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Friday 12 June 2020

Geopolitical challenges in the Balkans in the shadow of the pandemic

On 10 June 2020, SEESOX held its first public webinar of the very disrupted Trinity Term. Speakers on the theme of “Geopolitical challenges in the Balkans in the shadow of the pandemic” were Arolda Elbasani (New York University, New York), Dimitar Bechev (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), and Anastas Vangeli (ChinaMed Project, Turin World Affairs Institute). The discussion was co-chaired by Othon Anastasakis (SEESOX Director) and Jessie Barton-Hronesova (Oxford Department of International Development).

Anasatasakis introduced the discussion by recalling the SEESOX Hilary Term Seminar Series on Security Challenges in South East Europe in a changing geopolitical context. This had covered three broad topics, but today’s webinar would address only one of them – the role of external actors. He summarised the points raised in the series, which served as both a background to today’s discussion and the status quo ante for the post COVID 19 picture we now face.

The new geopolitical picture in the Balkans challenged many traditional assumptions: that regional security was based on territorially defined borders and old nationalistic feuds; that political elites, diplomacy and military means were the main actors, working in a top down approach; and that external actors behaved in a unified way. Against this background, he asked the panellists to consider three questions:

1. What kind of influences/interferences/support from EU/China/Russia have we seen across the region since the start of the pandemic?

2. What have been the domestic reactions to competing interventions during the pandemic?

3. Do we see a significant impact emerging out of this competing set of influences? Do we expect things to change in the future and how?

Elbasani began by pointing out that the pandemic was a major crisis shaping everything in the EU, including its enlargement policy; but it was not the first crisis to do so and the pandemic could be considered simply as consolidating an existing trend a waning of interest in enlargement, epitomised by the delay in opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. This in its turn reflected a mismatch between the technocratic approach of the Commission and the more political one of the Council, such that conditionality, although maintained, was no longer applied in a positive sense to advance the process. At the same time, the rules of the game had evolved; the new methodology adopted in February 2020 was part of an evolution begun in 2005, and confirmed a trend towards stricter conditionality, alongside the strengthening of the role for Member States in evaluating candidates’ progress. Rewards for meeting conditions were no longer automatic.

Nonetheless, there had been progress, even during the pandemic, with a decision in March - in full lockdown - to open negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia In June. This development also had a positive spill over for other candidates. Furthermore, aid continued to flow and a major EU regional investment programme had been announced.

In summary, there had been both a new push for enlargement and a tightening of the rules – but were the new rules what the region actually needed? It was however both novel and encouraging that the new Commission was speaking of a “responsibility to assist the region”.

Bechev recalled the Vucic press conference in March where he announced a lockdown in Serbia and described European solidarity as “a fairy-tale”; he had also paid public tribute to aid from China and Russia. But these should be understood as PR initiatives that told us little about the latter two states’

longer-term influence. The EU’s announcement in May of a €3.3 billion fund to support economic recovery post COVID made clear that it was still the only actor that would underwrite recovery in the region. It remained the predominant player in the Western Balkans, and the crisis had not changed the pre-existing power dynamic.

Russia had always seen the region as a vulnerable part of the EU periphery, where it could exercise influence; but it did not appear to have any longer-term plan. It had abandoned it’s policy of the 1990s of gaining a “foothold” in the region. Local elites tended to use their cooperation with Moscow to enhance their own domestic positions and gain resources, with Serbia and North Macedonia the prime examples. Turkey was a different case and could claim to be a country of the region (as well as of the Middle East and the Caucasus), so it had no option other than to engage. Erdogan had always stressed this, and his actions had not always been anti-western; the pandemic had not led to profound changes in this respect. Both Russia and Turkey had focused much more on domestic than external issues.

Why then were external actors influential at all? Firstly, because, while EU integration remained a long-term aspiration, activities by other actors gave local elites the opportunity, in the short term, to enhance their own positions. Secondly, backsliding in democratic governance in the region allowed elites to ignore western pressure in favour of influence from other actors.

Finally, what was important was less the substance than how it was formulated and presented. Ultimately, the EU would pay the bill, but others could try to score points, according to the choice of local actors.

Vangeli saw China as the most intriguing external actor in the region, especially in the context of the pandemic; as a major global actor with regional influence, it sought to plug the gaps left by other global actors. China had used the existing “17 + 1” structure of its health care cooperation with the region, alongside bilateral initiatives, both public and private, to coordinate a “joint response to COVID”. It had also exploited these activities more widely through its use of “mask diplomacy”.

