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Tuesday 14 June 2022

South East Europe in the shadow of the war in Ukraine: Part 2

Panel 2: Security challenges within the region

The second panel, chaired by Kalypso Nicolaidis (European University Institute), discussed security challenges in the region, in its changing global environment.

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.Adis Merdzanovic (Zurich University of Applied Sciences) looked at the current situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Secessionist tendencies in Republika Srpska have increased in recent months, and are no longer merely electoral rhetoric. In a dangerous development, the Bosnian Serb leadership is in coalition with Bosnian Croats to redirect electoral reform towards creation of an exclusionary ethnocracy. The West remains more directly powerful in Bosnia than elsewhere in the region. The previous reduction of EUFOR had begun to be reversed even before Ukraine; some Serbians are subject to US and UK sanctions; and the High Representative has wielded power strategically via funding decisions. The Ukraine war does affect Bosnia: the transfer of powers to Republika Srpska has halted, and if any security issue blows up in the region, it will surely start in Bosnia. But the broader point goes beyond the ‘temporary’ Ukraine situation: The potential for Bosnian EU accession is dead, because no progress is possible with the current political elites. The younger generation is emigrating rather than objecting. Conceivably UK support for Bosnian territorial integrity could break the stasis, if the US could also be enlisted, but this does not look likely.

Kerem Öktem (Università Ca' Foscari, Venice) said that the Ukraine War provided a lifeline for the Erdogan regime, allowing Erdogan to reposition himself as an arbiter and a man of peace, thanks to close relations with both Russia and the Ukraine. In this respect, Erdogan has been a beneficiary of the Ukraine War, as it increased Turkey’s political clout, after years of self-imposed international isolation. EU accession prospects for Turkey are now effectively non-existent. This is a tragedy, considering how, in the early 2000s, EU membership prospects enabled impressive domestic reform. Now Turkey’s relations with the EU have become purely transactional—notably, to manage refugees. The country has transformed into an authoritarian regime, with the goal of regime survival the primary focus, and with unpredictability its most predictable characteristic. Foreign policy is motivated primarily by the goal of regime survival (meaning it can create conflict if needed to mobilize nationalist groups for elections—e.g., relations with Israel and Greece), and also by a push for global Islamism from some quarters. Ukraine-EU relations are followed closely, as a firmer prospect for Ukrainian EU membership would further weaken Turkish hopes for some form of EU membership. Turkey is very unlikely to become a member of the EU in its current form. The question is whether the EU can change and diversify so that Turkey can become a meaningful part of it. Turkey will go through some deep crises before it improves, and at the moment, the EU has lost both carrots and sticks to influence Turkish politics. The most likely scenario is that we are in much the same position in ten years’ time, preferably with the difference that some measure of democracy has been re-established in Turkey.

Marilena Simiti (Department of International and European Studies, University of Piraeus; SEESOX) described Greece’s position, which is very different: the Greek government has taken a clear pro-Ukraine, pro-Western stand from the outset, with sanctions and military support. That said, the Greek public is more nuanced: while condemning the war, the majority ascribes equal responsibility to NATO and Russia. Anti-US tendencies can be explained by Greece’s history of foreign interference (for instance in the civil war and the military dictatorship of 1967). Some leftists favour Greek neutrality; others condemn the invasion but want to remain neutral; and many accuse the West of double standards; the commonality of Orthodox religion is a pro-Russian factor; and the far right strongly supports Putin. While public opinion does not dictate decision-making in Greece, it certainly influences it, with unresolved issues sure to resurface in times of tension.

Q & A. The informal discussion started by observing that the same entrenched patterns continue to resurface in the region, though discussants agreed that the concept of a region, ‘Western Balkans’, is a misnomer since each country’s response to the Ukraine crisis has been idiosyncratic. If Ukraine were to become a candidate for EU accession, little would change in the region. Perhaps a more open attitude to accession might allow, say, Montenegro to become a member in the next decade or so; but in general, convergence prospects for the region are extremely slow. On the other hand, inviting Ukraine in would be a final blow for Turkey, pushing it to the back of a queue longer than existed when it began to explore accession.

Adrienne Cheasty (SEESOS Associste; Europaeum)

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