“In the Balkans the transition is over,” Remzi Lani, an Albanian political analyst, told me some time ago. But unlike in many post-Communist countries, Mr. Lani didn’t mean a transformation from dictatorship to democracy. “We transitioned from repressive to depressive regimes.” He is right. The old Communists and radical ethnic nationalists are largely gone; in their places is stagnation — economic, social and political.
The question now is how these depressive regimes fit into a growing geopolitical rivalry.
A day before his recent visit to Belgrade, Serbia, President Vladimir Putin of Russia expressed his great displeasure with Macedonia’s name change and accused “the United States and certain Western countries” of “destabilizing” the region; the Russian foreign minister, meanwhile, denounced “the willingness of the United States to lead all Balkan states into NATO as soon as possible and to remove any Russian influence in this region.” Russia wants to make clear that this is not what the people in the region want.
Watching Mr. Putin’s visit to Belgrade and listening to his rhetoric, one couldn’t help but conclude that the confrontation in the Balkans between the West and Russia is changing both in nature and intensity. In the last decade, Russia was actively defending its economic and cultural presence in the region, but it never openly challenged NATO or European Union hegemony. Not anymore.
At first glance, Russia’s ambitions seem unrealistic. The Balkans remain firmly entrenched in the West: Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Albania and Montenegro are all NATO members and Macedonia is on its way. Every country in the region is either a member of the European Union or aspires to join it. The European Union is far and away the region’s top trading partner, its biggest investor and the preferred destination for emigration. The conventional wisdom is that Russia might be a troublemaker but could hardly be more.
The conventional wisdom could be wrong. Moscow has sensed a critical vulnerability in the West’s position in the Balkans: While in places like Ukraine the European Union has been perceived as a symbol of change, in the Balkans it’s seen as the defender of a status quo that may be ready for disruption. [Continue reading…]