Michal SZCZERBA (Poland)

19 January 2023

The countries of the Western Balkans have made varied progress in economic and political transition. One of the region’s countries is now a member of the EU and four have acceded to NATO. But the region’s transition is incomplete and there are signs of backsliding which have alarmed NATO allies. Enlargement fatigue in the EU had previously dimmed the prospects for rapid integration of the region into the Union and reduced incentives in the region for making tough reforms and dealing with outstanding societal tensions in several countries. However, the failure to move forward empowered those who wanted to take the region along pathways that were less conducive to stability, democratic transition and good governance. 

Not coincidentally, Russian and Chinese influence in the region has grown in recent years. This, in turn, became a source of mounting concern both in Europe and the United States, and is one factor leading to a new resolve to help the region address a range of pressing issues that account for ongoing instability and political tensions. But some of these fractures − ethnic, national, sectarian and political − are deeply rooted and exploited by domestic and international political forces that do not share the integrationist and democratic agenda. 

Russia’s war in Ukraine adds a further source of concern. Russia has long seen the region as a point of vulnerability for the West and has undertaken to exploit the region’s fragilities for its own advantage. How the countries of the region view Russia reflects some of the deepest fissures in the region. It is an important energy supplier to Serbia and has never hesitated to exploit this for political and diplomatic gain. Now, enormous uncertainty clouds Russia’s future role in the region as a result of its brutal war on Ukraine and its people and because of powerful international sanctions against it. This could be a clarifying moment for the Western Balkans, but it is also a time of enormous risk and renewed tension.

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