As Russia and China Seek a Beachhead in the Western Balkans, a U.S.-U.K. Push Could Avert an Authoritarian Turn

The Western Balkans was thrown into an existential political crisis after France blocked Albania’s and North Macedonia’s negotiations for European Union accession late last year. The significance of this hold on EU expansion should not be underestimated. Membership in the bloc was the overarching social and political goal of the region’s six countries for almost two decades. The resultant vacuum is being filled by authoritarian adversaries. Building on Britain’s recent re-engagement in the region, the time is now for a new U.S.-U.K. partnership in the Western Balkans.

The stakes were so high for EU membership that the government of (now) North Macedonia agreed to change its name last year to overcome Greece’s objections to its drive for EU inclusion. Despite the considerable political risks that leaders in both North Macedonia and Greece took with their own voters to achieve their agreement, French President Emmanuel Macron upturned their hard-won victory, arguing for fundamental reforms within the EU and in the enlargement process. Vocal protests from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU President Donald Tusk went unheeded, and the French veto is unlikely to be lifted in the foreseeable future. Macron’s decision to halt EU enlargement has created a political and security vacuum in the region.

Forces adversarial to transatlantic interests and democratic values are now effectively poised to fill the void, namely Russia and China. Russian machinations in Balkan politics and societies are manifold. They range from multiple soft-power interventions, to economic and energy coercion, to hard-power exercises such as the Kremlin-backed October 2016 coup attempt in Montenegro.

Authoritarian China’s footprint deepens and broadens, too, as it bluntly wields its economic influence through its multilateral “17+1” regional program to promote Chinese business in Central-Eastern Europe, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and bilateral infrastructure projects. A highway project linking the Adriatic port of Bar to Serbia is estimated to increase Montenegro’s debt to 80 percent of its GDP. In Bosnia, China provided a €614 million loan to finance the Tuzla coal-fired power plant; its terms are worryingly opaque.

Moreover, China’s state-run companies enjoy unfettered access to EU funding in public infrastructure projects. One example is Croatia’s Peljesac bridge project: approval and current construction have proceeded with total disregard to the tensions it predictably raised between Zagreb and Sarajevo, given the bridge’s potential to obstruct passage to the Bosnian seaside town of Neum, the country’s sole option for future port construction.

Chinese Lending and Russian Energy Concessions

The lending terms of these and similar projects are unfeasible, considering the insufficient growth of most Balkan economies. Indeed, EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn noted that “China never cares how and if a country is able to pay its loans. And if they cannot pay, there is some pressure that things are transferred into their ownership.”

This is a reality increasingly becoming clear to regional leaders caught between the imperative to develop and the dangers of unscrupulous Chinese lending and Russian energy concessions. The countries of the Western Balkans need alternative partnerships if they are to avoid the clientele status pursued by Beijing and Moscow.

After two decades of unparalleled investments in the Middle East, Americans and Brits are disinclined to shoulder the burdens associated with institutional and democratic development abroad. Their reservations are justified.

But policymakers and their constituencies need to be sufficiently clear-eyed to not conflate the failings of massive nation-building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan with the generally successful military and development engagement in the Western Balkans. U.S. interventions in the Western Balkans in the 1990s saw zero combat-related casualties, with a financial cost that pales when compared with Iraq and Afghanistan.

And the benefits of the U.S. involvement in the Balkans in the 1990s reverberated far and wide. Successful U.S. efforts to stop the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and an attempted genocide in Kosovo bolstered the moral standing and legitimacy of the world order being led by the United States. Accordingly, the region’s three Muslim-majority countries (Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia) have among the most pro-American and least anti-Semitic Muslim populations anywhere in the world. In an age when the appeal of religious extremism remains virulent, this ruling in the court of public opinion should be prized.

Genuinely sustainable progress in the Western Balkans turns on jobs, equitably distributed revenue, and the physical security that undergirds effective governance. Without that, democratic gains will remain threatened by authoritarian actors.

U.K. and U.S. Ramp Up Engagement

The United States and the United Kingdom are especially well-positioned to prevent such a disadvantageous outcome. Over the past three years, the U.K. has demonstrated its concern for greater European security by gradually re-engaging in the Western Balkans in security and development. As for the United States, late 2019 saw the State Department’s appointment of two special envoys to the region.

This impetus for change demands a clearly defined and cost-effective plan to keep the Western Balkans moving forward in its greater European integration. Regardless of the current prospects of EU accession, these U.S. allies in an important region can progressively strengthen their contribution to the transatlantic community as their societies stabilize and prosper.

The White House and Whitehall should act quickly to offer alternative quick-funding mechanisms to rival China’s BRI in the Balkans and to help countries in the region find alternatives to Russian natural gas. Furthermore, the U.K. government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson could build on the successful temporary deployment of British troops before the 2018 general election in Bosnia by making the deterrence-building presence of U.K. forces permanent.

Finally, 20 years after successful Anglo-American humanitarian intervention against the military forces of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic, the time has come to drive an equitable deal between Belgrade and the Kosovo capital of Pristina that would spur Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence and statehood. The European Union’s appeasement of Serbia in hopes it would come around once it has greater assurances of EU accession has not worked.

A peaceful Western Balkans that has been integrating, however haltingly, into Euro-Atlantic institutions is one of the great post-Cold War accomplishments for the United States and Europe. Allowing China and Russia to fill the vacuum left by an inward-looking EU will reverse over two decades of progress in a region that is crucial for the West’s own stability and as an example that it can again be a force for good in the world.

(This analysis is based on a report published by the authors’ U.S.-Europe Alliance. Join them on Thursday, Feb. 13, for a discussion of the paper in Washington D.C., hosted by the Alliance in conjunction with the Advisory Council for Bosnia and Herzegovina and the United Macedonia Diaspora, and moderated by Just Security Washington Editor Viola Gienger. RSVP here.)

IMAGE: The prime minister of the People’s Republic of China, Li Keqiang, speaks during his visit to the construction site of a bridge connecting the Croatian peninsula of Peljesac with the rest of the coast and Croatia’s mainland on April 11, 2019. The bridge, mostly funded by the European Union, is being built by a Chinese company and is the largest structure of its kind under construction in Europe. (Photo by ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP via Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Reuf Bajrović

Co-Chairman of the U.S.-Europe Alliance. Former Minister of Energy, Industry and Mining for the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Follow him on Twitter (@ReufBajrovic)

Richard Kraemer

President of the US-Europe Alliance and Eurasia Program fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Follow him on Twitter (@RichardKraemer7)