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​​The EU Must Embrace the Western Balkans before Russia Does

Written by Hayley Hunter

North Macedonia applied for European Union membership status in 2004, but 17 years later it has still not officially started accession negotiations. Other Western Balkan nations - Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Serbia - are in a similar predicament and have also been waiting for years. It could well be another 10 or more years before all the Western Balkan states are admitted.

In the early 2000s, the thought of eventual EU accession gave the Balkan states transitioning from their war-torn, socialist past, some guidance and direction forward. At the Thessaloniki summit in 2003, the EU made a clear and direct reference to the prospect of membership for the Western Balkans. The EU used the possibility of accession as a strategy to persuade Balkan countries to undertake the necessary legal and institutional reforms in line with European Commission recommendations, essentially influencing the development of internal and external policies of Balkan countries. All Balkan countries have benefited from pre-accession EU assistance, with Bosnia and Herzegovina receiving 102.6 million euros in 2011 from a number of different EU programs. The EU has also encouraged Balkan countries to resolve their bilateral issues through diplomatic means.

While a 2021 International Republic Institute poll in North Macedonia shows widespread support for EU accession (79%), only 32% believe that North Macedonia is closer to EU entry today than it was in 2005. This has dropped from 57% just 3 years ago, and will likely continue to fall.

In October 2021, EU and Western Balkan leaders met for a one-day summit in Slovenia where EU leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the accession of Western Balkan states. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told reporters, “We want them in the European Union, we are one European family. We share the same history, we share the same values, and I’m deeply convinced we share the same destiny, too.”

Despite promises, they came away with no clear timeline. Slovenia, the host country, wanted to include in the statement that the Balkan countries would be admitted no later than 2030, but other countries in attendance disagreed. Angela Merkel has said she doesn't believe in setting a date for Western Balkan states’ accession into the EU, stating "I don't really believe in setting dates, I believe in making good on our promises: Once the conditions are met the accession can take place.” Conditions for accession include “progress in areas such as respect for the rule of law and democratic standards, or the implementation of socio-economic reforms.”

EU expansion has often been sidelined due to issues such as the financial crisis, the 2015 refugee crisis, Brexit, and most recently, COVID-19. Accession negotiations for Albania and North Macedonia were supposed to begin in 2020, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they have been postponed. For many people, these crises have undermined the supposed benefits of the EU.

While the EU has been looking inwards, there has been a slow geopolitical shift in Western Balkan towards the East. The sidelining of EU accession for the Western Balkans has caused accession fatigue in the region, a phenomenon characterized by a "general sense of social apathy and political sclerosis in prospective member states in which political elites start believing that they have been left out, isolated, ignored, or more punished than rewarded in their work towards attaining membership of the EU.” The presence of this phenomenon leads to a lack of motivation to continue with democratic and EU-oriented reforms, two processes that are crucial to the accession of Western Balkan states. Further, accession fatigue makes way for more Eurosceptic politicians to make gains in the region.

The vacuum left by the EU leaves space for other international actors, most notably Russia, to fill it with their political, economic, and geostrategic interests which are often opposite of EU norms and goals. While Russia’s influence in the region is nothing new, the scale of it is. Russia’s increasing influence in the region counteracts European and American norms and standards for the region (including transparency, rule of law, human rights, democratic accountability, and free markets). Russia’s goal is to “promote its interests and to support anti-Western sentiment, especially among Serbs and to undermine the Western influence throughout the region.”

According to the Russian International Affairs Council, Russia’s foreign policy objectives in the Balkans are:

● “Maintaining the status of a ‘great power’, traditionally involved in determining the fate of the region;

● preventing North Atlantic Treaty Organization enlargement as far as possible;

● fulfilling the interests of Russian business, primarily those of the energy business;

● preserving the Western Balkans as a possible ‘negotiation card’ with Brussels;

● and maintaining – largely for domestic Russian consumption – the ideas of Slavic brotherhood and religious unity.”

Russia asserts its influence through energy policy (Russia supplies roughly 90% of the natural gas in Serbia, North Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina), investment, political pressure, and cultural, media, and religious campaigns.

Serbia in particular has to balance its want for EU accession with its worries about spoiling relations with Russia since they are a major trading partner and control strategic companies in the country. In 2015, Russia was Serbia’s 4th largest investor, and, outside of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Serbia is the only country to have a free trade agreement with Russia. Serbia and Russia have also signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement and a 15-year Bilateral Defense Treaty for training operations, joint exercises, arms sales, and intelligence sharing.

Russian influence is not bound to just Serbia, it is also heavily present in Montenegro. In 2016, Russia accounted for nearly 30% of all foreign-owned companies in Montenegro and roughly 28% of all foreign direct investments in the country. While bilateral relations have become tense in recent years, Russian influence remains.

Russia has frequently used its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to exert its influence in the region. In 1994 and 2015, Russia vetoed UNSC resolutions condemning violence committed by Bosnian Serbs. Russia also heavily criticized the NATO bombings of Serbia in 1999 and refuses to acknowledge Kosovo as an independent state. Serbia in turn, along with North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, refused to join Western sanctions on Russia following its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the war in Eastern Ukraine.

Russia continues to deepen its strategic ties in the Balkans, working to make the region economically and politically dependent. By complicating EU and NATO enlargement for the Balkans, Russia hopes to prevent discussion around membership for Georgia, Ukraine, and other post-Soviet states.

Deputy Secretary of State and U.S. President’s Special Envoy for the Western Balkans, Gabriel Escobar, recently said that the Biden administration is going to be active in the region and have a response to Russia’s growing influence. Escobar recently held meetings in Sarajevo following growing concerns that the Serbian-majority entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina could secede from the country.

The current EU decision to not include a date for accession and to keep Western Balkan nations waiting indefinitely is not sustainable. Public support for the EU will lose its footing and the region will start looking more towards Russia than it already is. Former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz acknowledged the risks of prolonged waiting, saying “we have to be aware that other superpowers - China, Russia or Turkey - will play a bigger role there. The region belongs to Europe geographically, and it needs a European perspective.”

If the EU implemented a timeline for accession, there would be more incentive for Western Balkan nations to implement political and economic reforms. A timeline could also increase regional cooperation and therefore lessen ethnic tensions and help stabilize the region.



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