Map of Western Balkans countries and their relationships with NATO and the EU

GIS Dossier: The Western Balkans

  • Western Balkans countries have stalled on their path toward the EU
  • Russia and China are maneuvering for more influence in the region
  • Corruption and weak democratic institutions are the region’s biggest challenges

GIS Dossiers aim to give our subscribers a quick overview of key topics, regions or conflicts based on a selection of our experts’ reports since 2011. This survey is devoted to the Western Balkans, which has made a lot of progress since the wars of the 1990s but remains precariously close to sliding back into violence.

Perched on the shores of the Adriatic Sea, the Western Balkans have always been a strategically important region for Europe. Its volatile mix of religions, ethnicities and powerful neighbors have led to a history of conflict and instability. One hundred years after the end of World War I, 20 years after the Yugoslav wars and 10 years after Kosovo’s declaration of independence, the region has remained relatively peaceful.

Democratic institutions, however, are still weak. The path the region follows will have repercussions for global power plays, especially between the West and Russia, but also for rising powers to the east like Turkey and China. GIS expert Dr. Blerim Reka has thoroughly analyzed the key factors at play in the region, and what follows is a summary of his reports.

Stalled European integration

In 2014, Dr. Reka noted that the Western Balkan countries were stalling in their progress toward European integration, saying that they are “in Europe geographically but out of Europe politically.” This was the result of their incomplete threefold transition from war to peace, from communism to post-communism and from state to market economies. The peace that was achieved did not eliminate the underlying reasons for conflict: international models for multiethnic states simply did not stick in the Balkans and undemocratic regimes took hold. “Democracy was sacrificed in the name of security, and authoritarianism was tolerated before liberalism.”

The EU’s failure to deepen political engagement left leaders with no incentive to abide by the rule of law. The EU claimed “enlargement fatigue” and a lack of ability to “absorb” the Balkan countries, even though their combined population would have come to just 21 million – about the size of Romania, which entered the EU in 2007. In reality, the bloc was suffering from a sort of institutional as well as financial fatigue after the 2008 global economic crisis. Then, in 2014, the EU had to shift its attention northeast, where it was being challenged by Russia in Ukraine.

All these problems remain on the bloc’s plate.

EU membership for the Balkans cannot realistically be expected before 2022

For all these reasons, EU membership for the Balkans cannot realistically be expected before 2022, predicted Dr. Reka. “This is because enlargement to include the Balkans relies mainly on geopolitical explanations, excluding the technical arguments for membership, which took eight years of negotiations for Croatia.”

Security vacuum

Dr. Reka presciently pointed out that a failure to make EU accession a real option could create a “security vacuum” in the region. Tellingly, some leaders in the Balkans had begun calling EU integration “one of the strategic alternatives” rather than the only alternative – revealing that they were considering “other geostrategic orientations,” namely, allying with Russia. “This could potentially see a new Cold War in the Balkans,” he wrote.

“The 20 years of post-Dayton neglectful, ‘no war, no integration’ EU policies have allowed the volatile Western Balkan region to remain what it has been for generations – a ticking geopolitical time bomb,” he added in November 2015. “If the EU and NATO keep the region on the outside and the policies of benign neglect continue, Pan-Slavism and Islamic extremism will rather quickly put the Western Balkans on the Russian periphery … with all the foreseeable and unforeseeable consequences for the EU and the Atlantic alliance.”

Merkel’s wake-up call

In 2014, German Chancellor Angela Merkel initiated a series of annual meetings between the European Union and Western Balkan countries with two goals in mind: bringing those states closer to EU membership and putting the region back on the bloc’s agenda. Dr. Reka wrote that a show of serious political commitment toward the Western Balkans from European leadership was “precisely what has been missing for some time.”

Dr. Reka called Chancellor Merkel’s initiative a “wake-up call to the EU, which has forgotten about the Western Balkans.” The German initiative would lead to the “Europeanisation of the Balkans, instead of the Balkanization of Europe,” Dr. Reka predicted – though he cautioned that EU membership was not guaranteed and would be a long, arduous process.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (C, in red) poses with EU and regional leaders at the Western Balkans Summit in Trieste, Italy
The “Berlin Process” of EU-Western Balkans summits was initiated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel (C) in 2014. The latest meeting took place in Trieste, Italy, in July 2017 (source: dpa)

Part of the reason for that is individual countries in the region use their veto powers to hold candidate countries in limbo. Dr. Reka noted how Greece was holding up Albania’s progress toward EU membership, as well as Macedonia’s membership in both the EU and NATO. “Greece’s opposition to integrating its neighbors into the European Union and NATO could create bilateral tensions and threaten regional security,” he wrote.

Since then, the series of meetings has been dubbed the “Berlin Process.” Its latest iteration, held in July 2017 in Trieste, Italy, reaffirmed Western commitment to bringing the Balkans into the fold, and made an increased EU and NATO presence in the Balkans the most likely scenario, Dr. Reka noted.

