"This is our Backyard!" (II)

Observers see the EU’s influence waning in non-EU countries of Southeastern Europe. Think tanks headquartered in Berlin propose sanctions for “kleptocracy” against the countries of the region.

BERLIN/SKOPJE/BELGRADE (Own report) - The EU should add "kleptocracy" to its sanctions regime and extend the sanctions’ provisions to the Western Balkans. This is being proposed by the Berlin-based think tank, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), in answer to the EU's waning leverage in Southeast Europe. For instance, observers rate the recent resignation of North Macedonia's Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev, as a serious setback for Brussels. Zaev had made considerable concessions to be admitted to the list of candidates for EU accession negotiations, but had been ignored by the EU. Observers diagnose further setbacks in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the CSU politician Christian Schmidt has been installed as the - non-elected - High Representative endowed with extensive powers, and in Serbia, where opinion polls indicate overwhelming approval for close cooperation with Russia and China, accompanied by a very critical opinion toward the EU.


The resignation of North Macedonia's Prime Minister Zoran Zaev is seen as a serious setback for the EU in the non-EU countries of Southeast Europe. In 2019, Zaev had managed to rename his country, against strong opposition and with the aid of dubious political maneuvering, to North Macedonia. (german-foreign-policy.com reported.[1]) At the time, he justified the change of name with his efforts to open EU accession negotiations. Brussels showed no appreciation, and is still rejecting Skopje's aspired accession negotiations.[2] Observers largely attribute Zaev's party's heavy defeat in the recent municipal elections to the EU's having forsaken him, as well as to his having failed to accomplish his primary political objective. Zaev's resignation, in the aftermath of his party's electoral defeat, is seen as a momentous signal. Not only will "every future head of state in Skopje think twice and even three times about whether it makes sense to take the demands and reform expectations of an EU seriously, whose promises of membership have become hollow," writes one correspondent. Zaev may have been "the last head of state in the region, for quite some time, who was prepared to take significant political risks" in favor of the EU.[3]

Not Democratically Elected

The EU is also facing setbacks in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where, more than a quarter of a century after the war ended, EU troops ("Operation Althea") are still stationed. A High Representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina, endowed with extensive powers is still residing in Sarajevo - since August 1, the CSU politician Christian Schmid. In the UN Security Council, Russia is growing increasingly unwilling to reapprove the "Althea" mandate, arguing in particular, that it is unacceptable that Bosnia-Herzegovina is permanently submitted to the control of a non-democratically elected representative of foreign powers. The political and economic situations are desolate, corruption and poverty are nourishing discontent. The Bosnian Serbs, in particular, are putting into question the status quo. Since some time, observers have been warning of secessionist objectives. In such a situation, Schmidt's predecessor, Valentin Inzko, used his mandate in July 2021, to impose a law that penalizes the denial of the Srebrenica massacre. This had further exacerbated tensions. Milorad Dodik, arguably the most influential Bosnian Serb politician, recently announced the retrieval of authority from Sarajevo back to the Republika Serbska.[4] Observers fear escalation.

Serbia's Allies

Other setbacks are reported from Serbia, where Russia and China have provided support in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic - especially through the delivery of vaccines [5] - which has led to both countries' growth in popularity. In an opinion poll taken last summer, by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) - in part, to assess respective experiences in fighting the pandemic - 72 percent of responding Serbs considered that China’s political system works "well," or even "very well." In respect to Russia, it was 64 percent to the EU, only 46 percent, and to the USA only 36 percent.[6] Fifty-four percent of the respondents consider Russia, and 47 percent, China, to truly be "allies" of their country, as opposed to only 11 percent for the EU and a mere 6 percent for the USA. If one adds those you rate Russia and China as "necessary partners," the results are a vast majority of 95 and 91 percent respectively.

"Anti-Western Narratives"

The Berlin-based EU-oriented think tank ECFR views with apprehension, the fact that Serbia seeks to expand its influence in Southeast Europe. This is said to be happening with the aid of Serbian-speaking minorities in neighboring countries, where Belgrade has strong influence. In July, Serbia's interior minister Aleksandar Vulin was quoted to have said "the task of this generation of politicians is to create the Serbian world, that is, to unite Serbs wherever they live."[7] This was primarily in reference to Serb minorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. At the same time, the Serb government is relying on Serbian media's influence in neighboring countries, according to the ECFR. For example, recently Telekom Srbija secured the soccer broadcasting rights for the popular British Premier League and will broadcast their games on Arena Sport, a regional channel that can be received in all non-EU countries in Southeastern Europe. Critics see a political strategy behind this: The government in Belgrade seeks to expand the Serbian media's influence in the neighboring countries to disseminate its "anti-western narratives."[8] This corresponds to the country’s growing ties to China and Russia.

The Offence: "Kleptocracy"

To prevent further loss of EU influence in the six non-EU Southeastern European countries, a recent paper by the ECFR proposes several measures. The EU could, for example, propose "access to the single market," thereby permanently binding them economically into a European orbit, of course without them having any participation in decision-making.[9] Another proposal is if Western Balkans states join the European Defense Union (EDU), they will be able to take part in PESCO projects. This is aimed at also being able to call on these armed forces for EU military missions. ECFR also makes a plea for the European Prosecutor's Office to conduct cross-border investigations jointly with Southeast European authorities and to dispatch the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) into these countries. Last, but not least, the think tank proposes that the "European Magnitsky Act" [10] sanctions regime adopted about a year ago, add "kleptocracy" to its list of offences and extend the act's provisions to the Western Balkans. This would significantly increase the EU's leverage in the region. This is what Latvia's Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš had meant, when he declared "This is our backyard."[11]


[1] See also NATO's Thirtieth Member .

[2] See also Bulgariens "mazedonische Frage".

[3] Michael Martens: Der Mann, der alles auf die EU gesetzt hatte. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 02.11.2021.

[4] Michael Martens: Russische Ränkespiele. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 03.11.2021.

[5] See also Strategic Rivalry over Eastern and Southeastern Europe and Die Impfstoffdiplomatie der EU.

[6] Joanna Hosa, Vessela Tcherneva: Pandemic trends: Serbia looks east, Ukraine looks west. ecfr.eu 05.08.2021.

[7] Vessela Tcherneva: Western Balkans in trouble: Why the EU should make a new offer to the region. ecfr.eu 11.11.2021.

[8] Marko Milosavljevič: Game on for the Premier League in Serbia? euractiv.com 08.07.2021.

[9] Vessela Tcherneva: Western Balkans in trouble: Why the EU should make a new offer to the region. ecfr.eu 11.11.2021.

[10] See also The Global Judges (II)

[11] See also "This is Our Backyard!"