Western Balkans and Eastern alternative

By Hamza Preljević & Almir Mustafić

Unlike the European economic area that the Western Balkans (WB) mostly depends on, it would be much more difficult to achieve that WB states become primarily part of a new common economic community established by China, Russia and Turkey. However, if Russia imposes itself as a more important military and economic factor in the Balkans, and China, along with Turkey, as a strong economic partner of the WB countries and also implements the "One Belt, One Road" initiative, which would connect the Balkans with China, Russia and Turkey, that is, with the whole of Asia and the Middle East, the EU's position on the WB would certainly weaken. China has already had influence in Serbia, selected to be its strategic partner in the Balkans, but its influence is spreading in the wider Balkan region.1 Regarding the military commitment, China, given its geographical position and access to the seas, might not be the best partner, and this is probably clear to everyone on the WB.

However, it is also clear that China, in economic terms, as well as Russia in the military-political, will not give up on the WB, and the possibility of some sort of military cooperation between China and Russia in the Balkans and the South China Sea should not be ruled out, especially if we take into account the US initiative, which includes Australia, India and Japan, to develop an alternative,2 or countermeasures for the Chinese economic initiative "One belt, One Road". Also, the Chinese and Russian military assistance and cooperation with Serbia and the Bosnian-Herzegovinian entity of the Republika Srpska (RS),3 as well as the armament of Serbia through Belarus and Putin’s efforts to connect pro-Russian regions such as Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Crimea with Serbia and the RS show that Russia is trying to establish gradually a system to prevent NATO expansion in the area of its interest, and through which it will also spread its own influence. Annexation of Crimea speaks volumes about the strength and willingness of Russia to fight for its vital interests in certain parts of the world, and if its position in the Balkans is significantly threatened, it will probably be ready for radical measures. In this context, the delayed invitation for the presidents of Serbia and the RS to attend the inauguration of Vladimir Putin can also be understood as a symbolic message by Russia to Vučić and Dodik for their approach to NATO regarding certain issues and slow resolution of the issue with the diplomatic status of the personnel employed in the Russian humanitarian center in Niš, as well as because of the delay in construction of new Russian humanitarian centers in Serbia and the RS. However, the visit of Aleksandar Vučić immediately after the inauguration of Vladimir Putin speaks a lot about the status of Serbia in Moscow.4 Turkey in recent years, in large part due to many years of waiting for the EU membership, began to move away from the EU, while the rhetoric between Turkey and some EU member states has also escalated sharply.5 Unlike the previous influence on the Balkans, primarily Bosniaks in BiH, Turkish influence has strengthened in Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and Serbia. The visit of Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović to Erdogan in order to lobby for the change of electoral law in BiH was also indicatative in this context.6 Also, Erdogan’s visit to Serbia last year and the manner in which Serbian President Vučić and other officials welcomed him showed that Turkey has stable relations with Serbia.7 As for the Turkish influence in Kosovo, the extradition of six Turkish citizens claimed to be affiliated with Fethullah Gülen demonstrates strength of the Turkish influence in that country. Turkish activities in the Balkans are particularly important if one takes into account that even the official Brussels no longer shows that it is certain what relations should be maintained with Turkey, and whether it will ever become a part of the EU. Regarding these relations, Erdogan said that his country did not give up on the EU,8 but that Turkey has certain alternatives and that the Turks are "seriously tired" of waiting in front of the door of the European Union.9 Therefore, it seems that Turkey no longer takes too much into account the EU's view of its activities in Europe.

Turkey has significantly moved closer to Russia over the past few years,10 making its impact on the WB from the perspective of the West seem problematic but given that Turkey is a member of NATO the West is still not taking radical measures. Turkey has moved much closer to Russia over the past few years, which makes its impact on the WB from the perspective of the West problematic, but given that Turkey is a NATO member, the West is still not taking radical measures. However, the more Turkey moves closer to Russia in the future, the more efforts will the West invest into suppression of its influence in the Balkans. Regarding the influence of the Gulf States, the most prominent influence is that of Saudi Arabia in BiH. Until recently, this influence was mainly reduced to the spread of Saudi ideology through religious groups and individuals, some of whom, in addition to acting in public, also created so-called para-jamaats. However, Saudi Arabia, as well as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, have been increasing the intensity of their investments in the WB, which also has a significant impact on certain political and religious spheres, especially in BiH and Kosovo. Sebastian Kurz recently expressed his concern that the EU and NATO are confronted with competition for influence in the Balkans, stating that it is no longer only Russian competition, but also Saudi and Turkish.11 Also, a report by the European Parliament on the impact of Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries on the Balkans states:

Saudi Arabia stands out among the Gulf States with its ideology-driven approach to the Western Balkans. It emerged as an important player in the region in the early 1990s, during the war that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia. All of the Gulf States supported the Muslims of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) through a number of channels, but Saudi Arabia is considered to have reacted most swiftly and provided the most significant aid from the very outset of the war well into the next decade. The Saudi kingdom has allegedly spent hundreds of millions of euros for the Muslim cause, mobilizing volunteer Islamic fighters, providing humanitarian help and facilitating clandestine arms transfers. A big chunk of the aid was dedicated to building and reconstructing mosques and Islamic schools (madrassas), but was not limited to this; efforts also focused on fighting poverty, improving the health system, and investing in education and culture. Researchers often point out that Saudi aid has come with conditions…Saudi-funded mosques and schools facilitated the spread of the ultra-conservative doctrine of Wahhabism in the region.12

Although the EU Parliament in its report summarizes the fact that the war in Bosnia has opened the door to Saudi influence, it is important to emphasize - especially in the current context - that the same EU Parliament, as well as the entire EU, the UN and the international community in general have failed (or did not want) to stop the aggression against BiH, that is to say against the Bosnian Muslims who were besieged for nearly four years, and which greatly contributed to their dependence on any kind of assistance, even to the Middle Eastern.13 Also, it is important to point out that the UN Security Council imposed an embargo on arms imports to all former Yugoslav republics, which largely facilitated mass crimes against Muslims in BiH because at the very beginning of the war they virtually had no weapons of defense. If the EU representatives reacted on time and prevented massive war crimes in BiH, that is, 'at their doorstep', or if the Security Council, by abolishing the embargo, enabled Bosnian Muslims to defend themselves, the Saudi influence would probably never find its foothold in BiH. The current situation is such that, the more the EU procrastinates with BiH's accession to its community, the more likely will Saudi, but in particular, Russian, Turkish and Chinese influences grow in BiH, and the responsibility for this is mostly borne by the EU. When making decisions related to the future of the WB, EU officials should bear in mind that all WB countries with the majority Muslim population, and with Euro-Atlantic aspirations, have distanced themselves from the Middle East and shown their commitment to their EU and NATO membership through the main goals of their foreign policies.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Balkan Studies Centre (BSC).

 

* Originally written in Bosnian language within the project "Bosna i Hercegovina i Berlinski proces: Analiza stanja ključnih procesa u BiH pred Londonsku konferenciju 2018" [Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Berlin Process: Analysis of Key Processes in BiH prior to the London Conference in 2018], Balkan Studies Center (BSC). 

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