Western Balkans: Seizing Opportunities, Expanding Influence and Fending Off Dangers


Why EU-integration? Why should the Western Balkans, a region where criminal networks have been gaining ground and corrupt elites have systematically captured state institutions for the benefit of their own criminal business models, enter the EU? Why, when human rights are trampled upon in the region, with manifestations of nationalist radicalization overall?

One can hear these questions repeatedly in the political discourse.


Western Balkans: Seizing Opportunities, Expanding Influence and Fending Off Dangers

Why EU-integration? Why should the Western Balkans, a region where criminal networks have been gaining ground and corrupt elites have systematically captured state institutions for the benefit of their own criminal business models, enter the EU? Why, when human rights are trampled upon in the region, with manifestations of nationalist radicalization overall?

One can hear these questions repeatedly in the political discourse.

The answer is: precisely due to the fact that Western Balkan countries have become areas of legal vacuum. Precisely due to the fact that individual rights have been abrogated here and that corrupt clans are thwarting fundamental reform processes, is a clear EU perspective and a defense of European values urgently advisable in the region.

Non-integration would generate far greater costs, for Germany, but also for the EU overall. After all, illiberal stakeholders like Turkey, Russia and Saudi Arabia are already using the resulting maneuver space to strengthen their influence.

In order to support, or rather liberate, reformist forces in the Western Balkans and maintain dynamics in favor of the rule of law and democratization, negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania must be urgently started. The upcoming EU Summit will show whether all EU member states have comprehended the urgency to do so.

Should the Balkan countries once again remain without concrete promises, the threat of a downward spiral looms, which would result in lasting impediments to reform processes – a scenario clearly contrary to European security interests.

State institutions are left at the mercy of criminal structures

The recording was reminiscent of the video revealing how the former Austrian Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache was ready to hand over public contracts to a supposed Russian oligarch, in exchange for the support to his radical right party. Several weeks ago in Bosnia and Herzegovina the president of the state High Judicial Council was filmed offering his services to a businessman. Instead of being discharged from office, the corrupt Council head was unanimously vindicated by all 14 members of the body.

This is a drastic example of how state institutions in the Balkans are sacrificed to political party influence, the result of which is an utter rupture of their functionality. Captured state structures reveal that criminal structures are stronger than any corrective mechanisms in these systems.

The example from Bosnia and Herzegovina clearly demonstrates that international stakeholders, primarily the EU and its member states, have far too long relied on the idea that democratic reforms in the Western Balkans would occur on their own accord – a principle called local ownership, with the key assumption that countries should themselves solve their future problems.

The reality meanwhile is that this approach has proved to be inexpedient. In the previous years, local ownership has in fact led to the further consolidation of corrupt clan-like structures. For years, democratic values in the region have been in free fall and, to this day, there have been no significant (civil society or party-affiliated) stakeholders who could disrupt these corrupt state structures.

Solidified captured state structures

Instead of tackling systematic reform, the political elites in Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo and Albania have put state institutions and media under their control to the utmost degree. Only several weeks ago, the Prime Minister of Albania Edi Rama got two new laws off the ground, subjecting independent Internet media to a greater degree of state control.

Judicial systems in the entire region are groaning under endemic corruption and party influence. The paradigm of law and order has been grotesquely reversed. Local laws and international legal standards do not determine what is lawful, but rather powerful criminal cartels, closely intertwined with the dominant parties.

Individual rights are consequently largely negated. In these corrupt, systematically captured structures, the individual barely has a chance to assert their rights.

The ruling oligarchies publically act as if though they were following the European agenda (EU integration), while in reality pursuing their criminal, exploitative policies, veiled for the most part in nationalistic-extremist rhetoric.

In the past years, structures which foster crime and radicalization have consolidated in this context – consequently, the following corrections are urgently needed:


Trafficking of drugs, cars and weapons must be mentioned in this regard, as well as terrorist activities. How much this could affect Europe is evident from the case of the Bosnian who was arrested in connection to the Paris terrorist attack on the Bataclan club. The issue with forged documents (like university diplomas) is particularly relevant due to the great demand for medical personnel in Germany. Hiring inadequately educated personnel with fake degrees will pose a long-term danger to the safety standards in the field of medicine.

