The EU should beware Russians and Chinese bearing gifts in the Balkans

The Western Balkans has never triumphed without strategic clarity from Europe.

After the culmination of the Kosovan war, EU leaders and the Western Balkan states met at a summit, in 2000 in Zagreb, that was intended to seize the historic opportunity for regional cooperation, reconciliation and affirmation of a clear European perspective to all countries of the region.

Almost two weeks ago, 20 years later, a virtual summit was called to address exactly the same issues but in a more complex and different geopolitical landscape for Europe and the region.

The Zagreb summit lacked a strategic vision on how to move forward with the enlargement of the region. Kosovo still remains the only country in the area without visa-free travel with the Schengen Zone even though the European Commission has recommended such a step.

The credibility and power of the European Union are in question across the region. The summit focused more on soft power issues, that without the enlargement clarity, are about to be completed by third actors in the region.

The EU has been the traditional soft power in the Balkans for the past 20 to 30 years but the coronavirus pandemic has led to China and Russia trying to take over. That is happening on at least two levels.

First, the coronavirus pandemic has brought an increase of Russian and Chinese disinformation and propaganda campaigns across the Western Balkans, where the countries of the region have neither capacity nor knowledge how to counter them.

If the EU would like to preserve its standing in the region, it should think what it can do, together with US, to support the countries of the region in fighting disinformation campaigns.

Secondly, EU has financially and logistically supported the region during the pandemic, but Chinese and Russian diplomacy has increased in the Balkans. China and Russia have never before been so committed to promoting their status as benevolent global actors as they support for Serbia with medical aid.

For a long time, the European Union has underestimated the importance of foreign policy alignment between Western Balkans and the EU. Now this is backfiring in Serbia, which has become the gateway for China and Russia in the region. Still, the EU has not provided a concrete framework on how to counter the hybrid threats of Russia and China.

This complex geopolitical situation and the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic will put the Western Balkans in a more difficult situation to manoeuvre to face its democratic deficit, economic and social challenges, and chaotic regional cooperation structures.

But in a very weak summit final communiqué, the Chinese and Russia goals to turn the region into a geopolitical chessboard was finally touched albeit briefly and generally, as if we were talking about the possible landing of aliens.

The 2020 Freedom House Nations in Transit Report shows that only Kosovo and North Macedonia have kept the trend of democratisation in the region. This regional backslide means that, if not supported by a tangible EU enlargement perspective, both countries would not be able to progress for long when authoritarian rule is expanding throughout the region.

The region has made rapid progress in recent decades toward democratisation, but it may experience a rapid about-turn. Illiberal democracies are exactly what the Kremlin and Beijing would prefer to see in the Balkans.  It fits their playbook.

A region with a democratic deficit, and a need to ensure economic growth after the coronavirus pandemic, will be attractive for China and Russia as they expand their influence through the use of soft power, primarily leverage derived from economic and investment support. China and Russia will seize the opportunity and compete with the EU. 

Without a clear and dynamic enlargement process for all countries of the region, that was absent from Zagreb summit as a policy in the final communiqué, the European Union will lower itself to be on the same footing as China and Russia.

The problem is that still the European Union is not aware of this damage to its credibility and standing in the region and the risks it brings to us in the region and Europe too.

Since 2000, the EU has emphasised regional cooperation. However, we must be clear that regional cooperation in the Western Balkans, even with the dozen structures and institutions that have been created, has failed to show solidarity during the pandemic coronavirus situation in the region.

Countries have acted on their own with outside actors to cope with the pandemic, but there has been no regional approach or initiatives to stand together as a region. This requires a reflection by the region and the European Union on how to reform regional structures and make them more effective.

If people do not benefit from regional cooperation in times of crisis, is it worth keeping them in times of normality? This is a strategic question that the Western Balkans and the European Union must address.

The EU must set clear goals and a timeframe of how it wants to progress with the enlargement in the Balkans. The Zagreb summit failed to do that. In this difficult and ever-changing international environment, the Western Balkans will triumph only when Europe has a firm commitment towards the Western Balkans.

The EU can act as a global player when it is able to understand how others view the Western Balkans, and how they are not on the same page with the European Union. The time has come for the EU to end its naivety in the Western Balkans.

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