The new US administration has not yet formulated a policy towards the Western Balkans, and the European Union is running out of “carrots” to motivate the Balkan countries in the implementation of reforms, and again European integration, with Russian obstructions, still remains the best way for the region – US analysts said on Monday on the panel “Western Balkans – Delicate Balance” at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Due to Brexit, the migrant crisis and the growth of populism, the EU is not focused on the Western Balkans, analysts say.
NATO membership is even more important for the countries of the region in the short term, but this progress is blocked for various reasons – from the Macedonia dispute with Greece about the name to public opinion in Serbia, which largely rejects this idea, says Daniel Server, a professor at the US John Hopkins University.
“We have not yet had a clear statement on the Balkans. I am not surprised because there are many priorities for the US administration before the Balkans, but I think we need something, and I hope this will be reaffirmation of the European destination of Balkans, and membership in the EU and NATO within the existing borders,” said Server.
During this time, Russia uses vacuum, analysts say. Server notes that the Russians most obviously failed in Montenegro.
“They failed because of the decisiveness of the Montenegrin government to achieve their goal, which is NATO membership. They did not succeed in Macedonia because they wanted Gruevski to stay in power, they did not succeed in Bosnia in some way, but we do not know how durable their failure is, they failed to destabilize Bosnia and Herzegovina as they wanted,” says Server.
John Lampy, an analyst at Wilson Center, who just returned from a visit from Serbia, described positive developments as opening up new chapters with the EU and a good balance of President Vucic’s foreign policy, while named the Ana Brnabic’s appointment as the Serbian government’s mandate as “an excellent political symbol.” On the other hand, he called upon estimates of some economists in the region that government data on inflation and budget deficit do not correspond to reality.
“We see a very intensive and very well funded initiative of soft power, we can call it the information war in the region by the Russian Federation. Sputnik is very active, Russia Today too, but Sputnik is more important because it exists in several local languages. There are various non-governmental organizations that Russia finances, and in particular through social media, Russia’s views are spreading, and that will continue,” says analyst Ross Johnson.
He expects the Russian Federation will continue to influence in the region, but it does not mean that it will succeed.
“One of the examples of the problem is the treatment of Serbian military cooperation with Russia, on the one hand, and NATO countries on the other. There are far more common exercises and activities related to NATO within the Partnership for Peace program than with Russia, and again cooperation with Russia gets publicity in the Serbian media. The US needs better public diplomacy,” Johnson said.
As one of the central themes of the panel, the theme of the borders was imposed when Ross Johnson suggested that the arbitrary administrative boundaries in the region are one of the challenges and that their change in some parts would not necessarily cause a domino effect, citing the example of the Serb municipalities in northern Kosovo.
Other panelists have resolutely rejected the idea of border change as dangerous because it could lead to a new war or dismantling of the region, which could even be exploited by the extremist organization, Islamic State.