Safe Harbors and Uncertain Prospects
With war raging in Ukraine, the countries of Southeastern Europe are increasingly relevant, particularly in terms of infrastructure. Politically they could also become more important, if the EU played its cards right.
The Russian war against Ukraine has increased the importance of Southeastern Europe as a political arena. At the same time, there are high levels of support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine in some states and parts of states in the region—especially in Serbia and in Republika Srpska, which is part of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The challenges this constellation poses for the democratic community should not be underestimated.
The increased strategic military and economic importance of the region is reflected in the role of Southeastern European ports in the recent conflict. Two places stand out: Alexandroupolis in Northeastern Greece and Constanța on Romania's Black Sea coast. The port of Alexandroupolis in the Greek part of Thrace has become a transshipment point for Western, mainly American, arms shipments to NATO member states Bulgaria and Romania, and from there on to Ukraine. Constanța has been the closest maritime transshipment point for exports of wheat and other agricultural products from Ukraine since Russia occupied or blockaded Ukrainian ports. Ukrainian wheat exports, in particular, are of paramount importance in avoiding price explosions, unrest provoked by famine, and thus renewed refugee movements from the Middle East and North Africa to Europe.
In Greece, Alexandroupolis is now called the “NATO port.” A title that Moscow has also indirectly acknowledged. In January, when Russia was in the final preparations for the invasion of Ukraine, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov complained that “hundreds” if not “thousands” of arms had been delivered to Ukraine via Alexandroupolis. The route the weapons take from there today is, by its very nature, not public knowledge. However, it’s no secret that Ukrainian transport planes regularly shuttle between the Bulgarian Black Sea cities of Varna and Burgas and the Polish airport of Rzeszow near Poland's border with Ukraine. The United States is not hiding its interest in Alexandroupolis. “The ever-increasing level of military activity here at the port of Alexandroupolis underscores its growing strategic role and importance to Greece, the US, and the region,” Geoffrey Pyatt, until recently US ambassador to Athens, said during a visit to the city.
The port's upgrade is part of a shift in the focus of Washington’s regional security cooperation that has been evident for several years. Instead of relying on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Turkey, the Americans are focusing more on Greece, which is governed by the transatlanticist Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. However, this process had already began under Mitsotakis’ predecessor Alexis Tsipras and his Alliance of the Radical Left and is likely to outlast any future changes of government in Athens as long as Erdogan dominates Turkey.
The war in Ukraine has also increased the importance of Alexandroupolis in terms of energy policy. American companies are bidding for the contract in the upcoming partial privatization of the port. This interest is also explained by the floating liquefied natural gas terminal under construction off Alexandroupolis. The facility is intended to enable parts of the region to permanently reduce their dependence on Russian gas. This applies not least to Bulgaria, which had already secured a 20 percent share in the Greek terminal during its former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s term of office. This was a far-sighted decision, as became clear after Bulgaria and Poland became the first European Union member states to be refused gas supplies by Gazprom in April.
Constanța is important for another reason. Romania’s largest port is also connected inland to Western Europe and the North Sea via the Black Sea-Danube Canal, opened during the time of the country’s communist dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu. The port has, by necessity, become the gateway to the world not only for Ukraine but also for Moldova as a result of Russia's war. Moldova previously used Odessa as its central hub for exports and imports, as did Ukraine itself. However, the Russian blockade means that this port will be out of action indefinitely. Constanța thus has a new role to play.
The port is, however, not adequately prepared for this. This applies in particular to the rail connection, in which hardly any investment has been made for decades. The different track gauges of the railroads in Ukraine and Moldova, as well as in Romania, make the handling of goods even more difficult. Romania now wants to quickly invest €200 million in expanding the rail network in the port area. An old, continuous broad-gauge connection between the Moldovan border town of Giurgiulești and the Romanian Danube port of Galați also needs to be modernized. It’s only possible to rapidly increase capacity to a limited extent to compensate for the loss of Ukrainian ports. However, it is foreseeable that the war in Ukraine will result in an (even) closer infrastructural and thus economic and political alignment of Ukraine and Moldova with the EU in the medium and long term.
Playing the Russian Card
But what about further west? The “Western Balkans” is a fairly recent concept, the term having been coined to describe those six Balkan states that aspire to EU membership: Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia. While there is no significant support for Putin's policies in Albania and Kosovo (apart from the Serbian-controlled north and Serbian enclaves), the picture is not so clear in other parts of the region.
