Since the disintegration of the Ottoman State, the Balkan region is one of the most penetrated, divided, and unstable regions in the world. Therefore, the term Balkanization, which has a strong negative connotation, began to refer to the division of a larger region into many small and hostile political entities and the instability of the region as a result of many ethnic and religious movements and conflicts. Ironically, in today’s unstable world, the Balkans is relatively stable and peaceful, especially compared with the chaotic Middle East. However, the current peaceful atmosphere is quite vulnerable and fragile; it seems that historical hatred and enmity may restart anytime. Unfortunately, today there are many uncertainties in the Balkans and hence the region is at a new crossroads, not only at the domestic level, but also at the international level.
At the domestic level, the Balkan countries are in a longtime transitory period and so far, the regional countries could not complete this process. On the one hand, most of the countries in the region have not finished their state transformation and institutionalization processes as yet. They need to accelerate their respective reformist policies and complete their respective transition periods. In particular, legal changes are required to consolidate their state institutions. The most dramatic example is the complex political and administrative structure in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has never functioned well since its establishment by the Dayton Agreement. Due to the veto power of the three main ethnic groups, namely Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats, in the legislative and administrative institutions at different levels of government, it is almost impossible to make necessary decisions to govern the country. In order to get rid of the administrative deadlock, they must take confidence building measures and establish a functional state system.
On the other hand, the Balkan countries have many economic problems such as poverty, unemployment, underdevelopment, and emigration. There are too many structural economic problems, but they have too few resources to mobilize. Because of the high unemployment rate, most of the qualified population of the Balkan countries migrates to the developed European countries such as Italy, Germany, and Switzerland. As a result of many detrimental developments in social and political life including ethnic tensions, population problems, and unemployed youth, the future of the Balkan states is still ambiguous.
At the regional level, the Balkan countries have been experiencing many problems emanating from the dismemberment of the region during the modern period. The Balkans was politically divided twice: the first time (the collapse of the Ottoman State) was in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, and the second (the collapse of Yugoslavia) was in the late 20thcentury. After the disintegration of Yugoslavia, national and ethnic enmities were renewed and quickly resulted in severe violent clashes, mass killings, including the genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
A number of regional issues have remained unsolved and the initiated solution processes were stopped. One of the main regional crises is the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo. The EU stipulates the normalization with Kosovo as a precondition of Serbia’s accession to the Union. Unless it recognizes the state of Kosovo, it is impossible for Serbia to become a full member of the EU. However, for the moment, there is no concrete improvement in the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue process.
In spite of the continuance of negative relations among some regional actors, there are some positive developments as well. The solution of the Macedonian name dispute in 2018 was a historical moment for the region, because it demonstrated that the regional states have an intention to solve political problems and provide alternative solutions.
At the global level, the Balkan region continues to attract many global powers such as the U.S., the EU, China, and Russia. Each global power has its own strategy and perception of the region. The most involved global actor is the EU, who wants to integrate the region with itself and thus bring stability and peace to this contiguous region. Therefore, after the regional stability was secured with the support of the global powers, most Balkan countries began to develop cooperative relations with the EU and its leading member states, because the first priority and strategic preference of most Balkan countries is the integration with the EU. Their expectations from the EU membership are economic prosperity and the prevention of future regional clashes.
On the other hand, the U.S. has been trying to integrate the Balkan countries with NATO, thus decreasing the influence of other global powers. Besides Greece which became a member in 1952, six Balkan countries, namely Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Croatia, Slovenia, and Montenegro, have also more recently become NATO members. Some other countries such as North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina are in the accession process. NATO membership, together with the EU membership, is the most important positive agenda of the Balkan countries.
Russia has had an imaginary vision and historical patronage over the Balkans since the second half of the 19thcentury. Religious, ethnic, and linguistic affinity was the main motivation for Russia to improve its relations with the region, which was an alternative route for reaching the warm seas. However, nowadays Russia faces challenges from the Western countries, who have taken the lead in the region. The integration process with both the EU and NATO limited the Russian influence in the Balkans. Furthermore, Russia has insufficient resources to solve the domestic political and economic problems of the regional countries.
Another global power that has begun to show up in the region is China. The Chinese presence in the Balkans is mainly in the economic sphere, especially its investments in infrastructure and energy sectors. Compared with the other three global actors, the Chinese role in the region is quite limited. The Balkans is almost at the heart of the European continent; therefore, it is very difficult for China to influence regional politics as much as the Western countries. However, since the Balkans is a penetrated region, the impact of global rivalry is very noticeable in the region. The conflictual policies of global powers may activate the dormant regional fault lines and trigger the renewal of ethnic and religious conflicts.
