The Balkans in 2017: A region still being fought over by outsiders

Thursday 27th July 2017

zoran-cicakZoran Cicak, a political analyst

For centuries, the Balkans was an area where two dominant European players of the age were fighting each other for influence, resources, transit routes and allies. Whether Habsburg and Ottoman empires in the XVII and XVIII centuries, Russian and Austrian empires in the XIX century, Germany and Great Britain in the first half of the XX century, or the USSR and NATO in the second half of it, the repeated discourse of the Balkans’ history was always about fighting two dominant external players.

However, the year 2017 – following Brexit, increasing geopolitical disagreements between the US and the European Union and the rising star of neo-Ottoman imperialism of Turkey – for the first time offers prospects of substantial changes in the previous discourse. Instead of two leading players, the Balkans is now becoming the playground for at least four of them: the USA (with more or less overt support of British foreign policy), the EU (dominated by Germany), Russia and Turkey.

With such alignment of foreign players, Balkans states are now forced to reconsider their old loyalties and alliances, look for new friends or try to reconcile with old foes. In an environment of uncertainty, the elites ruling the Balkan countries are faced with unpleasant questions from both their respective domestic public opinions and foreign capitals.

A general overview of the region, at first sight, gives the picture of deeply fragmented societies, with five countries being for some time under the dominant influence of the Merkel-led Germany: Croatia, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria and Macedonia. However, in the latter three, Germany is faced with shared loyalties of domestic elites; more often than not, they were flirting with Russia, sometimes sincerely and sometimes just trying to increase their bets and squeeze as much money and support as possible, playing the same game on both sides.

At the same time, in the south-western part of the Balkans, the Americans solidified their influence in the littoral area of Montenegro and Albania, pushing it deeper into the Balkans heartland – Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia. However, when dealing with Muslim-dominated countries in the Balkans, US foreign policy already experiences competition – if not outright obstruction – rather than cooperation, as it did earlier, from its own NATO ally, Turkey.

The Russian plan, as of 2015, to establish the “neutral zone” in the Balkans – relying on the non-NATO countries of Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Macedonia, the B4 plan – failed in late 2016 and early 2017 because Montenegro joined NATO this June and, after political changes in Skopje, Macedonia is likely to do the same by mid-2018. Therefore, B4 could – in the best case scenario for Moscow – become B2. But it is not that simple.

We expect American and German influence to continue their race for positions of influence in two key Balkans states – Serbia and Croatia. Intrinsic instability of several Croatian governments is likely to lead to more substantial changes of elites, which should eventually result in the strategic demise of the German-dominated HDZ and its replacement by the leftist SDP, itself more inclined to accept US protection and support. Such a scenario already took place in Macedonia, earlier this spring, thus setting up the modus operandi which will repeat itself in other countries.

At the same time, protracted internal fighting within the Serbian establishment – which is still heavily contaminated by its irrational and conflicting President, Aleksandar Vucic – would probably lead to the establishment of stronger US positions in Belgrade. Within a more complex Serbian reality, however, the situation will be, at least for some time, such that the US, German and Russian-supported politicians will have to find some kind of power-sharing agreement, in order to prevent further instability. Belgrade will therefore, in more than simply an artistic way, remind an observer on post-war Vienna, immortally preserved in the Graham Greene’s cult movie from 1949: “The Third Man”, starring Orson Welles.

The shift of Balkan geopolitics, from double to quadruple, will likely make internal dynamics in each of its societies much faster. The German-invented mantra that “stability is more important than democracy” led, over the last decade, to a resurrection of criminalised and corrupt regimes, whose leading figures were heavily involved – sometimes politically and sometimes even personally – in war crimes and atrocities during the 1990s and organised crime and corruption. Blackmailing the EU, by threatening to start old wars once again if not receiving permanent and unqualified support, the regimes supported by the German-led EPP are now becoming part of the problem and not part of the solution any more.

At the same time, the swift US intervention in Macedonia led to the coming to power of Zoran Zaev, who at this moment remains the only Balkans’ leader without controversies arising from his or her dirty past. If US foreign policy continues investing into the Macedonian project, this country would be admitted to both NATO and the EU on fast track. That would demonstrate double leverage – not only to the Russians, but to the Germans, as well – in proving that recycled politicians with criminal records cannot be anchors of stability in the region.

Mr Zaev is already informally referred to, in several important European diplomatic chanceries, as the “Balkans Macron”, thus being recognised as a blueprint for wider changes in the South-Eastern Europe. It is, however, yet to be seen to what extent his vision of multi-ethnic and democratic Macedonia will eventually prevail over Albanian irredentist claims.

Come what may, the Balkans will experience the string of sudden, profound, sometimes peaceful but sometimes violent, changes. The sooner the old political generations are entirely replaced, the cleaner the outcome will be.

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