The Balkans under the microscope

Huffington Post Greece – Nov. 21, 2018

Many analysts, researchers and journalists, observers and stakeholders in the sensitive Balkan region are still living in a plot of conspiracy through articles or research about it. However, reality must be treated with neutrality, away from emotions and nationalism. This area was the stage for the spark of the First World War through the killing of the successor to the Austrian crown and also witnessed a fierce war in the 1990s, which led to its partition. Despite the atmosphere of serenity and tranquility in the last twenty years, it remains the focus of interest of many world powers, notably the US and Russia but also the European Union and Turkey. With frequent analyses and related researches about the area, the reader is lost and can not understand what is really going on and what the actions are above and below the table. Because of the importance of this area, we need to look at events far from what is being promoted by the media.

I will separate the Balkan scene into three sections according to the powers of influence of this geographical region:

Turkish influence

With Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party in power, Ankara has increased its influence in the Balkans impressively. There is no Albanian or Bosnian city without a Turkish mosque or a branch of a Turkish charity. From 2008 to 2016, Turkey has increased financial assistance and development projects in many Balkan countries, including hospital and road construction, bank support, and the construction of schools and training centers. Also, Ankara, led by Erdoğan, has strengthened its diplomatic relations with the Balkan countries including Serbia and FYROM, despite the fact that they were enemies in the past. Naturally, the form of this influence gave food to Ankara’s opponents to interpret the situation as an attempt by Turkey to reshape the Ottoman Empire, quoting what Erdoğan said in one of his 2015 speeches that it is his desire to rebuild Turkish relations with the states of the former Ottoman Empire. This story has a hidden part that gives the real picture of Turkish influence in the region and is linked to the European Union.

European influence

With the end of the Serb-Bosnian war in the 1990s, Europe was out of the game. The indirect support produced by it to the Serbs made this re-imposition difficult, especially given the powerful Serb-Russian relations and hatred it caused to the Muslims of the region. As a result of two important points that we should stand, Europe has made a new planning. The first point was the fear of the growing Russian expansion in the region by besieging Europe from the east and the second the fear created for Europeans as a result of massacres against the Muslims during the war during which there was a flow of jihadists that the Muslim community would become an extremist, so a source of extremist groups (as it happened in Afghanistan when the Americans supported the Taliban against the Russians after the war created an Islamic Emirate who could not control). These two points have prompted Europe to support a more influential influence from the societies of this region represented by Ankara. Turkey, which is part of NATO, is closer to Europe, and the religiously moderate Islamic religious character of mystical Sufism could affect the Muslim communities in the Balkans. Indeed, Turkey had achieved it so clearly until the summer of 2016, when the country was shocked by the failed coup attempt in which Ankara believed that Europe put her hand, which forced her to revise her calculations in the Balkans.

US-Russian influence clash

It is well known that Serb-Russian relations are distinct, but Moscow has kept its influence in the Balkans limited. For the Russian leadership, the Black Sea region and the former Soviet Union countries were more important, but after the decline of the US role internationally during the Obama administration, Moscow was prompted to reformulate its international movements and look into the Balkans, increasing its support for Albania, Montenegro and FYROM. The Russian movement met with the US reaction for supporting the integration of a number of Balkan countries into NATO, such as Albania and FYROM. As Washington was pushing more and more to resolve the issue between Skopje and Athens over the name of Macedonia in the last months of last year, Moscow reacted by pushing the Greeks to protest against this agreement. It is therefore likely that FYROM, Albania and Montenegro will join NATO in the current and the next year.

Information from Hungary and the Czech Republic confirms the arrival of hundreds of NATO armored vehicles and soldiers and their deployment on the eastern border of the European Union. It is also noted the increase in Moscow’s influence in Bosnia and Herzegovina. While the growing conflict in Ukraine between Moscow and the West is warming, Washington raises its troops in Norway and Sweden. The Russian response to this is the increase of its troops in Syria, Libya, Egypt and Sudan. Some may see warm handshakes between Putin, Macron, Trump and Merkel as a sign of stability, but what happens under the table confirms that the atmosphere is potentially explosive and the Balkans may be the scene of this explosion.