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Paul E M Reynolds, May 2023


This article is based on a speech given at the Istanbul Security Forum in Turkiye, organised by the Turkish Presidency, on May 3rd 2023. The platform at the conference was shared with Stefan Fule, European Commissioner for EU Enlargement, 2010-2014, who responded.

More than thirty years after Yugoslavia was dissolved, and descended into military conflict, the emerging nation states of South East Europe remain divided, with widely differing leanings in relations with regional and global powers. Unity has proven evasive.

Whilst Slovenia and Croatia, mostly on the Austro-Hungarian side of the historical divide, enjoy relative prosperity in the EU, the rest of the Western Balkans languishes outside the EU, with GDP per capita at between 26% and 46% of the EU average. Fears of escalating conflict dampen investment and economic development, as slow economic development, in turn, fuels conflict. Together they have fuelled authoritarian governance and divisive sectarian politics, erecting further barriers to growth and to EU accession. 

Whilst having a level of GDP per capita close to the European average is not a formal requirement for EU accession, it underlies much of the landscape in Western Balkans–EU relations, and is a de-facto barrier to EU accession.

For the interests of the people of the Western Balkans, and for Europe as a whole, it is important however to understand the historical and regional context to the current gridlock; and in order to formulate an approach as to how the six Western Balkans countries (the WB6) can escape from the spiral.

In one sense, South East Europe has for centuries been ‘a place on the way to somewhere else’; an area subject to the competitive influence of global and regional powers. This is still true today. Geography and mountainous terrain have played a part in this, but comparisons with similar geographies around Europe demonstrate that unity drives transport and communication links as well as the reverse.

Today’s problems have their roots in the untidy, slow decline of the Ottoman Empire in the region, with different areas and different peoples gaining ‘independence’ at different times and under widely differing conditions. One result is that on the Eastern side of the WB6 the role of fellow Slavs to the East in gaining independence, including Russia, is more embedded than the Western side. 

For historians, this is despite the fact that, in the popular narrative, the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Carl Ludwig Joseph Maria of Austria, the presumptive future king of Austria-Hungary, led to World War I, because of ‘diplomatic errors’ by Russia in June 1914. The chances of peace passed by then.

As a consequence of the post-WWI peace, different countries formed different alliances in WW2.

The post-WW2 result, Yugoslavia, the ‘Southern Slavs’, is a term little-used these days. But as UK PM Margaret Thatcher once repeated, Yugoslavia was created as much to deny a future Germany access to the Adriatic as it was to prevent regional conflict, and to dilute the influence of Serbia. Ensuring a more secular Post-Ottoman Islam in Albania, North Macedonia and Bosnia i Herzegovina, was also a factor.  It contributed to the West being so sanguine about the Stalinist Enva Hoxa regime in the ‘hermit state’ of Albania, a largely Muslim country allied with communist China.

However, the main Western Cold War security focus in Yugoslavia, from WW2 up to 1991, was more related to the massed Soviet 14th Guards Army in Transnistria, Moldova, and fears of a Soviet ground invasion through Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Northern Italy (to be welcomed by Italian communists supposedly prepared for such an event). 

The complex ethnic, religious, denominational, and regional power history, and geographical factors in this period and since, led to a new word in US English after the post-Tito Yugoslavia conflicts; Balkanisation.

EU accession, and to an extent NATO membership, for 30 years have been seen as the main hope for peace and unity.  A key factor in the halting path of this process was Milosevic’s post-communist retreat into ethnic nationalism in Serbia, and the US bombing of Serbia in the Spring of 1999. The US bombing served to reinforce pro-Russian sentiment among ethnic Serbs, and the effects of this are felt today, to the likely detriment of EU interests.

This is one of the reasons why, by 2023, the perceived inevitability of peaceful European integration for the WB6, had all but gone. The peaceful integration of Serbia, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia i Herzegovina, Albania and Kosovo into the ‘European Family’ has almost evaporated. The historical determinists have been proved wrong.

What’s more, the deeper integration of Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary, addressing a series of ‘acquis’ problems, and the integration of Moldova, now are also no longer seen as inevitable. 

The increased tensions among the WB6 in 2022-3 have suggested comparisons with the so-called ‘Last Chance for Peace’ after the Archduke’s assassination in June 1914, where attempts to avoid a war failed. In Summer 2023, the last chance for peace may well have slipped away again. 

But why and what is next ?

Relations between Serbia and traditional ally Russia have even become even closer since the conflict in Ukraine, Serbia has resisted NATO membership, unlike Montenegro and others. This has not only served to reverse integration of Respublika Srpska with the Federation in Bosnia i Herzegovina, it has raised suspicions about the reasons Bulgaria has raised historical objections to North Macedonia’s EU accession. Meanwhile Montenegro (Crna Gora) has been in turmoil, and Kosovo-Serbia relations remain unresolved and volatile. Clearly, the conflict in Ukraine is one factor. But to see a way to peace and prosperity, other factors can be considered.

One is the manner of the EU approach to accession. The EU easily gets bogged down in the labyrinthine challenges of accession, and the adoption of the acquis. 