Particularly in the Republika Srpska, which is part of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Russian incursion into Ukraine has the support of the political leadership and a significant part of the population. No politician in the region is so openly playing the Russian card as Milorad Dodik, who is the longest-ruling politician in the Balkans after Montenegro's long-time ruler Milo Đukanović. Dodik was head of government in Republika Srpska from 1998 to 2001 and from 2006 to 2010, then its president until 2018. Since then, he has represented the Bosnian Serbs as one of the three-member Presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Since last year, Dodik has been using this position to intensify a campaign to weaken and ultimately abolish the Bosnian state, with Russian support. This has been his trademark for years. Dodik has apparently refrained from the goal of building a separate army (he would have had difficulty financing it anyway). However, announcements of a separate tax and judicial system remain a threat.
Quite a few European observers would like the EU to follow the example of the United States and impose sanctions against Dodik. So far, however, this has been prevented in the EU by Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
In Republika Srpska, understanding or even open support for the Kremlin’s war aims prevails, not only in politics, but also among large sections of the public. Anyone who speaks out publicly against it runs the risk of being caught in the crosshairs of Dodik's power apparatus and its media. The Russian war against Ukraine is played down in many media outlets and in political discourse it is called a “special operation,” just as it is in Russia.
As in Moscow, the bloodshed is justified by the fact that a genocide of Russians in Ukraine had to be prevented. This twisted pattern of argumentation is well-known in Bosnia: the genocide committed by Serbs against Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995 is also justified in this way. It is claimed that the crime, committed under the orders of Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladić, who was later sentenced to life imprisonment as a war criminal, was necessary to prevent the Serbs from becoming victims of genocide themselves, as they did in World War II. On this issue, there is little difference between those in power and much of the relevant opposition in Republika Srpska. Dodik has succeeded in tailoring the debate to his needs ahead of the upcoming elections in October, which will also determine his political future.
In Tito’s Footsteps
The picture is more nuanced in Serbia. The largest state to emerge from the breakup of Yugoslavia is often portrayed as particularly pro-Russian. However, a closer look at the policies of President Aleksandar Vučić, whose rule is almost absolute, reveals element that do not entirely fit this reading.
One example is Serbia's relationship with NATO. The Western alliance is unpopular in Serbia. Joining is not on the table and would have no chance of success in a referendum. On the other hand, Serbia has been a member of NATO's Partnership for Peace program since 2006. Belgrade has never questioned the principle of membership, even in the most difficult times, such as after Kosovo's proclamation of independence in February 2008, which was supported by the West.
The Serbian army maintains far more diplomatic contacts and holds more joint maneuvers with the armed forces of NATO countries than with Russia. However, a different picture is systematically painted in the media loyal to President Vučić. There is little media coverage of cooperation with NATO and so public perception of it is limited, while planned joint maneuvers with Russia and Belarus are featured prominently.
A particularly striking example of the orientation of Serbia's pro-government media emerged on the first day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The tabloid newspaper, Informer, edited by a personal friend and political loyalist of Vučić, ran the headline, “Americans plunge the world into chaos. Ukraine attacks Russia!” Other media directly or indirectly controlled by Vučić's power apparatus reported similarly. This was obviously the message that Belgrade wanted to plant in the public's mind at the beginning of the war.
In the meantime, however, this has changed somewhat. Officially, Serbia supports the territorial integrity of Ukraine and has joined the United Nations’ condemnation of Russia. In view of the unresolved Kosovo issue, from Belgrade’s point of view, the country has no choice but to stand up for the territorial integrity of other states.
Vučić, however, continues to play a range of foreign policy cards. To some extent, he is trying to emulate the foreign policy of the post-World War II Yugoslav leader Josip Tito who, as leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, succeeded in giving Yugoslavia international prominence. While Serbia formally adheres to the goal of joining the EU, it is simultaneously seeking proximity to Russia and China.
The mid-April delivery of the Chinese air defense system known as the FK-3 to Serbia's armed forces was accordingly staged with great publicity. The FK-3 is the scaled-down export version of the HQ-22, which is in turn considered a Chinese replica of the Russian S-300 system. Serbia is the first European country to own this Chinese system. Vučić had to accept Moscow's irritation about this, as he had previously publicly flirted with buying the—much more expensive—S-300 system.
