As the Balkans once again take their place as a playground for global powers, we spoke with Srecko Latal*, a political analyst and journalist with decades of experience in the Balkans, about the region’s current state of affairs, relations with the West, susceptibility to illiberal actors, and response to the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus.
FP: What are your expectations from the Biden Presidency with regard to the US’s policies toward the Balkans? What changes do you expect?
SL: It is still difficult to provide a good analysis on this question, given the fact that Donald Trump has still not conceded his apparent defeat. Therefore, it is unclear how the transition of power will proceed, whether it will be delayed and what kind of impact this still deepening political crisis will have on the USA.
But if we presume that Joe Biden will take over as the 46th American president in January next year as scheduled, it seems clear that his mandate will be primarily focused on American internal issues and cleaning up the bedlam left behind Donald Trump. Today, the USA is deeply divided, and deeply troubled society in which its famous “American dream” has turned into a nightmare for many of its citizens. America seems to be in the situation where thorough legal, political, economic and cultural reforms are needed as badly and urgently as in the Balkans.
At the same time, Biden will have to urgently address critical external issues, from America’s relations with its key foreign counterparts – the EU, China and Russia – to its positions on key issues, such as COVID-19 or climate change. This means that Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Balkans itself will once again not be on the top of his agenda, which some Balkan politicians expected while some other feared.
According to some officials who may be a part of the new US administration, or close to it, Biden plans to rebuild American relations with the EU and support its enlargement process in the Balkans. This scenario offers new possibilities for the Balkan region, where stronger political engagement from the Washington could compensate for Brussels’ still relatively weak political presence. This combination of American political and EU financial and technical efforts could halt the dangerous escalation of ethnic, political, economic and social tensions, which we see in the Balkans in recent years, and eventually stabilize the region.
However, Biden’s victory also carries risks that America may fall back to the “old ways” in its foreign policy, which were often based on one-sided, exclusive views of the world, as well as short-term and experimental approaches. In the situation where both the Balkans and the whole world seem to be on the brink of chaos, I think that we do not need strong and robust but wise and patient America.
FeniksPolitik (FP): How do you define the current state of affairs in the Balkans?
Srecko Latal (SL): Like the rest of the world, the Balkans is trying to come to terms with the Coronavirus pandemic and its health, security, political, economic, and social impact. Like no other crisis in our modern history, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced all masks and facades to fall, revealing all the weaknesses of the global, regional and local systems.
Across the Balkans, the pandemic has exposed the full extent of its corrupt, self-centred, dysfunctional governmental and political systems, which are either unable or unwilling (or both) to provide its population with even minimum protection, services and living standard. Besides the problems and challenges caused by the Coronavirus, the region was additionally destabilized by the fact that 2020 was the election year for almost all Balkan countries. As a result, across the region we saw new political quarrels as well as populist and/or radical and nationalist rhetoric and initiatives.
In addition to this continued destabilization of the Balkans, we are also witnessing an escalation of global power games, which are increasingly focusing on this region. On the one hand China, Russia, the USA, Turkey, and the Gulf countries have all been using the pandemic to pursue their strategic interest in the Balkans. On the other hand, the EU – the only external actor that has been seen as able to stabilize the region in recent years – has strongly rebounded from earlier blunders in dealing with the pandemic, and has now come to provide considerable technical and financial support to the Balkans.
All of these internal and external processes and influences are expected to continue to intensify in the Balkans in the coming period. At the same time they will be pushing the region in two opposite directions: towards normalization and stabilization of internal and external relations through a hastening of EU-supported processes; and towards an escalation of national, political, economic, and social tensions and divisions, which could easily spin out of control and result in resurgent ethnic and/or social violence.
Today the Balkan region is facing numerous internal and external challenges. Like the rest of the world, the Balkans is witnessing a gradual weakening, if not disappearance, of the neo-liberal system that has dominated the globe for decades. Aside from the numerous uncertainties created by the Coronavirus pandemic, we are also observing serious and dangerous changes to our climate, caused by the ruthless exploitation of national resources.
FP: How do you evaluate the performance of Western institutions (the EU and NATO in particular) when it comes to the Balkans?
SL: The global as well as regional performances and positions of both organizations have been significantly weakened in recent years by these organizations’ own strategic mistakes, poor judgment, and bad decisions, which has in turn undermined their internal cohesion and eventually even brought into question their very existences. Previous narratives based on Western countries’ military, political, economic, and perhaps most of all, ethic and normative supremacy, were key building blocks in the foundations of both organizations. Yet over time these narratives have been undermined by the West itself. Now both organizations need to seriously and thoroughly re-evaluate their core concepts and values, face new geostrategic realities, and decide whether and how they want to move on.
FP: Why are we talking about an increase of foreign influences in the Balkans? Who are these foreign powers and what are their motivations?
SL: The Balkans has been a playground for global actors, their interests, and power struggles for centuries. With the return of geopolitics in recent years, we have seen global actors once again returning to the region with their divergent interests and power games. As a part of their world-wide game of monopoly, actors like China, the USA, Russia, Turkey, and some Gulf countries, use their local allies and assets in the Balkans in the same way they use them in the Middle East, Asia, or Africa. Relying on their historic ties with local ethnic groups – like in the case of Russia or Turkey – or on their more recently acquired positions – like in the case of the USA and China – these actors seem to be trying to re-establish old zones of interest, or create new ones, across the region. This game could have potentially devastating consequences, not only for the Balkans but for the whole of Europe or even the entire globe. We have already witnessed this when World War I was formally sparked by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo.
FP: How will the novel Coronavirus outbreak affect the Balkans and the role of other regional and global powers with certain interests in the Balkans?
SL: It is difficult to predict the full range of consequences presented by the Coronavirus pandemic in the Balkans due to the fact that this crisis is still ongoing and considering that all key local, regional, and global actors are still engaging in power-plays on a daily basis. However, based on both distant and recent history, one can draw a few clear conclusions:
The strengthening of Chinese, Russian, Turkish, and American positions in the region will inevitably push the Balkans towards new divisions, tensions, and conflicts. This is because these countries have conflicting interests both regionally and globally, and because they all rely on their local allies who also have conflicting interests. Therefore, there will always be a tendency for the cross-fertilization of global, regional, and local quarrels in the Balkans. These global actors should also understand that fuelling tensions and divisions in the Balkans is not in their best interests, because the Balkans – just like the Middle East – is unstable and volatile, and once tensions are ignited here, they can’t be easily extinguished or controlled. Global actors overplayed their hands in Syria and now they do not know what to do there. From this perspective, they don’t need a new crisis that they can’t control.
Another obvious conclusion from recent events is that only the EU can guarantee the Balkans’ gradual normalization and stabilization in the long term. I say this not only because of EU’s ample financial capacity, but also because only the EU could provide an opportunity for region’s different ethnic groups to live within the same borders with their ethnic kin, which is what many of them still strive to do. In another words, only a united Balkan is a stable Balkan. Today, only the EU – hopefully in cooperation with the new US administration –provides both a context and concrete means for this region’s gradual unification.
Yet for this to happen, the EU needs to remember its own hard lessons from the time of the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, and it needs to rediscover its own true strategic interest in the Balkans. This is still not the case, and although the EU has recently, to a certain extent, been saying and doing the right things, the fact is that the Balkans’ EU enlargement perspective is effectively put on hold. In order to truly revive this perspective, the EU needs to recognize that swift and realistic enlargement is not only important for the future of the Balkans, but for the future of the EU itself.
Srecko Latal is a journalist and political analyst who currently works as the Bosnia Country Editor at the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN). Twitter: @slatal