The next European crisis, like so many before, could begin in the Balkans. The EU and NATO are attempting to draw countries like Serbia and Montenegro more closely into their orbit, but they face competition for influence from the United States, Russia, Turkey and even Saudi Arabia.
Speaking to Handelsblatt, Austria’s Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz warned of the growing influence of Turkey and Saudi Arabia. “In Sarajevo and Pristina, for example, women are paid to wear the full veil in public,” he claimed, adding: “We cannot look on and do nothing.”
Mr. Kurz demanded an acceleration of the integration of the region with the EU, to keep Turkey and Russia at bay. He said other pressing issues, like Brexit or migration, should not distract the EU from the Western Balkans. Tensions were still high within and between states in the region, he said: “We must continue to play an active role in this crucial region, offering a credible EU perspective.”
Since 2014, Germany has taken a lead in promoting EU relations with Balkan states, encouraging reform and cooperation in what is known as the “Berlin Process.” But little concrete progress has been made, leading German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel this summer to call for a “Berlin Process plus” agenda, with more specific goals in aid and integration.
In the past, the Balkans was often a field in which outside powers competed for influence: for centuries Habsburgs faced off against Ottomans, followed by the West versus the Soviet Union. Today, Turkey and Russia are the EU’s major rivals for influence.
For Turkey, the Balkans present both an emotional and a rational attraction. Centuries of Turkish rule left behind Muslim minorities and a cultural and architectural legacy. Many historic monuments are now being restored by Turkish government agencies.
But Turkey is also pursuing a hard-headed economic agenda. Recent months have seen substantial Turkish mining investments in Kosovo and airline cooperation with Albania, as well as a new free trade agreement with Bosnia, signed in May. In public statements on the Balkans, Turkey has emphasized its role as a stabilizing factor in the region. This is also how the EU views its own position.
Russia is another heavyweight player on the Balkan stage. Moscow has particularly close relations with its traditional ally Serbia, not least thanks to their shared Slav culture and Orthodox religion. Surveys show that most Serbs are pro-Russian, and feel unfavorably toward NATO, which heavily bombed the country in 1998. On a recent visit, Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister, insisted that “Serbia will never become a member of the EU.”
“Serbia will never become a member of the EU.”
Russia also stands accused of intriguing in other Balkan states: 21 alleged pro-Russian coup conspirators are due to stand trial in Montenegro later this year – an association Russia dismisses as “absurd.” Neighboring Macedonia wants to accelerate its accession to NATO, in view of what defense minister Radmila Sekerinska has called “Russian attempts to gain influence in our politics and security.” Moscow has dismissed these accusation as Russophobia.
Possible tensions resulting from Turkish and Russian policy in the Balkans can be seen in Bulgaria. Here Ankara is supporting a new party, Dost, representing the country’s Turkish ethnic minority, since it regards the existing party as too close to Russia. The Dost leader, Lütfi Mestan, has regularly met with leading members of Turkey’s ruling AKP party, as well as with Turkish President Erdogan himself.
As if this were not enough, China also sees a role for itself in the region, primarily through its massive “Belt and Road” infrastructure project, which aims to improve communications across the Eurasian landmass. Under the scheme, Beijing plans to invest some €10 billion, around $11.8 billion, in 16 countries in south-eastern and eastern Europe.
André Ballin has been a Handelsblatt correspondent in Moscow since 2015. Ozan Demircan is a correspondent in Switzerland. Hans-Peter Siebenhaar is Handelsblatt’s correspondent in Vienna and specializes in media and telecommunications coverage. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com