Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Great players around the Gunpowder Barrel

Author: Sefer Selimi Jr.

The Balkan Peninsula along historical developments has served as a neuralgic node of geopolitical conflicts with competing ideologies at times manifested through governing political systems, culture, religion, and even direct military clashes. Being a region deeply divided between different ethnicities which feed unhostile relations against one another, a situation or a process known as the Balkanization, external actors do not hesitate to light the Gunpowder Barrel to advance their positions at the tables where major games of global politics are played.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, which was the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union and the 50-year Cold War, in the Balkan began the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia, a decade full of genocide, massacres and human tragedy. Today’s map of the Balkans still creates tensions, uncertainties and old animosities are pressed by the vision and commitment for a common European future. In fact, this is the main alternative that has been prioritized by all countries as national strategies, some of which, like Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania and Slovenia, have joined the EU earlier or later. The part that is left, or as now it is referred to, as the Western Balkan States (WBS)  continue the path of integration, full of obstacles.

This situation leaves a vacuum and a pathway for third parties, outside the strategic determinations of US governments and citizen support, to intervene through a combination of conventional and unconventional tools to sabotage the road to Euro-Atlantic integration, in particular NATO accession. Who are the big players around the Gunpowder Barrel?

European Union and US – Beyond the recent agitation for economic policies between the Trump administration, the European Union and the ongoing Brexit, this alliance is firmly rooted in democratic values, the rule of law and the principle of a free market. Along this line, there is an unwavering consensus among Western allies as to what their commitment to the region is and how WBS should be developed. With widespread citizen support and strategic determination, WBS governments are in the process of reforming to meet the required standards and ensuring full membership in the European Union and NATO. Ongoing economic assistance in infrastructure regulation, building of strong democratic, transparent and accountable institutions, independence of the judiciary and rule of law, strong market economy, vibrant civil society, professional citizen-controlled army, active citizens and strengthening democratic values ​​are generally high on the US and EU agenda. Therefore, the support of the citizens for integration in these institutions quotes over 80%.

Russia – The global bipolar Cold War faded in the early 1990s, and liberal-led US democracy appeared to triumph over other systems of Government. Strengthed Russia in the post-privatization period, with powerful oligarchs in direct relations with Putin’s government, restores the race for global influence. Of course that Balkans have been at the forefront of Russian influence, and the roots of its influence are historical, mainly through the pan-Slavic and pan-Orthodox line that uses cultural, religious and historical elements to create local actors for support. Apart from diplomacy, as is the case with Serbia’s support for Kosovo’s independence, and Dodik’s support in Bosnia and Herzegovina with military donations and support for his demand for greater autonomy (sometimes for full secession), the Russian Government also uses investment in the energy market, attempting to establish a monopole mainly on natural gas supply. Adding to this the sophistication of hybrid interventions through classical misinformation and fake news on social media from the Russian Government-linked media, this intervention actively undermines US governments in the path of integration, especially in NATO. This influence does not have as aim the prosperity of the region and mainly serves Russian interests in having a region that is always ready to break out into new conflicts, with weak institutions and easily corrupted leaders. All of this investment is intended to enhance Russia’s role in international relations through its destructive role, which unfortunately often finds local supporters who echo pro-Russian narratives and target Western values ​​that are supported from majority of citizens

China – China’s role in international relations has been largely focused on its geographical pole. Under the leadership of Xi Jinping and with the economic strengthening of recent decades, China’s role and its appetite for global influence have grown significantly. The multi-billion dollar initiative to build the ‘New Silk Road’ project aims to secure the market for Chinese products and boost global trade, but in itself, it aims to strengthen China’s position for global dominance. Excluding Kosovo alone, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s initiative, known as CEEC 16 + 1, aims to deepen cooperation between China and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe in the field of trade and infrastructure. It is through such initiatives that the Chinese Government provides loans for the construction of road, rail, water and air support infrastructure that are part of the Silk Road construction project. But, the problem of these loans lies in the high interest rates, the lack of barriers to their misuse by the local authorities and is termed as a debt trap. Although in the Balkans, almost all countries are users of Chinese loans, Montenegro is mostly at risk of debt dependency, while the most scandalous case was the construction of highways in Northern Macedonia, for which a lawsuit for corruption has been opened against the former Prime Minister Gruevski and the former Minister of Transport, Janakievski. As in the case of North Macedonia, these loans are tempting for Balkan leaders who, for electoral effects, want to develop infrastructure quickly and at the same time being significantly less regulated than the World Bank or EBRD loans for example, which are easier to be misused. Chinese economic influence is increasing and except the economic impact it is gradually increasing the cultural and academic exchanges. The problem here lies in promoting the Chinese model of Government, which is in fact a communist dictatorship with capitalist economies and values ​​that the system promotes. In future, we are expecting the clash between the Western States, in particular the US and China, which is expected to increase, especially in the race of contemporary communication technology.

Turkey – As a descendant of the Ottoman Empire that has occupied the region for five centuries, its connection to the Balkans is historic. The current President Erdogan and his Government are investing heavily to increase their influence and the Turkish presence is becoming stronger, especially in the Western Balkans States. Turkey’s influence comes in all forms, both through public democracy and through economic and infrastructure investment. It promotes Turkish culture by focusing primarily on the concept known as Neo-Ottomanism, which aims to change the perception of citizens about the Ottoman invaders and to re-establish the strings of dependence of the local politicians and actors towards her. TIKA, the Turkish co-operation and co-ordination agency, is the main instrument in the revival and conservation of objects, cultural heritage from the Ottoman-era. It also invests in the rebuilding of old mosques and the construction of new ones, using in this form the religious element especially in regions where are citizens of the Islamic faith. The Turkish state also has an influence through its own media, which is present in various forms in all Balkan countries, while the main influence comes from elementary schools to university studies and numerous academic exchanges. This influence was most noticeable after failed coup in 2016 and the open clash between Erdogan and cleric Gülen, exerting open pressure, even in threatening tones on political leaders for the handover of members of the Hizmet movement. This impact could have consequences if the clash between the Western states and President Erdogan escalates, who using the failure of the coup as a cause, to usurp all the powers by enhancing the powers of the President, strangled democracy and transformed Turkey in a state with hybrid dictatorship.

Except the aforementioned actors, the Persian Gulf States have also their own influence, especially the United Arab Emirates, who except the economic investments they promote the Wahhabism as a form of practicing Islam for over 20 years, radicalizing believers through humanitarian organizations and religious preachers educated in Arab countries.

Finally, the Balkans seem to be receiving the proper attention from the European Union and the US, while its western space is left out of these institutions it will always be the target of third forces to ignite the Gunpowder Barrel whenever it needs fire in order to cover a fire elsewhere.

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