But more interesting for the long term was how China was preparing for the post crisis recovery in the region, based on the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), encompassing much more than just infrastructure, and extending to both healthcare and digital aspects. The resumption of BRI activities allowed China to be active on the global stage and to consolidate its position as a significant actor in the region.

While local leaders were happy to be seen taking the hand of China, they never saw it as their main option, but only as a complement to their relationship with the EU. Specifically Chinese issues, such as the Hong Kong Security Law, attracted little attention in the region; an exception in this instance was Serbia, but this reflected a more generalised Serbian position rather than any specific influence of the pandemic. There was no perception in the region of the need for a binary choice between EU and China; in a context of global US-China tensions, local elites sought to avoid being caught up in them.

Growing EU and NATO public concern about China’s intentions in the region might on one hand raise interest from the EU and other actors, with a net positive effect for the Western Balkans. However, some external actors, particularly the US foreign policy establishment, risked seeing the region as a new battleground with China for influence, seeking to present local elites with a zero-sum choice. Such a position could, if maintained, have a major impact on the region.

In the ensuing Q & A session, issues raised included:

  • Had the crisis had an impact on the credibility of external actors? The healthcare narrative crafted by China was not seen as specific to the region, but Turkey could develop a more region-specific approach.
  • Was there a potentially negative impact from an increased role for the state as a result of the crisis? Given the backsliding in governance towards authoritarianism, greater centralisation and state involvement in the economy could not be seen as good news. On the other hand this was a wider tendency, in the EU as elsewhere, which could, alongside a weakening of the WTO and the rise of nationalistic trade and industrial policies, ultimately lead to a profound change in the global political economy.
  • What were the implications of a “Health Silk Road”? It was pointed out that the first priority of the BRI was in fact policy alignment, not infrastructure, involving other stakeholders alongside governments. More healthcare cooperation seemed likely, but not at the expense of infrastructure.
  • What was the relationship of Albania to Turkey, and of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Russia? It was pointed out that Albanian PM Edi Rama had a special relationship with Turkey, which had exploited his formal request for assistance. It was the Bosnian Croats who had sought assistance from Russia; this was simply an example of each faction in the country cooperating with anyone who could help to improve their own situation.
  • Had the EU lost ground in favour of other external actors? Although public opinion in Serbia perceived China and Russia as the two largest donors, this was not so much an issue of the EU losing ground but a reflection of the greater conditionality and sophistication of EU aid. This continued to be incomparably greater in volume and quality than the others; and while EU aid numbers were clear, those for China remained unknown.
  • Was there a risk of Western Balkan states becoming permanently clientelist? In reality, the state had never really left the economy in the region. It remained a major employer, important for patronage, with no fundamental change to the status quo. Crony capitalism remained a danger, potentially reinforced by the activities of some external actors.
  • Was there a potential contradiction between enhanced conditionality and backsliding on reforms? Stricter conditionality had been a response, since 2005, to backsliding. Once inside the EU, only Rule of Law tools were available, and their effectiveness was still not clear.
  • Had not the voice of Member states had always been heard, as evidenced by the issue of recognition of Kosovo? The recognition issue was specific to Kosovo, but the EU had nonetheless managed to find a way to deal with the country within the enlargement framework. The issue was not in any case specifically related to Kosovo, but rather reflected domestic issues within the Member States concerned; there was no short-term solution to these, other than for the EU to continue to “side-line” the issue in the enlargement context.
  • How well had the countries in the region coped with the pandemic? Pretty well, but with room for improvement; public response had been positive. The most vulnerable groups in the region lived in areas where social distancing was the norm. But the crisis was still not over.
  • What were the perceptions in the region of Russia and of Putin’s denial of the crisis? Stories about internal developments in Russia rarely made the headlines in the region and there was little public interest. Reactions in the region to developments in Russia remained entirely dependent on the “gatekeepers” of news.

The author’s conclusions:

  • As far as the role of external actors is concerned, the basic thinking emerging from the Seminar Series remains unchanged.
  • The role in the region of some external actors, particularly China, may intensify, but will remain within the parameters of more global policies, rather than based on a specific regional focus.
  • The economic implications of the pandemic for the region and for the EU will be more determinant for its future.

Jonathan Scheele (SEESOX Associate and SEESOX Blog Editor)

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