Russia’s role

The Balkans are crucial for Russia as a buffer between it and NATO, and as a region through which it could access the Mediterranean. To achieve the latter, it has long courted Macedonia. Skopje, however, has decided to apply for membership in the EU and NATO. But its strategic orientation could change quickly. As GIS founder Prince Michael of Liechtenstein warned in a December 2016 comment, Greece’s insistence on blocking Macedonia from joining those institutions could drive Macedonia into the arms of Russia.

The key to Russia’s strategy in the Balkans, however, is Serbia, a fellow majority Orthodox Christian country and the only Balkan country with a Russian military base. The countries formed a “strategic alliance” in May 2014 and carried out joint military exercises in November of the same year. Comfortingly for Moscow, Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin declared during a trip to Moscow in August 2017 that his country “will never join NATO.”

With the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, many feared that his campaign rhetoric skeptical of NATO would mean the U.S. could abandon the region. Dr. Reka rightly predicted however, that Washington’s strategic line on the transatlantic alliance – and therefore the Balkans – would remain unchanged, blocking Russian aspirations for a bigger foothold in the region.

History is back

Developments in the Balkans over the past few years have provided troubling evidence that history may be ready to repeat itself. Wracked throughout the 20th century by wars over great power influence and ethnic groups’ claims to territory, both sets of tensions are flaring up again, wrote Dr. Reka in July 2016.

A map showing Serb and Albanian populations in the Western Balkans
Albanians and Serbs are the two biggest nations in the region, and tensions between them are at the heart of instability there (source: macpixxel for GIS)

When it comes to ethnic tensions, the biggest is the conflict between Serbs and Albanians, the two largest nations in the Balkans. These peoples are scattered across five Balkan states. “Both nationalities dominate large enclaves in other countries: the Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Albanians in Macedonia,” noted Dr. Reka. In 2015 Macedonia saw a 40-hour gun battle in which “intruders” that the government claimed were from (ethnically Albanian) Kosovo fired on the police, while a political crisis resulted after a conservative-nationalist party was unable to form a government due to demands from ethnic Albanian parties. The interethnic split is delaying the country’s postwar progress and slowing its momentum toward inclusion in Euro-Atlantic structures, he wrote.

Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina have their own autonomous republic, called Republika Srpska, whose leaders have repeatedly expressed the desire to break away. In September 2016, the region held a controversial referendum on whether to keep its national holiday, which the country’s constitutional court had ruled discriminated against other citizens of the federal state.

At the same time, there is a geopolitical tug-of-war underway. “The EU and NATO countries will be vying with Russia not just for military and diplomatic influence, but also to control the energy corridors that transit the region,” Dr. Reka wrote. China, Turkey and other states, like Saudi Arabia and Iran, are also jostling for leverage.

“If the Western Balkans are destined to become a new hot spot, wracked by ethnoterritorial disputes and great power meddling, the multiethnic model that has prevailed over the past 10 years may no longer be viable,” he concluded. “All this suggests that the Western Balkans are reverting to familiar 20th-century ground.”

Pipeline politics

Dr. Reka observed that the rivalry between Russia and the West was not only playing out in terms of military alliances, but in terms of energy. In a May 2014 report, he analyzed the two energy corridors in the Balkans: “Russia’s corridor with Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia; and the Western corridor with Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro.”

The EU’s opposition to Russia’s South Stream pipeline (which would have run from Russia to Austria through Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary), and Moscow’s subsequent decision to abandon the project, sent ripple effects throughout the region. As the possibility for Russian investment and transit payments melted away, countries started more definitively edging closer to the West. The move was a blow to Serbia’s ambitions to gain geopolitical clout by serving as an energy corridor, and it gave a leg up to Western allies in the region. NATO member Albania, already a corridor for the Trans Adriatic and the Ionian-Adriatic pipelines, benefited from new investments in its oil fields and bilateral electricity transmission agreements with Kosovo and Macedonia.

Russia did not stand pat, however. It turned east and signed a 30-year, $400 billion agreement to export gas to China. “Russia is using this deal to replace losses in the European Union energy market and to reduce its dependence on euro cash flow after the imposition of sanctions and blocking of its South Stream pipeline proposals,” wrote Dr. Reka in July 2014. It also began a diplomatic offensive aimed at using rivers running through Serbia and Greece to gain access to the Mediterranean Sea.

Regional integration

One way to help ease tensions in the Balkans could be through initiatives to lift barriers, both economic and political. The Balkans Area of Free Trade Agreements, which was conceived in 1998 and would have included Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro, was one such proposal. The essence of the project was “to create a free trade area between the four countries, each related by natural, historic and traditional bonds. They also have an approximately equal level of economic, political, cultural, scientific, technological and industrial development,” wrote Dr. Reka in 2014.

Creating a ‘Balkans Benelux’ would serve as a preparatory step toward wholesale integration of the region into the EU

He saw the project as a basis for a “Balkans Benelux” that would eventually create a common market, attract foreign direct investment and allow the free movement of people between countries, defusing the various border disputes within the region. It would also serve as a preparatory step toward wholesale integration of the region into the EU.