For the EU there has been too much reliance on the complex processes of accession as a motivator, it is said. It is often said that the obstacles to accession set out by the EU miss the political ‘big picture’ and assume that economic development prospects will by themselves unblock the gridlock. It is also alleged that the US has expressed concerns about entry into the EU of Serbia, Kosovo and Albania.

As the International Crisis Group wrote in 2021, ‘With U.S. support, [the EU] should work to address tensions through diplomacy that does not rely on the prospect of EU accession as the primary incentive. ‘ 

EU enlargement as a project has ‘lost traction’ among accession states among the WB6 it is alleged. 

The European Commission adopted a revised enlargement methodology in February 2020. The new approach groups the 35 negotiation chapters into six ‘clusters’ to be opened and closed together. The rule of law cluster has pride of place and is to be opened first and closed last. This is a very EU-centric approach and seemingly does not intend to find ways of breaking the accession deadlock; and for example to find ways to bring per capita GDP closer to the EU average.

What’s more, with crisis following crisis, many member states in the EU put enlargement at the bottom of their in-trays, seeing the WB6 as a problem rather than an opportunity.

The nature of the Ukraine conflict factor in 2023 is worth elaborating upon. Certainly in Serbia, and to an extent in Hungary, the US-led narrative on the conflict in Ukraine, supported by the EU & UK, is not accepted. They expect Russia to ‘win’ the war (however win is defined) and see it as a pivotal moment when the world transitions from unipolar to multipolar. Whilst Serbia has historical ties with Russia which run deep, and strong economic links (eg Serbian oil giant NIS is linked to Gazprom), other WB6 states are likely to want to hedge their bets, perceiving likely Russian advantage from the conflict.

By contrast the position of the US appears to be that the Ukraine war is diminishing the benefits of cooperation with Russia, on the basis that Ukraine is near a full military victory. Clearly some countries in the region do not accept this US narrative, and not just Serbia.

In Serbia certainly there is a sense that the world’s centre of gravity is shifting away from the US and the EU. Privately, Russia and China are seen as potential backers and investors, without conditionality attached, over human rights or rising authoritarianism. There is a psychological drift away from the EU.

In this context, hydrocarbon dynamics play a major role in shifting orientation. Nord Stream 1 and 2 being offline, the only direct Russia-EU gas route has gone. All the rest go through Ukraine (outside the Don Basin) or Turkiye. 

Turkiye’s leverage has thus been enhanced by the Ukraine conflict in this respect. The only reliable route into Europe with gas originating in Russia transits through Turkey and Bulgaria. There is also a transit route through Turkey with gas originating  in Azerbaijan via the TANAP/SCP, which brings even more leverage to Turkiye.

In summary, in the Western Balkans, the pan-European dream appears to be waning. EU foreign & neighbourhood policy has been, perhaps inadvertently, lacking long term depth. 

Turkey is beginning to supplant the EU influence. Given the hydrocarbon dynamics, the Ottoman history, and pragmatic case-by-case approach to foreign policy, Turkey seems best placed to ‘save the Balkans for Europe’. 

After all, Turkiye has functioning working relations with Russia, Ukraine, the EU and the US – and indeed the Middle East and China. 

Turkiye has had an increasingly major role in the region historically and now is providing  key investments and support, especially focused on economic growth. For example, Turkiye is funding and overseeing the Sarajevo-Belgrade highway; a major contributor to growth and cooperation. 

With functioning relations with all key parties Turkey is uniquely placed to prevent further conflict in the WB6.

The Turkiye government has been well aware of the ‘gridlock’ factor, and the need for economic development across the WB6, despite the fact that, officially, GDP per capita is not part of the accession process.

Bulgaria, the poorest country ever to join, had a per capita GDP of only 41 per cent of the EU average when it acceded in 2007. That may be too little today with the current global economic problems.  Croatia, the last to join in 2013, had 60 per cent of the EU average.  The WB6 range from 26 to 46 per cent of the EU average gaining between 1.8 and 6.6 per cent over the past decade. At that rate, no Balkan state – not even Serbia and Montenegro, which have passed Bulgaria’s 2007 level – will reach 60 per cent for decades.

Steps to increase pan-EU member investment in these countries alongside domestic reforms have been taken, but may not have been especially astute. This has been a lost growth opportunity for the EU. 

WB6 countries are thus forced to lure investors with expensive packages of tax breaks and subsidies, such as the case of as with the Italian-U.S. automotive giant Fiat-Chrysler-Stellantis, in Serbia. Some WB6 countries look to China for investment, but with terms that reflect the weak position of WB6 countries, such as the new Chinese-built highway in Montenegro.

It is likely that Turkiye will continue to invest, and facilitate further investment in the WB6. The irony is not lost in the Turkiye Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that after decades of difficult economic relations with the EU, Turkiye is, inadvertently or otherwise, helping GDP growth in the WB6, and helping to calm tensions. This is likely to make EU accession for the WB6 more likely, breaking the ‘gridlock’. In the end Turkiye may save the WB6 for the EU.

© Copyright Paul EM Reynolds, 2023

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