In the heart of the European continent there is a macro region that is struggling to keep up with the integration developments, both economic and political, of other countries. They are the Western Balkans, that area within the wider Balkan peninsula, which unfortunately still sees different nations divided, but above all in opposition, since the dissolution of the Republic of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.
In fact, from Tito’s death in 1980, nationalist sentiments, already existing in the Yugoslav federation, began to emerge with increasing insistence. The Yugoslav wars that bloodied the Balkan peninsula for several years, first in Slovenia and Croatia, then in the territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Kosovo and finally in Macedonia (today North Macedonia), were driven above all by independence needs and overcoming the Yugoslav federalist vision. The different nationalisms inflamed almost all the states in the region at that time and still make it rather unstable.
Furthermore, the current situation is not the most ideal: political and economic animosities still prevail over attempts at reconciliation and integration. The world crisis that has characterized the last few years has strongly characterized both relations within the various countries of the Western Balkans and inter-state ones.
Many people share many aspects of today’s situation with those typical of the historical ‘question of the East’. When the Ottoman Empire, from the 18th century onwards, began the phase of decadence that led it to lose the territories of the Balkans with the wars of 1912-1913, the great powers set their sights on the region and local nationalisms began to grow in its internal.
In fact, the dynamics that can be assimilated between the two situations are different: the borders between the States are in many cases disputed or discussed and internal political tensions, especially regarding ethnic-religious minorities, do not seem to diminish. Furthermore, in the Balkans today, the interests of the great world powers are mixed with the various demands for independence and the self-determination of peoples, as happened more than a century ago.
The United States, China, Russia but also Turkey have shown on more than one occasion that they are interested in penetrating economically, using different strategies, in the Balkan region. Europe, especially in recent times, while remaining the preferred and privileged commercial area of the Balkan states, has probably lost some interest in relations with this area. This is why the Balkans are seen as “forgotten neighbours” within the continent.
Historically, Russia has had very strong cultural and economic ties with some of the countries in the area, Serbia in the first place. Belgrade has always tried to stay in balance between Moscow and Brussels, but especially in recent geopolitical occasions that have seen Russia as a protagonist, such as the Skripal case or the Crimea crisis, it has always sided in favour of Moscow. It is an alliance, or at least a friendship, which suits both countries: to Russia because it needs strong support on the European continent, to Serbia because the economic support that Moscow provides is essential.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the situation is more complicated. Certainly, there are not few links between the territorial entity of the Republic of Srpska, with a Serbian majority, and Russia. On the other hand, the components of Muslim Bosniaks and Croats do not look kindly on Russian interference in their territories; in fact, the country has no univocity when there is a need to express national interests, and this leads to further divisions.
Surely Russia has been able to exploit periods of history in which both the United States and especially the European Union have failed to pull and integrate the Balkans. Moscow has considerable advantages to date in the area, a rather large room for manoeuvre, and is also developing a network of gas pipelines in the peninsula that also affect European countries, such as Italy itself.
Another power, which may not be counted among the largest, but which historically has strong interests in the area is Turkey. In addition to the cultural residues that it left in many areas of the Balkans following the Ottoman domination, today it has many links especially with the Muslim regions. In addition, economic investments have been strong since the beginning of the new millennium, aimed at strengthening infrastructures, airports and highways above all, but also at the Turkish cultural promotion in the area.
This last factor has made the non-Muslim Balkan components turn up their noses, worried about this political aggression coming from Ankara. If Russia, as we have seen, historically finds the support of Serbia, the country of reference for Turkey has always been Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Moreover, Turkey, above all thanks to the recent international rapprochement between President Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, has had the opportunity to thaw relations with Serbia, establishing relatively strong political relations.
The beginning of US interests in the Balkans dates back to the Cold War era, in which Tito’s Yugoslavia was a difficult to control actor moving between the Soviet and Western blocs. Tito, a Communist Marshal, led those countries with Yugoslavia that did not align between the two blocs and for this reason he attracted attention from the United States.
Currently the US, with the Trump administration, has an interest in seeing the countries of the Western Balkans more integrated into the European Union. In doing so, in fact, the entire region would be more hostile to the inclusion of Russian, Chinese and Turkish investments. In addition to integration into the Union, the US is pushing hard for several nations to join the Atlantic Alliance. Montenegro joined in 2017, while the accession process of Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia is ongoing.
The most recent world power that has taken an interest in the Balkan Peninsula is China. In recent years, the Chinese power has risen to prominence for its economic aggressiveness, but not only, capable of penetrating with direct investments in every area of the world, from Latin America to Africa, passing through Europe and the Middle East. With its strategic and geopolitical project of the New Silk Road, with which it intends to connect China with the European West both by sea and by land, Beijing is investing heavily in the construction of infrastructures that lead from the port of Piraeus in Greece to the Central Europe.
Certainly, for the economies of the Balkan countries, Chinese investments are necessary and too important to think of refusing them. For the European Union, however, allowing a region in the same European continent to be penetrated so broadly and considerably by China is neither advantageous nor strategically useful.
European Union and Balkans
We have seen, with a brief overview, how the major global players have interests in the Balkan Peninsula, especially in the Western Balkans. However, it is necessary to mention what, to all intents and purposes, should be the main external protagonist: the European Union. It should because if the other powers managed to infiltrate the region, it was also and above all due to negligence on the part of the EU.
