While the world watches Western Europe fumbling a Covid-19 Vaccine rollout, few have been keeping tabs on the volatile Balkan region. The European Union, in an attempt to both save the EU and wrest popular power from the hands of an ever strengthening Russia has attempted to assimilate specific Balkan states. Most notably, it has been working diligently to secure the trust of Albania, North Macedonia, Kosovo, and Serbia.
A recent report by the European Parliament indicates the EU’s eagerness to proselytize the Balkan nations into a new EU identity, calling the EU selected bloc, “Western Balkans.” The 26 March report goes on to say that, “advancement by these countries toward joining the EU depends on lasting, in-depth and irreversible reforms across fundamental areas such as the rule of law and the effective functioning of democratic institutions. “
Perhaps the divide and conquer tactic will work in the Balkans, as the bifurcation of an East and West might divert attention away from the Unions faltering financial health and waning influence throughout the world. The official release indicated the EU would be taking a keen interest in Albania’s upcoming elections on 25 April 2021; indicating a hope for “free and fair” election that would be essential to the nation’s EU membership.
What these nations do have in common, is their geopolitical proximity to Greece, Turkey and Italy. The EU has struggled in its diplomatic relations in this region–most recently with Turkey, but also with Italy and Greece. Both Italy and Greece have experienced some of the highest austerity measures since the economic collapse of 2008 and Italy has had to battle a surge of African immigrants pouring in from the Mediterranean, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa largely due to economic instability, some caused by French, German and EU military operations in the region.
The instability plaguing the Balkan region has many facets, but most notably its determination to ally with Russia or the EU. Russia has been a familiar partner for many Balkan states for regional stability and cultural parity. That kinship affinity has been a wedge in Western dominance in the region. According to an article in Politico, the US-backed a coup of the democratically elected Ukrain government (Euromaiden); but Russia managed to maintain its hold on oil interests in the region and secure economic progress. Russia, Tunisia and the Ukrain had the fastest growing export markets in the world pre-Covid, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC).
The results of the Euromaiden skirmish left reverberations throughout the region, particularly as access to mineral resources finally put the Balkans on the map. Bulgaria, the poorest member in the EU sought to leverage its own kind of “Western Balkan” position in the US with talks in late 2019 to be a key supplier in exchange for key international access. Bulgaria still imports more than it exports.
In a release issued in 2019, the President expressed his confidence that the American president would follow through on their discussions. In 2020 after over a year of US backed protest (according to a 2020 report by Politico), the Bulgarian president was urged to step down. Despite the attempted ouster, his administration survived a 2020 no-confidence vote and Bulgaria continues to battle the EU over Northern Macedonia. It seems an ironic turn of events for a Balkan nation that put its trust in EU’s Western diplomatic and trade promises.
Even as the US and EU have begun to consolidate against Eastern nations like China and Russia, in a quiet race for hegemony, it may be that Western alignment for Balkan states will not produce real economic and geopolitical benefits for the reigion. The EU has listed North Macedonia as a nation to be fast tracked to the EU, and this is in light of its recent political skirmish with Bulgaria for accession in 2020 and now 2021. This comes after heated debates within the EU framework which many in Bulgaria felt disregarded age old ethnic and cultural heritages.
The question becomes, what will EU membership provide its newest charges, who now witness Bulgarias struggle for legitimacy, sovereignty and economic inclusion as an EU “member.” Could it be that EU inclusion affords lesser benefits to its Balkan members than Western European ones? It then becomes apparent why the EU has aggressively pursued tariff-free trade outside of the Union. But it becomes less apparent whether the blessings of trade and finance will be available to “Western” Bakan members after membership.
Bulgaria, perhaps a true mascot of the complexity of Eastern Europe, has had a coup d’etat in 1886, 1923, 1934, 1944 and 1965 during pivotal moments in Western European History. This time is no different, as the West finds itself in one of the most pivotal moments in its existence. Its struggle to maintain primacy in industry, technology and influence continues to wane in the face of growing geopolitical and economic juggernauts, not just in China and Russia, but India and the Middle East.
It may be that the Bulkans may be the latest sacred cow to burn on the “proverbial” alter of geopolitical and economic salvation for a decadent West. Can Albania, North Macedonia, Kosovo and Sebia be transformed into the “Western Balkans?” And more importantly, will it mean anything substanial for those nations geopolitically or economically? Is the case of Bulgaria a cultural, ethnopolitical and economic red flag for the latest Balkan quartet? Those details might emerge sooner than later as the EU hopes to fastrack North Macedonia in 2021.