Panel 2: Security challenges within the region
Dimitar Bechev (Oxford School of Global and Area Studies) cited three pieces of evidence of a new multipolarity. The first is obviously the war in Ukraine, where key regional players are not taking sides. The second is the pandemic, where China’s role in medical supplies to the region is salient, despite the EU’s doing the heavy lifting. And the third is the current role of Turkey, which has evolved from an EU candidate to a bona fide independent regional player. Unsurprisingly, regional elites are seeking to leverage the new geopolitical situation for external support, domestically or for neighbours, or to scare the West. This game-playing—of which Putin is a master—has historical precedents (e.g., Tsipras’s unsuccessful bid for Russian support to improve Greek bargaining power with Brussels). A main point here is that, in the region’s small countries, all politics continue to be local. Twenty years of EU reform efforts have not changed local elites’ incentives to maintain a lucrative independence and resist changes to the status quo.
Milos Damjanovic (Balkan Investigative Reporting Network) took on the question of whether Serbia is acting as a Trojan horse in the region. He argued that Serbia will ultimately align with the West, although pro-Russian sentiments in Serbia are at an historic high, and Serbia has not imposed sanctions. Historically, Serbia has more often been pro-western, with the pendulum swinging as national interest dictates. Current Russian support dates from the NATO bombing of the 1990s. Even then, Serbia remained pro-EU and kept Russia at a distance until Western recognition of Kosovo forced Serbia to rely on Russian support. The dilemma is a difficult one for domestic politics: how can Serbia side with the countries that invaded its territory, while condemning Russia for invading Ukraine? Vucic would prefer to be invisible (‘crawl under a stone’) but in the end, if Serbia has to choose sides, it will align with the West. Most Serbs want to join the EU. Damjanovic agreed with Bechev that a ‘waiting room’ for EU accession, or other second-tier membership, would carry a real danger of allowing regional elites to continue milking the system without pursuing reforms.