By 2007, all the countries in the region were part of the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) – but free trade did not mean a fully functioning common market. In April 2017, Serbian President Alkesandar Vucic called for a politically integrated free-trade zone in the region. That would include the old Yugoslavia, plus Albania. Due to the different strategic orientations and ethnic makeups of the various countries involved, Dr. Reka saw that possibility as unrealistic. More likely, he said, would be subregional groupings. “This scenario would divide the region into two large zones: a ‘Serbian’ Balkans (Serbia and Republika Srpska), oriented toward Russia, and an ‘Albanian’ Balkans (Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro), oriented toward the EU and NATO.

Serbia’s choice

At the heart of the Western Balkans is Serbia, the region’s largest country in terms of both area and population. It is trying to navigate a delicate line between the West and its traditional ally, Russia.

Officially, Serbia wants to join the EU and has been negotiating accession since 2015. However, the issue of Kosovo – which declared independence from Serbia in 2008 – has proven a stumbling block. Serbia’s constitution calls Kosovo an “integral part” of the country’s territory, and Belgrade still does not recognize it as an independent state. In fact, Serbia and Kosovo have still not signed a peace treaty. However, as Dr. Reka observed in a September 2014 report, some of the EU’s biggest members have made it clear that Serbia cannot join the bloc until it recognizes Kosovo.

Moscow backs Belgrade’s stance on Kosovo, and provides it with key economic, political and diplomatic support. But if Serbia were to join the EU, it would also have to impose sanctions on Russia – ruining the relationship.

This is Serbia’s dilemma: should it keep Russian patronage or choose the benefits of EU membership?

This is Serbia’s dilemma: should it continue to try to hold on to Kosovo and keep Russian patronage, or choose the EU and all of the benefits membership brings? “Serbia faces a tough geopolitical choice between being part of the Euro-Atlantic community or continuing its traditional alliance with Russia. It could become the key EU member country in the Balkans with an important geostrategic position and the largest market – or be locked out of an EU-Atlantic integrated Balkans,” wrote Dr. Reka.

Recently it seems Belgrade has begun setting the foundation for finally making a decision. In 2017, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic called for a “broad national debate” on Kosovo, indicating there could be room for movement. Dr. Reka outlined two scenarios, one in which Serbia simply recognizes Kosovo and another in which it demands a territorial swap, exchanging small areas that are majority Serb and Albanian. The latter would be supported by Russia, but would be complicated and could lead to conflict. The former, though potentially hard for many Serbs to accept, would win Belgrade its release from a century-old problem and unblock its Euro-Atlantic future, the GIS expert wrote.

Enter the dragon

As if the region’s geopolitical tug-of-war between Russia and the West were not enough, China is now making its presence felt. But its push will be soft, and based on economics, wrote Dr. Reka in January 2018. Just as delaying the region’s integration into Europe provides an opening for Russia, so too for China. “Beijing’s first step will be to become a key economic player in the Balkans; political leverage will come later,” he wrote.

A map of major Chinese infrastructure investments in the Western Balkans
China has pumped huge amounts of infrastructure investment into the Western Balkans as it maneuvers for influence in the strategically important region (source: macpixxel for GIS)

The Western Balkans is the perfect springboard for China’s expansion strategy, he pointed out. The region directly borders the EU and its countries enjoy zero customs regimes with the bloc. China is investing heavily in infrastructure there, including a high-speed railway line between Budapest and Belgrade and a $260 million bridge across the Danube. It loaned Macedonia 580 million euros for two highway projects and earmarked another 500 million euros for projects related to its Belt and Road Initiative there. It has also been investing in a railway project in Albania, while a Chinese company will build part of the Ionian-Adriatic highway running through Montenegro and Albania.

Next phase

Shoring up the rule of law and rooting out corruption remain the two main priorities for the West in the Balkans. “The European Union and United States are pushing for better democratic governance in the region,” wrote Dr. Reka in a March 2018 report. “This requires stable institutions, efficient public administration and an independent judiciary. None of that can materialize, however, without first eradicating the deeply entrenched culture of bribery and political patronage.”

In February 2018, the EU unveiled a new accession strategy for the Western Balkans to breathe new life into the stalled process. The EU initiative, supported by the U.S., aims at a fundamental, multifaceted democratization within a decade. The program is strict: “To listen to Brussels, the EU will no longer tolerate bending the rule of law in the Balkans in the name of security or granting amnesties to corrupt political bosses. It demands the big-fish ‘untouchables’ in the region to be brought to justice.” Countries in the region have begun beefing up their law enforcement agencies to comply.

Dr. Reka saw an optimistic scenario, where countries tackle these issues effectively, as likely. This would lead to Macedonia and Albania starting EU accession talks in 2019, while Montenegro and Serbia, which have both already begun negotiations, would move forward in the process more quickly. The less likely, negative scenario, in which the anti-corruption, rule-of-law drive fails, would leave them out of the Euro-Atlantic family. “Left alone, these states are likely to fall into the orbits of outside, anti-Western powers and, in many cases, succumb to chaos.”

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