In the Balkan region, new geopolitical forces are playing an increasingly role and old actors seem to be losing their influence. The gradual decline of U.S. leadership coincides with the Eurozone recession that makes the EU to be perceived as less disposed to offer to the Balkan states a form of pan-European integration. The process is seen as creating a political vacuum, exposing the area to the influence of other interested and more active powers.
Among the more significant geopolitical changes is the sphere of influence Russia is trying to carve out from the Baltics to the Caucasus, including Central and Eastern Europe. Although one cannot see the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union re-emerging, a more traditional, soft sphere of influence based on historical Russian geography and empire building is already visible.
1. The Balkans: an arena of power disputes
The Balkans continue to be of interest for the main global power actors, due to the positioning along several fault lines in the “clash of civilizations” (cf. Samuel Huntington) the main lines being the Christian/Muslim fault line and the Orthodox/Catholic (cum Protestant) fault line in Europe. The energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean added new importance for the Balkans because of the future energy transport corridors.
In the early 1990s, when ethnic wars and conflicts started in the former republics of the Yugoslav federation, the region became again a geopolitical place where foreign powers intervened in order to enlarge their domination and influence at world stage, a telling example of the multi-polarity of the post-cold war era.
The main competing power actors continue to be the European Union – with Germany as its dominating force but also with Berlin’s own interests – and Russia. More distant actors are the United States (via its interests in the Eastern Mediterranean and the protection of the energy corridors), and China, with a predominant economic/energetic component. A specific presence must be noted and analyzed for Turkey (including its Muslim/Islamic component) and radical Islam.
2. European power actors in the Balkans
The European Union
Once a powerful actor in the Balkan Peninsula (through the Austro-Hungarian empire and later through France and Britain which shaped the post-Ottoman configuration after World War I), Europe’s influence – as represented by the European Union – seems on a declining trend in the Balkans, notwithstanding its extension in the region after including as members Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria and, most recently, Croatia.
Although the European Union accepted the accession of Croatia in July 2013, the October 2013 enlargement report to the European Commission makes clear that none of the other Balkan states hoping to join will be doing so any time soon.
If the EU is to be an influent actor in the future, Brussels will have to do more for the enlargement process and the creation of a security architecture in the Balkans.
Germany is contemplating the Balkans as part of its “lebensraum”, having the financial and economic strength to exercise a large measure of control over the former East European satellite states of the USSR, including the Balkan region.
The German influence was seen as decisive in the process of Croatia’s accession to the EU that, according to some analysts, reflected the peculiar “mitteleuropäisch” view of what constitutes “Europe” which still dominates the political and media elite thinking in Berlin and Vienna.
Germany is also instrumental in the issues concerning the Greek debts, considered as impossible to pay but that also cannot be written off in the current legislative frame.
3. Russia’s comeback
The EU’s supremacy in the region is increasingly challenged by Russia. Moscow sees the Balkans as a key region for the projection of Russian influence and a buffer zone in which Russia’s interests have to be given precedence.
Trying to recover its influence, Russia may make use of the pan-Slavic and Orthodox themes, mainly developed by Aleksandr Dugin, assigns “the north of the Balkan peninsula from Serbia to Bulgaria” to what he terms the “Russian South”. The pan-Orthodox (or “Third Rome”) ideology is also drawn into Dugin’s program since, in his opinion, Romania, Macedonia, “Serbian Bosnia”, and even NATO-member Greece will all, in time, become constituent parts of the Eurasian-Russian Empire.
The South Stream project is an example of the manner in which Russia is using the economic assets to strengthen its strategic influence. As a main operator of South Stream, Gazprom has tried to acquire many downstream assets to gain control over gas distribution networks, transforming economic influence into enduring political power over local governments.
Serbia and Montenegro: visible growth of Russian influence
Since Russia’s relations with Bulgaria and Romania are seen as more distant after the accession of the two countries to the EU and NATO, Moscow pursues a closer relationship with its old ally, Serbia, and the two countries have grown closer together following the recent change of government. In Montenegro, Russian capital almost appears to be propping up the state. Russian companies have bought up 40 percent of the coast and the largest industrial companies.
