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Friday, 21 October 2016

The Geopolitics of Fear: South East Europe in a Triangle of Uncertainty- Russia, Middle East, North Africa

David Madden (Senior Member, St Antony's College, Oxford)

A team from SEESOX presented on this theme to the Global Strategy Forum at the National Liberal Club on 18 October. This followed on from a seminar in Athens on 27 September on a similar theme, funded by the Public Diplomacy Division of NATO. This was the fourth in a series of SEESOX presentations with the GSF.

David Madden set the scene. Traditionally South East Europe had its own long-running internal geopolitical challenges: in Cyprus, in former Yugoslavia, or between Turkey and Greece. But the region was now an importer of crises. To the East there was Russia, with a more assertive and unpredictable policy. To the South East, there was violent conflict, in particular the cataclysmic civil war in Syria, foreign intervention, extremism, inter-Muslim cultural wars and failed hopes: and with a resulting flood of refugees, affecting most directly the countries least able to cope. To the South, there was North Africa, with Libya as its foremost failed state, and another route of Mediterranean refugees. Even to the North and West, the soft power of the EU was hampered by economic and political weaknesses. From both inside the region and from outside, there were the perverse influences of populism and demagoguery. The post-truth era was pervasive in public and political discourse. The Middle East was in turmoil. There were cold wars (Iran/Saudi Arabia, Israel/Palestine), hot wars (Syria, Libya, Yemen) and legacy wars (Afghanistan, Iraq). Russia had clear interests and strategy, because of Syria’s unique position as a Russian client. Syria and the war in the Ukraine had effectively brought to an end the post- Cold War settlement. Russia believed in a system of great powers, with zones of influence.

Franck Duvell of Oxford’s migration centre COMPAS spoke on the 2015/2016 migration and refugee crisis on the basis of ESRC-funded research. There were 22 million displaced persons in the vicinity of the EU: only 1 million or 5% had moved into the EU. 85% had entered through the Turkey/East Mediterranean route, 15% through Libya/Central Mediterranean. 88% of the people in his research sample using the first route had undergone at least secondary education (though this differed by nationalities); those using the second route were generally less well educated (only 55% having at least secondary education) and typically travelled without their families. Visa policies and closed borders channelled migrants through these two routes, and created the demand for irregular travel and smugglers. 77% migrated for political reasons, 23% for economic. Large scale displacement started in 2011, but the EU and international community were complacent and slow to act: the issue was left to the region. In the case of Turkey there was a lack of solidarity and burden-sharing by others; Greece had an inadequate reception regime; Italy was more organised; Germany acted to relieve suffering, while also having international relations and economic reasons in mind. The EU paid little attention until April 2015; when it did come up with plans, there was a general failure of implementation. While the EU/Turkey deal of March 2016 was a game-changer, and ended onward migration to the EU, it did not actually diminish the crisis of displacement.

Othon Anastasakis looked at how Russia was viewed in and by the region. There were broadly three views of Russian policy. According to one, Russia saw South East Europe as the soft underbelly of Europe; and was deliberately using the rise of nationalism and populism, energy, and the gradual freezing of the EU enlargement agenda to further its ends. Greece and Serbia were historically sympathetic to Russia (though Greece like Turkey was tied to the West); while Albanians, Kosovars, Bosniaks, and Romanians were tougher. The second view saw Russia as not very interested in South East Europe, but fixated on post-Soviet space and the relationship with the US, China and the big geopolitical challenges in the Middle East. For its part, South East Europe regarded the EU as the only game in town, while existing pro- Russian political parties in the West Balkans were marginal. A third view, supported by Anastasakis, was that Russia kept South East Europe on the slow-burner: a low cost target of opportunity, using its soft power (Slav identity, Russian diasporas, Orthodox religion). And of course there were also attempts by South East Europe to use Russia in their bargaining with the West: though in the case of Greece and Syrizthis had not worked effectively, and in the case of Turkey it remained to be seen.

Adis Merdzanovic addressed the geopolitics of ideas and the challenge to liberal democracy. In general in the world there was a decline of trust in democracy, and a rise in xenophobia and populism and extreme political demands. This was the result of a declining trust in the economic model of capitalism, the inadequacy of some democratic institutions, and the crisis of neo-liberalism. Was the rise of illiberalism in South East Europe different from the global pattern? In many ways, yes. There was a profound transition process, belief in Euro-Atlanticism, and no Eurosceptic parties. Ruling parties in the region were not truly populist except where it suited their immediate objectives: the model was the “great leader” who ruled in an absolutist manner, and the method was “state capture” with ruling parties acting like employment agencies. Integration in the EU seemed a distant prospect in the West Balkans, especially in the economic sphere. The EU needed to reinvigorate its commitment, make accession a credible option, monitor the implementation of reforms, stay true to its values and generally raise its game.

The Q&A session covered security, the Ukraine, Orthodoxy as an agent of soft power, Russia/Turkey relations, the range of attitudes towards Russia in the EU, Cyprus and Brexit. A public survey in Serbia was telling: less than 50% supported the EU, but 90% saw Serbia’s future as lying in that direction.

Speaking at a concluding lunch, Jamie Shea described the region as unfinished business for both the EU and NATO. For both there were successes, but also signs of sliding back in the region. He laid out some policy prescriptions for both organisations: treat the region as a whole; work closely together; and use conditionality positively. NATO should work on training/capacity building/command structures in the region, act strategically to counter Russian influence, and make defence along the southern rim a priority alongside the Baltics and Poland. Asked about Turkey, he pointed out that Turkey was mending fences with many countries in the wider region: Israel, Egypt and Saudi as well as Russia; and was playing a full role in NATO.

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