This new issue of Insight Turkey brings to the readers various manuscripts which touch upon domestic and regional issues and the impact of the external actors, i.e. EU, NATO, Russia, China, and Turkey, in the Balkans.
As mentioned above, the normalization of the relations between Kosovo and Serbia are crucial for the region as it may prove to be a regional destabilizer in the future. This issue gained more attention after the discussions on a possible territorial exchange between the two states. Aleksander Zdravkovskiand Sabrina P. Ramet discuss this topic through historical and political lenses and contend that this process can have serious repercussions, both in the Western Balkans and internationally. The name dispute between North Macedonia and Greece is another important topic that impacts the whole Balkans region. In their commentaries, Cvete Koneska and Zhidas Daskalovski bring different perspectives on this issue, yet both of them raise questions regarding the success of the agreement.
Albania is one of the most important states in the region and in recent years has been suffering from political turmoil and economic downturn which can very easily be translated into regional instability. Isa Blumi in his article analyses the role of the U.S., NATO, and the EU in the Albanian slide and cautions that the current situation may turn violent. Croatia, another important state in the Balkans considering its experience with the EU, is at the center of Senada Šelo Šabić and Emir Suljagić’s articles. Croatia joined the EU in 2013 and this was considered an important step for all the Western Balkans because Croatia would serve as an example for their accession. However, Senada Šelo Šabić contends that Croatia’s experience of the EU accession and membership is only partially relevant for the Western Balkans’ EU enlargement, mainly due to its domestic issues. Emir Suljagić, on the other hand, focuses on the Croatian interference in Bosnia and Hercegovina and brings to the readers a new viewpoint in terms of the “otherization” of Bosnia’s Muslim population. In order to explain this, Suljagić uses the notion of antemurale Christianitatis, which has been visible in Croatian politics since the 15th century.
The external interventions have never been missing in the Balkans. Especially since the dissolution of Yugoslavia, transatlantic relations have become crucial for the region. In this context, Oya Dursun-Özkanca’s article argues that NATO accession acts as a prelude to the eventual EU accession, ensuring that the countries stay the course of engaging in reforms and contributing to Euro-Atlantic security while confirming their commitment to democracy.
Yet, in recent years, other actors –Russia, China, and Turkey– have started to play an important role in the region, both politically and economically. While a withdrawal of Russia came to the fore after the fall of communism in the Balkans, lately it is trying to regain position in the region. Vsevolod Samokhvalov in his article argues that Russia and the Balkans states are exploring new ways of cooperation considering that Russia is applying a more assertive foreign policy, while the Balkan states are being more pragmatic. China is not lagging behind Russia in the Balkans; yet it is following a different path from Russia as China is acting generally on economic grounds. Within this framework, Liu Zuokui analyses China’s investments in the Balkans and its impact in the region.
Lastly, Turkey is one of the main countries whose role in the region is increasing day by day. The commentary of Mehmet Uğur Ekinci provides a comprehensive analysis of Turkey’s Balkans policy; while Ilya Roubanis discusses Turkey’s role in the Balkans as part of the broader narrative of European integration. Yet, Turkey’s policies in the Balkans have not been unchallenged by other powers. The EU and especially Germany have started to see Turkey as an emerging threat in the region, especially in terms of economy. Elif Nuroğlu and Hüseyin H. Nuroğlu focus exactly on this issue and argue that even while currently the commercial competition between Turkey and Germany in the Balkans is not serious; in the forthcoming years Turkey has the potential to be a serious competitor to Germany.
Religion is an important aspect of Turkey’s foreign policy; yet, this is true for Saudi Arabia as well. Focusing on the case of Bulgaria, Ismail Numan Telci and Aydzhan Yordanova Peneva evaluate the activities of Turkey and Saudi Arabia in the religious sphere. By doing so, the article explains the motivations behind such actions and addresses the impact of this activism on the Bulgarian society. The last article of this issue is that of Muhidin Mulalic, where he evaluates the trilateral relations between Turkey, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina and concludes that this tripartite diplomatic relation has been quite successful and has resulted in successful economic and trade cooperation.
To conclude, the Balkans once considered as a powder keg is currently in a state of relative stability. Yet, this stability to some extent is threatened by the internal domestic and regional issues. Concurrently, the Balkans strategic position attracts external powers to intervene in the regional affairs. All this considered, the Balkan states find themselves at a crossroads and consequently are trying to create a balance between their domestic, regional, and international affairs. This issue of Insight Turkey aims at analyzing the above mentioned issues and provide to its readers a general framework of the most important and current events in the Balkans.