The Serbian president's systematic maneuvering is particularly evident when it comes to arms procurement. However, the global political constellation is nowhere near as favorable for the long-term success of such a seesaw policy as it was in Tito’s day. At least not if the so-called “European perspective” for the Western Balkans were to regain credibility at some point and Serbia had to make a decision.
At the moment, however, such decisions are not on the agenda, because enlargement policy in its traditional form has rightly lost all credibility in the region. Next year, it will be a decade since the EU last admitted a new member—Croatia in 2013. Since then, stagnation has prevailed. Montenegro has been negotiating accession with the EU for 10 years, Serbia for eight. In those years, Serbia's democracy has regressed, while the future of Montenegro's democratic awakening is fraught with uncertainty. Turkey, which has been negotiating accession for 18 years, has deteriorated during that time from an, at least moderately functioning democracy, to an autocracy with arbitrary justice and thousands of political prisoners.
Little has remained of the transformative power that the EU accession process undoubtedly exuded at the start of the millennium and even a decade ago. This can hardly come as a surprise. If even a country like North Macedonia, which went so far as to change its own name for the dream of EU membership, is not yet allowed to begin accession talks and, after Greek blackmail, may now have to bow to Bulgarian blackmail as well, how can the process achieve any credibility?
There are certainly solid arguments for the reluctance of some member states to accept new partners into the EU, which is often summarized by the phrase “enlargement fatigue.” French President Emmanuel Macron advances some of these arguments repeatedly: The EU is already barely capable of making foreign policy decisions with 27 member states—how will it function with 30 or more? Just imagine if, during the Ukraine war, there had been an EU debate on sanctions against Russia in which, Belgrade or Sarajevo (and thus indirectly Banja Luka), in addition to Budapest, had a veto. Punitive measures against Russia would hardly have been conceivable.
Since there is no prospect of abolishing the principle of unanimity in foreign policy decisions, which often paralyzes the EU, the question arises as to what realistic options there are, below the threshold of full membership, regarding potential cooperation with Western Balkan states.
Attractive Concepts for the Region
The good news is that there are concepts that could be attractive to the people of the region and give the EU agenda-setting power again. The most important of these ideas is that of granting the region access to the European single market with its four pillars—the free movement of people, goods, capital, and services. Access to these privileges would have tremendous effect on the Western Balkans. For people and businesses, in their everyday life it would feel as if they lived and traded in the EU. A company in Belgrade or Tirana could offer goods or services under the same conditions as their competitors in Hamburg or Paris. At the same time, such an offer would not overburden the EU, because the entire Western Balkans has barely half as many inhabitants as Poland. Moreover, Western Balkan membership of the single market would not be a political burden on the EU’s decision-making ability, because the Balkan states would have full economic participation, but neither their own commissioners nor veto rights in Brussels.
For the acceptance of such ideas, however, it would be important to present admission to the common market as an intermediate step that does not rule out full membership in the distant future. Norway and Iceland, for example, have opted for the model of belonging to the economic area, but could still apply for EU membership if their populations supported the idea.
Of course, the road to membership of the economic area would not be a walk in the park either. Here, too, a considerable number of reforms would need to be carried out first. Fulfillment of the Copenhagen criteria would have to be ensured, just as it would for political accession. Market economies with functioning supervisory bodies and a constitutional state with genuine separation of powers, as well as protection of minorities, would be prerequisites for accession. Under no circumstances should the European offer be limited to a kind of enlarged free trade zone, because this would cement undemocratic power relations in the region. However, if a realistic and genuine offer of access to the European market can be made, it could spur on efforts toward reform that are currently lacking in the region. Russia could not make a credible offer to counter this.
Unfortunately, however, many Western capitals have failed to recognize the fact that the old enlargement policy is, to paraphrase Macron, brain dead. Instead, the old mantra that whether EU membership is possible or not depends on reform efforts in the region itself, is repeated ad nauseum. The advocates of this concept, which has long since ceased to be realistic, appear like the priests of a dying religion whose litanies have long since lost their meaning. This, and not Russian attempts at disruption, is where the greatest dangers lie for the EU in the Balkans.
Michael Martens is Southeastern Europe correspondent for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.