Over time, in fact, policies have not always been adopted, which have not proved to be particularly useful and in line with the final objective, namely the full integration of the Balkan peninsula. However, it must be said that even some policies of the same states in the region have often been inadequate to achieve the minimum criteria for full membership in the EU. This objective would be a success for both parties, on the other hand the Western Balkans are in a strategic position for the Union and for the whole European continent.
We initially said that the EU has lost interest in the region over time, which it probably reacquired following the recent refugee crisis along the Balkan corridor between 2015 and 2016. To date, it remains the main source of direct investment in the region. area, and also the main trading partner for both imports and exports, with a large distance from other subjects.
The countries in the area that are part of the European Union are Slovenia since 2004, Romania and Bulgaria since 2007, and Croatia since 2013. Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo are potential candidate countries for accession while Montenegro, the Serbia, the republic of North Macedonia and Albania are official candidates.
The two states that are further along in the process are Serbia and Montenegro. The latter joined NATO in 2017 and is making significant progress towards achieving European standards. Despite this, in Montenegro, for example, many fundamental freedoms are restricted, such as private property itself, and this significantly hinders the democratic process.
Unfortunately, national parliaments are not always able to control the work of governments, and they turn out to be rather weak institutions; but in general, the concept of the rule of law is not very solid throughout the area. Many street demonstrations took place to protest against individual national situations. In particular in Serbia, where in recent months the freedom of expression and of the media has undergone noticeable deterioration.
There has been talk of democratic involution in the region, with the gradual re-emergence of nationalisms and strongly authoritarian tendencies. Surely these dynamics risk rekindling unresolved and dormant issues for some time, between States and among the populations themselves. Ethnic-religious minorities find themselves, in some cases, still being discriminated against and persecuted. EU membership would be a huge step forward in the process of normalization and democratization of the Western Balkans.
North Macedonia is the one that has made the most significant progress in recent times. The change of the official name of the country (from Macedonia to North Macedonia) is part of this line, necessary to settle the Greek-Macedonian dispute and therefore to facilitate possible accession, as well as to the European Union, to NATO.
Pope Francis, in his visit to Skopje in May 2019, exalted the multi-ethnic and multi-religious composition of the Macedonian population, capable of bringing together both different religions and different ethnic groups in a peaceful way. The Pope expressed the hope that this type of integration will develop and take place throughout the Western Balkan region, respecting diversity and fundamental rights.
In 1999 the stabilization and association process (PSA) was launched, which represents the strategic framework in support of the gradual rapprochement of the Western Balkan countries to the European Union. This process is based on bilateral relations, political dialogues, trade relations and regional cooperation. This last point is one of the key objectives of the PSA.
The collaboration of the countries of the Balkan region in many areas, such as the fight against organized crime, cross-border issues, prosecutions for war crimes and migration dynamics, is highly sought after by the EU.
NATO and Balkans
In addition to the European Union, there is another organization that has played a very important political and military role in the Western Balkans in recent history: the Atlantic Alliance.
NATO intervened with various peacekeeping missions, but also of military nature, especially during the 90s, following the dissolution of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and during the independence processes that led to the creation of the current states.
The Western Balkans was the theatre where, for the first time in NATO’s history, the Alliance used force. In two different situations, the first in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the civil war, between 1992 and 1995, to prevent the Serbian bombing of Bosnians and Croats; the second in Kosovo, in 1999, to put an end to the tremendous violence in progress between ethnic Serbs and the ethnic Albanian minority.
To date, the NATO missions present in the Balkan territories have the objective of achieving a stabilization of the various areas that in the recent past have been of help for the strengthening and maintenance of peace, with several thousand men and women taking action above all in Bosnia Herzegovina and Kosovo.
The activities of the Atlantic Alliance have undoubtedly favoured the pacification of the area, allowing some ethnic-religious minorities to free themselves from persecution and atrocious violence that had torn entire regions apart since the end of the Yugoslav Republic.
However, especially in Serbia, a country hard hit by NATO missions, the perception of the Alliance among the population is still very negative today. It is certainly for this reason, and also for a cultural affinity, that Serbia is the country, among those of the Western Balkans, closest to Russia, and therefore in opposition to NATO.
It will take time to heal the wounds in the memory of the Serbs and to make them believe in NATO, but in the meantime the Atlantic organization and Serbia have begun to collaborate in various fields, such as the joint training of military forces in Iraq. The countries that are closest to the Atlantic Alliance, and also to a possible future membership, are North Macedonia and Bosnia Herzegovina.
The Western Balkans must find the way to normalization and stabilization in the near future. A growth and development of local economies would certainly be advantageous in the common process, as well as the full respect for ethnic-religious minorities fragmented throughout the territory. The (re) emerging nationalisms must find firm opposition from all institutions, without being intercepted and used for political ends by governments willing to do anything.
True and complete integration into the European Union would be of enormous help to all the Western Balkans. The values and objectives of the EU, strongly shared by most of the Balkan countries, would thus be an important obstacle to overcome for the great world powers attempting to penetrate the territories of the peninsula with the aim of cultivating their own economic and geopolitical interests.