The battle for the Western Balkans, Eastern Europe and the future of the EU

6 July, 2021

Tirana, Albania. Albania is the only non-exYugoslav republic of what EU categorizes as Western Balkans.
Tirana, Albania. Albania is the only non-exYugoslav republic of what EU categorizes as Western Balkans.

Today’s news alone makes it clear that the EU is coming apart at the seams in the East… both among its members and with those aspiring countries in the Western Balkans. Tensions from which China, Turkey and Russia are far from being alien. But France and Germany are looking for more than just public works markets. They seek to create a low-wage region in order to shorten their production chains, increase margins and become less dependent on Asia.

Table of Contents

A day in the East and the Balkans

Vuran, Turkish armored personnel carrier model exported to Kosovo and Albania as part of Turkey's growing presence in the Western Balkans
Vuran, Turkish armored personnel carrier model exported to Kosovo and Albania as part of Turkey’s growing presence in the Western Balkans

A report appeared throughout the European press yesterday that Donald Tusk, former president of the European Council and president of the EPP, was making a surprise return to the Polish political fray after being elected leader of the main opposition party. The move, blessed by Paris and Berlin was unanimously interpreted as part of a new attempt to discipline the government in Warsaw within the perspective of Brussels.

On the other hand, Turkey – which is increasingly influential in Albania – has made its presence felt in the Bulgarian election campaign, supporting the opposition leader. It is no coincidence that it is doing so on the same day that Erdogan reaffirms that he will go back to business as usual and send his fleet to search for hydrocarbons in legally Greek waters. Turkey plays its cards by trying to isolate and pit the Athens government against its neighbors, which are certainly not starting from an idyllic relationship.

In fact, Turkey is feeding with all kinds of military equipment the accelerated arming of Albania and Kosovo, thus staking out territory against Greece, Serbia and Russia. A signal that is reaffirmed by the Anatolian 21 maneuvers, the only NATO maneuvers in which there is only one other NATO partner taking part…. Albania. Kosovo will also be there as an observer. The rest of the participants are a summary of Turkish imperialist alliances: Azerbaijan, Qatar the other major funder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan.

Because on the other hand, Serbia has increased its military budget by 40% and gone on a shopping spree with Russia, with whom it shares increasing intelligence… and commercial interests. Next week, the free trade agreement opened by Belgrade with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and its members: Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan will come into force. It is not Russia’s only pivot in the region nor its only target, Russia is also playing hard — and in a rather dirty way — in Bulgaria.

That is, the East and the Balkans have become a breakwater for the imperialist games and tensions of France, Germany, Russia and Turkey, always or almost always with Brussels in between. But to understand this better we need to zoom in on the various domestic interest groups and the EU’s twists and turns and positioning in the region over the past three years.

The fractal map of the EU’s East

Map of the group of 16 European countries holding summits collectively with China. This year Lithuania has left the mechanism, but the historical and geographical divide remains clear: Baltics, Visegrad and Western Balkans form distinct European regions with capitals with characteristic objectives and confrontations.
Map of the group of 16 European countries holding summits collectively with China. This year Lithuania has left the mechanism, but the historical and geographical divide remains clear: Baltics, Visegrad and Western Balkans form distinct European regions with capitals with characteristic objectives and confrontations.

The creation of the 16+1 Group by China clearly marked an internal border in Europe separating the countries that joined the EU before the collapse of the Russian bloc in 1989 from those that joined during the successive enlargements or are still waiting to join the European single market.

Within this group there would still be subgroups with their own rationales. In the North the Baltic countries, in permanent struggle with Russia from which they became independent in the 1990s and which still maintain significant pockets of non-citizens (almost 30% in Estonia), i.e. people born in the country, often to parents also native-born, who are denied various levels of civil rights for not being of the correct ethnicity.

