EU alarmed by Russian meddling in Balkans
EU leaders said at a summit on Thursday (9 March) that “external challenges” have contributed to the “fragile situation” in the Western Balkans in a thinly-veiled reference to Russia.
The summit communique also voiced concern on “internal” factors, referring to a recent flare-up in nationalist and ethnic tensions in the region.
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It pledged the EU’s “unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans” and said the EU remained “engaged at all levels” to implement “EU-oriented reforms and projects”.
The statement on “external” interference was added to the final draft after EU diplomats discussed Russia during the week.
Earlier drafts of the summit declaration had contained stronger language on EU engagement, however.
The EU had earlier pledged to “support stability and … deepen political and economic ties” with Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia, but this was redacted from the final text.
Summing up the debate at Thursday's dinner in Brussels, European Council chief Donald Tusk said: “Tensions and divisions [in the Western Balkans] have got out of hand partly due to unhealthy external influences which have been destabilising several countries for some time”.
“I will propose to leaders that we take action, including in our strategic communications,” he added.
British prime minister Theresa May named Russia as the culprit.
“In light of the alleged Montenegro coup plot, I will call for us to do more to counter destabilising Russian disinformation campaigns and raise the visibility of the Western commitment to this region,” she said on Thursday in Brussels.
She said the UK would host a summit on the Balkans in 2018 for the sake of “collective security” in Europe.
EU states are also wary of Turkey and Gulf Arab states’ efforts to increase influence in the region, but Russia’s behaviour is seen as more dangerous.
EU diplomats said Russia tried to orchestrate a violent coup in Montenegro last year to stop the country from joining Nato, as planned, in May.
It has supplied arms to Serbia, prompting a backlash by Kosovo which has threatened to walk away from EU-mediated talks.
It has also claimed that the EU is trying to create a Greater Albania in a line designed to aggravate ethnic tension in Macedonia.
The British prime minister’s warning on “Russian disinformation campaigns” pointed to Moscow’s wider propaganda effort.
Russian media, such as RT and Sputnik, have, for instance, reported fake news that the West was planning to assassinate Mirolav Dodik, a Serb leader in Bosnia, and that it was behind pogroms against ethnic Serbs in Kosovo.
The EU foreign service already has a “strategic communications” cell, but its mandate does not cover the Western Balkans.
European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, said three years ago that no new states would enter the EU in his term in office.
EU capitals also lost appetite for enlargement amid Brexit and the migration crisis, as well as fatigue with slow Balkan reform.
Juncker on Thursday defended his old statement.
“I don't think this was a mistake when I announced back in July 2014 that there would be no enlargements … because as a matter of fact no candidate country is ready to join,” he said.
“We did not stop the enlargement negotiations,” he added.
Some member states, such as Poland and Slovakia, had wanted to send a stronger message of EU support for Balkan accession.
Tusk invoked “the promise of Thessaloniki” to reassure Balkan leaders of their EU future, referring to an EU summit pledge on accession made in the Greek city in 2003.
He also echoed the stronger language on EU engagement that had been redacted from the summit’s final declaration.
“The European Union remains … fully committed to the stability and prosperity of the region,” Tusk said.