In the Balkans we have been witnessing a complete halt in the EU enlargement process in recent years. Even countries like North Macedonia, which went as far as changing its name to expedite own accession, still find themselves on the sidelines, in the North Macedonian case this being largely due to Bulgaria’s opposition. What are the potential dangers posed by these delays in the enlargement process?
Indeed, the Macedonian case becomes paradigmatic due to the country’s ordeals that have nothing to do with the Copenhagen criteria. However, there has been no progress even with the countries such as Serbia and Montenegro, which had begun their accession process long ago. Things in that regard become worse rather than better. In my opinion, the blame cannot be put exclusively on the region’s incapability and failures – after all, the ‘stabilocracies’ are usually supported by Brussels. The key problem is the unwillingness of the EU to open the doors for its less developed and poor neighbours. The consequences are immense: today’s EU is not the same one as the EU of some ten or fifteen years ago. Geopolitical developments have made it shift away its enlargement policy and re-pack it into some sort of loose ‘(geo)political community’. As a result, its soft power vanishes, people got tired and fed up with empty promises, the so-called “Euroscepticism” is on the rise, while the vast amounts of money are now redirected towards the war economy and assistance rather than development and reforms.
Considering the events that unfolded in the subsequent years, do you believe it was worthwhile for North Macedonia to make a deal with Greece to join NATO and move closer to the EU?
First of all, the thesis that the only path that leading to EU membership is the one that goes through NATO has always been phony. As we know, there are EU member-states that are not members of the Alliance (and vice versa). In my view, the best option for all post-conflict/post-war societies in the area of ex-Yugoslavia would have been investment of efforts and human capital in non-military areas, economic growth, social progress, education and reconciliation. Nowadays even the top Macedonian leaders admit that the key reason for the name change deal was NATO rather than EU. They do their best to explain that the country got more security in exchange – but the ordinary people are not blind to the raising military budget and purchases of expensive military equipment, especially now after the Vilnius summit. In other words, if NATO story was sold out as a story of economic wellbeing and development, now it simply does not fit that narrative. Macedonia changed its name and the Constitution – and is now enforced to do it again for the sake of the Bulgarian nationalistic dreams – for nothing, except for being a good albeit weak military ally in the new geopolitical order.
Are you concerned about the possibility of a new wave of instability in the region as unresolved issues like the Serbia-Kosovo dispute and the pro-secessionist actions of Dodik in Bosnia and Herzegovina resurface or intensify?
The frozen conflicts rarely remain so for a longer period of time. The Western political community has been relying on stability (and ‘stabilocracy’) for far too long. But the Dayton Bosnia and Kosovo are the open wounds in the region, not only because their weird political and international position, but also because of their internal contradictions, poverty, corruption and lack of perspective. It sounds like a cliché but the Balkans is still a system of interconnected vessels. Behind the surface of Macedonia’s alleged stability, there is a latent process of internal division – and eventually federalization. The situation in Kosovo is especially important for the internal processes in the Macedonian society.
There are proposals such as those in Germany (CDU-CSU motion/SWF paper) to advocate for the inclusion of the Balkans in the EU single market before full membership. Do you think this could be a viable solution for the region or do you have alternative suggestions? What about initiatives like ‘Open Balkan’? Do they hold any significance or impact?
The German idea is somewhat in contradiction to the French idea of creation of a “second league” – to use a sports terminology – in the political sphere. The Balkans needs clear signals and vision from Brussels – but the EU capital is busy with Ukraine, Moldova, etc. Differently from the dominant (and false) belief that joining the EU economic space and market would immediately bring progress and growth, I am a bit sceptical: one should have a healthy and developed economy to compete in the EU single market. It’s the capitalist logic that is often forgotten. How would economic subjects from Serbia, Montenegro or Macedonia cope with the competition on an equal level with the companies from the developed countries? At a first sight, ‘Open Balkan’ idea looks great: it assumes consolidation, cooperation and even reconciliation among the Balkan states in a way that resembles the EU from its onset (the European Coal and Steel Community, EEC, etc.). Unfortunately, the open issues and the frozen conflicts prevent its full realization, let alone the reluctance that comes from some European capitals. In sum, the region is in a limbo – neither closer to EU, nor able to consolidate internally and work together for the sake of regional and individual interests.
Considering the Russian aggression against Ukraine do you think Moscow has ultimately lost its influence in the Balkans? And what about China?
The alleged Russian interference in the region has been exaggerated by Washington and Brussels. On the other hand, some EU countries, such as Germany, Bulgaria, and Hungary, have maintained relatively high-level relations with Moscow. Over the years, public opinion polls in the Balkans consistently demonstrate unprecedented support for EU membership. The discontinued South Stream project effectively diminished Russian influence in the region, albeit at a significant economic cost for the countries involved. China is also portrayed as an adversarial actor in the emerging geopolitical landscape, which has made the local political arena hesitant to engage in broader cooperation. Western actors have taken a more aggressive stance and pursued their corporate interests at the expense of local economies. For instance, the recent agreement between the Macedonian government and the US-Turkish enterprise Bechtel and Enka has been criticized as scandalous, outrageously expensive, unconstitutional and corrupt. This deal serves as a response to the previous government’s agreement with China on an infrastructure project involving two relatively short highways. During the coloured revolution, the Chinese deal was one of the key points of protest, yet now the same individuals applaud an even more detrimental economic deal with a Western company.