Not so long ago, Brussels and major European capitals thought the best way to deal with the Balkans was to “freeze” them until the EU had time, says political scientist Ivan Krastev. But now things are very different.
The Greek financial crisis, Russia’s aggressive policies, tensions over Moscow’s energy supply via the Balkans, waves of Middle Eastern migrants arriving via the so-called “Balkan route”, the hundreds of thousands asylum seekers from the Western Balkans and migrants from Bulgaria and Romania fleeing poverty – all of which has once again placed this peripheral region at the center of European politics.
One in ten Europeans (excluding Turkey) lives on the Balkan Peninsula. The region is very heterogeneous, but by European standards it has many common features: poverty, economic and social backwardness, lack of rule of law, political instability.
These already serious problems have become even worse in 2015. The EU urgently needs new solutions, new strategies and new instruments for the Balkans, says Johanna Deimel of the South East European Association, which describes the region as “an essential component of Europe”.
Migration is just the beginning
These analysts agree that the “Balkan problem child” deserves more attention – in the interests of all of Europe. In particular, migratory flows towards Western Europe from the region, or passing through it, constitute a new political imperative.
“We need to talk to these countries. Not just talk about them, but with them,” said Dusan Reljic, Balkans specialist at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
Reljic pointed out that a significant proportion of migrants arriving in Germany in the first half of the year came from Western Balkan countries. Germany is the EU country receiving most economic migrants from Romania and Bulgaria, with more than 200,000 arrivals in the past two years. Among them are many Roma, but also simply poor people fleeing the lack of prospects in their country.
“The whole region, whether EU member or aspiring, is characterized by a relatively low standard of living. Young people, in particular, are out of work. The income gap and wealth between the north and south of the EU is widening. Protests in Bosnia in “In 2014, in Macedonia in spring 2015 and currently in Montenegro, we call for a new political culture – an economic, democratic and constitutional perspective”, Deimel said. And, she added, countries in the region and the EU must work just as hard to create this perspective, because otherwise there will be no relief from migratory pressure.
During the second half of the year, Balkan countries made headlines when it came to migration. Hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern migrants have fled to the West through Greece, Macedonia and Serbia, as well as Bulgaria, Croatia and Slovenia.
For Macedonia and Serbia in particular, it has not been easy to allow these people smooth and orderly passage, but there have been no major incidents or violence. Refugees were not welcome in the Balkans and were simply invited to cross over to Austria and Germany.
Reljic claims that non-EU members Serbia and Macedonia behaved in a more humane and civilized manner towards refugees than some EU countries: “Curiously, EU members in the region have tended to revive negative sentiments towards the Balkans, while non-EU countries tended to revive negative sentiments towards the Balkans. members made a positive contribution.
To some extent, governments along the Balkan route recognized the problem too late and were unprepared for this influx. Traffickers made a lot of money from the plight of migrants until migrants began to be processed in a reasonably organized manner.
The EU’s quota system has also caused resentment in the region. The governments of Sofia, Bucharest and Zagreb are supposed to share some of the burden, but their people’s attitudes towards refugees are anything but positive.
Populist and xenophobic sentiments were particularly visible in Bulgaria, a country that most refugees avoided in this way. There was a new refugee-related division in Europe, and the Balkans tended to be in a group with Hungary, Poland and the Baltics, rather than with the countries of Western and Northern Europe.
The massive movements of migrants across and from the Balkans have brought the issue of the EU’s external borders sharply into focus. “The EU has been trying to avoid this topic for 10 or 15 years. Today the problem must be solved if the EU wants to control the refugee waves,” Krastev said.
Not only the EU, but also NATO must also protect their borders in the Balkans. In 2015, NATO members Romania and Bulgaria repeatedly warned that the Ukraine conflict had placed them in a potentially very dangerous situation. Both countries have adhered to sanctions against Russia, while Bucharest and Moscow also have tensions over Moldova.
The Kremlin’s geopolitical and energy aspirations in the region must be taken very seriously, Deimel said. “We have on one side a country like Serbia, which is in a strategic partnership with Russia, and on the other Montenegro, which has just received an invitation to join NATO.”
“Ultimately, refugee and migration movements have a security aspect to the extent that religious radicalization in Muslim societies in the region constitutes a potential risk for the countries concerned and for Europe as a whole,” she declared.
“In all these issues, the Balkans play an important role for the whole of Europe. And now, even more.”