The dream of incorporating the Balkan states into a stable and prosperous Western order is increasingly on rocky ground these days. The Wall Street Journal offers a glimpse:
Now, with stepped-up Russian interference and the prospect of U.S. disengagement under the Trump administration, the Balkans are again setting off alarms.
A political crisis in Macedonia that some fear could revive ethnic conflict, renewed flare-ups between Serbia and Kosovo, and allegations of a Kremlin-sponsored coup attempt in Montenegro have European officials worrying about what European Council President Donald Tusk on Wednesday called a “destabilization of the region, both from within and from outside forces.”
Those concerns have elevated the region to the top of EU leaders’ agenda at their spring summit that started Thursday in Brussels. Leaders were set to pledge deeper engagement in the region, which encompasses Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania, and to reassert their desire to offer these governments a “European perspective.”
Some of the Balkans’ problems come from internal ethnic strife or EU leadership failures, but Russia has clearly been exploiting these dynamics to gin up antipathy for Western institutions, while intervening in ways both small and large. By stirring up anti-Western sentiment amid Macedonia’s political crisis, attempting a coup in Montenegro, and backing the nationalist leader of Republika Srpska in his quest for a referendum on independence, Moscow is increasingly making its presence felt.
What the WSJ article doesn’t mention, however, is the impact of Turkey’s anti-Western orientation on the Balkans. While Russia has been vying for influence by appealing to the region’s Orthodox and Slavic populations, Turkey has been positioning itself as the the champion of Balkan Muslims. In recent years, Ankara has notably stepped up its cultural diplomacy by sponsoring Turkish universities, restoring historic Ottoman monuments throughout the Balkans, and heaping investment on Muslim regions of Serbia and Bosnia, for example. It has also pursued economic deals that threaten EU influence in the region. The Turkish Stream gas pipeline, for instance, is a Russian-Turkish collaboration that could give both countries more leverage over the European gas market.
With the cultural and economic clout of both Russia and Turkey on the rise in the Balkans, the European Union faces an uphill climb in regaining its lost luster. And if Russia and Turkey are both acting to destabilize the Balkans, the EU could face a much more explosive situation on its borders.