The enlargement of the European Union (EU) to Central and Eastern Europe, managed to democratize this part of the continent, but at the same time to separate them from the influence of Russia. Countries such as Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 2004 concluded a successful transition from countries under the Soviet Union to EU members. In the same year, Slovenia became part of the EU, which until 1991 had been part of the Yugoslav federation. A year later the next enlargement takes place with countries from the sphere of Soviet influence – Romania and Bulgaria. The last enlargement was with Croatia in 2013. Since then there has been a halt to the enlargement process.
This eclipse of EU enlargement with the six countries of the Western Balkans has been going on for nine years now. Never has there been such a long pause from enlargement in the history of the Union. A similar freezing period lasted from 1986 – when Spain and Portugal joined – until 1995, when Sweden, Austria and Finland joined the club. But this freeze had more to do with the will of aspiring countries, not with the EU’s unpreparedness for enlargement. If we take into account that, at least, in the next five years no enlargement of the Union is expected, then this eclipse will be the longest in the history of European integration.
Although with the membership of the Baltic states, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, the EU created a strong belt against Russian influences, it has nevertheless left a vacuum in the Western Balkans. Serbia and Montenegro have started membership negotiations since 2012 and have not completed even a third of the 35 chapters. Northern Macedonia is expecting the start since 2009, and recently Albania too, but vetoes by EU members have prevented membership talks. Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are still potential candidates for membership, while Kosovo has not even received the promised visa liberalization.
This enlargement stalemate is good news only for Russia and China. The lack of a European perspective creates a good basis for destructive nationalists, who are nevertheless not allies of the West. According to the global organization Freedom House, from 2015, when the EU showed the first signs of fatigue from enlargement, until 2021 there is a sharp decline in the level of democracy in the Western Balkan countries. Only Kosovo has marked a slight increase. On the other hand, according to Transparency International, there is an increase in the corruption perception index in all countries, except for Northern Macedonia which has marked a slight decrease. In this regression of the Western Balkans, the general trade exchange did not help either, where the EU is far from China and Turkey as a partner. According to a report by the Center for European Reform – a think tank based in London, Brussels and Berlin – Russia has a small share in trade with Serbia, while with other countries the percentage is almost insignificant.
Diplomacy of masks and then vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic, however, portrays Russia and China as more friendly to some Balkan countries. This is particularly pronounced in Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina. According to a December report by BIEPAG, a joint initiative of the European Fund for the Balkans and the Center for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, 52% of public opinion in northern Macedonia thinks that Serbia has provided the most assistance to the country. during the pandemic, 16% think that the EU, 15% China and 11% said that Russia has been more supportive. Serbia has donated only 8,000 Sputnik V vaccines to northern Macedonia, while by September the country had received 275,000 vaccines and 220 million euros from the EU and $ 9.2 million from the US.
The BIEPAG report says that the opinion in Northern Macedonia sees the influence of Turkey in the region as more positive (49%), followed by the influence of the EU (41%), in third place is the influence of Russia (37%), the fourth US (36%), the fifth China (30%), and in sixth place that of Arab countries (16%).
A decline in sympathy for the West has also been shown in other credible measurements of public opinion. Thus, in the latest public opinion poll by the IRI, when asked which country helps Northern Macedonia the most, 21% said the EU, which represents a significant decline compared to 2018, when it was 27%. There is a decrease in the percentage of perception for the USA as a helper of the country, which in 2018 was 16%, and now it is 11%. Turkey, Germany and Russia have the smallest decrease, while the only one that has an increase is China, which in 2018 was 1% while now it has 3%.
The Russian and Chinese propaganda, with some tactical help during the pandemic, has made these two countries gain the sympathy of some of the peoples of the Balkans. The stalemate in the European integration process, which comes as a result of the EU’s fatigue from enlargement, will create an even greater space for Eastern influence.
By: Xhelal Neziri
Associate of The Geopost from Skopje