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Monday 23 April 2018

The Balkans in the wider European context; the Slovene view

On the first day of Trinity Term, SEESOX hosted a seminar given by Iztok Mirosic, State Secretary for European Affairs in the Foreign Ministry of Slovenia. He gave a wide-ranging overview of current and future developments in the Western Balkans, and their relationship with the EU, complemented by an extensive Q & A session. The seminar was chaired by Othon Anastasakis.

Mirosic began by stressing that, despite the Brexit vote, the underlying interests of the EU and the UK in the region remained the same – the preservation of stability. In geopolitical terms, the region was now at a crossroads. EU accession, as a process supporting stability, the rule of law and economic reform and development, alongside the region’s role as an energy transit route, meant that accession was in the mutual interest of both the EU and the countries of the western Balkans. This had been recognised at the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003, when the Western Balkan countries had been given a clear perspective of full membership, differentiating them from the EU’s eastern neighbours.

Rival power: Russia and South East Europe

On the 7th of March 2018, the last (chronologically) but not least session of the Hilary term seminar series, Dimitar Bechev (University of South Caroline, Chapel Hill) gave a talk on his most recent and very topical book “Rival power: Russia and South East Europe”.

In his excellent book, Dimitar discusses the different dimensions of Russia’s influence in the region and the specific spheres of influence, including energy, military security and soft power, through media, religion and culture. For Dimitar, the current competition between Russia and the West is not about the return to the Cold War, neither is Russia trying to establish an Empire in the region of South East Europe. Russia is not able to offer to the countries in the region a coherent model alternative to the EU’s more comprehensive one. But what Russia does very effectively is to play a disruptive game of influence by tactically exploiting both its own limited strengths and the weaknesses and divisions among the European players.

In his presentation Dimitar emphasised Russia’s impact in the energy sector which, while extensive, has weakened since its high point in the 2000s, especially given the decreasing significance of the region as an outpost or a corridor for Russian gas. He spoke about the rising close alliance between Russia and Turkey, the “marriage of convenience” as he calls it in his book: with the occasional intra-marital spat such as the fall-out over the shooting down of the Russian fighter. What we are witnessing, according to Bechev, is a Putin-Erdogan double act, where convergent country interests, especially in the energy field, have recently become highly personalised. He also spoke about other bilateral relationships, including with Greece or Cyprus; and pointed to the gap between Russia’s limited commitments, and the at times high expectations of the two states, most clearly witnessed during the Eurozone crisis. He also spoke about relations with Bulgaria, a bilateral bond with deep historical roots; but where, despite the current strong Russian lobby in the country’s economy and politics, Bulgaria’s political elite has clearly shown a commitment for the EU and NATO. Finally, in some Western Balkans, Russia has found some fertile ground for infiltration with divisive potential in Serbia, Republika Srpska (especially), Macedonia and Montenegro: but appears involved in tactical manoeuvring rather than following a strategic master-plan.