After the catastrophic and traumatic wars of the 1990s, the Balkans experienced two decades of relative stability and democratic progress. The European Union, together with the United States, played a crucial role in helping with reconciliation, supporting and furthering state-building processes, and fueling economic recovery and development. The lack of other major foreign actors in the region made this possible.
However, China’s rising investments and renewed Russian activities in the Balkans, all while the E.U. seems unable to decide on enlargement, have raised the stakes. Beijing’s and Moscow’s presence could threaten peace, hinder democratization, and challenge the region’s Western orientation. To counter these influences, more leadership and engagement from the Western partners is needed.
Russia’s Influence in the Balkans
Observers and decision-makers in Brussels and Washington have always been attentive to destabilizing Russian activities aimed at frustrating reconciliation between the Balkan states.
Under Vladimir Putin’s rule, Russia has regarded the region’s protracted conflicts as assets it could use to exert influence over local actors and slow down their integration into Western organizations. This was evident in the way Russia reacted to the agreement between Greece and now-North Macedonia’s over the latter’s name. It is also emphasized in the way Russia positions itself in the conflict between Kosovo and Serbia.
However, Russia is going much further than merely diplomatically supporting its allies and exploiting the ongoing disputes. These past months, Russia has directly boosted Serbia’s military capabilities through armaments such as tanks and warplanes. These military procurements have emboldened hardcore nationalists like Serbian Minister of Defense Aleksandar Vulin, who claimed last month that the weapons somehow serve as “guarantee that the Balkans will be at peace.” Furthermore, there have been suggestions that Russia is aiming for a military base in Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity Republika Srpska.
Though Russia has always played the role of a spoiler in the region, recent activities show that Moscow is becoming more assertive. But despite its political and diplomatic activities, and more recently a militaristic element, Russia is not able to compete with the E.U. due to a lack of financial resources.
However, another challenge to E.U.’s Balkans policy could come from China, which is also expanding its influence in the region.
China’s Influence in the Balkans
China has been stepping up its investments in the region for quite some time now, gradually becoming a relevant player through economic projects. China does this in an organized fashion and through a clear platform.
All the Balkan countries – except Kosovo, which China does not recognize – are part of China’s 17+1 cooperation platform. Initially launched as 16+1 in 2012 to increase cooperation with the five Western Balkan countries and eleven E.U. members, the platform expanded this year by adding Greece. It is now an integral part of China’s broader Belt and Road Initiative.
Chinese investments in the Balkans are primarily concentrated in Serbia and include the modernization of Chinese-owned assets in Serbia, as well as offers to help Serbia build its 5G network.
Besides Serbia, China is making important investments in infrastructure in North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. But Beijing seems eager to go a step further. This month, Serbian officials announced that China has agreed to sell Belgrade armed drones. This would make Serbia the first country in Europe to import fighting drones from China and gives the country’s presence in the Balkans a new dimension.
The Balkan countries have been oriented towards the West, and the European Union remains so far the sole political project for the region. However, Russia’s posture and its destabilizing behavior could undermine the region’s democratic progress and stability, while the Chinese presence carries several risks and emboldens lack of transparency and corruptive practices. Western Balkans countries might soon face a tough reckoning over their openness towards Chinese loans and grants.
While Russia and China are both becoming bolder in the Western Balkans, there are differences in their approaches. Moscow combines soft power with a focus on regional security matters. Beijing is focused on growing economic investments and increasing its economic footprint, refraining so far from positioning itself on geopolitical matters.
China and Russia might not have the same objectives but combined with inconclusive E.U. leadership, their presence risks having longstanding implications for the region.
Countering Russian and Chinese Influence
The E.U. and the U.S. can and should be more active and effective in countering and mitigating the risks that arise from Chinese and Russian activities in the Balkans. They could do so by reinvigorating their efforts in pushing the countries of the region towards more reforms tackling corruption, more actively fighting disinformation, and supporting accountability and the rule of law.
Albania’s accession to the EU is in the best interest of the whole of Europe. Because there will be no stable and safe Europe without the integration of all the Balkans in the EU. What is at stake is our common future.https://t.co/hghHkZH9ow pic.twitter.com/yW3gfBAKiu
— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) September 17, 2019
Renewed support for state-building processes and increased transparency would deal a blow to corruptive practices that frustrate the local populations and facilitate Chinese and Russian inroads. This needs to be accompanied with a refreshed project and commitment by the Western actors for the E.U. integration of the Western Balkans.
Brussels and Washington cannot simply dismiss or neglect the presence of Russia and China in the Balkans. The consequences would be grave.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.