Despite the coronavirus pandemic, 2020 could be a crucial year for the Western Balkans. For over twenty years, the region has been stuck in a never-ending transition. Politics, economics, and geopolitics are still falling prey to old and new sources of instability. With the path towards the EU integration still uncertain, today many governments are marked by autocratic stances and international actors strive for a bigger say in the region. NATO is expanding to the Balkans, but regional security still depends on foreign soft power and influence.
The coronavirus outbreak added more uncertainty to the future of the Balkans. The emergency has offered governments with autocratic tendencies a pretext to further downplay already weak democratic institutions. While scheduled elections in both Serbia and North Macedonia had to be postponed, the outbreak eventually sparked a political crisis in Kosovo.
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has reached the Balkans, too.
A long-awaited green light for Albania and North Macedonia to open EU accession negotiations has come in the wake of coronavirus-induced crises that have halted normal life all over the world. While it is arguable whether such a decision came at the right time, since it should have happened much earlier and especially not in the midst of a pandemic, there can be no doubt that the European Union sends a number of messages through it.
When thinking about the most controversial external actor in the Western Balkans from Brussels’ perspective, one tends to look east. Russia has long been labelled the most influential (and problematic) external actor in the region.
Besides the COVID-19 pandemic that the country is dealing with, Kosovo is currently experiencing unprecedented political turmoil. While the state institutions and public health bodies have been actively faced with the COVID-19 situation since mid-March when the first protective measures were introduced in Kosovo, on the other hand the former junior government’s coalition partner - Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), ranked in second place in Kosovo’s snap elections held on October 6, 2019 - started to angrily act in opposition to the government.
When in 2016 the European Union signed an agreement that gave some 6 billion euros to Turkey in order to stop the migrant flows from Syria, it was thought that the “migrant emergency” could be stopped. For a while the arrivals were fewer, a number not comparable with the 2015-2016 crisis. Today, due to different reasons such as the war in Syria and greater control of the “Mediterranean route”, the so-called “Balkan route” has gained new momentum.
The Three Seas Initiative (TSI) was established in 2015 as a forum for political and economic dialogue that gathers together 12 EU countries in Central and Eastern Europe (from the Baltic, Adriatic and Black Seas), with a focus on energy and infrastructure. Cooperation under the Three Seas was intended to be an additional format for regional discussion and coordination covering all the countries of Central and Eastern Europe that are EU members. As such, it was supposed to complement, not replace, other formats, such as cooperation within the Visegrad Group.
On Wednesday the 5th of February the European Commission proposed a revised methodology for the accession process for candidate and potential candidate countries. This methodology will be applied to Albania and North Macedonia, although for Montenegro and Serbia there has also been foreseen an opt-in in case they want to join.