In 1999, the NATO bombing of Serbia and Montenegro put an end to war in Kosovo and to the long, bloody process of the collapse of Yugoslavia. The legacy of the destructive Nineties dictated the future political agendas for Balkan countries, which committed themselves to EU integration, though keeping doors open to other international players.
Since then, the Balkans have continued to be subject to foreign influence (and investments) that make them more dependent and, in certain cases, less stable. From one side, Western institutions, mainly the European Union, have been leading the transition process, while on the other several foreign actors have been increasing their interests in the region.
This dossier focuses on how the Balkans could still be understood as a bridge between East and West. In particular, while from one side their foreign policy agendas foresee a common future within the EU (and for some countries within NATO, too), on the other, the region is still subject to soft power from Russia, huge investments from China and cultural influence from Turkey. The dossier analyses these foreign influences in the Balkans, in both politics and economics, examining the case studies of North Macedonia and Kosovo and analysing the foreign actors in the region – i.e. Russia, China, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
While Skopje has finally solved the long-standing name dispute with Greece through adoption of the Prespa Agreement and today is a kind of ‘success story’, Kosovo still represents a pressing issue whose uncertain status undermines stability for the whole region as well as credibility with the EU. To date, the normalization process with Belgrade is frozen because of the 100% tax Pristina imposed on goods from Bosnia and Serbia and, paradoxically, a full recognition of Kosovo independence seems to be the only solution for overcoming the stalemate.
Having ‘lost’ Montenegro, which joined NATO in 2017, Russia’s soft power is now focusing on Serbia, in an attempt to counterbalance Belgrade’s integration path to the EU and its normalization process with Pristina – which is preparatory for the former. This cohabitation between Serbian willingness to join the EU and the exploitation of the rhetoric of ‘Russian brotherhood’ makes the country’s polity schizophrenic and even highly unstable.
In a similar way to Russia for Orthodox people in the Balkans, Turkey is presenting itself as a protector of Muslims in the region through multiple cultural projects that have often been described as part of a ‘Neo-Ottoman’ policy led by Ankara. Conversely, investments from China and from the UAE are not politically motivated, but they often contrast with EU norms and advice from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – mainly regarding those coming from China – or are lacking in transparency and civil society engagement – as for many projects promoted by UAE funds.
The framework in which all these actors are playing according to their interests is a transition process whose beginning and end are hard to define. No one knows when and how this process will definitively end. Probably, the transition will be completed with full EU membership, which today still seems to be a far away goal. Last year the European Commission rewarded Serbian and Montenegrin efforts in the EU accession process, labelling them ‘frontrunners’ in the Balkans foreseeing their full integration in 2025. The reason behind the Commission’s optimistic goal could be found in long-lasting Serbian and Montenegrin governments and lack of regime change that guarantee durable foreign policy agendas. In fact, while the Serbian Progressive Party has ruled in Belgrade since 2012, the Montenegrin Democratic Party of Socialists has been in power since 1990. Both parties have been committed to EU integration, despite a historical Russian influence on these countries. However, the lack of political renewal has undermined progress in the democratization process ensuring the kind of political stability that makes the Commission more confident that these countries won’t divert from the EU accession path.
Professor Srdja Pavlovic defines this approach as ‘stabilitocracy’. It consists of a two-way street where the EU and local governments ‘feed off each other in a mutually beneficial and profitable relationship’. As Pavlovic explains: ‘Stabilitocracy enables the West to maintain its rhetoric of promoting democracy […] At the same time, it enables the local partner to establish a façade democracy while diminishing the role of parliament, holding unfair elections, criminalising the local political arena, assuming dictatorial powers, enacting predatory laws aimed at eliminating political competition, and stifling dissent as well as plundering a country’s resources for the benefit of political leaders and their closest associates.’ Therefore, the EU endorses those governments committed to integration despite the fact that they lack democratic standards. In other words, genuine democratization is exchanged for political stability, or a false sense of it. In fact, Pavlovic continues, ‘We can see now that stabilitocracy, as a rule, produces everything but stability and security.’
As a matter of fact, in the last months both Montenegro and Serbia have been shaken by anti-government mass protests that demand the resignation of the president. In more than four months, EU officials have not even commented on these demonstrations, probably fearing to endorse opposition parties that would lead to a radical change in the countries’ foreign policy agendas. A possibility that is quite undeniable for Montenegro, where opposition parties are overtly Russia-oriented; while for Serbia a new government would most probably lead to a new stagnation in the normalization process with Pristina – also given the participation of some nationalist parties in the opposition’s coalition.
In such a context, political stability in the Balkans looks more like an imposed dogma than a real ambition. One could even argue that the above-mentioned transition process will finally end when real political stability – made up of genuine and democratic regime changes – will be established. To date, the only political stability has taken the shape of a search for it.
The result is that such an unstable context has encouraged foreign influences, their soft powers and not-so-transparent investments. Twenty years after the war, the political and economic agendas of the region’s countries are swinging again between East and West and the Balkans as a whole are re-entering a vortex of instability where EU integration is day-by-day more ephemeral.