2. An attack on European values

Advances in democratic politics are yet to come to the WB6 countries. Minorities are discriminated against, individual rights (particularly those of ethnic, religious and sexual minorities) are violated. War crimes are regretfully sluggishly persecuted, while war criminals are glorified and honored as heroes. This leads to the brutalization of all aspects of everyday life. These tendencies pose an immediate danger of the internal constitution of the EU: radical parties in the region maintain close contacts with nationalistic, extremist parties in the EU.

An example of this negative loop are the contacts between the Austrian FPÖ with the radical Serb President of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik, who denies the genocide in Srebrenica and proclaims war criminals as heroes. Dodik openly pursues his secessionist aspirations. The secession of the Republika Srpska from BiH would catapult the already fragile region into new military conflict – with unforeseeable effects on the entirety of Europe and the EU.

3. Illiberal stakeholders: Russia, Turkey, China, the Arab states

The described lawless spaces which correlate with a programmatic weakness of the EU (a lack of coherent strategy for the WB6 countries, as well as a lack of conditionality and corrective forces) are increasingly used by stakeholders whose activities undermine European goals (democratization and rule of law reforms): along with Russia and Turkey, China and the Arab states are trying to massively expand their influence. These forces are following diverse goals which nevertheless, due to their illiberal agendas, stand diametrically opposed to the European set of values. In Bosnia-Herzegovina Russian military experts are supporting the creation of a paramilitary group in the Republika Srpska.

Considering the continuing secession rhetoric, this heavily armed unit would pose a danger for the future territorial integrity of Bosnia. All further steps in the direction of a secession by the Serb entity would lead to new military confrontations. Russia’s media influence (like in Serbia) has led to a drop in support toward the EU, while Russia has been gaining importance as a strategic partner in public perception. Furthermore, there have been attempts of interference in Croatia, an EU member state which has been undermining the peace process in the Balkans.

4. A mass exodus

Year after year, tens of thousands of people set out to leave their Balkan countries of origin behind. Along with mass-scale unemployment and low salaries, many primarily single out the entrenched criminal structures along with the failure of law and order as substantial push-factors for migrating to western European countries (like Germany, Austria, Slovenia and Italy).

For quite a while now, it has not only been the highly educated leaving their countries, but increasingly also entire families. On the one hand, western European labor markets have been profiting from this trend, given the high demand for qualified labor force. On the other hand, this has led to a mass migration in which it is the well-educated and liberally-inclined – thus also the potential change agents – who leave the region. Precisely those who could be the main protagonists of sustainable democratization and modernization processes.

The perspective of sustainable democratization is thus further eroded – a fact which will prepare the ground for further radicalization. These scenarios would negatively influence German, as well as European security interests.

5. A European Islam

A European, moderate strand of Islam has traditionally been practiced in the Balkans (in Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Kosovo). With the Balkan wars (the Bosnian war in particular), external radical influences (like Iran, Saudi-Arabia, Malaysia etc.) entered the region. The high unemployment rates, as well as the dysfunctional state systems in the region, are among the factors which have prepared the ground for further radicalization.

In this sort of framework, the youth gravitates more easily toward extremist ideologies. Should these tendencies gain strenght, the already existing radical communities (like the Wahhabi, financed by countries such as Saudi Arabia) would widen their scope of influence on the Muslim population. These trends are contrary to German, as well as European interests, as they could lead to the emergence of new potential security risks.

To summarize, the following can be determined:

The current situation in the Balkans is characterized by these traits:

Crime, radicalization, successive Islamization, increased influence of illiberal stakeholders, (keyword geopolitics), mass migration.

  1. Overall, a mesh of negative fundamental tendencies emerges, strengthening one another, which will prove detrimental to German and European security interests, if not countered in a target-oriented manner. This demands targeted and determined corrective measures.
  2. The evident weakness of the EU has increasingly been opening space for other stakeholders  (like Russia, Turkey, Arab countries and China), whose systematic engagement could contribute to further destabilizations (in the region, as well as the entirety of Europe).
  3. The European Union is running the risk to lose its influence in South-East Europe.

