker Russia replacing the USSR

The EU and NATO hope to address these challenges before they get worse, and have laid out a strategy based on two pillars: security and economic development. The plan recalls the years after World War II, when the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine helped rebuild the continent and while protecting it against the Soviet menace.

Today, the economic problems are different, and the security threat is changed – with a weakened Russia replacing the Soviet Union. But the integration of the Western Balkans into the rest of Europe remains important for both regions. As Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said at the Trieste Summit, “I don’t think a freeze of this process in the next 10 years could be sustainable for these countries, and I don’t think it would be helpful for the EU.”

A NATO presence

The first pillar of the EU-NATO strategy will be to keep the Balkans as much as possible in the Western orbit. NATO will play the key role, as it has recently done in the Baltic states, Poland and Romania. Vice President Pence, at the Adriatic Charter summit in Podgorica, publicly warned against Russia’s “destabilizing activities” in the region and urged that integration with NATO be expanded to all Balkan countries. The U.S. is now finalizing a $4 billion arms sale to Romania, which shares a long border with Serbia.

The Balkans have stabilized since the wars of the 1990s, but the postwar period didn’t bring democratic governance. Weak institutions are a breeding ground for the involvement in the region of non-NATO and non-EU players, which thrive in the absence of the rule of law.

NATO will keep its doors open to the Balkan countries. If the alliance is open to Ukraine, which recently announced that it will seek NATO membership by 2020, the same should be possible for the Balkan states, which are hundreds of miles farther from the Russian border. But they must make major democratic reforms to join, and that will take time. Montenegro, which first applied to NATO in 2008, only became a member this year.

Ukraine and Syria are not far from the Balkans, and years of war and instability have had an impact

For more than a century, internal problems in the Balkans have invited external threats. A strong NATO presence in the region will help deal with challenges in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Both Ukraine and Syria are not far from the Balkans, and years of war and instability in both countries have already had an impact on the region.

The ‘Balkan Marshall Plan’

The second element in the road map for the Western Balkans will be economic reconstruction – a kind of new ‘Marshall Plan’ for the region. As Ms. Merkel put it at the Trieste summit, “political stability in the region means political stability for us, too.” Europe’s leaders have recognized that integrating the Western Balkans into the EU is a strategic investment in democracy, prosperity and security for the entire continent.

Before the Trieste Summit, expectations were high for a new German initiative on economic development. Ms. Merkel promised 1.4 billion euros to finance 20 infrastructure, energy and transport projects over the next three years. One major proposal would build a railway from Albania to Bulgaria, linking the Adriatic Sea with the Black Sea along Pan-European Corridor VIII. The route would give NATO stronger logistical links between three seas, including the Baltic, and support the concept of an “Intermarium” bloc of Central and East European allies.

U.S. troops watch a parachute training exercise in Kosovo
U.S. troops from 38th Cavalry Regiment watch NATO parachute training exercise in Kosovo (source: dpa)

The summit parties signed the Transport Community Treaty, which calls for a transport network within the Western Balkans and between the region and the EU. (Bosnia and Herzegovina declined to sign the treaty after a veto by Republika Srpska, the Serb-populated region of the country and a traditional Russian ally.)

They also launched a “Regional Economic Area” in the Western Balkans, to promote the flow of trade, labor and investment. The six Western Balkan leaders at the summit signed a "Multi-annual Action Plan" for the concept, and established a monitoring mechanism through the Regional Cooperation Council and the Central European Free Trade Agreement.

Competing alliances

The success of the Berlin Process will depend on how the next several years play out. The region’s historical alliances may be as relevant as ever.

It was no coincidence that Trieste was chosen as the location for this latest summit. This Adriatic port played an important role in negotiations after both World War I and World War II. Hosting the meeting there was meant to emphasize the theme of a new reconciliation. But the day after the Trieste Summit, another historically important port city – Thessaloniki – held a summit of its own, hosting the leaders of Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria.

At the conference, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic asked Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to maintain his country’s policy of not recognizing Kosovo — one of the countries participating at Trieste the day before. Greece is one of five EU members that do not recognize Kosovo’s independence.

In Europe, peace always depended on French-German relations; in the Balkans, the key is Albanian-Serb relations

Just as a railway linking the Adriatic and Black Seas was a priority in Trieste, the leaders at Thessaloniki discussed a proposed connection from Belgrade to the Greek port of Piraeus. Mr. Tsipras also sent a clear message that Macedonia will not be allowed to join the EU or NATO without changing its name.

In early August, Macedonian Defense Minister Radmila Sekerinska accused Russia of attempting to exert “influence in key political and securities areas.” The allegation was denied by the Russian Foreign Ministry. On August 20, Serbia announced it was closing its embassy in Skopje after it was allegedly targeted by “some foreign intelligence services” and due to Macedonia’s support for Kosovo’s membership in UNESCO.

The Thessaloniki meeting, just 24 hours after the Trieste Summit, showed the fragility of the Berlin Process. Two of the six participants may well be blocked from European integration, and even the Trieste plan for a transport network has already been partially interrupted by pro-Serbian and Russian interests in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In Europe, peace has always depended on French-German relations; in the Balkans, the key is Albanian-Serb relations. How can the Balkans follow the model of Europe after World War II, and transition from a delicate peace to genuine stability? There are two possible scenarios.

Western support

The first, more likely scenario is that within the next decade, the EU and NATO will increase their presence in the Western Balkans. NATO will likely finalize the membership of Macedonia by 2018, while maintaining stable relations with Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The alliance will also increase its existing presence in Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and the Baltic states, and support an “Intermarium” bloc between the Black, Baltic and Adriatic Seas, as U.S. President Donald Trump reaffirmed during his recent visit to Warsaw.

In this scenario, Serbia would become a pro-Russian island surrounded by NATO. Increased activity in the Serbian city of Nis, where Russia maintains a “humanitarian base” that some consider a spy base, will lead NATO to increase its Kosovo Force troop levels. Some 500 U.S. troops arrived in Kosovo in July 2017, and in March 2017, the U.S. sent military equipment to the Albanian port of Durres.

The Copenhagen criteria for accession to the EU are areas of weakness in all the Western Balkans countries

In return for the planned 1.4 billion euros of aid to the Western Balkans through 2020, the EU is asking its local partners for vigorous anticorruption efforts, improved governance and a more constructive foreign policy. None of these will be easy; the Copenhagen criteria for accession to the EU are areas of weakness in all the Western Balkans countries. Some estimates predict that, based on current gross domestic product (GDP) figures and growth projections, it will take 30 years before the Western Balkans are ready to join the EU. Financial support could help hasten the process – but only if both sides keep their promises.

No guarantees

The second, less likely scenario is for the EU and NATO to keep the Western Balkans outside the Euro-Atlantic umbrella, leaving the region’s political and economic problems unresolved.

Without support and influence from Brussels, Western Balkan elites would have a free hand to continue their corrupt practices. Moscow would support the bloc of Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria, advancing its plans for the Turkish Stream gas pipeline and strategic access to the Mediterranean. EU leaders have already warned about “external challenges” exacerbating the “fragile situation” in the Balkans – a thinly-veiled reference to Russian influence.

Another factor should not be underestimated: the old alliances that date back to the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. If these reemerge, they could spoil the aims of Brussels and Washington.

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