Srećko Latal / 1 Sep, 2020
The paper assesses the impact of COVID-19 on different external influences, which have already been steadily increasing in recent years, in the six Western Balkan countries. It offers insights into different forms and levels of engagement by Russia, China, Turkey as well as the US and the EU, establishing a better understanding of their agendas and strategies, and also providing data for future research on and analyses of this topic.
The Balkans, like the rest of the world, was shocked and humbled by the outbreak of COVID-19 crisis early this year. Yet this proved to be just the calm before the storm, as ethnic, religious, political, security, economic and social tensions increased across the region as soon as April. This escalation was mostly related to political quarrels caused by the fact that most Balkan countries were scheduled to hold general or local elections in the course of 2020.
The Coronavirus pandemic has intensified the years-long competition of key global actors for power and influence in the region. China, the EU, Gulf countries, Russia, the USA and Turkey all rushed to help Balkan countries, but also tried to use this opportunity to strengthen their positions in this region in their ongoing geopolitical games. While China and the Gulf countries focused mainly on humanitarian and economic issues, centre stage was eventually taken by Russia and Turkey’s renewed aggressive attitudes in the region, as well as by the White House’s attempt to broker a slap-dash agreement between Kosovo and Serbia.
As a series of violent demonstrations shook Serbia and Montenegro in recent months, their officials and media complained about what they said was direct Russian involvement in the organization of protests. Russian officials denied these allegations, but several experts warned that Russia is indeed trying to use all of its resources in the Balkans to stop or even reverse the expansion of NATO and the EU in the region. Some blamed Russia for trying to prevent a Kosovo-Serbia deal in order to maintain its own influence in the Balkans. Others said Russian “pan-Slavic” ambitions were focused on using the EU and US’s internal problems and divisions to unite all Slavic nations under Russian command.
The Turkish role in the Balkans has been eclipsed in recent months by Ankara’s increasingly aggressive behaviour in the Mediterranean and Middle East, including in the wars in Syria and Libya. Nevertheless, recent findings reveal that Turkish nationals connected with Erdoğan's regime have been establishing a foothold for criminal and/or paramilitary networks in the Balkans since early 2020, which raises questions about Ankara’s engagement in and plans for the region.
COVID-19 crisis also saw a further shift in US policy towards the region, continuing a trend which first became visible with the last US presidential elections in 2016. While on the one hand the US provided considerable and transparent financial assistance to all Balkan countries, on the other this was overshadowed and tainted by the White House attempt to push through a slap-dash deal between Kosovo and Serbia. Strong pressure from the special US envoy for Serbia-Kosovo talks, Richard Grenell, undermined the Kosovar government’s ability to deal with the pandemic and eventually led to the toppling of Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti.
This rollercoaster of developments continued on an almost daily basis, threatening to push the Balkans over the edge towards further destabilization and possibly new ethnic or social conflicts. Although these dynamics prevent any reliable long-term analysis, most experts agree that in this situation only the EU has the capacity to gradually stabilize and normalize the Balkans.
Whether the EU will now succeed at what it has been failing to do for the past 15 years will be known by this fall, when the EU is expected to produce the long awaited “Marshall Plan” for the region. This plan will outline a set of reforms and other conditions under which Balkan countries will be able to use a combination of grants and loans worth 3.3 billion euro, which the EU earmarked for the Balkans back in April. Yet the EU will have to tread very carefully and wisely if it wants to make good use of this opportunity; otherwise local, regional and geopolitical quarrels in the Balkans will likely continue escalating, with potentially devastating consequences.