Task Forces

07.03.2018.

Seeking Stability in Shifting Geopolitics

By Professor Konstantina E. Botsiou

The importance of geopolitics is not something new in the Western Balkans and, generally, in the Balkans. From a geopolitical point of view, the region is inseparably connected with power shifts that extend from there across the Mediterranean Sea and up to the Middle East. However, for many decades it has not been the main analytical tool for understanding this part of the world.

After the end of the Cold War and the break-up of Yugoslavia, the point of emphasis was ideology, especially resurgent nationalism. Ideology was considered to be the single most serious obstacle to stabilization. Therefore, war and the battle of identities allowed only for basic stability through a series of Interim Agreements that still define the region (Dayton Agreement in 1995, New York Interim Agreement for Greece and FYROM in 1995, UN Security Council Resolution 1244 in 1999, Ohrid Framework Agreement in 2001). After these contemporary arrangements, NATO and EU-enlargement to Slovenia (2004) and Croatia (2009/2013) was expected to create a positive spillover effect.

In any case, the Western Balkans ceased to be a priority for the West already at the turn of the century. Attention was shifted to more urgent strategic threats, mainly internationalist Islamic extremism. In the meantime, NATO and the European Union (EU) remained confident that, once rid of nationalism, the region would fall undisturbed into the arms of the West seeking growth and democracy.

20 years after the Kosovo War this is easier said than done: growth still tumbles, violence defeats democracy, corruption is rampant. Additionally, on a patchwork map, we observe various sorts of states and loyalties to the West: stable EU- and NATO members (Croatia, Slovenia), NATO-members only (Albania, Montenegro), prospective EU-members only (Serbia), autonomous entities (Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Republika Srpska) that may create potential candidates for EU-membership, partially recognized states functioning like protectorates (Kosovo), states with identity issues (FYROM).

This fragmented landscape is a magnet for broader geopolitical power games that have come back with a vengeance, unfrozen as they are now from the low temperatures of the Iron Curtain age. Russia has returned. Turkey reasserts itself. China is the “unexpected regional player”. Governments in the Western Balkans invite protection from individual EU member countries. It looks as if we travelled back to the future.

The mobilization of international diplomacy and, above all, of NATO and the EU seeks to put a break to this dangerous course. In this context, a unified EU voice is more critical than ever. For the Western Balkans have long been “Europe’s forgotten region”; overshadowed by other agendas (the Euro-project, Eastern enlargement, the economic crisis, the refugee crisis, more recently populism). For sure, the decision of the United Kingdom for “Brexit” was a wake-up call. But the strongest impulse was the American hands-on re-engagement in this and other strategic areas.

What can we expect?

There is no doubt that in the current regional negotiations about everything (borders, constitutions, identities, minorities, religions) the pivotal theme is Serbia and Kosovo. If this problem is not solved, we cannot really expect definitive and sustainable results in the rest of the negotiations. A marginalized Serbia with open issues in Kosovo -and Bosnia and Herzegovina- would be a “black hole” gravitating revisionist influences. This may render other Balkan countries, as well, vulnerable to destabilizing geopolitical proselytism.

Greece lies at the crossroads of three major interconnected tectonic plates: the Balkans, the Mediterranean Sea, the Middle East. As the only country in the Balkan peninsula with access to the Aegean Sea –except from Turkey’s access- she is traditionally cautious towards shifting geopolitics. Not unjustifiably so. In today’s context, she faces direct security pressure from Turkey in Cyprus and in the Aegean Sea as well as irredentist nationalism from FYROM and Albania. It is only natural for Greece to seek stability in alliances that have historically worked for her, notably, the USA, NATO and the EU, or can work from now on, like the cooperation with Israel and Egypt in the Eastern Mediterranean. Cyprus is an integral part of both old and new alliances.

Greece has every reason to support Euro-Atlantic enlargement in the Western Balkans in order to overcome her geopolitical loneliness in the region. Having an unbroken historical record of Western orientation, she also offers a familiar role model to her neighbors. Against all odds, Greece is a prominent success story of the West, a paradigm of how a geopolitically exposed and once poor country can achieve stability and growth through NATO- and EU-membership. Hence, the right way to stabilize the region as part of the West runs through the stability of Greece. It makes no sense to let Greece, the richest and strongest country in the Balkans, become unstable for the sake of an uncertain stabilization in neighboring countries.

The mutual respect of identities in the region is a precondition for viable settlements. Identities are central to geopolitics. As a matter of fact, identities created borders. This is a fundamentally geopolitical argument. It is also fundamental for understanding Greece’s insistence on the NATO decisions of April 2008 as the “national line” in the current negotiation with FYROM.[1] If we take local identities out of geopolitics, then we open a very dangerous revisionist chapter for Europe and the rest of the world.

The Euro-Atlantic perspective is a golden opportunity for the Western Balkans to thrive. Therefore, the most crucial parameter is the determination of the countries involved to emancipate themselves from historical distrust and oscillating loyalties. Better sooner than later.

There is a political clock to take into account. We must all keep in mind that the inclusion of the Western Balkans into a “whole Europe” is a long-term process full of twists and turns. The concept “stabilization through Westernization” and not vice versa as perhaps the right way should be, has been tried before by the European Union. Not always with success. But if it fails at this particular moment, geopolitics will not inspire voters in Western democracies.

Populists are longing for the next failure of their political elites to teach them a hard lesson. This would cost Europe a lot. But it would have a far higher cost for the Western Balkan countries themselves. It can still be avoided; if we apply geopolitics without compromising identities and values.


Konstantina E. Botsiou is Associate Professor of Modern History and International Politics at the University of the Peloponnese, Director of the Konstantinos Karamanlis Institute for Democracy and Foreign Policy Adviser to the President of the New Democracy Party.

This paper is based on the presentation made by Professor Konstantina E. Botsiou at the Panel discussion entitled “Geopolitics of the European Borderlands: The Western Balkans” on March 2, 2018 in the Delphi Economic Forum III: New Globalization and Growth Challenges (1-4 March 2018).

 


[1]     According to this, a solution acceptable to Greece for the open issues with FYROM should include a compound name with a geographical qualifier for FYROM which will be used in relation to everyone, both domestically and internationally (erga omnes) after a full and simultaneous –not partial or gradual- solution for all issues (name, constitution, nationality, language, a.o.).