BALKANS & EASTERN EUROPE – March 2020


 

The impact of Covid-19 on the Balkan region

The Western Balkans have adopted draconian measures to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. Schools, universities, theatres, and cinemas have been closed. Borders are strictly controlled. The people’s freedom of movement has been severely limited. North Macedonia and Serbia have postponed parliamentary elections, scheduled for the 12th and 26th of April, respectively.

Although the impact of the pandemic in the Western Balkans has been less devastating than in EU countries so far, and will likely remain so, countries in the region have several reasons for concern. The Covid-19 pandemic is a hard stress test for their weak health systems, as well as for their very fragile economies, that risk, as much more solid ones in the EU, a severe recession.

The pandemic can affect the EU integration process, too. In March, the EU Council approved the opening of accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia – blocked by France last October 2019. The EU Council decision “reaffirms EU’s commitment to the European perspective of the region”, said EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Oliver Varhelyi, adding that this is an important message not only for Tirana and Skopje, but for the whole region.

Turning a good signal into concrete results depends on many factors. Concrete facts are needed to show that the EU recommitment for the Western Balkans will be genuine and constant, for example, as the echo of Macron’s niet to Albania and North Macedonia is still strong. At the same time, the effectiveness of the new enlargement strategy (here explained by New Eastern Europe), that France strongly wanted, must be verified. On the other hand, greater pushes for reforms are required from Albania and North Macedonia, as well as from Serbia and Montenegro, that are already negotiating accession to the EU.

However, the key factor to observe in the coming months is, again, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. An economic earthquake and prolonged limitations to civil and political activities, could either freeze reforms in the Western Balkans or push the EU to put the renewed focus on the Western Balkans on standby (both in the worst case).

Meanwhile, a Coronavirus dispute in Kosovo caused the collapse of the coalition between Self-Determination (Vetevendosje), a leftist nationalist party, and the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), agreed only two months ago.

The Prime Minister and Self-Determination leader Albin Kurti introduced restrictive measures to people’s movement, without declaring the state of emergency. The President of the Republic, Hashim Thaci, questioned Kurti’s approach saying that any measure concerning basic rights of the people can be implemented only by adopting a state of emergency. The Minister of Internal Affairs and LDK deputy leader, Agim Veliu, aligned with Thaci’s view and was dismissed by Kurti. As a consequence, LDK promoted a no-confidence motion, which was voted by the majority of MPs.

However, the Coronavirus controversy was just a pretext. The real reasons behind the collapse of the Government were the bad relations between Kurti and LDK’s leadership, Thaci’s ambition to be indispensable and US diplomacy’s games in Kosovo, as reported by the New York Times and other media.

Since the beginning of the year, the US administration involvement in the Serbia-Kosovo issue has increased. Washington wants to restart talks between the two countries and get a final agreement to normalise relations. The US supports Thaci as the Kosovar mediator. He and his Serbian counterpart, the President Aleksandar Vucic, put the issue of land swap with Serbia on the table. Kurti opposes it and, once appointed Prime Minister, said that the only body authorised to negotiate is the Government. The no-confidence vote reflects “a much deeper disagreement about how to resolve a decades-old impasse between Kosovo and Serbia. The debate pitted Mr. Kurti, a longtime activist, against both Mr. Thaci and the Trump administration”, the New York Times wrote, adding that US view angered Europe’s diplomacy.

Geopolitics and coronavirus are intertwined also in neighbouring Serbia, object of a medical-diplomatic competition. The President of the Republic, Aleksandar Vucic, blamed the EU for its limited solidarity and said that this forced Serbia to turn to China to get help in the battle against the pandemic. Beijing sent equipment and experts to Belgrade. The Serbian leadership warmly greeted the effort. Belgrade’s bridges and monuments were floodlighted in red to thank the Asian giant. Immediately after, the EU announced a €400 million Euro plan to support the Western Balkans (Serbia is the main beneficiary) to tackle the emergency caused by Coronavirus, and somehow counter China’s soft power. The coronavirus pandemic is a new tool for political competition in the region.

 

Matteo Tacconi – Journalist and analyst, he covers the Balkans for a wide range of media networks. He worked as electoral observer for the OSCE/ODIHR in Albania, Macedonia, Russia, Georgia and Ukraine.