Much has been said in recent years about the Western Balkans as an emerging site of geopolitical competition. The erosion of the traditional regional primacy of the European Union and the United States has certainly opened the door to new actors wishing to assert their respective interests in this strategically unstable part of Europe. The Albanian Prime Minister’s recent visit to Israel demonstrates how these small regional states can capitalize on these developments to advance their own strategic interests and deepen their political influence within the broader Euro-Atlantic community.
Russia’s incursions among Serbian nationalist elements in Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro are well established. The same goes for China’s aggressive megaprojects in almost every corner of Eastern and Southeastern Europe. Turkey has long been accused of pursuing a so-called “neo-Ottoman” agenda towards the Muslim-majority countries of the Western Balkans. In recent months, even Iran made the news for its hostile digital maneuvers in the region.
But it’s not just international heavyweights who have made overtures to local governments, and local leaders have been far from passive recipients of this attention. Consider the speech of Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama. trip to Israel in October.
After Albania accused Iran of orchestrating a series of cyberattacks against the country (presumably due to Tirana’s hosting of the controversial People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran), then severed diplomatic relations with Tehran, Rama arrived in Israel for a three-day visit. There, he spoke at length with the country’s top leaders and celebrated Albania’s victory. historical protection of its Jewish community during the Holocaust. Rama also met with prominent members of the Israeli business community, including Alexander Mashkevich, the billionaire president of Eurasian Resources Group, one of the world’s largest mining and commodities companies. Mashkevich is said to have organized Rama’s visit to the country.
For the leader of a small (and actually quite marginal) country like Albania, the visit could hardly have gone better. Rama had visited the country for two days in 2015but the timing of his return suggests that Rama punched well above his weight, especially considering the importance of Israel, an equally small but hugely influential state in the broader Euro-Atlantic security order.
Other Western Balkan states should take note, particularly those in precarious political waters (especially Bosnia and Kosovo), with neighboring states undermining key aspects of their security, sovereignty and of their territorial integrity. These states must actively seek beneficial relationships and allies wherever they can find them. And few states have more experience than Israel in combating threats to their sovereignty and building broad networks of international support.
Israel clearly wants to have a greater presence in the Western Balkans. On October 7, the country will join the UK, EU and Western Balkan states by participating in the first summit of the European Political Community, a French-led initiative to provide an alternative to the clearly faltering EU enlargement project. Even if the Political Community proves to be a largely ineffective format – which is very likely – regional capitals should not pass up the opportunity to deepen their ties with Israel.
The benefits of stronger bilateral ties with Israel for Western Balkan capitals are legion, particularly, as we have highlighted, for the most vulnerable among them. From security cooperation and intelligence sharing to wider trade networks and increased tourism, all parties stand to gain from expanding across the Mediterranean. Indeed, following Rama’s visit and the European Community meeting, there is already private talk of an all-Balkan summit in Israel. Such an event would represent a historic development in the international orientation of the region and should be welcomed.
The historical dimension cannot be neglected. The Jewish community has been an integral part of life in the Western Balkans for centuries. In Sarajevo, arguably the historic center of traditional Jewish life in the region, priceless objects like the 14th century Sarajevo Haggadah are preserved not only as testimonies of the history of the Jewish people, but also of the history of the Bosnian Jewish people, and therefore also of the history of the Bosnian state itself. Investing in ties with Israel could therefore also help revitalize the Jewish community in the Balkans, a process that could, over time, reverse decades of destruction and demographic decline.
Nor can we forget the role of the global Jewish diaspora in raising awareness of the horrors of the Bosnian genocide during the 1990s, when much of the West still turned a blind eye to the expulsions and exterminations. To date, organizations like the World Jewish Congress continue to be at the forefront of the fight against historical revisionism regarding the wider Yugoslav Wars.
Of course, there are problems to solve. Israel traditionally maintains its closest regional ties with Serbia. Belgrade currently maintains a blatantly hostile attitude towards almost all other Western Balkan states, but especially towards Kosovo, Bosnia and Montenegro. It is certainly up to Israeli leaders to decide how and with whom they wish to pursue closer ties, but it would behoove the leaders of these capitals – Pristina, Sarajevo and Podgorica, respectively – to attempt to broaden Israeli understanding of regional affairs. . In this way, incidents like that of Israel disorderly intervention in the debate on electoral reform in Bosnia could be avoided. (After the Israeli Embassy in Tirana came out in favor of an illiberal electoral law proposal in Bosnia In August this year, supported exclusively by radical Croatian nationalists, Sarajevo sent an official demarche to the embassy, which also covers Bosnia, urging the Israeli government to reprimand the country’s ambassador to Albania. It was an incident that could easily have been avoided if Israel had better appreciated the complexities of local politics.)
Some might also complain that Israel’s entry into the Western Balkans is purely self-serving – that it is attempting to check Iran’s influence and find partners for its own security priorities in a region in which the country previously had only a peripheral presence. That may be the case, but so what? The entire Western Balkans region – with the possible exception only of Serbia – is at least formally committed to the Euro-Atlantic political and security order. Thus, countering the influence of states like Iran, Russia and China, among others, is already implicitly part of the foreign policy positions of these countries.
In short, any potential problems in relations between Israel and the Western Balkans are those that will be best resolved by advancing and deepening ties between the two. Rama’s visit opened the door; it is up to other regional leaders to follow.