FT – EU goes back to the future in the Balkans as Russia and Turkey are united in their efforts to reduce the bloc’s influence

Winston Churchill once said that the Balkans produce more history than they can consume. But could it be that they produce more history than Europe can consume? – asks Ivan Krastev for the Financial Times.

It was in the Balkans in the 1990s that Europe’s post-cold war security order was shaped. The bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia convinced then-US president Bill Clinton to go ahead with the eastward expansion of Nato.

The fear of nationalist contagion also persuaded European leaders at the time to proceed with the EU’s enlargement. Today, there is a growing likelihood that it will be the Balkans where the post-cold war dispensation in Europe will be challenged most dramatically. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the region was on the agenda at last week’s EU summit.

But while the EU’s reaction is timely, it is also weak. The announcement that the door to the bloc is still open for the countries of the region is unlikely to amount to much. As a popular joke has it, the difference between the optimists and the pessimists in the Balkans when it comes to European integration is that optimists believe that Turkey will become a member of the EU during the Albanian presidency, while pessimists expect that Albania will join during the Turkish presidency.

Many Serbs, Albanians, Macedonians and Bosnians are sceptical not only about the future of their countries in Europe, but about the future of the EU itself. 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.

Today Russia and Turkey are united in their efforts to reduce the influence of the EU in the Balkans. Moscow and Ankara are actively politicising ethnic and religious tension in the Balkans. The Russian and Turkish political, economic and intelligence presence in the region is not confined to former Yugoslavia and Albania, but stretches to Bulgaria and Greece, too. 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 situation on the ground is defined by stagnating economies with high unemployment and illiberal regimes headed by political leaders who would sooner abandon Europe than surrender power. The public mood, meanwhile, is an explosive combination of frustration, confusion and despair. The huge exodus of people from the region over the past two decades has left societies with no critical mass to drive change. And the recent refugee crisis, along with the demographic fears it has fuelled, has aggravated a pervasive sense of hopelessness and pessimism. The unresolved political crisis in Macedonia, a failed coup attempt in Montenegro and active discussion of an independence referendum in Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina, suggest what the future of the region could look like.

The EU is the Balkans’ principal trading partner, and people wanting to leave dream of going to Germany or Italy rather than Moscow or Ankara. But this will not be enough to keep the region securely in the EU’s sphere of influence. Neither the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Macedonia nor the thaw in Serbia-Kosovo relations should be taken for granted.

The new reality in the Balkans is that the Europeans can no longer rely on the US to help secure peace and stability in the region. The Balkans will never be a priority for Donald Trump, and this administration will be unwilling to defend Muslims in the region, a role that the US played in the 1990s. This lack of interest on Washington’s part explains why it is in the Balkans, rather than the Baltic states, that Moscow will be tempted to demonstrate Nato’s vulnerability.

And it is here that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan could have most success in his aim of teaching Europeans a lesson. It is naive, therefore, for the EU to believe that it can regain influence in the Balkans simply by repeating its commitment to integration or by sinking a bit more money into the region.

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.

Source: Financial Times

is chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna