US withdrawal from the Balkans, mainly due to the absence of a consistent foreign policy agenda, has created a vacuum of leadership that other political actors are trying to assume. That at least was the consensus of witnesses to last week’s U.S. Senate Foreign Relations sub-committee hearing on “Southeast Europe: Strengthening Democracy and Countering Malign Foreign Influence,” writes Effrosyni (Frini) Chantzi. The hearing aimed to identify external threats to US interests and re-focus attention in the region by evaluating current trends of US policy, specifically with regard to Russian interventionism, the renewal of nationalistic sentiments and the political instability that threatens the region’s democratic institutions.
Russia remains the single most concerning external threat, having expanded its influence to a greater degree than anywhere else in Europe, save Ukraine, according to four regional experts, including Hoyt Brian Yee, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Damon Wilson, executive vice president of the Atlantic Council, Majda Ruge, a fellow in the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and Ivana Cvetkovic Bajrovic, Associate Director for Europe at the National Endowment for Democracy.
The Kremlin’s short-term goal is to spread propaganda and stroke discord, while expanding its influence, the committee heard, while its long-term plan is to create a strip of militarily neutral countries that would include Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Serbia. Moscow is strategically trying to politically destabilize the region, as evidenced by the Russian-backed Serbian nationalist’s breakout in Montenegro, using both the economic stagnation and the weak political institutions as leverage to undermine democratic processes.
Radicalization within the region’s Muslim population is an alarming development which could yet evolve into a serious security threat, experts told the committee. While many Muslims remain non-violent and pro-American – not least because of the US interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo – US disengagement and lack of opportunities could accelerate radicalization, sending disenchanted recruits into the Middle East’s sectarian conflicts with the potential to return home as security liabilities.
Homegrown political actors are capitalizing on some of the same weaknesses as external actors, especially endemic corruption and lack of economic prospects, the panel’s experts suggested. Kleptocratic authoritarianism is a plague for most Balkan states. More often than not authoritarian leaders actively undermine intra-state institutions such as the EU and NATO that are stabilizing factors in the region. The same autocratic strongmen prevent reconciliation by manipulating social and ethnic divisions in order to distract from failures in governance, characterized by weak and compromised institutions, growing media capture, lingering ethnic grievances, and worsening regional tensions.
The US should be grateful that the European Union is the major player in the region, committing far more resources, tools, human capital, and political attention, for there is no bright future for Southeast Europe without EU leadership, the committee heard. However, the United States retains a special authority given how central its moral voice and hard power were to ending the wars of the 1990s and stabilizing the region. The EU’s current political turbulence – including the Syrian refugee crisis, economic malaise and BREXIT – have distracted attention from the South East Balkan states. As a consequence, US-EU coordination is necessary to achieve stability and restore democratic engagement. US inaction or lack of commitment may be interpreted as intentional disengagement that will only contribute to the region’s political tensions. The US priority must be to end the regional drift, and a relatively small demonstration of commitment will provide a solid basis for the future stability.
In terms of specific policy recommendations, the committee heard that the US should:
1) develop a comprehensive strategy with clear goals to reassure its allies of its long-term commitment to democratic objectives;
2) forge a common policy for the region with the EU, and provide political and technical support to international partners:
3) provide support for democratic actors in the region, promote political solidarity in moral and practical terms, and adopt a more pluralistic approach by empowering reform processes by a diverse group of political, civic, and media actors; and
4) offer incentives and boost diplomatic engagement.
Effrosyni (Frini) Chantzi is an Intern in Government Relations and Public Affairs at the National Endowment for Democracy.