Soft power not enough in the Balkans


The 21st century in the Balkans is starting to look dangerously like the 19th — with one important difference. In the 19th century, Russia and Turkey were big rivals in the struggle for regional influence, while Germany, Austria-Hungary and Britain smartly parlayed Russo-Turkish divisions to their commercial and political advantage, says analyst Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Sofia-based Centre for Liberal Strategies. Today Russia and Turkey are united in their efforts to reduce the influence of the EU in the Balkans, he writes for The Financial Times:

Russia and Turkey are actively politicizing ethnic and religious tension in the Balkans, where public opinion is also shifting in ways that should worry the west. When asked by Gallup International, the pollster, which leading military power their country should turn to for help in the case of conflict, a plurality of Turks, Serbs and Bulgarians and the majority of Greeks answered Russia. This was despite the fact that Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria are members of Nato and Serbia aspires to join the EU.

The reason for this rules-free environment, however, falls squarely on the EU’s stubborn insistence on addressing the region solely through its standard enlargement framework, despite years of the proven inadequacy of its soft power alone in the region, notes Kurt W Bassuener of the Democratization Policy Council at the UK’s University of St Andrews. But the torpedoing of Russia’s South Stream pipeline project by the European Union in 2015 demonstrated that when the EU is willing to play hardball, it can compel compliance, he writes to the FT:

Nothing so impresses Moscow or regional leaders who venerate Vladimir Putin (and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan) as much as firmness in standing up both for Europe’s interests and for its democratic principles. This has become even more important in the Trump era. The EU’s problem in the Balkans has not been to “win hearts and minds” but to demonstrate it has backbone — and prove to local exponents of its liberal democratic values that it will back them up.

The Balkan wars of the 1990s seem like a distant memory. But the possibility of renewed crisis in the region is growing and may soon impose new demands on US policy, according to Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy, and Ivana Cvetkovic Bajrovic, the NED’s Senior Program Officer for Southeastern Europe. The emerging Balkan crisis is partly the result of the failure of the countries of the region to achieve meaningful democratic progress since the fall of communism, they write for World Affairs.

Part of [the west’s] failure owes to the fact that most of the region’s political elites don’t really want to join the EU, despite their ritualistic statements for material gain and legitimacy, adds Krastev (left), a contributor to the NED’s Journal of Democracy:

The west, and especially the EU, prioritise stability to the degree that, in effect, they have allied with governments which have no interest in meeting liberal democratic norms. This makes the EU’s latest pronouncements of concern on the Balkans — and Russia’s role — ring even more hollow….The EU must be ready to make the Balkans its geopolitical priority and to shape the political conflict there as a struggle for or against Europe. If it does not do this, its influence in the region will soon fade.


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