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Balkans in the era of ‘America First’

By Shpend Krasniqi

The United States President Donald Trump’s ‘America first’ policy, or in other words the retreat policy is affecting almost every sphere of international politics. For instance, the lack of leadership of the U.S. on climate change and international trade, created a vacuum which is going to be used by other interested powerful countries, such as China. The lack of U.S. leadership has started to be felt even in regional politics, especially in the Middle East and in the Balkans. The Balkans after the end of the Cold War was at the center of the attention of the U.S. and it was the region where the U.S. proved its leadership and supremacy in the international area. In 1995, the U.S. were the main booster who made Serbs – the main allies of Russia in the Balkans, to withdraw and recognize Bosnia and Herzegovina as an independent country, and it was the NATO, lead by U.S., who executed a bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999, to stop the ethnic cleansing and repression against Albanian people in Kosovo. During this campaign, the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was bombed too.

Today in the Balkans, the U.S. continues to be present, with the Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, which is the largest and the most expensive foreign military base built by the U.S. in Europe since the Vietnam War. Therewithal, soon this year will be inaugurated the new U.S. Embassy Compound in Kosovo, which is one of the largest embassy buildings of US in Europe. It’s worth to mention that this compound begun to be built in the period of the Obama administration. But, apart from the U.S., and its ally, the European Union, which has stalled heavily in the efforts to pull the Western Balkan countries towards itself, other global actors such as Russia, China, Japan, and even Saudi Arabia have begun to be very active in the Balkans.

Over the past few years, Russia has raised the disinformation and influence campaign in the Balkans. Russia through media campaign and other soft power means is trying to prevent countries in the region from joining the Western alliances of NATO and the EU, and to pray them away from Western influence. When Montenegro, for example, appeared to be moving closer to NATO membership last year, Russia allegedly took part in an attempted coup to overthrow and kill the western-oriented prime minister, with the goal of bringing a pro-Russia party to power.

According to a leak of classified documents from the intelligence agency of Macedonia,  Russian spies and diplomats have been involved in a nearly decade-long effort to spread propaganda and provoke discord in Macedonia. A few weeks ago was killed  Oliver Ivanovic, a longtime leader in the Serb community of Kosovo. Nenad Canak, the leader of a Serbian opposition party, has speculated that Russia orchestrated the assassination, with the use of a Serb triggerman, in order to continue its campaign to destabilize the region. The allegation is plausible given the evidence of Russian involvement in other countries as in Montenegro and Macedonia. On the other side, a joint military drill between Russia and Serbia armies occurred in 2016.  Moreover, Russia transferred six MiG-29 fighter jets to Serbia last year, which has also promised the delivery of 30 tanks and armored vehicles.

When it comes to China, with the launch of the ‘Belt and Road Initiative,’ it has become a player in the Balkans. Over the past few years China has begun making large investments in Serbia aimed at creating a regional infrastructure that facilitates the reach of Chinese goods to European markets. The Chinese envision the use of the Greek port of Piraeus, near the capital Athens, which is currently controlled and operated by the Chinese company COSCO, in order to move goods through the Balkans and into the EU. China is now heavily investing in Serbia’s railroad and highway systems, and is investing in building or repairing and reconstructing bridges and roads, or creating new road infrastructure, such as the building of a $740 million highway that would connect the capital Belgrade with the coastal city of Bar in Montenegro.  The most interesting project is the $3 billion investment to build a 350 kilometer high-speed rail link between the Hungarian capital Budapest and Belgrade. Also the  project of TPP Tuzla block 7 in B&H, which worth over 800 million EUR, is considered to be a Chinese investment. All these investments show that China is more active in the region than ever before.

To balance the Chinese extension in the region, a few weeks ago, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took a visit to Bulgaria, Serbia, and Romania. His trip to the Balkan region was a step to increase its sphere of influence via the use of soft power and the employment of its financial power as a diplomatic lever. The promise to invest in crucial energy projects, such as the building of a desulphurization unit for the Nikola Tesla power plant, investing in the Serbian pharmaceutical, agricultural, and IT industries, or using the expertise of the Japan International Cooperation Agency to identify potential areas for economic cooperation, can be considered as counter-measures of Japan to stop the impact of the Chinese influence in Balkans, especially in Serbia.  Japan is trying to achieve this by increasing its diplomatic role in the region. In that context, while in Serbia, Abe proposed a “Western Balkans Cooperation Initiative,” part of which provides for Japan to appoint a special ambassador in charge of the Western Balkans at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Turkey has also boosted its influence in the Balkans, where apart from the very good bilateral relations with Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and B&H, it is improving its relations with Serbia and Bulgaria as well. Turkish President Erdogan’s recent visit to Belgrade was of special importance. Also, the restoration of the Bulgarian church in Istanbul, where the Turkish President and Bulgarian Prime Minister were present at the opening, was an important step in the relations between the two countries. But the influence of Turkey in the Balkans is not something new, as it has a historical connection with the region for more than half a millennium, and maintains ties with Turkish minorities in the Balkan countries.

Even the Gulf States have raised their profile in the Western Balkans in recent years. Saudi Arabia is considered to have a more ideological approach, seeking a strong role among the region’s Muslims. The expand of influence of Gulf States in the region by the introduction of stricter interpretations of Islam since the 1990s Bosnian war, resulted with a significant rise of radicalization among young people. As a result, more than a thousand nationals from Western Balkan countries are estimated to have traveled to the battlefields of Syria and Iraq to join ISIS and other affiliated terrorist groups since 2012.

In conclusion, we can say that in the last years, the Balkans became a battleground for a number of global actors seeking to influence the region through soft power. The Trump’s ‘America first’ policy, and the Post-Cold war era, which allowed countries to be more flexible on their foreign policy are the main drivers of this. Only an active leadership and strong commitment of EU in partnership with U.S. can unify and  integrate all the region; otherwise, the Balkan countries will remain unstable and will be divided on spheres of influence of different global and regional powers.

References

  • Shtuni, Adrian (2016) ‘Dynamics of Radicalization and Violent Extremism in Kosovo’, United States Institute of Peace, Washington, DC, pp. 2.
  • Bastian, Jens (2017) ‘The potential for growth through Chinese infrastructure investments
  • in Central and South-Eastern Europe along the “Balkan Silk Road”,’ European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Athens/London.
  • Clarck, David and Andrew Foxall (2014) ‘Russia’s Role in the Balkans – Cause for Concern?’, The Henry Jackson Society, London, pp.13.
  • Kallaba, Pëllumb (2017) ‘Russian Interference in Kosovo: How and Why?,’ Kosovar Centre for Security Studies, Pristina.

Shpend Krasniqi is an independent researcher whose interests include international relations and politics

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