Closed-skies diplomacy: What the Western Balkans can do for the EU

The still-incomplete web of allies and institutions that the EU has woven in the Balkans in the last 30 years is not only strong but also valuable to its geopolitical struggle against Russia

Image by Papas Dos

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did not go to Belgrade on 6 June. Ordinarily, this would not be news: after all, Lavrov does not go to Belgrade on most days. But, on that particular date, he wanted to go and several small nations in the Balkans prevented him from making the trip, by announcing that they would close their skies to the aircraft he would be on. Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Bulgaria – acting in line with EU and US sanctions – showed that they could stop the foreign minister of mighty Russia from coming to their region. So, Lavrov stayed in Moscow.

The closure of Balkans skies to Lavrov demonstrates how sanctions can damage Russia’s influence. It also shows that the still-incomplete web of allies and institutions that the European Union has woven in the Balkans in the last 30 years is not only strong but also valuable to its geopolitical struggle against Russia. For decades, policymakers in the EU and the Balkans have been asking what the union can do for countries in the region. While their solutions have never been fully satisfying, the effort has done much to create stability and to partially integrate many states into the EU and NATO. With a war raging in Ukraine, it is now time to ask: what can the Balkans do for the EU?

The answer is: more than either the EU or Western Balkans leaders seem to acknowledge. The message to Kremlin from the airspace closure is that its allies in the Balkans are surrounded by EU and NATO member states that, despite their small size, are willing and able to stand up to Russia. This is a foretaste of the difficulties that an increasingly isolated Russia will face in imposing its narrative and presence in the Balkans, where it has traditionally worked to undermine Western interests. The cancellation of Lavrov’s trip to Serbia has also laid bare to the world that, despite its desire for international status rivalling that of the United States, Russia cannot accomplish the simple task of sending its representatives to meet friendly leaders such President Aleksandar Vucic in Serbia and Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Hungary.

The “politics of prestige”, in the words of German-American political scientist Hans Morgenthau, is important to any major or aspiring power. States that face isolation or decline are particularly attracted to displays of prestige. This is partly why Moscow engages in prestige politics with unrivalled vigour. Even prior to its brutal invasion of Ukraine, Russia went out of its way to demonstrate its great power status, mark its sphere of influence, and use its narrative of strength to try to push NATO and the EU out of contested areas. Where possible, Russia sought to weaken Europeans in the Western Balkans and to use the region to demonstrate that the EU was incapable of stabilising and controlling countries in its neighbourhood. It was often able to do so successfully because of the absence of pushback from the EU.

It is now up to Scholz to demonstrate that, in stark contrast to Lavrov, he can show up and help resolve regional disputes

The airspace closure not only undermined Russia’s capacity to demonstrate its prestige but also highlighted the value of the Western Balkans to the EU at this critical geopolitical moment.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s 10 June trip to the region will see him visit Pristina, Belgrade, Skopje, and Sofia. His ambition is to help resolve the dispute between North Macedonia and Bulgaria – to revive the enlargement process in the region in the run-up to the European Council meeting on 23-24 June. The absence of a credible enlargement perspective for these countries has created an opening for Moscow in the past.

It is now up to Scholz to demonstrate that, in stark contrast to Lavrov, he can show up and use Germany’s leverage to help resolve regional disputes.

Completing the web

While Russia is hamstrung by its own overreach in Ukraine, the EU needs to build on the foundation created by its long-running efforts at stabilisation and integration in the Western Balkans. EU leaders are widely expected to use the European Council meeting on 23-24 June to clarify the prospects for EU membership of Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership countries. It remains to be seen whether Western Balkans states have a realistic chance of continuing their negotiations with the EU. Faced with recent candidacy applications from Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova – and with Western Balkans states already in the waiting room – the EU seems overwhelmed.

Nearing the end of their EU presidency, the French are scrambling to breathe life into President Emmanuel Macron’s alternative idea of political community – a concept that only a few officials besides him seem to understand. The Czech Republic, next in line for the EU presidency, has informally hinted that Ukraine and the other Eastern Partnership countries are its priorities, implicitly pushing the Western Balkans to the back of the queue. More generally, EU member states appear divided over whether to prioritise Ukraine or Western Balkans states – or neither.

European leaders should learn from Lavrov’s humiliation at the hands of two small non-EU countries in the Western Balkans that there are not only dangers but also opportunities in the region. The EU has many advantages over Russia in the Western Balkans – for reasons of geographical proximity, strong economic and cultural ties, and the geopolitical orientation of most countries there.

If European leaders are to make the most of these advantages, they will first need to have a clear idea of their aims in the region. It will be important to restore the credibility of the enlargement process. But enlargement is not the only – or even the main – tool for countering Russian (or Chinese) influence in the Western Balkans. The EU requires the kind of robust foreign policy and assertive diplomacy that, until now, only the US has consistently engaged in there. And it will need to focus on improving the resilience of local democratic institutions – for which the enlargement process has always been critical, albeit only in combination with other sorts of leverage that have often come from the US. By combining enlargement with robust diplomacy, the EU could demonstrate its own power and Russia’s weakness, and could promote stability in a restive region.

In the run-up to the June European Council meeting, member states seem to have entirely lost these core tasks in the maze of their political disagreements with one another. They are now in an unseemly rush to legitimise the EU’s lack of courage to proceed with the enlargement process – as exemplified by Macron’s proposal for a political community. The cancellation of Lavrov’s trip is a relatively minor incident, but it symbolises what it is at stake for the EU in the Western Balkans and the enormous opportunities the region provides in the struggle against Russia.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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Senior Policy Fellow

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