There is growing concern within the European Union and NATO that Russia is increasing its influence in the Western Balkans. The European Commission has reacted to this perceived pressure by formulating a new strategy on how to integrate Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Serbia, Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The report sets out a framework for how these countries can further integrate with the EU and accelerate their membership process. In the case of Serbia and Montenegro, membership could be attained as early as 2025.
The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Junker, has traditionally taken a conservative approach to admitting new states. However, he recently completed a tour of the Western Balkans where he publicly promoted the new plan. The tour was an attempt to show Russia and the Balkan countries that it is committed to the region and marked a shift in EU strategy. This approach is risky given the unstable climate within the Union caused by Brexit, the migrant crisis, and the ensuing rise of right wing populism. The fact that the European Union is prepared to publicly re-open dialogue on expansion shows that it takes the threat of Russia seriously. However, questions remain on the nature of Russia’s Balkan actions and whether the EU’s strategy is worth the risk.
The Kremlin is concerned that the aforementioned Western Balkan countries are moving closer to the EU and NATO. Russia recognizes that it does not have the resources to halt this trend in the long term. However, it has attempted to slow the process and potentially block the accession of certain countries into NATO.
Slowing NATO accession has proved difficult. Take Montenegro joining the alliance in 2017. From a geopolitical standpoint, tiny Montenegro is not particularly relevant. It is militarily weak, does not border Russia and does not represent a further eastern advance by the alliance. However, Russia is concerned that Montenegro’s NATO membership could open the door for further NATO expansion and throughout former Soviet states. This sort of expansion is threatening to Russia because it views itself as being encircled by hostile NATO states.
Russia hopes to use Serbia as a base to slow Western expansion in the Balkans. The countries share historic ties and see themselves as being unfairly treated by the West. This is best illustrated by the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia which was conducted without UN approval. Both countries see Western intervention as a blatant violation of their sovereignty. Russia supports Serbia’s claim to Kosovo and has declared that any support for an independent Kosovo is illegal. The two countries have engaged in military exercises and Russia has recently provided Serbia with additional equipment including MIG-29 fighter jets, battle tanks, armoured vehicles and Mi-17 helicopters. The countries are also currently in talks about the purchase of S-300 anti-aircraft systems.
Russia and Serbia also have considerable economic ties. For example, 80 percent of Serbia’s gas imports come from Russia. Russia has also invested heavily in Serbian infrastructure. Russia’s investment in Serbia and the region at large is undoubtedly a cause for the European Union’s concern. However, it is important to remember that while Russian investment in Serbia is significant, the EU has invested seven times more money since 2010. Additionally, Serbia sends 21.9 percent of its exports to the EU compared with only 2.5 percent to Russia. These discrepancies are even larger between Russia and the rest of the Western Balkans. Clearly, the EU holds a massive economic advantage.
The people of Western Balkan countries are generally pro-EU and support accession into the organization. According to Gallup Polling, positive public opinion of the EU in these countries is as follows; 73 percent in Montenegro, 44 percent in Serbia, 60 percent in Macedonia, 69 percent in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 81 percent in Albania and 87 percent in Kosovo. Most of these numbers are on the uptick or remaining stable. These numbers suggest that the EU is not in as bad a position as many believe and holds a strong advantage over Russia in popular terms.
Juncker’s recent trip to the Balkans suggests that the European Union has decided to counter the threat of Russian influence by publicly flaunting further integration and a path towards EU membership. However, this is a risky strategy for a number of reasons.
First, there is a danger that the words of the Commissioner will be interpreted as more empty promises. Many Balkan countries have aspired to join the EU for over a decade. If the EU sets specific dates and fails to act upon them, it will lose credibility in the eyes of the people and provide the Kremlin with additional ideological ammunition.
Second, the EU is plagued by discord between member states. Preemptive expansion would only serve to further hamper internal unity. The European Union must finish integrating new member states before it admits new ones.
Third, while the countries constituting the Western Balkans have made economic and social progress in recent years, they are still far from matching EU standards. Premature accession as a tool for progress does not work. This is because once a part of the EU, countries often lose the incentive to tackle issues such as corruption. The EU must be wary of countries that cook their reports to show “progress” while covering up more systematic problems.
In essence, while Russian meddling in the Western Balkans is cause for concern, it is important that the EU does not exaggerate the threat. It still holds a significant economic and ideological advantage and is viewed favourably throughout the region. As previously outlined, rash and premature measures run the risk of weakening the European position. Further integration and potential accession are a good thing. However, they cannot be rushed as preemptive decisions have a nasty habit of coming back to haunt the EU. Russia knows that it cannot shift the entire region into its sphere of influence and does not have the funds to do it. Russia’s attempts to slow down EU and NATO ascensions may prove to be a blessing in disguise. Extra years will make for better candidates and a more stable EU in the long term.