Secondly the Visegrad group (Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic) , with complex relations with Russia – sometimes explosive– and in a constant tug-of-war with Brussels on account of the definition of the rule of law for some years now, a debate hypocritically then extended to the abortion ban in Poland and recently to the banning of sensitization against homophobia in schools in Hungary (forgetting the silence for years regarding the policies of Ireland, Cyprus, Malta and more than one German länder among others)

And finally the Balkans, themselves divided politically into at least two groups: Bulgaria on the one hand and on the other the so-called Western Balkans, which, leaving out Slovenia and Croatia, include Albania and the rest of the countries resulting from the Yugoslav wars 30 years ago (Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo).

The Western Balkans, weak flank of the EU

Campaign closure of the Social Democratic candidate in North Macedonia.
Campaign closure of the Social Democratic candidate in North Macedonia.

In October 2019 France, then in one of its battles against Germany, blocked the EU accession of North Macedonia and Albania. Juncker, then president of the Commission, called closing the door to the Western Balkans a great historic mistake and Tsipras, still Greek prime minister, was even more blunt.

Brussels set to work at full speed on a new regulation with more defined accession mechanisms that would satisfy a France that had actually criticized them only in order to throw a stick in the German wheel.

When in May 2020, at the height of the pandemic, the summit between the EU and the countries of the Western Balkans (Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Bosnia, North Macedonia and Albania) took place, the message was bleak for the pro-EU factions of the various national bourgeoisies: no rapid integration, but demands for less proximity to China, Russia and Turkey…. Immediately pro-Russian tendencies throughout the region strengthened and even in North Macedonia, Europeanism had to sustain itself on Muslim-based parties, funded and long supported by Turkey.

Meanwhile, the EU was trying to reconcile a Serbia increasingly close to Russia and a Kosovo straddling the US and Turkey. The goal was to gain the space abandoned by the US to its zone of influence. But with no possibility of promising rapid integration into the EU, the longed-for recognition came to nothing.

And as if there were few imperialist interests already present in the Western Balkans…. China has just used pandemic diplomacy to gain positions in regional infrastructure development. So in October the EU hastily organized a €9 billion fund to counter it and secure public works contracts… but it doesn’t seem to be yielding the results Brussels wanted, either

As the Albanian prime minister stated a few weeks ago in an interview on Euronews:

By not fully integrating into the European Union, the Western Balkans remain a gray zone that offers attractiveness and also opportunities to other actors

Biden, the EU, and the future of the Western Balkans

The Serbian president at the presentation of the project of a factory of the German company Bizerba (weighing and labeling tools) in Valjevo
The Serbian president at the presentation of the project of a factory of the German company Bizerba (weighing and labeling tools) in Valjevo

For European imperialist interests only a light has been opened when Biden, at his first EU summit, called on the European Council for a forceful and coordinated strategy with the US in the Western Balkans.

The inevitable question is why the Western Balkans elicit so much effort, funds and yearning among the European imperialist powers. A few public works contracts wrested from the Chinese or Turkish and a few billions in arms sales justify an intervention that is becoming increasingly dangerous only a few hundred kilometers from Athens, Bucharest, Vienna or Rome

The answer in general is yes. European imperialist interests have never been known for their squeamishness at the prospect of billions in infrastructure and arms contracts. But this time there is more to it.

The increase in imperialist rivalries with China and the generalization of supply problems in the long logistics chains created during the 1990s and 2000s is prompting the EU, with the US, to be the first to push for a new international organization of labor.

Brussels wants to shorten production chains and place low value-added segments, i.e. low-wage industrial production in regions within range of decarbonized transport (Green Deal rules) towards the large factories in the fertile crescent linking Northern Italy with Belgium and the Netherlands via France and Germany.

The energy constraints reduce the possible regions to become the European China to two: the Maghreb and the Western Balkans. That is, the imperialist goal, as almost always, is not reduced to markets and contracts, but to the possibility of making investments subaltern to their own production and domestic markets in a safe zone and with low wages ensuring their profitability.

In the end when we scratch at any manifestation of capitalism, including the diplomatic dances between blocs and countries, apparently sophisticated and complex, the most basic always appears: capital as a form of exploitation of labor. Now, once again, shaping the map of Europe.