Central Asia

Don’t forget the Balkans

Brexit must not distract the EU and Nato from region’s rumbling crises, warns Stephen Blank

A woman walks through a village near Chisinau, Moldova

The arrival of millions of refugees from the Middle East into the troubled Balkan states has exacerbated tensions within them.

Ethnic animosities pre-dated the wars in the 1990s that led to the break-up of Yugoslavia, and they have not been completely surmounted. Those states are renowned for their difficulties in establishing transparent, honest government and flourishing economies. The Greek crisis of 2015 is only the best known example but, in fact, throughout the Balkans, corruption has been and remains pervasive. Now the Balkan states face a security challenge from without.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and intervention in eastern Ukraine and then in Syria, have reverberated across the Balkans. Turkey is rapidly trying to build an indigenous defence sector and put together a regional security bloc with other littoral states from the Black Sea excluding Russia while warning that Vladimir Putin is converting the Black Sea into a Russian lake. Romania’s leaders have expressed alarm about the future control of the mouth of the Danube where its energy installations are now at risk from Russian ships and warplanes, and there are fears that freedom of navigation in the Black Sea is equally at risk.

Accordingly the United States and NATO, though quite outnumbered in the Black Sea, have begun to move military assets such as air and missile defence bases to the area, and increased visits by smaller warships, making it another potential flashpoint in East-West relations. Russia’s reaction has been the further militarization of the Black Sea and Crimea, even to the point of moving nuclear-capable − if not nuclear-armed − weapons there and threatening to denounce the proposed regional security force. A Romanian proposal for such a force predated the Warsaw NATO summit of July 2016 but has gone nowhere due to Russian pressure on Bulgaria and the attempted coup in Turkey.

At the same time Russian policy is inflaming internal tensions. Moscow has blocked any progress in resolving Bosnia-Herzegovina’s status since the end of the Yugoslav wars. It supports the Bosnian Serbs led by Miroslav Dodik and stands behind his efforts to obstruct any progress in making Bosnia an independent political entity affiliated with the European Union.

Russia is using its influence within Serbia to exercise a check on the westernizing policies of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic. In Moldova, not only has Moscow separated Transnistria from the rest of the country on the grounds of ethnic rivalry between Russians and Moldovans, it is recruiting Moldovan citizens to its army, according to the government in Chisinau.

Russian-sponsored corruption is widespread in Montenegro, Bulgaria and throughout the Balkans in the energy sector, with revenues used to fund business takeovers or influence buying, particularly in the media. Indeed, the energy sector is the most visible example of Russian efforts to prevent integration of the Balkans with the EU and NATO.

For the moment, the flood of refugees from Turkey through the Balkans has abated due to an EU-Turkey deal negotiated by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But this arrangement could easily unravel.

Because these crises – migration, weak governance and external threat  – are conjoined due to Moscow’s strategy, it becomes much harder for the EU and NATO to deal with them. Clearly the resources that must be generated to deal with these challenges are not in sight today. The Brexit crisis will now further distract attention from the Balkans and the Black Sea.

But European security organizations cannot afford to neglect the Balkans. For the past two centuries, it has been clear that every Balkan crisis quickly morphs into a general crisis of the European state structure. The wars arising out of Yugoslavia’s collapse were no exception. And neither are the crises that we see within the Balkans today.

Failure to address these crises − mass migration from imploding Middle Eastern states, long-standing governance weakness, and the latest iteration of the abiding Russian threat − will plunge the continent into turmoil.

In other words, a severely weakened EU and clearly under-resourced NATO cannot stop to focus exclusively on the Brexit crisis or the Russian threat in Poland and the Baltic States for them to fulfil their mandates.

If these organizations fail to meet these challenges then the present crises will seem as child’s play compared with what we can then expect to see.