Western Balkans’ Fading EU Mirage: With EU’s ‘Soft Power’ Waning, Russia, China Fill Voids in Its Backyard

Written by | Wednesday, October 13th, 2021

With the prospect of Western Balkan nations joining the European Union seen as a target moving further away, and with the bloc’s ‘soft power’ in the region gradually waning, Russia and China will step up their efforts to fill voids in the region, analysts predict. This is now obvious more than ever before, after the 27-member bloc last Wednesday (6 October) rejected, at the EU-Western Balkans summit, Slovenia’s proposal for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Albania, all at different stages of the membership process, to be admitted by 2030. EU leaders mainly voiced migration concerns, but also stressed the importance for the region ultimately joining the bloc.“The Western Balkans are part of the same Europe as the European Union. The EU is not complete without them,” EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at the summit in Brdo, Slovenia.
But the fact that the Western Balkan countries cannot expect to join the EU anytime soon is likely to encourage Russia and China to step further into the region, analysts warn, a concern also shared by EU leaders at the summit. “Either Europe extends the hand and pulls these [Western Balkan] countries toward us, or someone else will extend a hand and pull these countries in a different direction,” Latvian Prime Minister Arturs Krisjanis Karins cautioned at the meeting. Austria’s outgoing chancellor Sebastian Kurz added his concerns: “If the European Union does not offer this region a real perspective, we have to be aware that other superpowers … will play a bigger role there.” But analysts and experts emphasize that Moscow and Beijing have already been involved in Western Balkans for many years, with political scientist Jasmin Mujanovic alleging the EU “lost the plot” in the region a while ago.
In Montenegro, a 2016 coup plot engineered by 14 people, including two Russian military intelligence officers, failed to install a pro-Russia, anti-NATO leadership in Montenegro. Moscow dismissed the allegations as “absurd”. In Bosnia, evidence has also shown that Russia has been undermining the country’s stability in an attempt to keep the country out of NATO, Mujanovic said. In Serbia, Russian-trained mercenaries were reportedly helping to establish a paramilitary unit to back Serb separatists. The developments in the Western Balkans over the past five years were “not a good sign,” argued Vesko Garcevic, a professor at Boston University. The EU’s waning “soft power” will slow down the democratisation process in the region and “open space for other countries to walk in,” Garcevic said. But it’s not only Russia but also “China has been filling in the space which is neglected by Brussels,” Garcevic warned, adding that “there’s no such a thing as a limbo in international relations.”
It does not come as a surprise then that leaders and advocacy organizations from Albanian-American, Bosnian-American and Montenegrin-American communities have called, in an open letter published on Monday (11 October), on the United States to commit to a stronger presence in the Western Balkans region amid “growing militancy of the government of Serbia”. With EU enlargement prospects for the Western Balkans having “all but disappeared … a return to US leadership in the Western Balkans is urgently needed,” it said. The US played a key role in securing Kosovo’s sovereignty and implementing the Dayton Peace Agreement to end the war in Bosnia in December 1995.

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