Thursday

21st Feb 2019

Interview

EU outshines Russia in Western Balkans

  • Bushati with EU foreign relations chief Federica Mogherini (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Russia cannot compete with the EU as an attractive role model for the Western Balkans, but it can play an "obstructive" role, Albania has said.

"We've seen an increased presence of Russia in the past five or six years, but, frankly speaking … the model the majority of people in the Western Balkans prefer is the European Union's", Albanian foreign minister Ditmir Bushati told EUobserver in an interview.

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  • Tirana still has work to do on rule of law and corruption (Photo: roberto_berna)

"I'm not aware of any policy being pursued by any of our neighbours that could put a question mark over their EU accession process, such as a special partnership with Russia or some special treatment that Russia could offer", he added.

He said the EU was "much more attractive" for political as well as economic reasons.

Bushati said people who had, fewer than 30 years ago, lived under a "Communist dictatorship" were drawn by EU values.

"It's about how public life is conducted [in Europe], how wealth is distributed in society, human rights, respect for minorities - this is the set of norms and values we would like to develop," he said.

The minister said there was a difference between Russian soft power and other measures, however.

"There's a clear distinction between Russia's presence and its obstructive activity in certain countries in relation to euro-Atlantic or European accession processes," he said.

Montenegro has accused Russia of trying to stage a coup there last year to block its Nato entry.

With Macedonia now striving to join the Western alliance, Bushati said further Russian foul play could not be excluded.

"This is a possible scenario," he said.

He said it would come as "no surprise" given Russia's behaviour in a recent political crisis in Macedonia, when Russia tried to enflame inter-ethnic and anti-EU feeling.

"Russia was quite active in our neighbour. It was coming out with policy statements [on the Macedonia crisis] more frequently than the EU," he said.

Bushati spoke to EUobserver in Brussels amid a push by Tirana to open EU accession negotiations in 2018.

Albania's prime minister Edi Rama met with European Council president Donald Tusk on Monday. He will hold talks with the heads of the European Commission and Parliament, Jean-Claude Juncker and Antonio Tajani, as well as with EU diplomacy chief Federica Mogherini on Tuesday.

Bushati said Albania still had work to do on establishing rule of law and fighting corruption.

But he said it had proved itself to be a "security provider" for the EU in its handling of the migration crisis and in fighting Islamist radicalism.

He also said the fact Albania has been a Nato member since 2009 meant it had "demonstrated strategic clarity".

Bushati noted that Albania fully aligned itself with EU foreign policy, which included imposing EU-type economic sanctions on Russia.

"We've never allowed ourselves to sit in two chairs," he said, alluding to Serbia, an EU candidate which boycotted the EU sanctions and which has cultivated closer ties with Russia.

Brexit factor

Bushati said the fact the UK was leaving the EU had not dampened Albania's accession hopes.

He pointed to British plans to host a Western Balkans summit next year as a sign the UK would continue to support EU expansion.

He also said Western Balkans enlargement was the logical continuation of EU plans for a united Europe, which had received added impetus from Brexit.

"The fact the EU wants to integrate more deeply [after Brexit] and has engaged itself in a decisive future for Europe does not exclude the continuation of enlargement - in the case of the Western Balkans, it's the continuation of the European project," he said.

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