LONDON – Even after Brexit, there is a part of Europe where both the UK and the EU urgently need to refocus their efforts and work together: the Balkans.
The South East Europe region serves as a microcosm of the challenges facing the UK, the EU and Western allies globally and as a significant test of our ability to address them.
In the Balkans we see how systemic competition will develop around the world: how authoritarian ideas take hold and then spread; how Russia and China are a destabilizing and corrupting influence; and how they push the boundaries. What once seemed unlikely becomes possible, then plausible, then suddenly it’s in the rearview mirror. Countries that should be on the path to prosperity risk becoming permanent centers – and exporters of – instability.
In March last year, as a plane loaded with Chinese medical supplies and doctors landed in Belgrade, the Serbian president kissed the Chinese flag Chinese. The Belgrade government praised the Chinese government during the pandemic and received large shipments of Chinese vaccines and medical equipment in return. Russia was no exception with Sputnik.
Over the past decade, China and Russia have systematically increased and deepened their influence in the Balkans. Chinese investments are funding highly polluting factories and providing local governments with video surveillance technology, while China is actively cultivating the next generation of emerging leaders across the region. Russia has meanwhile played a spoiler role for years, supporting disinformation, propaganda, nationalists and demagogues, supporting a coup attempt in Montenegro and interfering in North Macedonia. Both countries are lining the pockets of corrupt local politicians and making the lives of ordinary citizens worse.
Thirty years after the outbreak of the war in the former Yugoslavia – where I was born – the countries of the Western Balkans should prosper. Like their eastern neighbors, they should have joined NATO and the EU, they should have been equal partners in the European family of nations. This was the dream of my generation: to stop being despised as minor Europeans, imbued with so-called “ancient ethnic hatreds”; poor southern cousins unable to emulate European values. Instead, we imagined being helped to achieve security and prosperity, to have a better life across the EU.
Instead, across the region, progress is slipping and instability is growing. The influence of Russia and China is encouraging this process and the EU and the West are doing little to prevent it.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, threats of secession and violence are now a regular feature of politics. Genocide denial it’s spread. And foreign politicians, since Montenegrin Prime Minister to the Russian foreign minister, openly undermine Bosnian sovereignty.
Russia donates tanks to Serbia, whose expansionist aims in the region are openly declared, and at the same time threatens Bosnia and Herzegovina, saying it will have to “react” if the country considers joining NATO, in other words, whether it will take steps to ensure its long-term stability and security.
A recent non-paper proposing the “peaceful” dissolution of Bosnia and Herzegovina – allegedly written by the Slovenian government, which denied involvement – was rooted in nationalist ideas from the darkest days of the 1990s, ideas that led to war. , ethnic cleansing and genocide. (A court decision on Tuesday to uphold the genocide conviction of Bosnian Serb war commander Ratko Mladić was a timely reminder of the horror of those days.) The fact that these ideas are being debated in European capitals shows how little there is. learned from the recent past.
Unfortunately, the response from the international community has been anemic. EU membership can still be seen as the long-term antidote to secessionism, but there is no serious progress towards EU enlargement. And there is no alternative plan.
Even on the great question of the moment, the pandemic, our collective response has been lacking. It would be easy to provide help to the people and countries at the gates of the EU, countries whose future is intimately intertwined with that of all European nations. It would be a powerful reminder of the strength of the EU and the UK as partners and friends. Yet, for too long, the way has been left open to Russia and China.
It doesn’t have to be that way. With a coordinated vision and action by the EU and its allies – I have urged the UK government to be a strong and reliable partner – we can help the people of the region get the Balkans back on track. We must put European values, democracy, human rights and transparency at the forefront: we cannot win on the conditions of our opponents.
We must push for reforms and stronger democratic institutions. We need to support civil society and fight corruption. And above all, we must firmly resist dangerous ideas, border changes, denial of genocide and ethnic nationalism, wherever and whenever they emerge. We must offer tangible benefits for progress and significant sanctions for any backsliding.
In concrete terms, this means supporting the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina in charge of overseeing the implementation of the 1995 Dayton Agreement which brought peace to the country, including the use of the so-called Bonn powers put in place to ensure the progress region.
It also means making use of European sanctioning mechanisms against those who seek to undermine peace agreements and reject threats of secession. It means maintaining funding and political, military and diplomatic commitment. It means thinking seriously about how to get NATO and EU membership plans back on track.
There are many reasons to hope for the future of the Balkans. But an effective strategy to counter the growing Russian and Chinese influence, the awakening of nationalism and the growing risk of conflict is long overdue. History shows that if we don’t attempt this now in terms of our choice, events will force our hands and require much more expensive and complex intervention in the future.