In a recent ISPI article, Valbona Zeneli wrote that, despite other big actors at play, the European Union is the only game in town in the Western Balkans (WB). Is it really so? A review of the activities of the three most important non-EU players in the region - Russia, Turkey and China - points us in another direction. Their strategies - including destabilisation attempts, low politics and massive investments - cannot compare to the EU’s comprehensive regional integration scheme. But in the WB, Russia, Turkey and China are displaying development models decoupled from political conditionality or based on alternative values that can qualify as alternatives to the model that the EU champions. In other words, these countries are showing that the EU is not the only game in town.
Russia: the usual suspect
When looking at non-EU players in the WB, Russia seems to top the list of the EU's headaches. In 2017, the EU High Representative Federica Mogherini voiced her concern that “Moscow's presumable goal is to loosen the region's connection to the EU and present Russia as an alternative to a dissolving union". Pundits have been warning about the disruptive role of Russia in the Balkans for years, pointing at Moscow’s "divide and rule" strategy to win over Eurosceptic sectors of local societies and weaken the EU's activities. Leaked classified documents accuse Russian spies and diplomats of spreading propaganda and provoking discord in Macedonia (FYROM) for at least a decade. In March, the conservative and anti-West Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin spoke at a conference organised by a small pro-Russian party, United Macedonia in Skopje; in a country of only two million inhabitants, over 400 people attended the conference. Russia is a historic ally of Bosnian Serbs, supporting their moves to obstruct Bosnia’s moving towards the US-led NATO alliance.
Russia doesn't hide the fact that it has economic and political interests in the region and that, often, they run counter to the Euro-Atlantic. Russian State Duma Deputy, Sergey Shargunov, goes as far as to say that "Russia has a romantic relation with the WB". Certainly, you can't quantify love. But when it comes to quantifying Russia's presence in the region, the EU looks like a more attractive partner. On average, 70 percent of Western Balkan exports go to the EU, marking a steady increase over the last ten years. The trend is the opposite when it comes to Russia, with trade decreasing over time. However, Russia exerts remarkable influence through energy in Serbia, Macedonia (FYROM), and Bosnia and Herzegovina, covering almost 100% of their gas demand. Regarding concrete results of political influence, Serbia seems to be Russia's most reliable ally. Belgrade refused to apply EU sanctions against Russia and is negotiating an FTA with the Eurasian Economic Union. Furthermore, Serbia's population generally views relations with Russia positively and does not support NATO. While generally satisfied with Serbia's EU path, Serbian public opinion is also supportive of closer ties with Russia: a poll carried out in mid-2016 by NSPM magazine showed that 72% were in favour of an alliance with Russia, compared to a shy 8% for NATO.
Highways and mosques: Turkey
Images of Serbian President Vučić attending the WWII commemoration parade in Moscow on May 9 testify to his good relations with Vladimir Putin. But shortly before travelling to Moscow, Vučić had another noteworthy trip, to Ankara, to meet with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The relations between their countries seem to be at their highest point in a decade. Erdoğan remarked that trade between the two countries has exceeded the $1 billion threshold, one that Ankara intends to increase to $5 billion soon. Turkey's Trilateral consultation mechanisms between Turkey, Bosnia and Serbia are a perfect example of Ankara's trade diplomacy in the Balkans. In the latest trilateral meeting in Istanbul last January, Turkish investment in the region and essential infrastructural projects were discussed thoroughly, with Erdoğan pledging to help Bosnia and Serbia build an inter-connecting highway.
Turkey has long been an important actor in the WB, but three factors are determining a certain evolution in its approach: the stepping down of Turkish Prime Minister (and former Foreign Minister) Ahmet Davutoğlu; the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016; and Turkey's stalled EU membership process. The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA) continues to restore mosques and build new ones in Muslim Balkan countries – including the Balkans’ largest mosque in Tirana. Yet Davutoğlu's stress on the Ottoman legacy and the identification of "kin" communities in the Balkans is giving way to "power-pragmatic realism", more focused on economic development rather than shared identity. Even the restoration of mosques is labelled not so much as a religious/cultural issue but rather as a "development project" to boost tourism. The coup attempt dramatically affected Turkey’s domestic and foreign policy. The fight against the religious network of Fethullah Gülen, who Turkey publicly accuses of being behind the coup, impacted Turkish soft power in the WB. The Gülen movement is famous in the area for building and running prestigious non-religious schools, providing basic services that the host societies often lack. For the time being, some states - such as Kosovo – have refused to close them down, as demanded by the Turkish government after the coup. With mounting Turkish pressure on the Balkan states over this issue, the demise of Gülenist schools is likely to leave a vacuum that, to date, no other Turkish soft power institution seems able to fill. The increasingly tense relations with Brussels and small likelihood of Turkey joining the EU are also changing Ankara's image in the WB. Until recently, Turkey's foreign policy in the WB was seen as a textbook example of Europeanisation. But now some analysts see Turkey's activities as potentially subversive of the EU's. Erdoan Shipoli, a US-based Kosovar researcher, goes as far as to say that Erdoğan is "bullying" the EU and the US in the WB. The risk of a potentially disruptive role of Turkey in the WB should not be overestimated, but it would be a mistake to ignore how Ankara’s domestic evolution and grievances about the state of its own EU accession process can impact its foreign policy in the region.
China, the silent investor
Few people nowadays doubt that China is becoming a real global power. Not so many would probably point at the Western Balkans as an increasingly significant area for Chinese economic and political projection. All of the WB countries - excluding Kosovo, which China does not recognise - are part of the "16+1" cooperation platform. This forum links Beijing with sixteen post-Soviet countries, and it is seen as a "breakthrough in the overall China-Europe relations". The cooperation formula mixes "low politics" (confidence-building initiatives and cultural exchange) with economic cooperation, especially in the realm of infrastructures. The role of these sixteen partners, especially the WB, is deemed crucial in light of China's Belt and Road Initiative. Railway infrastructure and technology projects are part of a "coherent Chinese strategy to create a distribution infrastructure that will facilitate the movement of Chinese goods from several ports in southern Europe — Piraeus, Thessaloniki and Bar — via the Balkans to northern Europe". According to the Serbian Infrastructure Ministry, Chinese companies obtained contracts in the region worth €5.5 billion for the construction of highways and railways. The increasing inflow of Chinese FDI in Europe is likely to have accelerated the European Commission’s proposal to establish a legal framework for the screening of FDI inflows into the EU in September 2017.
Full integration of the WB region into the European single market is in China's interest. This means that, in theory, Beijing's role should not be a threat to EU integration. But some European leaders, including Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, have been expressing fears that China's presence may hijack the EU's democratisation efforts. According to this logic, Balkan countries benefiting from Chinese investments are more inclined to defend the interests of Beijing in the EU, especially on questions of human rights and trade. Usually, China's development projects are seen as money with no political strings attached; yet, as Michal Makocki remarks, "with every large project its state-led model spills over and, in the Balkans, it also increases the risk of undermining the EU’s reformist agenda".
A credible commitment
Overall, the EU still retains its popularity in the Western Balkans - although with important country and in-country variations. Its influence is across-the-board because of its holistic strategy, involving a far-reaching plan for the future of all WB states. No other actor can offer that at the moment. But the EU is not the only game in town. Boasting of an attractive integration project is not enough; the EU needs to make sure it sticks to it. The existence of alternative actors and models is not the main problem facing the WB. But should the EU not abide by its enlargement strategy or reduce its presence in the region, its commitment would be perceived as unstable or unrealistic. A fading EU commitment is what would strengthen alternative development models – especially the ones of actors who are increasingly unhappy with the EU – the most.