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INFO   :::  Home - In Focus > In Focus - PAGE 1 > Outside influences in the Balkans

 

Outside influences in the Balkans

Daniel Serwer

April 26, 2017

 

 

Some colleagues asked that I talk yesterday about outside influences on the Balkans, where things have gotten shaky lately, with a risk that the peace settlements of the 1990s might unravel. Here are the notes I prepared for myself:

 

1.Renewed attention to the Balkans, which has all but dropped off Washington’s priorities in recent years, is most welcome. The region has made a lot of progress, especially in the first ten years after the Bosnian war, but right now it is in trouble.

2.I’ve been asked to talk about “outside influences”: Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

3.It is important at the outset to say that none of these countries would have much influence in the Balkans except for the decline in American engagement and the weakening of the EU.

4.The US has tried for a decade now to get the EU to lead, as it has the main carrots for political and economic reform as well as more compelling interests in the region.

5.The Europeans have done some good things: the Brussels dialogue has led to real improvements in Belgrade/Pristina relations, even if many specific agreements remain unimplemented.

6.The 2014 British-German initiative for economic reform in Bosnia—undertaken to forestall a renewed U.S. initiative to change its constitution—has made little real progress, largely due to European reluctance to stick with its own conditionality.

7.The best that can be said for EU efforts in Macedonia is that they have so far avoided the worst, with US support. The EU there seems unable to overcome a monumental level of stubbornness.

8.But in the past two years the refugee crisis, Brexit, surging nationalism in many EU countries, and the congenital inability of the EU to speak with one voice has undermined the credibility of EU accession, which in any event won’t happen before 2020 and more likely not before 2025.

9.That’s a long time to wait in the Balkans, where we’ve spoiled people with Stabilization and Association, Schengen visas, candidacy for EU accession, pre-accession funds, and other goodies. What we haven’t done is invest: the US and EU have risked little private money in the Balkans.

10.Russia and Turkey—whose influence is far greater than others I’ve been asked to discuss—are moving into relative vacuums: the Russians find ethnic Serbs easy pickings and the Turks find Islamists, especially in Bosnia but also in Kosovo, friendly to their interests.

11.The Russian influence is overwhelmingly pernicious from a Western perspective. Moscow is doing its best to make NATO and EU membership as slow and as difficult as possible, especially in Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia, and Serbia. Its influence in Albania and Kosovo is minimal.

12.The attempted coup in Montenegro is just the tip of iceberg. Moscow contributes to ethnic tensions, political polarization, and regional instability in many ways: opaque financing for Republika Srpska, Russia’s so-called humanitarian center, overt military aid and investments in Serbia, support to Russophile politicians as well as media onslaughts throughout the region.

13.Quite apart from these Slavic connections, Moscow has strong leverage over Belgrade because its UNSC veto is essential to blocking Kosovo’s General Assembly membership.

14.Moscow’s goal is clear: to prevent Balkan countries from entering NATO and even the EU.

15.Turkey is a different story.

16.For more than twenty years after the Bosnian war the Turks were disciplined Western-oriented contributors to peacekeeping and development in the Balkans, trying to maintain good relations with Serbs and Croats as well as with Balkan Muslims.

17.This has been described as a “gentle version” of the Ottoman Empire, one associated with the “no problems with neighbors” policy and aimed at the region’s Christians as well as its Muslims.

18.Many Croats and Serbs may have been nervous about Turkish cultural inroads, as parts of the region lived for centuries under Ottoman domination, but most welcomed Turkish investment and contractors, which are evident throughout the region.

19.As Erdogan turned in a more authoritarian direction and relations with the US strained, Turkey began a more Islamist push, especially with Bosnian Muslims and President Bakir Izetbegovic.

20.The Muslim Brotherhood connection is a more visible and explicit one for Bakir than it was for his father, though it existed for Alija Izetbegovic as well.

21.The recent Turkish-Russian rapprochement has had an undesirable impact with some Bosniak leaders in Montenegro. They are taking Erdogan’s hint, viewing Moscow in a more positive light and connecting with the Chechen leadership. That development may warrant monitoring, especially if it spills over to Bosnia.

