HCSS report: Geopolitical Influences in the Western Balkans

New HCSS report: Geopolitical Influences of External Powers in the Western Balkans

Russia, China, Turkey, Iran and the Gulf States put Europe’s security at risk by gaining influence in the Western Balkans.

By Dr. Arlinda Rrustemi, Professor Rob de Wijk, Connor Dunlop, Jovana Perovska, Lirije Palushi.

Security risks in the Western Balkans can derail the stability of the region in the long term with negative ramifications towards the EU and NATO integration processes as well as EU regional policies. The report found that Eastern actors are using hybrid threats (disinformation warfare and covert operations to win the hearts and minds of the population by Russia), spreading violent extremism (Gulf countries), potentially debt-trapping some Western Balkans countries (China), violating the EU laws on arms trade (Gulf countries) and implementing identity reengineering (Gulf countries, Iran, Russia, Turkey) to advance their geopolitical interests in the region.

At the same time, local elites are less willing to engage with the West, particularly the EU, because they are reticent to promote the rule of law, or because of a lack of personal ties between the Western Balkans elites and Western counterparts. Moreover, there is reluctance to engage with the EU because interaction is time-consuming and complicated, for instance with regard to obtaining grants.

Most importantly, factors such as the lack of coherent Western strategy, failed post conflict reconstruction, the lack of a realistic EU engagement agenda, and the lack of engagement with the local population has led to widespread disillusionment. This is why engagement with non-Western partners often seems more appealing.

The EU needs to craft a response in order to avert further instability in the region. For this purpose, it would be crucial to re-establish legitimacy while strengthening moral authority of the West, speaking with one voice in the region, and, crucially, maintain a realistic EU Enlargement Agenda, such as opening the membership negotiations for North Macedonia and Albania. It would also be beneficial to award Bosnia and Herzegovina a candidate status, and to agree to visa liberalization for Kosovo. The agenda needs to remain proactive and to be implemented thoroughly. Therefore, it is crucial to provide alternatives to local governments to prevent them from getting caught in the debt trap diplomacy of China, to counter Turkish authoritarian propaganda, to prevent violent extremism, supported by the Gulf countries and Iran, as well as strengthening resilience not only against disinformation warfare conducted by Russia, but also the rising far right violent extremism identified in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia.

In the legal sphere, the authors call for implementing laws on transparency and the strengthening of the judiciary, regulating housing prices and building new mosques. In the security sphere, it is crucial to harmonize security policies of the Western Balkans countries with those of the EU and its member states; consider sanctions for arms exports if in violation with the EU laws; promote individual responsibility; strengthen the border control; and to limit the appointment of foreign imams. Regarding economic measures, it is suggested to open the EU Cohesion Fund to the Western Balkans countries and to encourage further investment in rural areas. Lastly, for societal measures, it is important to increase the prominence of public awareness campaigns, and to promote civil society engagement.