With “enlargement fatigue”, the EU is losing much of its influence in the Balkans. Other actors want to entice these countries, writes dpa. But can they replace the EU? Ask the youth, says one expert.

2019 was not an auspicious year for people on the periphery of the European Union, in Southeast Europe. Contrary to what it promised, the EU at the October summit did not give the green light for opening negotiations with Northern Macedonia and Albania, the German news agency DPA wrote in an analysis of the situation in the Balkans earlier this year. France and other countries came up against them.

Risk of breaking the trust

In Serbia and Montenegro, two countries that have already opened negotiations, the authoritarian tendencies of the ruling forces have been strengthened. The pressure on intellectuals and critical media has increased. The situation in Albania is not better, a country not an example of democracy, writes dpa. In November, Albania was rocked by a severe earthquake with dozens of casualties. But the “no’s” of membership talks was very heavy. In Macedonia this brought early elections to be held on 12 April.

In the Balkans, failure to negotiate is seen as a breach of trust, as a threatening expression of “enlargement fatigue” in EU-based countries. At a time when the EU had decided at its Thessaloniki summit in 2003 that all Western Balkan countries had the prospect of membership. But so far, only Croatia, which joined in 2013, has managed to do so. For other Balkan countries, the prospect is on the horizon, writes the dpa, they even risk losing it, but is the EU itself at risk of losing Balkans?

Russian, Chinese and Turkish attempts

Other alternatives, such as Russia, China or Turkey are pending. “The EU has left a vacuum that Russia is willing to fill,” said Sonja Biserko, who heads the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Belgrade. “China comes on the other hand with a lot of money being offered in the form of loans, without standards and without criteria.”

Moscow, however, gives support especially to Serbia, which will not accept the loss of Kosovo. Moscow is known to block Kosovo’s accession to the United Nations with its veto. But in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia backs Bosnian Serb strongman Milorad Dodik, writes dpa. In this war-torn country in 1992-1995, Dodik paralyzes developments with his separatist stances. Not forgetting Montenegro, where in October 2016, a coup organized by Russian agents, but failed, should hinder the country’s NATO membership.

Russia’s goal, the dpa points out, is to create in the Balkans a “military-neutral generation belt”, the Russian ambassador to Skopje has said, as seen by internal foreign ministry documents in Skopje from 2017. But Moscow could not stop the membership of Montenegro and northern Macedonia. Serbia rules out membership after the 1999 bombing. In Bosnia, Dodik is trying to thwart any rapprochement with the North Atlantic Alliance.

China, for its part, pursues economic interests with its intercontinental concept of “New Silk Road” strategy. The Balkans has the role of a transit area in this context. Beijing has managed to take a majority stake in the port of Piraeus, and is modernizing the railroad between Belgrade and Budapest. The projects are financed with not-so-cheap loans from Chinese state-owned banks. Chinese firms take over, often with “imported” workers from China. The balance of value creation for these borrowing countries is weak. Montenegro risks falling into debt due to a China-funded highway.

Even Turkey with its autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wants to get closer to Muslim political actors, but not only to them. The party, the SDA, which controls mainly the Bosniak-Muslim part, honors Erdogan as a conqueror. But even Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has good relations with Erdogan. Erdogan’s interests are largely economic: a market for Turkish goods. On the other hand, it seeks to increase geopolitical influence.

Are Russia, China and Turkey really making the Balkans for themselves?

“Of course the enthusiasm in the region for the EU is cooling,” says Florian Bieber, Professor at the Institute of Southeast Europe at the University of Graz. But it must be said that external actors such as Russia and China have little to offer. The often corrupt and authoritarian Balkan elites would willingly accept their projects, not just get rich. “But if you look at their investments, compared to those of the EU then they don’t have it

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