Western Balkans and foreign influences

Admir Mulaosmanović

Russia's role in the region, for example, is related to the intrusion of integrative processes with the West and the European Union, and China's investment in infrastructure and industry is seen as a vital source of finance, making China to be recognized as perhaps the most serious upcoming player. Other countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are considered as political factors that can undermine already fragile relations between states and between communities in the region. It is clear that the emphasis is on the possible strengthening of so-called Islamic extremism, thus again put Bosnia and Herzegovina under a special loupe.

The stability of the region is underlined, and for Bosnia and Herzegovina it is said that there is a possibility to be a 'failed state' because Dayton agreement was good for stopping the war but bad for making the state. Possibly a basic approach of Bosnia and Herzegovina at the forthcoming London Conference lays in this segment. Establishment of the state to its peoples and citizens but above all sustainable and functional is must. Former High Representative lord Paddy Ashdown said the problem is in the fact that war leaders continued to fight politically. Certainly, the state border opinion as part of the problem may disturb. Although acknowledged by the UN and others, the report notes that a good part of the Albanian and Serbian ethnic communities live outside of Serbia (almost 20% of the Serbs in the Western Balkans live outside Serbia) and Albania (about 48% of Albanians in the Western Balkans live outside of Albania). This kind of thinking raises borders discussion and Bosnia and Herzegovina should be aware of it and be prepared to give its answer and vision.

Accession to the NATO Alliance (two Western Balkan countries are already members - Albania, 2009 and Montenegro, 2017) looks as a significant security process. In the context of Bosnia and Herzegovina it is emphasized that the Assembly of entity Republika Srpska on 17.10.2017 issued a declaration on military neutrality. It is quite clear that Bosnia and Herzegovina at the London Conference should be determined on this issue and legally give judgment on the validity of this act. However, the Committee stressed that it is essential to remove all obstacles for the opening of the MAP because the B&H Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bosnia stated that there is no plan B for the country, meaning that accession to EU is the only option. It was a reason why the Committee gave strong support to B&H (and Macedonia too) in their aspirations to join the NATO alliance and recommended to the British government to support it. In its response, the British government supported it and made it clear that it is important to support Macedonia on that way, regardless of whether the question of a state name is and may not be resolved (recently, the name issue has been resolved between FYROM and Greece). Thus, the resolute support, in that sense, B&H has not yet been obtained. On the other hand, problems of EU accession have been noted. Lord Ashdown skeptically expressed that the Balkan countries have pretended to make reforms while those who requested them (EU) pretended to believe them. The example of state media in Serbia is noted. TV companies have been privatized to meet EU requirements, but newly-ventured companies have bought businessmen close to the ruling party, thus continuing to function as state media. It is very clear that the democratization process did not actually follow what was imposed by the EU and the accession process itself. It is simply said that democratization has been delayed. Citizen support for EU accession has also decreased, but the British government has welcomed the new EU Strategy for the Western Balkans, considering it a good move in the direction of promoting European values ​​and concepts.

Bosnia and Herzegovina has proven to be an extremely difficult case. Most politicians are verbally advocating EU membership, combating fraud and corruption, and establishing a free judiciary and the rule of law that would undermine their ability to use undemocratic power. The conclusion reached at the Commission is devastating for B&H because it is stressed that every politician in Bosnia and Herzegovina has "about seven sentences" about the EU, which repeats as needed, but their commitment does not go deeper than that. Whole that relationship of democratization and association is summed in the opinion that the West has actually given priority to stability, not democracy (Tena Prelec from the LSE used the term of stabilitocracy). "Cracking down on corruption, ensuring the rule of law, potentiating the education system and stimulating a meritocratic structure in job allocation is much more important than ensuring short-term stability", she added, and thus criticized the relationship between the EU and the West.

Certainly, fear of the influence of other countries was the subject of analysis, especially the role of the US and the new foreign policy strategy of President Donald Trump. There is a strong view that the influence of Russia could grow. Russia, according to most speakers, actually sees the Western Balkans as the soft underbelly of the West where it can hinder the region and its approach / joining the EU by exploiting the well-known differences in this area. In fact, even those who opposed this attitude (Devcic) pointed to the essence of Russian obstruction - stopping the territorial spread of NATO. In its response, the government has urged Russia to play a constructive role in the region. As a member of the Steering Board of the Peace Implementation Council in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia has been invited to work with others to stop anti-Dayton and unconstitutional activities that destabilizes the country. This open call was unfortunately not accepted by the Russian side, and a remarkably negative meddling occurred during Valerija Matvijenko's visit to Sarajevo. That visit confirmed the attitude expressed specifically in relation to the Russian meddling in Montenegro when it was clearly intended to destabilize Montenegro and the region.

But a very different view of the US role was made by Laza Kekić rightly concluding that the issue of withdrawing from the region the world's leading power is quite ambiguous. The US was, he noted, who solved the problem in Macedonia (forming Zoran Zaev's government), allowed Montenegrin accession to NATO and introduced sanctions to Dodik in B&H. According to him, the United States was very active. "Russian Strategic Communications does not offer a coherent alternative to the European Union," Wiśniewski said discussing this issue and added that the Russian "... its media outlets may criticize Brussels and wider European politics but they do not portray the Eurasian Union as a viable alternative to Belgrade." In this segment, it is important to note that the EU as a significant player over the influence in the Western Balkans, the truth at this moment inadequate, see the Eurasian Union, whose leader is Russia. There is no doubt that this is a very important issue and that the future of the region will depend on the strategic positioning of the world powers. What the International Security Institute has noted is very relevant and interesting:

Russia’s strategic presence also provides political and strategic space to any other illegitimate influence. Russian-backed coups in Macedonia and Montenegro have failed, but Moscow still controls significant political forces in these countries. Russia is undisputed in [the Entity of] Republika Srpska … In Serbia, Russian political influence is largely represented in the National Assembly and security structures … Serbia is also one of the exporters of Russian arms, standards and politics in all conflict areas under Russian strategic influence. … The Russian so-called humanitarian center in Niš [in Serbia] is a concrete institution of strategic partnership and political influence of the Russian government and its promotion of anti-Western and anti-democratic affiliations and political arrangements.

Of course, those who think differently about Russia's influence have offered valuable arguments (the fall of the Gruevski government in FYROM and the Montenegrin NATO accession) for their views, thus not denying the dilemmas of the confrontation of the great powers in this area. Trade and investment are also very miserable when it comes to Russia (5-6% in total in these countries) compared to European, and in some countries (Albania) since 1990s, not single rubles have been invested. Kosovo is certainly a significant issue and Russia’s veto on the decisions against Serbia (Moscow supported Belgrade), but it is also noted that Serbia itself changes its course and attitude towards this issue.

One Belt, One Road Initiative implemented by China is different because it does not question the EU's enlargement to the Western Balkans, actually, it somehow sympathize whole process. China is dominantly investing in infrastructural works without the desire to dictate the local political authorities how and what to do in terms of internal political issues. Because of that, the influence of China is increasing, and an additional problem is the fact that China does not provide grants rather than loans that will undoubtedly increase national debt in countries that have decided to take Chinese loans.

Majority think that China saw cooperation with the Western Balkans as a long-term investment in the countries that will one day be part of the EU, which will make one day to have six pro-Chinese countries represented in EU institutions lobbying for Chinese political interests. In the long run, this Chinese strategy is far more serious and smarter.

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).