By Alon Ben-Meir and Arbana Xharra
As the EU seeks to increase its influence in the Balkans, Russia and Turkey have been working hard to strengthen their own ties to the region. The EU’s renewed interest in its southern backyard has been prompted by fears of Moscow’s mounting impact in the Balkans. Although Russia’s closest European ally is Serbia, it is not the only country with a long history in the Balkans. Turkey is another heavyweight, gaining huge support from corrupted officials throughout the Balkans. Like Russia, Turkey is investing in major national projects strategically calculated to have the greatest economic and political impact on the financial market.
To demonstrate his commitment to Serbia, in a joint news conference held on May 7 in Ankara with Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vucic, Erdogan said that the target for 2018 is $2 billion, going to $5 billion in the long term. Among the biggest projects, the Belgrade-Sarajevo highway will strengthen regional and economic ties. Vucic thanked Erdogan for ‘stabilizing’ the Balkans, declaring that “Turkey is the biggest power, the strongest country in the Balkans.”
On May 17, during the EU-Western Balkans Summit held in Bulgaria, European leaders expressed their concern over Turkey’s and Russia’s expanding influence in the Balkans, particularly since the Balkans were once part of the Ottoman Empire, and subsequently under the Soviet Union. Erdogan has made his unscrupulous position clear to Western powers, stressing that Turkey will become as powerful and influential as the Ottoman Empire was during its heyday.
Russia considers Serbia its most trusted ally in Europe and is investing heavily in large projects, especially in the energy sector. Even though Vucic recognizes that he is receiving substantial support from Putin, he is strengthening his alliance with Turkey as well. While Russia and Turkey are competing for influence in Serbia, they are still collaborating because of their joint opposition to the EU’s continuing and extensive involvement in the Balkans.
Vucic seeks to join the EU and build a trilateral relationship with Russia and Turkey, which directly challenges Western values and interests. Vucic, however, cannot “dance” in two weddings at the same time. His anti-Western alliance triggered alarm bells in the European Union. French President Emmanuel Macron put Ankara and Moscow in the same light, saying that he did not want “a Balkans that turns toward Turkey or Russia.”
The European Union is still Serbia’s largest trading partner; however, Serbia is heavily dependent on Russia for military equipment, which in many ways defines Russian-Serbian relations. There are approximately 1,000 companies in Serbia owned partially or entirely by Russians, with an estimated revenue of 5 billion Euros. In October 2017, Serbia bought six Russian fighter jets.
Surveys show that most Serbs are pro-Russian and regard NATO unfavorably. They remember well that Western powers heavily bombed their country in 1999 during the war with Kosovo. In a visit last year to Belgrade, Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister, asserted that “Serbia will never join the EU.”
The EU and the U.S. are aware that Serbia is still the “black sheep” in the Western Balkans, having Russia watching its back. The EU simply rejects what Russia’s President Putin is doing in Serbia and does not expect Erdogan to change his dictatorial style as long as he and his AK Party are in power, as neither are consistent with the socio-political culture of the West.
In a conversation we had with Veran Matic, founder and director of Belgrade’s Radio and Television station B92, he said that Vucic is certainly interested in establishing good relations between Serbia and Russia. He added that Serbia wants to be connected to the Turkish Stream pipeline (as Serbia depends on Russian gas, but there is no possibility of having it delivered directly to Serbia).
“For Serbia,” Matic said, “investments are greatly significant, but on the other hand, we are concerned about having too good relations with the system that is recognized as a global media freedom impostor, and with a state which imprisoned the largest number of journalists worldwide.”
In discussion with Xhemal Ahmeti, historian and philosopher, he said that the frequent meetings between Iran-Turkey-Russia, followed by activities in the regions where they operate, clearly reveal the contours of their cooperation both in the Middle East and in the Balkans. “These two powers,” he said, “have agreed on their sphere of influence working on their agenda against their common enemy, the United States.”
“The so-called Shiite Semitic doctrine, Putin’s pan-Slavism, and Erdogan’s neo-Ottomans have devised an alliance against the EU’s strategic agenda now operating in the Balkans”, said Ahmeti. Meanwhile, Serbia has managed to have it both ways, looking simultaneously at the East and West.
While recognition of Kosovo’s independence remains the EU’s key condition for Serbia’s membership, Elena Guskova, from the Institute for Balkan Studies in the Russian Academy in Moscow, argues that cooperating with the Russian military is “a guarantee of safety” for many Serbs.
Vucic has sought Moscow’s continued support over Kosovo and has restated his opposition to NATO membership, as he became the first foreign leader to meet Putin since the latter began his latest term as Russia’s president. “Serbia will preserve its independence, Serbia will preserve its military neutrality and Serbia is not planning to become a member of NATO or any other military alliance,” said Vucic during his visit to the Kremlin.
Blerim Latifi, philosophy professor in Pristina University, told us that this ‘alliance’ between Turkey, Russia, and Serbia is a blow to the unity and functionality of NATO, and “any blow to NATO has negative effects on the national security of the Balkans.”
Whereas Putin does not hide his animosity toward the Western alliance and tries to undercut Western interests anywhere he can, Erdogan wants to have it both ways. He wants to maintain Turkey’s membership in NATO and presumably still desires to join the EU, but he is working hard to undermine the EU’s and NATO’s strategic interests in the Balkans by entrenching Turkey in Serbia in particular to serve his insidious scheme.
The European Union should warn Serbia that it must weigh its options carefully and undertake the necessary socio-political and economic reforms if it wants to become a member of the EU. Serbia will certainly have no chance of joining the EU if it maintains open-ended association with either Erdogan or Putin.
To be sure, Serbia must by now realize that the prospect of sustainable democracy, freedom, and economic growth rests on close association with the EU. It should distance itself from ruthless dictators who pretend to be the savior of the Balkans when in fact they are exploiting the region’s vulnerability for their long-term strategic end.
About the Authors:
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.
Arbana Xharra authored a series of investigative reports on religious extremists and Turkey’s Islamic agenda operating in the Balkans. She has won numerous awards for her reporting, and was a 2015 recipient of the International Women of Courage Award from the US State Department.