Recent political developments in the Western Balkans have led the European Union to re-focus its attention on the region, notes analyst Tzveta Dryanovska. Countries in southeastern Europe have been struggling to embrace and implement reforms that would steer them along the path towards EU accession. The recent rise in political tensions in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Albania and Serbia clearly illustrates the worrying trends in the region, including poisonous nationalist rhetoric, widespread corruption and the drift towards the centralisation of power, she writes for the European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS).
According to a recent CNA report (above) – Shining a Light on the Western Balkans Internal Vulnerabilities and Malign Influence from Russia, Terrorism, and Transnational Organized Crime by Vera Zakem, Bill Rosenau, and Danielle Johnson, four key factors have turned this region into a geopolitical competition for influence between the West and various adversary actors:
- internal vulnerabilities in Western Balkans countries;
- external influence from a proactive Russia;
- violent extremism and the flow of foreign fighters; and
- transnational criminal organizations that use the region as a major transit zone for people, drugs, weapons, and contraband.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Western-led intervention in the Balkans and subsequent foreign aid surge gave way to a pattern of benign neglect by both the United States and the European Union, the International Republican Institute’s Paul McCarthy notes. Believing that the Western Balkans’ democratic future lay in EU membership, the United States essentially ceded responsibility for the region’s political, institutional and economic development to the European Union, which has not fully picked up the slack, he writes for The American Interest:
Revanchist Russia has reasserted its traditional role as the protector of Orthodox Christian populations, using the Balkans as a buffer to forestall further European expansion and reassert their sphere of influence. Russia has influenced public opinion among Serbs, Montenegrins and Macedonians to dampen enthusiasm for EU and NATO membership, and has further bolstered its power through military aid and disinformation that exacerbates interethnic divisions. According to a recent poll by the International Republican Institute (IRI),* Macedonian support for NATO membership is at its lowest level since 2008. In Bosnia, IRI polling shows that only 18 percent of ethnic Serbs strongly favor joining the EU.
In Macedonia, according to files obtained by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and disclosed last week, Russian spies and diplomats long have been involved in an effort to spread propaganda and provoke discord, notes CEPA analyst Donald N. Jensen:
In fact, Moscow has been seeking to step up its influence across the former Yugoslavia for many years; the leaked documents note that Russian and Serbian soft-power efforts to push Macedonia away from the West have contributed to the former Yugoslav republic’s long-running political and ethnic crisis. In addition, Russia has drastically stepped up its cultural outreach in Macedonia, the documents reveal, pushing its idea of “pan-Slavic” identity and shared Orthodox Christian faith. Its embassy has overseen the creation of roughly 30 Macedonia-Russia “friendship associations,” opened a Russian cultural center in Skopje and built Orthodox crosses and Russian-style churches across the country.
Still, the path towards democratic consolidation for the Western Balkan states remains a long and difficult one, Dryanovska writes for the EUISS:
With the curbing of independent media, control of the judiciary, pressure on civil society, and rising unchecked corruption, new sources of political instability have emerged in these countries. The lack of a tangible prospect of accession to the EU may have encouraged established rulers to drift towards illiberalism and authoritarian rule; in turn, however, such drifts risk making that prospect even more remote. This said, such trends should not be overstated and lead observers to conclude that countries in the Western Balkans are on the brink of collapse or violence. Inflammatory political rhetoric is not new to the region and is consciously exploited by elites, mostly to detract attention from underlying domestic problems and political clashes. RTWT
*A core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy.