A path toward stabilization of the region or a path that would lead to chaos in EU?

Ethnic and religious strife have lingered in the Balkans since the brutal conflicts of the 1990s that tore apart former Yugoslavia. Now, during a period of negotiations about the possibility of expanding the European Union (EU) to the Western Balkans, these tensions are more apparent than ever. The residual distrust between the nations of the former Yugoslavia has led to a myriad of geopolitical issues and apparent impasses over border disputes that fuel strong scepticism among many of the EU member states about whether the region will ever be ready to join the EU club. As an added complication, Russia feels threatened by EU expansion into a region with which it has historical and cultural ties, believing EU enlargement is usually the first step toward NATO expansion.

Based on the above, European policy makers find themselves confronted with the following dilemmas. Will expansion of these Balkan countries into the EU bring about the much needed stabilization of the Balkans, a historical flash point for World Wars and regional conflicts? Will their inclusion expand the common EU economic market, bringing increased prosperity to all European members or, as many critics claim, will they bring into the EU all their unresolved religious, ethnic and geopolitical problems? Will Russia attempt to stymie efforts by the EU to expand to the Balkans? EU policy makers’ responses to these questions will ultimately determine the fate of the Western Balkans and arguably the EU as well.

For Serbia and Montenegro, both EU candidate countries, becoming members of the EU by 2025 is seen as an important strategic goal; one that would help them become more economically developed and prosperous states. However, most EU member countries perceive enlargement as a potential drain on the EU budget and overextension of many EU institutions, all the while wondering whether these countries truly share European liberal and democratic values.

The European Commission report states that the countries of the Western Balkans show clear signs of state capture at all levels of government and administration and extensive political control and interference in media. The report observed that not a single Balkan nation could be considered a functioning market economy that would be competitive in the EU’s common market. Apart from resolving these well documented problems, the Commission made further demands not well known to the populations of the EU. Key among them was that all bilateral border disputes must be resolved between the countries wanting to enter the EU. This should not come as a surprise to the EU public given the EU’s unpleasant experience following accession of Croatia to the EU.

At the end of EU accession negotiations with Croatia, the dispute over maritime borders in the Adriatic Sea between EU member Slovenia and soon to be admitted Croatia became a considerable problem. Slovenia, an EU state since 2004, continued blocking Croatia’s accession until the dispute was resolved. To solve the impasse, the countries turned to the International Court of Justice in December 2009. Slovenia lifted the blockade after Croatia agreed that it would follow the ruling of the court. But in July 2013, when Croatia entered the EU, it rejected the unanimous decision of the tribunal, which led Slovenia to retaliate by blocking Croatia’s entry into the OECD and Slovenia will most likely try to prevent Croatia from entering the Schengen Area in 2020

‘Responses to these questions will ultimately determine the fate of the Western Balkans and arguably the EU as well.’

Croatia is now a member of the EU, and with the EU demanding that all border disputes be resolved could lead to Croatia having an upper hand in negotiations with the other Balkan countries. After all, Croatia failed to agree upon exact borders with any of its former Yugoslav neighbours and therefore doesn’t have a border dispute only with Slovenia, but also with Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and even on its short border with Montenegro. But the problems only begin there, as Serbia also has a border dispute with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo with Montenegro, and most importantly, Kosovo with Serbia. Resolving that dispute would help open a path to EU membership for both countries, but would still be very hard for Kosovo, as many, including Serbia and five EU countries don’t recognize it as a sovereign state. Serbia has been losing control of its former province mostly populated with ethnic Albanians since the 1990s when NATO bombings forced Serbia to cede control of the territory. Even if Serbia were to recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence, the two countries would still need to negotiate their borders.

Aside from all the border disputes, there is yet another perhaps even stronger concern that worries the EU with regards to Balkan stability: Russia. The part of Europe that is often described as still politically and otherwise dysfunctional is perfect breeding ground for sentiments, values and tensions that would further Russian interests. Russia made it crystal clear that it wouldn’t tolerate any expansion of NATO into the region, as demonstrated with its involvement in a coup attempt in Montenegro in 2016 – its last ditch effort to prevent the country from joining the alliance.

But above all, the main target of Russia’s malign efforts remains Serbia, Russia’s strongest and far most trusted ally in the region. The two countries are deeply connected through historical and cultural ties, including a common Orthodox church and more recently Russia’s strong support of Serbia in attempting to thwart Kosovo’s global recognition as an independent state. With strong historical roots and a large ethnic Russian presence, Russia further hopes to use Serbia as a base to expand its influence throughout the Balkans. As Brussels increases its pressure on Serbia to impose sanctions on Russia and adjust its foreign policies to be in line with those of the EU, Russia grows nervous. One cannot say for sure to what lengths Russia is willing to go to keep Serbia in its sphere, but based on events in Crimea and Montenegro one can speculate that it would be considerable – particularly when faced with the prospect of losing a key ally in a region strategic for the realisation of Russian pursuits in Europe. It is therefore of crucial importance that one considers these facts about Serbia before considering it a candidate for the European Union. Whether Serbia is willing to and capable of shedding Russia’s strong influence in order to get into the European Union remains a big question.

Russia’s influence is, as far as one can see, only one of the many problems that pester the region, and many EU officials and analysts rightly fear that by admitting these weakened countries they would import these weaknesses (and Russia’s influence) into the entire EU. Balkan problems would become EU problems even more than they already are. The overriding question that remains, however, is what would happen to the region if it were left without the hope that one day it might rise from its stagnation and join the EU, becoming full members of the developed and modern world.

Background photo created by natanaelginting – www.freepik.com