Strengthening of the sluggish EU engagement in urgently advisable.

Recommendations for action to the EU and its member states:

The immediate opening of negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania is imperative to widen the maneuver spaces for democratization and reform processes in the region. The failure to commend the historical agreement between Skopje and Athens would be fatal, as the possible loss of power by Zaev’s government would undoubtedly lead to a rollback to the former ruling VMRO-DPMNE party, with negative consequences to the entire Western Balkan region.

Albania’s EU ambitions should also be unmistakably supported, along with a close supervision of the already initiated reforms in the judiciary. The costs of non-integration would largely surpass those of a professionally driven integration process.

EU: Enough with courting authoritarian stakeholders

The time has come for western stakeholders (the EU and its member states) to end their questionable partnerships with the current elites in the Balkans, which constitute everything but guarantors of a democratic shift. The seeming “stabilization” of the region – for instance through the intentional courting of stakeholders like the Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic – has long been practiced at the expense of real democratization. This approach has led to the entrenchment of fragile crime-infiltrated state systems. 

The priority in the future should be a legal offensive of sorts, with the goal of promoting functional judiciary systems providing more protection to the citizens of Western Balkan countries, while offering them the opportunity to assert their rights with the help of functioning institutions.

In this context, the priority should be an uncompromising implementation of European standards (in Bosnia and Herzegovina the priority is the implementation of the rulings in the cases of Sejdic-Finci/Pilav/Zornic/Slaku by the European Court of Human Rights). This should be communicated with clear deadlines.

Strengthen civic stakeholders to counter the glorification of war crimes

It would be highly advisable for the EU to resolutely oppose the destructive and as ever rampant ethno-nationalisms in the region, as well as any attempts at maintaining or deepening ethnically-clean areas of dominance, thereby actively contributing to the development of functioning civil societies.

Given this background, civil society stakeholders who oppose the glorification of war crimes should be strengthened. A drastic example for the persistence of the extermination ideologies of the ‘90s is the “Herzeg-Bosna“ project. Herzeg-Bosna is a criminal para-state which was steered by former Croatian president Franjo Tudjman, whose leaders have been sentenced to 111 years of prison by the ICTY in The Hague. HDZ representatives in Croatia and Bosnia continue promoting this “criminal enterprise“ (as described in the ICTY ruling).

Overall, a climate conducive for new impulses for the peace process in the Balkans should be created. Otherwise, there looms a danger of new military conflicts.

Germany’s positive reputation can prove useful in demanding reforms

Germany still enjoys a high reputation in the WB6 region. Utilizing and widening its scope would thus be an important move in the future redefinition of German policy in the Balkans.

The Balkans Summit held in April 2019, which demonstrated the significance of Germany’s corrective role is particularly telling in this regard.  The dangerous idea of a territory exchange according to ethnic principles (the “land swap” between Kosovo and Serbia) was resolutely rejected there, precluding further negative consequences for other countries in the region.

As for recommendations in terms of German foreign policy regarding the accession negotiations, Germany should embrace a frontrunner position demanding reforms, especially in the judiciary and human rights.

This entails clear and unmistakable confrontation with stakeholders who have been repeatedly threatening the peace processes in the Balkans. The destructive policies of Serbia and Croatia are particularly notable in this regard.

Bearing this in mind, measures like targeted tracking of illegal finance transactions and freezing the accounts of certain political stakeholders could be considered.

The ruling elites have established captured state systems in which institutions serve as the handmaidens of political parties, in order to silence and/or attack critics. The media are largely controlled.

In light of this, the acceptance of Mostar human rights activist Stefica Galic into the Bundestag “Parliamentarians Help Parliamentarians” program, at the suggestion of the Greens MP Manuel Sarrazin, constitutes a good example of how politicians can support individual stakeholders.

The described deficiencies, in particular in the judiciary, result in hundreds of thousands of well-educated people leaving the region, year by year – a mass exodus in the direction of western Europe. This will doubtlessly serve as the foundation for further radicalization in the Balkans, which in the long run would undermine German and European security interests. It is thus urgently necessary to rethink the engagement in the Balkans.