Do you remember the European Union’s strategy on the “credible perspective” of the Western Balkans from February 2018? A little help, there was also talk about the possibility for Serbia and Montenegro, as the most advanced candidates, to enter the Union by 2025, that is, in a period of seven years. If it still doesn’t sound familiar, there is no reason to worry, because even the most meticulous bureaucrats in Brussels do not remember this, let alone the politicians there.
This paper was just one in a series of empty shells, a text without any vision or content that has been multiplied in Brussels for almost two decades, while they were delaying their obligation to take care of the suction of the Balkans into the Union, which they took over in 2003 in Thessaloniki. Specifically, this strategy came as a result of many years of complete passivity of Brussels in the field of Balkan integration, so with it the EU snapped from lethargy and wanted to show that it is turning over a new leaf. Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini, at the time, said the Union had “neglected the Balkans” and was resolutely returning to the region in this way.
Both she and her then boss Jean-Claude Juncker, as well as many of their colleagues, promised a new return, mostly because due to the absence of Europe, others came to the Balkans, primarily Russia, China, Turkey and Arab countries, with their money, influence, jobs and plans.
Maybe it’s time for Brussels to start making a new strategy for the Western Balkans, or at least to take over, with small corrections, the one from 2018, and offer it as a new strategic document of their, as they often say, commitment to the European perspective of the Western Balkans. Things “on the ground” are such that they are looking for a new engagement of Brussels, but experience says that something more than a new strategy can hardly be expected.
The poor result of the Social Democrat Zoran Zaev in the local elections in North Macedonia, and especially his resignation from the post of Prime Minister, abruptly pushed the Balkan pendulum to the side where there is no European Union and its integrations. That pendulum has shifted to the side of Russia and its influence in the region. The departure of Zoran Zaev, or it is only a temporary and tactical withdrawal, is also the end of a stage in which Russian influence in the Balkans was strongly suppressed, and this country strongly turned to Western integration, which was crowned by joining NATO.
That was the time when Russia lost wherever it appeared in the Balkans. It was pushed from Montenegro, in which it invested a lot of destructive energy, including the attempted armed coup in 2016. Shortly afterwards, completely turned to the West and without a Russian threat to its stability, Montenegro joined NATO, exactly what Moscow wanted to prevent. It was also the time of the arrival of Zoran Zaev, on the wings of large protests, but also leaked recordings that severely disqualified the then Prime Minister Gruevski and his team as corrupt thugs. In Moscow, they did not even try to hide their political inclinations, so they had completely different views on the protests in Skopje and Podgorica. In Montenegro, they supported the demonstrations of the opposition Democratic Front as a democratic expression of the people’s will and condemned the police intervention against them, and considered the same situation in Macedonia (protests by Zaev and his coalition) to be the Western drilling of Nikola Gruevski’s democratic government.
In the short term, 2016 and 2017, mainly due to the engagement of America and its special envoys, the West “defeated” Russia, not only in Macedonia and Montenegro, but also in Albania, where pro-European Prime Minister Edi Rama remained in the saddle, although he also had a boycott of the opposition and street demonstrations against him. Even in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the positions of the Russian favorite Milorad Dodik, whom the United States put on its “black list” of sanctions in those days, on which he is still today, were swaying.
At this moment, however, the arm wrestling in the Balkans has gone the other way, and Moscow has many reasons to be satisfied. For a year now, there has been a distinctly pro-Russian government in Podgorica, which (if it survives) can be expected to make a big turn from the West at any moment and return to the embrace of its big Orthodox brother. This is the way things are going in North Macedonia as well. The state and its leader Zaev are outraged by the behavior of the Union, which “for no reason at all” persistently refuses to open accession negotiations, despite the maximum effort and concessions that the Macedonians have made to unlock their path to the EU.
Although he was defeated only in the local elections, Zaev, his North Macedonia, but also the region and Europe know very well that this is a consequence of Brussels’ strategic hesitation to turn to the Balkans. Everything is the opposite of what they wrote in the mentioned strategy from 2018, and said countless times before and after that. The case of Zoran Zaev is, rarely seen in the Balkans, a demonstration of responsible political behavior, and for now one of the most convincing warnings to the European Union to stop playing with its authority, or what is left of it.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, too, the pendulum of Russian influence and political expectations is shifting in the desired direction for Moscow, because Milorad Dodik’s actions with blocking state decisions and withdrawing RS from central institutions correspond to Moscow’s interests so that this country stays out of European and NATO orbits.
The view of today’s Balkans and the same region from four or five years ago are two completely different scenes. The West has lost momentum at almost every point, which a few years ago implied a “path of no return” towards EU and NATO integration. By accepting first Montenegro, and then North Macedonia into the Atlantic Alliance, did not put an end to their political and security instability and the penetration of Russian influence. This is best shown by the changes in the government in Podgorica last year, and also by the political changes that are yet to come in North Macedonia.
The European Union is not showing signs of its return to the Balkans and acceleration of the region’s integration. This topic has been waiting for a long time for the internal problems in the Union to be resolved before that, and there is every chance that it will last for years to come. At the same time, outbursts of “concerns”, and sometimes “deep concerns” over the strengthening of the so-called non-European influences in the Balkans, which is most often a euphemism for Russia’s penetration, do not stop from Brussels and other European capitals.
After the last Macedonian episode, it is clear; there are no more reasons for concerns or deep concerns. What it fears and warns about (who?) is already there, it will continue to work and shift the pendulum of influence on its side. Is there a Western answer to this reality, without being a new strategy that everyone will forget about the next day?