Home Politics The avoidable return of geopolitics in the Balkans

The avoidable return of geopolitics in the Balkans

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The avoidable return of geopolitics in the Balkans

Political crises, regional tensions and the decline of democracy portend an increased risk of conflict and instability in the Balkans.

Peace, democratic reforms and stability in the Balkans have been guaranteed over the past two decades by the prospect of membership in the European Union (EU) and by security guarantees from the United States and NATO. . Both pillars of stability have been weakened and we are witnessing a return of geopolitics in the region.

Croatia and Albania were the last Balkan countries to join NATO in 2009. Macedonia’s integration into NATO has stalled since Greece vetoed membership due to ‘a dispute over its name. Even though Montenegro is on the verge of joining the Alliance, this progress comes at the expense of internal political stability, which has strengthened Russia’s influence in the country. While NATO integration is a distant dream for Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, Serbia is moving closer to Russia and refusing to join the Alliance.

Furthermore, the main driver of reform, European integration, is in crisis. Over the past decade, the Western Balkan countries have gradually moved closer to the EU. However, the EU has become preoccupied with political, economic and financial crises. At the same time, EU enlargement has been too rigid and unable to respond to the challenges facing the region.


The status quo in Euro-Atlantic integration has played into the hands of strongmen in the Balkans who bow to various geopolitical actors or investors, increase their own power and their clientelism networks and restrict the space for democracy, Rule of law and media freedom in their respective countries. . As we argued in a recent study on the state of democracy in the Balkans, democracy is in decline in the region and strongmen breed instability, as demonstrated by violence in the Macedonian parliament against deputies by a crowd on April 27.

The current vacuum leaves more space for Russia and Turkey to exploit their historical, religious and commercial ties in the region. The Balkans are considered part of the Western sphere, now up for grabs. Russia has acquired a more visible and destructive presence in this area. It supports parties and media that oppose Euro-Atlantic integration and undermine the European integration process. This involvement has been largely opportunistic and a result of the weakness of the EU, NATO and the United States in the region rather than any apparent strategic plan. Ironically, the Russian line presents a disengaged West as primarily responsible for the last remaining force for democracy and accountability in the region: mobilized citizens.

The external context has changed radically. Geopolitics have raised the stakes for a series of local crises that could get even worse.

In Macedonia, for example, the ruling party is counting on support from Russia and trying to stoke ethnic tensions. At the EU summit in March, leaders discussed the Western Balkans issue after a long hiatus and expressed concern over Russian interference and other external influences fueling divisions in a number of hot spots.

Citizens in the region are frustrated and lack a clear perspective. They made up the largest group of asylum seekers in the EU before the 2015 migrant crisis. Only a small number of radicalized young people from the Western Balkans have joined Islamic State or support radical religious groups. However, the combination of rejection of the EU, poor governance and interference from external actors risks creating fertile ground for violent extremism.

In addition to radical Islam, there is also the risk of a revival of nationalism. Radical Serbian politicians, for example, questioned existing borders. Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, threatened to hold a referendum on secession in 2018. Similarly, Albanian politicians from Serbia, Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia have suggested the creation of a large state Albanian in the event of failure of European integration.

The region’s challenges are intertwined and mutually reinforcing: authoritarian tendencies among leaders who disdain democratic institutions and rules; the intervention of external powers, particularly Russia, to use the Balkans as a playground for broader geopolitical conflicts; and volatile inter-ethnic relations in parts of the region that are exploited by opportunistic elites.


It is in the strategic interests of the United States and the EU to preserve order and support a return to greater stability, democratic reforms, and reinvigorated European integration. Without these conditions, the region risks becoming the subject of broader geopolitical battles that could cause instability and contribute to the overall deterioration of relations between the EU and the United States.

For the United States, coordinating a clear message with the EU that the region’s future remains in Euro-Atlantic integration can restore the clarity that has been lacking in recent years. Reaffirming this commitment implies clear support for democratic governments and the fight against authoritarian drift in the region. This commitment is important as autocratic regimes promise short-term stability but erode long-term stability structures.

The United States, whether there has been a Republican or Democratic administration, has a well-deserved reputation for supporting reformers and upholding peace agreements in the region. This bipartisan commitment has given the United States considerable influence and credibility in the region over the past twenty years. It assured the United States of allies in the Balkans and contributed to its prestige in the region with limited investments. If the United States stays true to its message, supports the EU, encourages countries to resolve bilateral disputes, and refrains from exploiting ethnic tensions, it can remain a constructive actor in the Balkans and help end the current uncertainty in the region.

The US commitment includes financial support for the rule of law and democracy in the Balkans. Financial support for the rule of law and democracy has high returns, and cutting funds would send the wrong message. A renewed and clear commitment from the United States will help contain intervention by opportunistic foreigners and complete the region’s Euro-Atlantic integration.

Florian Bieber is coordinator of the Balkans Policy Advisory Group in Europe (BiEPAG) and professor of Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz in Austria. Dane Taleski and Nikola Dimitrov are also members of BiEPAG. Taleski is a professor at the South East European University in Macedonia. Dimitrov is a former Macedonian ambassador to the Netherlands (2009-14) and the United States (2001-06).

Image: Protesters stormed the Macedonian Parliament and attacked lawmakers on April 27. The protests were sparked by disagreement over the election of a new speaker of parliament. (Reuters/Ognen Teofilovski)

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