EU’s cold shoulder to Western Balkans boosts Turkish influence

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev rolls into a foreign capital. He is cheered by the local media, as the host country signs a free-trade agreement with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). In parallel, Moscow’s military is holding joint drills with the nation’s armed forces. S-400 surface-to-air missiles are duly shipped in by Russian transport planes. The president inspects the launchers and the radar unit and full of excitement tells TV viewers he wishes Russia will allow his country to keep the S-400s. It happens that he has recently besmirched the EU for its reluctance accept the state in question as a full member. What’s the value of playing by Europe’s rules and compromise with our national interests when they don’t want us in anyhow? 

You would be excused to think that the unnamed country is Turkey. Not really. It is Serbia. And the hard-nosed leader is not Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan but rather his newly-found friend President Aleksandar Vučić. It is truly odd that Turkey and Serbia to be put in the same basket. They differ in many aspects, from size to geographic location to history and societal make up. Yet here we are – there are some striking parallels. 

It will not be exaggerated to say that Serbia and Turkey are currently Russia’s best friends in Europe, outside the former Soviet Union. Even if one is a NATO member and the other officially committed to neutrality, both countries have deepened defence links with Moscow. Serbia, which has already been gifted old MiG-29 fighter planes by Russia and its ally Belarus, would like to buy more sophisticated weapons such as the S-400s but, in contrast to Turkey, lacks the cash to do so. Both countries have invested heavily in energy links with the Russians, too.

This month has seen the launch of work on the construction of TurkStream’s extension into southeast Europe. “BalkanStream” is designed to link Turkey to Serbia via Bulgaria and then extend onwards to Hungary and Central Europe. In other words, Belgrade and Ankara are assisting in the birth of a new southern route for Russian natural gas deliveries to the EU. Of course, Serbia’s decision to give Gazprom a 50% stake in the pipeline contrasts with Turkey’s policy. 

Another similarity worth highlighting is the ambivalent attitude to the EU. At the last European Council in Brussels (October 17-8), the French President Emanuel Macron did his best to kill enlargement. With the argument that the EU should halt expansion until it puts its own house in order and transforms institutions, he single-handedly vetoed the start of membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania.

In 2007, as many would recall, his predecessor at the Elysee Nicolas Sarkozy effectively put an end to the Turkish bid to join the Union. Several months into his presidency, he “froze” a number of chapters in the talks with Ankara arguing that dossiers such as Economic and Monetary Union and Agriculture prejudge the outcome of the negotiations: full membership rather than the “privileged partnership” he favoured.

Similarly, there are now proposals to shepherd the Western Balkans into the European Economic Area (EEA) next to Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein. Though membership is formally still on the cards, it is postponed indefinitely. So Serbia alongside with its neighbours risks being relegated into an outer ring of Europe. Not entirely dissimilar from Turkey which trades heavily with the EU and is benefitting from the investment but is not joining the bloc anytime soon for reasons that are well known. 

Uncertainty dilutes EU political conditionality and gives authoritarian tendencies in the Balkans. The case in point is Serbia where the state has gradually turned into a one-man show starring Vučić. The opposition is emasculated and disunited, the security apparatus and the state resources are there to serve the strongman and his cronies rather than public interest, most of the media are beholden to the government. One could argue that the Turkish model has taken hold in the Balkans, even if the resurgence of authoritarian politics is a reflection of local forces and conditions rather than of a putative policy by Ankara to spread its system of governance to its former imperial dominions. 

Putting enlargement on hold presents a golden opportunity for Erdoğan. As the EU loses influence, a fact Vučić highlighted in the wake of the French “non” to North Macedonia and Albania. Turkey, Russia and even far-away China have a greater leeway in asserting their economic and diplomatic interests while the Union retreats. The further away is the Holy Grail of membership, the stronger the Balkan tendency to flirt with other players.

True enough, it is not like Turkey has a grand plan or a comprehensive offer to match the EU’s. But with Macron working day in, day out to pull the drawbridge and keep the Western Balkans out, we might start seeing Erdoğan even more frequently in Belgrade, Sarajevo or Skopje. 


© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.