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COVID-19: Balkans Once Again a ‘Playground’ for Foreign Powers

The Balkans, one of the regions most ill-prepared for the Coronavirus pandemic, have become a springboard from which global powers attempt to promote their international and domestic political agendas as the West is late to offer a helping hand
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As showcased by its weakened economies, sharp political divisions, and collapsed healthcare systems, the Balkan region has been ill-prepared for the Coronavirus pandemic. Since the beginnings of the outbreak, the region’s lack of medical workers and equipment has been a key problem.

With strong limitations to their domestic production of medical equipment, Balkan countries have looked beyond their borders for the materials needed to help halt the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet at this crucial juncture, the EU limited its exports of medical equipment outside of the bloc in a bid to protect its own healthcare systems and citizens, thus adding fuel to the fire of one of the greatest shocks to the Balkan region in recent history. As a result, Balkan countries have lost access to their closest market for medical equipment, including masks, test kits, and disinfectants.Many regional leaders voiced their criticism of and disappointment in the EU following this decision. “European solidarity does not exist. That was a fairy-tale on paper”, said Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic just before crucial assistance arrived from other locations. Here, Chinese, Russian, Turkish, and Hungarian airplanes loaded with the most urgent medical equipment were welcomed by top politicians and special ceremonies at airports across the Balkan region. These developments were heavily covered by local and regional media outlets, capturing the public’s attention.

Portraying the image of power:

It is important to note that the state of public health in the countries that have sent aid to the Balkans is not in top shape when considering their own registered COVID-19 cases and deaths. Yet it cannot be denied that these countries have engaged in successful public relations and public diplomacy campaigns through the disbursement of aid to the region. According to the latest figures, Turkey, one of the countries worst hit by the pandemic, has sent aid to more than 60 countries worldwide including the Balkan countries of Bosnia, Montenegro, Serbia, North Macedonia, Kosovo, and Bulgaria. China, on the other hand, has even sent help as far and wide as the forgotten microstates of the Pacific region.

“A friend in need is a friend indeed” is the mantra of these aid campaigns, as the countries pursuing them maximise their influence and shape public perceptions. This approach seems to be a useful instrument of soft power for the autocratic rulers occupying the top political offices of the sending countries as they strive for more power in the international arena. While China and Russia may want to show that they are viable contenders for world leadership, relatively smaller powers like Turkey and Hungary seem to be attempting to revive the glory days of their former empires.

When Speaker of the Turkish Parliament and member of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party Mustafa Sentop stated that “Turkey’s helping hand will always be with the Balkan countries” he was actually highlighting a deeper aspiration of the country. It is clear that a new world order will be established in the aftermath of the pandemic and that the entrenched political, economic, and societal structures will be fundamentally altered. In this way, the countries engaging in these aid campaigns are challenging the existing order and attempting to define their place therein. For Erdogan, “Turkey has managed to position itself at the centre of the post- crisis world order”, as he explicitly stated following Turkey’s shipment of medical aid to the Balkans.

Without a doubt, the Balkans, as Europe’s backyard, occupy a geopolitically and historically unique location from which aspiring global actors can challenge existing hegemonic structures.

Using the Balkans for political gain:

The sending of aid has created a symbiotic relationship between illiberal Balkan and foreign governments. On the one hand, unable to cope with the economic, political, and societal challenges resultant of the pandemic, local leaders welcome international aid as a distraction from their domestic political woes. On the other hand, aid-sending countries aim to gain increased public support by playing to a nationalist and imperial discourse that rests on the argument that they were powerful enough to help where the EU wasn’t.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, who accompanied aid shipments to every Balkan capital, accused the EU of failing to help the Balkan countries, despite their urgent cries for help. Boasting that Hungary answered these calls within a single week, he also took the opportunity to accuse EU countries of lying about newly passed Hungarian legislation that has been widely criticized as anti-democratic. On March 30, the Hungarian parliament passed a package of emergency measures that critics say gave Prime Minister Viktor Orban the right to rule by decree indefinitely while simultaneously presenting journalists with jail time if they paint a reality less rosy than that depicted by the government.

The situation is not very different in the Balkan countries receiving the aid. Here, top politicians welcomed aid shipments at airports across the region, just as their governments continued to turn their backs on EU agendas through the use of populist rhetoric and authoritarian policies. For Serbian President Vucic, “China is a hundred-years old friend of Serbia and the Balkans”. Shortly after the arrival of the shipments, debate erupted as local politicians argued over who would manage the aid and how it would be distributed. For example, while Hungary shipped aid to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo it also sent supplies to Banja Luca, the administrative center of Bosnian Serbs. This windfall gave Bosnian Serb hawks an excuse to voice their separatist demands. Similarly, Bosnian Serb and Muslim Bosniak politicians took the opportunity to issue statements to media and thank President Erdogan for his generous contribution. As planned, resulting debates overshadowed local governments’ handling of the pandemic and its effects.

Within this context it should be remembered that the EU is the single greatest political and economic supporter of the Balkans. Ever since the bloodshed of the 1990s, EU membership and reforms have been the most important political goal of the countries in the region.

It would seem that the countries that acted quickly in sending aid to the Balkans capitalized on supposed EU inaction, turning it into a political asset. However, these countries lag far behind the EU when it comes to regional economic investments, aid, and development assistance, even during the pandemic. As a matter of fact, the EU sent 418 million Euros to Balkan countries to assist in halting the effects of the pandemic. However, EU assistance has found little praise in the media or the speeches of politicians, despite being more concrete and definitively measurable than the donations of countries such as Turkey, Hungary, Russia, and China.

This lack of publicity for EU aid is based on three unfortunate realities. Firstly, exhibiting nationalist and authoritarian tendencies, Balkan governments continue to seek separation from the EU at least on the discursive level. Secondly, the EU has been unable to effectively engage in public diplomacy, especially when compared with the showmanship all to often utilized by illiberal states. Thirdly, the EU is simply withdrawn as it focuses on its own internal problems.

Overall, the Balkans have once again become a playground for major powers while the West struggles to manage the crisis. Using the pandemic for their own gain, Balkan leaders and aid-sending countries seek to maximize the influence of their illiberal governments. When the crisis ends, the demise of EU normative power and foreign illiberal influence in the Balkans will surely be an interesting topic of discussion.