Military and security consequences
An interesting development to be observed in the context of the new government in Serbia is the increasing military cooperation with the Russian Federation and Serbia’s newly acquired status of observer member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The move is seen as a powerful message to the West about the fact that the Western Balkans “have an option”, in case the integration into EU and NATO becomes complicated.
The Kremlin is also pursuing a policy of economic and geostrategic penetration in Greece and Cyprus. Enhancing its influence in Greece and Cyprus also strengthens Russia’s position vis-à-vis Turkey.
4. Turkey: playing historic and religious cards
In the framework of its multi-dimensional and multi-regional foreign policy, inspired by the “pan-Ottomanism”, Turkey expanded its economic, political and diplomatic role in the Balkans, with a more proactive approach to develop strong political and diplomatic ties.
The AKP government sets the main goals of the Turkish foreign policy with regard to the Balkans as being the strengthening of Bosnia and Albania, as well as the creation of an international legal framework that could set the minorities of Turkish origin under the protection of the Turkish state.
For Turkey, a mix of continuous economic crisis and a long-term blockade of the Balkan countries from the EU are considered to be the main factors that will allow it to exert political influence and secure regional domination.
Balancing a raising trend of Radical Islam
Turkey is also seen as a possible counterbalance for radical Islam in the region, in the context of the religious vacuum created by the regime changes and the advance of the Islamic Non-Governmental Organizations closely associated with Iran, but also with the Arab Gulf states and Saudi Arabia in promoting the Wahhabi doctrine of Islam.
The growth of the Wahhabi movements was noted in Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, and the mountainous Sandzak region between Montenegro and Serbia. Another worrying aspect, especially in the context of the Syrian war, is the growing number of Muslim immigrants in Greece and Bulgaria, whose poor economic situation makes them a prime recruiting target for radical Islam.
Another traditional “Islamic player” in the region is Iran, with significant influence especially in Bosnia. Albania has been also targeted by Iran.
A rising player in the region is Qatar, making use mainly of the economic and financial asset to gain a foothold in the Balkan region, as shown by the opening of an al Jazeera office in Sarajevo and by a highway project in Bulgaria.
5. “Distant” power actors
China: soft but increasingly present
China, even as its rate of economic growth slows, is continuing to both enlarge and modernize its navy, while expanding its commercial interests around the southern navigable rimland of Eurasia, becoming more and more present in the Balkan area.
A most interesting aspect is the Chinese involvement in the Balkans’ infrastructure projects that prompted some analysts to claim that China is in fact taking over the tasks that the European Union is no more in the position – or less willing – to assume concerning some of the pan-European transport corridors.
China’s growing involvement in the Balkans is also to be seen in defense projects, with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) stepping up military cooperation throughout the region. The PLA deepened ties with Albania and Croatia in 2005, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2008, Montenegro and Macedonia in 2010, and pledged to expand collaboration with Bulgaria, Romania and Greece.
The United States: leaving but not gone
Over the last decade the U.S. has significantly reduced both its military and diplomatic presence in the Balkans.
While the current trend is that U.S. engagement in the Western Balkans will continue to decrease, unless a serious conflict takes place again, the U.S. military is a continuing presence in the area. The main base of the United States Army, located in the eastern part of Kosovo, is the largest US military facility in Europe, a key facility for exercising control over the Adriatic, Mediterranean and Black seas, as well as the routes to the Middle East, North Africa and the Caucasus. Its operational range is far from being limited to Kosovo, encompassing the whole of the Balkans.
The developments and trends mentioned sum up to the fact that, as most of the countries of the European borderlands, the Balkan region will be shaped more by external forces than by its internal dynamics. It cannot be seen as a self-enclosed geopolitical sphere, but as a borderland shaped by outside forces.
The risks of the West’s disengagement are evident. Leaving the Balkans in limbo or devising peripheral-type associations in a multispeed Europe will open up space for other ambitious actors like Russia, Turkey or China to compete with the West’s influence and vision in the region.