Why They Come: The Balkans’ Desperation

Belgrade Serbia
Skyline of Belgrade, Serbia, August 22, 2011 (Serzhile)

Much of the world’s attention is fixed on the refugee crisis emanating from the warzones in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. It’s a simple enough narrative for journalists: fleeing the bombs and bullets of the Islamic State or the Taliban, refugees swarm peaceful Europe, hoping for humanitarian salvation.

But that narrative overlooks a key failure of European migration policy. This wave of migration is hardly new. On the continent itself are states that have long propelled their citizens to jump the borders for greener pastures in Western Europe.

Three of Germany’s top five asylum-seeking countries of origin are not in the wartorn Middle East but rather the overlooked Balkans: Albania, Kosovo and Serbia. Macedonia, another Balkan state, ranks seventh.

What’s happening here? Why are fellow Europeans from peaceful states fleeing to Germany? Read more “Why They Come: The Balkans’ Desperation”

Balkans Vulnerable to Russian Meddling, Expert Warns

The Balkans are vulnerable to Russian meddling if President Vladimir Putin wants to put pressure on the European Union, a top Bulgarian foreign-policy expert warns.

Writing in the Financial Times, Ivan Krastev, who chairs the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria and is a founding board member of the European Council on Foreign Relations, argues that if Putin seeks to regain the initiative in his standoff with the West, the Balkans would be a “likely hotspot.”

As well as being the EU’s backyard, the Balkans are the underbelly of Brussels’ diplomacy. Their banking systems are fragile. If businesses with large deposits and Russian connections were suddenly to pull their money out, the result could be widespread insolvency and with it civil strife. Pro-Western governments would teeter. This is the place to apply pressure, if Moscow wants to make Europeans feel uncomfortable.

Russia certainly does not “fantasize” about bringing countries like Albania and Bosnia into its sphere of influence, writes Krastev. The Balkan states trade far more with Europe than they do with Russia and those that aren’t in the European Union yet still hope to join the bloc.

But Russia does have influence, especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as Serbia, to the point that German Foreign Ministry experts said last year they feared Putin could try to prevent the European Union from expanding in the region. Read more “Balkans Vulnerable to Russian Meddling, Expert Warns”

Germany Concerned as Russia’s Balkan Influence Grows

Germany fears Russia intends to block further European Union expansion into the Balkans, according to a confidential Foreign Ministry analysis seen by weekly Der Spiegel.

The magazine reports that German diplomats worry Russia is levering its influence in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as Serbia with an eye toward preventing both countries from fully joining the West. Read more “Germany Concerned as Russia’s Balkan Influence Grows”

Likely Future Premier: Bulgaria Could Pull Out of South Stream

Bulgaria’s likely next prime minister said on Wednesday the country will push ahead with a Russian gas pipeline only if it complies with European Union laws, signaling a more defiant posture than the outgoing Socialists.

The conservative Boyko Borisov, who was prime minister between 2009 and 2013, also told the Reuters news agency he would scrap a tender awarded to a consortium led by the Russian construction company Stroytransgaz for the Bulgarian leg of the South Stream pipeline. The firm’s owner is on a list of Western sanctions targets imposed after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March.

Borisov is expected to return to power after the ruling Socialist Party performed poorly in May’s European Parliament elections. Read more “Likely Future Premier: Bulgaria Could Pull Out of South Stream”

Bulgaria Suspends Involvement in Russia’s South Stream Pipeline

Bulgaria is suspending work on a Russian pipeline that is supposed to connect its gasfields with a hub in Austria, the Balkan country’s prime minister, Plamen Oresharski, announced on Sunday.

“We have received a request from the European Commission, after which I ordered to suspend the works. Further actions will be clear after additional consultations with Brussels,” he said after a meeting with American legislators.

Russia has yet to receive an official notification, officials told its ITAR-TASS news agency. The issue could be raised at a meeting between European, Ukrainian and Russian officials due to be held in Brussels on Monday. Read more “Bulgaria Suspends Involvement in Russia’s South Stream Pipeline”

Crimea Annexation Could Kill South Stream Pipeline

Russia’s invasion and annexation of the Crimea last month could have repercussions for its plans to lay a pipeline on the bottom of the Black Sea. Britain’s The Telegraph newspaper reports that the European Commission has warned Bulgaria not to intervene if it decides to block the project.

Bulgarian foreign minister Kristian Vigenin earlier insisted there was no long-term threat to the construction of the South Stream pipeline. But in Brussels, Günther Oettinger, the European energy commissioner, said talks with Russia about the project were on hold. Read more “Crimea Annexation Could Kill South Stream Pipeline”

Prospects for Increased Balkan Security Cooperation Dim

Southeastern European countries that were once joined in Yugoslavia battle similar economic and security challenges yet prospects for enhanced cooperation in both areas seem dim.

Many of the West Balkan republics are coping with economic stagnation and high organized crime rates, the roots of which can often be traced to the political top, frustrating efforts to curb them. Regional cooperation to strengthen economies ties as well as the fight against organized crime promises improvement but chances of a true security community emerging are slim. Read more “Prospects for Increased Balkan Security Cooperation Dim”

Montenegro Reelects Pro-European Incumbent President

Montenegro reelected incumbent president Filip Vujanović last week by less than 8,000 votes, the Balkan nation’s electoral committee announced on Monday. Both the ruling socialist party’s candidate and his conservative challenger Miodrag Lekić had claimed victory.

Vujanović has held the presidency since Montenegro seceded from Serbia in 2006. The post is largely ceremonial. Real power is held by the prime minister, Milo Đukanović, also a Social Democrat.

Whereas Lekić campaigned against corruption and the political status quo, accusing the ruling party of monopolizing power and comparing his opponent’s premature victory claim to a “coup d’état,” the incumbent promised a “European” Montenegro by intensifying negotiations for accession to the European Union which began last year. Montenegro is considered next in line to join the bloc.

Of the former Yugoslavian states, only Slovenia is currently in the European Union. Croatia will join in July. Read more “Montenegro Reelects Pro-European Incumbent President”

Milošević Loyalists Form Pro-Russian Coalition in Serbia

Once the fiery spokesman for Serbian president Slobodan Milošević during the breakup of Yugoslavia, Socialist Party leader Ivica Dačić is set to become the Balkan nation’s next prime minister.

After the election of former deputy prime minister Tomislav Nikolić to the presidency last month, Serbia would have two Milošević loyalists heading a government of nationalists and Socialists — the very coalition that supported Milošević in the 1990s. Read more “Milošević Loyalists Form Pro-Russian Coalition in Serbia”