Western Balkans as Another Friction Point

Discontent in a Divided World

6 May 2022

Albin Sybera

Visegrad Insight Fellow

In light of the war in Ukraine, Western Balkans is becoming another friction point in a divided world. But the Western Balkans region is all the more an opportunity for Czech foreign policy, lost in recent years under the empty “managerial style” of Andrej Babiš’s governments.

Under the impression of yet another offensive by the Russian army in Ukraine, the uncovering of mass graves in the territory from which the Russian army has withdrawn, and the exodus of civilians, attention in the Czech Republic is understandably focused primarily on Ukraine. As President Volodymyr Zelensky charismatically reiterates, Ukraine’s defence against the nationalist violence of the Putin regime has an unmissable dimension for the entire European Union. And not only in the sense of Ukraine’s efforts for future membership in the European Union, but also in what the EU has historically meant and how it is perceived by the people of EU countries and aspirant states today. The killing and destruction in Ukraine has once again brought to the forefront the fact that the EU was conceived as “the answer to war“, as historian Timothy Snyder reminds us.

Issues that until recently divided the EU, such as the V4’s refusal for migration or the launch of Nord Stream 2, seem to have been removed. The opening of accession talks for Ukraine to join the EU seems an immediate issue after Ursula von der Leyen’s visit. It is thus easy to overlook that the prospect of EU membership is still a key political issue also for the countries of the Western Balkans region. And that the inhabitants of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Northern Macedonia and Serbia are facing the fate of eternal waiters for the formalisation of their Europeanness.

Scenarios on the Future of Western Balkans

In Visegrad Insight’s Western Balkans Futures report, experts outlined five possible scenarios for future developments in the region. Although these scenarios differ from one other, they all respond to political, social, cultural and economic realities identified by forty analysts, editors and other experts during joint workshops.

EU membership, whether distant or achievable, runs through all scenarios. At the same time, it cannot be separated from key risks such as the influence of Beijing and the Kremlin, or the centralisation of power and the deepening of informal relations between the public and private sectors. In a changing geopolitical reality, the Western Balkans is easily becoming another friction point in a world divided into two key camps. On the one hand, there is the part that seeks power sharing and democratic participation in governance; on the other hand, the part where the centralisation of power in a narrow ruling circle of a select few is reinforced by state-sponsored ideology – state communism in China or the nationalism of Putin’s Kremlin, which tends towards fascism and imperialism.

The countries of the global south are a separate set. In such a polarised world, and in addition to the risks of global warming, these countries are in danger of being forgotten by the international community or of having their political leaders and national projects caught in debt traps, in which, apart from Russia, China has stood out in recent years.

In fact, China is pursuing a similar strategy on projects such as the construction of a motorway near Podgorica in Montenegro. Then, recent news of the delivery of a Chinese anti-aircraft system to Vucic’s Serbia swept the world. The presence of Chinese technology in telecommunications services in Serbia has for some time been the subject of questions about the extent to which Aleksandar Vucic’s sabre-rattling between the EU (Serbia is an EU candidate country) and China and Russia is in fact a manifestation of the consolidation of his Serbian Progressive Party’s power over the country’s public institutions.

Autocrats or Oligarchs?

Vučić, like his fellow politician Viktor Orbán, secured important electoral gains in the presidential election on the first Sunday in April. This occurred despite the complication of his party losing its majority in the parallel parliamentary elections. Behind Aleksandar Vucic’s dominance in Serbian politics is, among other things, the formidable media influence that makes him a virtually omnipresent figure in Serbia, but also in the region and, in particular, in Republika Srpska, the Serbian entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina.An illustrative example is the state-owned company Telekom Srbija, which forms an important part of the media landscape and which, among other things, enables the Russian state media outlet Russia Today to broadcast in the countries of the region. For Czech readers, it is not without interest that more than a year ago Telenor (now part of the newly established Yettel brand) from the Czech PPF Group also established close cooperation with Telekom Srbija. Prior to the formalisation of the cooperation, a document was leaked from Telekom Srbija’s management in which the management described the benefits of cooperation with PPF as the “complete destruction” of competition.

Editor’s Pick: Serbian Telecommunications Market Is PPF’s Latest Target

An even more thorough accumulation of public, commercial and media power used by to fuel the political crisis led at the beginning of the year to the imposition of further sanctions on Republika Srpska leader Milorad Dodik and his entourage by the US administration. In some parts of the Western Balkans – such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is currently in the throes of a constitutional crisis – Vucic’s presence across the border is all too familiar, although at the European level the current situation in the Western Balkans may appear secondary. This is despite the shocking parallels in the genocide of Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s and the genocidal murder of Ukrainians in front of Europe’s eyes, and especially in the strategy of denial and relativisation not only by Milosevic’s Belgrade, or Putin’s Kremlin, but also by Vucic’s Serbia, as political scientist Jasmin Mujanovic points out.

Czech Foreign Policy Must Find its Face

But the Western Balkans region is all the more an opportunity for Czech foreign policy, lost in recent years under the empty “managerial style” of Andrej Babiš’s governments and the eastern hangover of Miloš Zeman. Moreover, the Czech EU presidency starts in July and the Czech Republic will have the opportunity to be visible in co-shaping the EU agenda. Moreover, the Czech Republic has had relatively recent experience in the Western Balkans through the Czech Army missions, and Czech countries have spent a substantial part of modern history in a common state with present-day Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia.

In the last decade, the Czech Republic has also been exposed to the growing influence of private corporations with business interests in strategic sectors such as energy, media and telecommunications, on political developments. In many respects, the Czech Republic is thus facing similar risks of state capture as those that have led to the rise of authoritarian politicians such as Aleksandar Vučić and his party.

Last but not least, the EU is already attached to the region. It is not only because a large part of its population works in the EU market; the EU is also strategically attached to the Western Balkans. The failure and subjugation of public institutions in the region is also undermining the EU’s institutions, which are based on the separation of powers and democratic participation in their management as a model for the functioning of the EU.

Stopping or freezing EU enlargement to the Western Balkans could thus damage the EU project at a time when Putin’s violence in Ukraine has cemented it. On the other hand, the idea of another authoritarian inside the EU could be as destructive to the EU as Orbán’s tenure as head of Hungary.

The original of this article was published in the Czech language in Hospodářské noviny.

This article is part of the Western Balkans Futures project supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

Albin Sybera

Visegrad Insight Fellow

Visegrad Insight Fellow. Albin is a freelance journalist, consultant and a former clerk at the State Environmental Fund of the Czech Republic. Besides Visegrad Insight, his texts can be also found at Britske listy or Balkan Insight.

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