BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union is in the midst of yet another goodwill trip through the Western Balkans to drum up support for the bloc and to make sure that Europe’s historical tinderbox is not about to pick the side of hostile Russia or strategic rival China in the world of geopolitics.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will have a stop during her whirlwind six-nation tour in Serbia on Friday, by far the most important nation in the southern region, and one that has shown scant regard for solidarity in joining EU sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
For years, the 27-nation EU has been caught in two minds over the Western Balkans: seeking to pull them close as allies and hold off foreign interference, yet at the same time, keeping them at arm’s length since their weaker economies and political institutions are far from ready to seamlessly integrate into the EU’s single market of open trade and Western democratic ideals.
The result has been frustration for the Western Balkan nations, sometimes bordering on alienation. And the Feb. 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine has only made matters more urgent. Hence, this week’s outpouring of warm words and more EU aid in addition to the billions in grants and loans already committed to the region.
“This is a question of strategic interests, and we only have one shot to get it right. So let’s not waste it,” Katalin Cseh of the liberal Renew Europe group told the EU legislature last week.
“Russia and China understand the strategic importance of the Western Balkans just as well as we do. Only,” she added, “it is right on our doorstep.”
The region now comprising of Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia has long been a political, and sometimes literal, battleground for world powers. A shooting in Sarajevo, Bosnia, in 1914 set off World War I, which brought down empires, redrew maps and ultimately led to World War II, The United States and the Soviet Union emerged as superpowers.
With the 1991 Soviet collapse, so did Yugoslavia, the dominant power in the Western Balkans region. That unleashed devastating wars in the 1990s that killed over 130,000, displaced millions, ruined economies and spawned ethnic hatreds that last to this day.
Even though the EU is by far the biggest investment and trading partner in the six-nation region, Von der Leyen has her work cut out in Belgrade, where right-wing and former anti-Western populist President Aleksandar Vucic has ruled for 10 years with increasing powers and allowed for the spread of Russian influence.
For years now, the EU has dangled the prospect of membership, and ensuing prosperity, for the Balkan nations. But that promise was somewhat undermined this year when the EU allowed Ukraine into the fast lane as a candidate nation, while progress on membership for Western Balkan nations has largely stalled.
That has turned several Balkan nations into EU sceptics.
Serbia’s line with Moscow irks the bloc most, especially since Vucic has refused to join Western sanctions against Russia.
“Serbia needs to step up its efforts in aligning with the EU positions,” said EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi.
Despite EU aid, recent surveys have suggested that support for Serbia’s EU integration has dropped since the start of the war in Ukraine. The surveys show that only about 30-35% of those questioned now support joining the EU, compared to 57% from a government survey last year.
Some blame it on a pro-Russian line in Serbia’s media, which is still a daily staple, further fueling anti-Western sentiments. In addition, there are Western fears that Russian influence will poison Serbia’s Balkan neighbors too, especially through ethnic Serb separatist leader Milorad Dodik in Bosnia. In both Serbia and Montenegro, the Russian biker group Night Wolves, which is close to Putin, is seen to have a hand in anti-Western actions.
While several Balkan nations have important historical links to Russia over centuries, that cannot be said of China. As the Asian powerhouse is extending its clout across the globe, it also reached nations like Serbia and Montenegro through economic and financial means.
“Chinese loans are Beijing’s primary foreign policy tool to strengthen its position in the region,” said an EU Parliament study over the summer. Those loans have clauses that if loans cannot be repaid, “China can request political favors or exercise unfavorable contractual clauses such as the seizure of assets or even land.”
EU estimates for Chinese investments in Serbia up through 2021 amounted to 10.3 billion euros. China has secured a presence throughout Central and Eastern Europe through investment and infrastructure works as part of its “One Belt, One Road” initiative.
Chinese companies have been involved in building roads, bridges and other major infrastructure projects that are financed through Chinese loans. The EU has warned that Chinese companies and banks fuel corruption in the already volatile Western Balkan region because they make state-to-state deals without competition or tenders.
In Serbia, Chinese companies now own the biggest steel mill and copper and coal mines, and they are building roads and bridges.
Among the most controversial Chinese projects in the Western Balkans has been a portion of a highway linking Montenegro’s Adriatic Sea coast with the Serbian border that was far beyond the small nation’s means.
Montenegro took out the $944 million loan in 2014 as part of the plan, but was later unable to repay it, as the construction dragged on and debts accumulated, throwing the country into a financial crisis. The Balkan country of just 620,000 people eventually struck a deal with one French and two U.S. banks to restructure the Chinese loan and has since made its first debt payment. The first portion of the highway was inaugurated earlier this year.
Jovana Gec contributed from Belgrade.
Updated : 2022-10-28 18:57 GMT+08:00
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