22.Turkey has also had notably good relations with President Thaci in Kosovo, but more based on commercial opportunities than religion.

23.Iran and Saudi Arabia both have long histories in the Balkans.

24.They supported the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina during its war with Republika Srpska from 1992 to 1995. Iran sent weapons. The Kingdom sent money. Neither was much interested in the secular, pro-democracy Albanian rebellion in Kosovo.

25.After the war in Bosnia, most of the foreign mujahedeen fighters were expelled at US insistence, and Iranian influence there declined sharply under pressure from Washington.

26.Saudi Arabia provided humanitarian relief and rebuilt a lot of mosques, many of which are poorly attended. Nevertheless, Bosniaks are unquestionably more aware of their religion than before the war and more inclined to identify as Muslim.

27.Now Saudis, Emiratis, Kuwaitis and other Gulf investors are buying a lot of real estate, especially in Bosnia and Montenegro, causing heightened concern among Croats and Serbs.

28.Post-war, Iran focused more attention on Kosovo than Bosnia, where it planted some Shia preachers and has sought to establish Shiite practices, with modest success among a small number of people. Most Kosovars, like their president, are notoriously secular and pro-Western.

29.The Islamic State has however had some success in recruiting fighters from both Bosnia and Kosovo, by some accounts disproportionately large numbers relative to population. [I left it to a deeply knowledgeable colleague to discuss that aspect of current developments].

30.Finally: the Chinese.

31.They have toyed with expanding their presence in the Balkans, which consists mainly of tourists and infrastructure projects, including construction of a major road in Montenegro. The Balkanites welcome this Chinese presence gleefully.

32.But with no oil or other significant natural resources, the region is far from a priority for the Chinese, even if the Chinese are a priority for the region.

33.Chinese political influence so far as I have detected is minimal to negligible. Multiparty illiberal democracy is firmly implanted in the Balkans, even if liberal democracy is not.

34.Influence might be more important in the other direction: the Kosovo secession is a precedent the Chinese dislike, because of its implications for Tibet, and they would resist any independence move by Republika Srpska.

35.So to make a long story short: the decline of US and EU engagement in the Balkans has opened space for Russian troublemaking and for some Islamicization, both in the more moderate Turkish version and in the more problematic Saudi and Iranian versions. The Balkanites’ fondest hope is for more Chinese investment and tourists, which most treasure far more than religion.

36.What is to be done? I’m afraid I have nothing new to offer. We have no choice but to use what carrots and sticks are available.

37.Sanctions on recalcitrant Balkan politicians are important: the US designation of Milorad Dodik was a good first step, but what about Macedonian President Ivanov, who is refusing to allow a parliamentary majority to form a government? What about those whose malfeasance is amply documented in published wire taps?

38.Targeted sanctions would be far more effective if the EU followed suit, which it has so far not done. Strict EU conditionality in the accession process is also important, but it is also legitimate to ask whether getting countries into that process more quickly might be a good idea, as was done for Serbia.

39.As for other carrots, the admission of Montenegro to NATO shows the way. Getting Kosovo and Macedonia into the Alliance in the next five years would give the region some positive momentum, even if Serbia and Bosnia stay out.

40.That of course is no slam dunk. For Macedonia, Alliance membership will require the President of the United States to tell the Greeks that we won’t put up any longer with their failure to abide by the Interim Agreement and allow The FYROM to enter NATO.

41.For Kosovo, Alliance membership will mean upgrading its security forces to a real if small army. Rather than slowing Pristina down, we should be speeding it up by helping them to get the Serb support they need either for a constitutional amendment or for the required legislation.

42.As for Serbia, the big issue there is Russian influence. If Prime Minister Vucic really wants to take his country into the EU sometime soon after 2020, he needs to end his reliance on the Russian veto in the UN Security Council to block Kosovo’s UN membership. That would be better done sooner rather than later, as leverage just before EU entry is not on the side of the candidate country.

43.Bottom line: the cure for what ails the Balkans right now is more NATO and EU, not less. That means less Russia, which the Alliance and the EU need to learn to counter much more effectively than they are doing now.

 

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