BRUSSELS – The European Union is in the midst of yet another goodwill trip through the Western Balkans to drum up support for the bloc and to make sure that Europe's historical tinderbox is not about to pick the side of hostile Russia or strategic rival China in the world of geopolitics.
During her whirlwind six-nation tour, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made a stop Friday in Serbia, by far the most important nation in the southern region, and one that has shown scant regard for solidarity in joining EU sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
Von der Leyen said because of the war redefining the security landscape of Europe, it's of “utmost importance" for the EU to invest further in the Western Balkans.
“Let me assure you that the European Union is, and will remain, Serbia's most important political and economic partner," she said during a visit to a gas connector linking Serbia and Bulgaria.
After announcing Thursday a support of 500 million euros to help countries in the Western Balkans cope with the energy crisis fueled by the war in Ukraine, von der Leyen pledged 165 million euros in grants for Serbia.
For years, the 27-nation EU has been caught in two minds over the Western Balkans: seeking to pull them close as allies and hold off foreign interference, yet at the same time, keeping them at arm's length since their weaker economies and political institutions are far from ready to seamlessly integrate into the EU's single market of open trade and Western democratic ideals.
The result has been frustration for the Western Balkan nations, sometimes bordering on alienation. And the Feb. 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine has only made matters more urgent.
“This is a question of strategic interests, and we only have one shot to get it right. So let’s not waste it,” Katalin Cseh of the liberal Renew Europe group told the EU legislature last week.
“Russia and China understand the strategic importance of the Western Balkans just as well as we do. Only," she added, “it is right on our doorstep.”
The region now comprising of Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia has long been a political, and sometimes literal, battleground for world powers. A shooting in Sarajevo, Bosnia, in 1914 set off World War I, which brought down empires, redrew maps and ultimately led to World War II, after which the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as superpowers.
With the 1991 Soviet collapse, so did Yugoslavia, the dominant power in the region. That unleashed devastating wars in the 1990s that killed over 130,000, displaced millions, ruined economies and spawned ethnic hatreds that last to this day.
Even though the EU is by far the biggest investment and trading partner in the six-nation region, Von der Leyen has her work cut out in Belgrade, where right-wing and former anti-Western populist President Aleksandar Vucic has ruled for 10 years with increasing powers and allowed for the spread of Russian influence.
For years now, the EU has dangled the prospect of membership, and ensuing prosperity, for the Balkan nations. But that promise was somewhat undermined this year when the EU allowed Ukraine into the fast lane as a candidate nation, while progress on membership for Western Balkan nations has largely stalled.
That has turned several Balkan nations into EU sceptics.
Serbia's line with Moscow irks the bloc most, especially since Vucic has refused to join Western sanctions against Russia.
“Serbia needs to step up its efforts in aligning with the EU positions,” said EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi.
Von der Leyen said Serbia is one of the most advanced countries on the European path but insisted on the importance of adhering to the EU's foreign policy.
“Joining the European Union in the very end means sharing the same values, having the same directions in the geopolitical decisions," she said, speaking next to Vucic. “We want to count on you, on Serbia, as a reliable partner."
Despite EU aid, recent surveys have suggested that support for Serbia's EU integration has dropped since the start of the war in Ukraine. Surveys show only about 30-35% of those questioned now support joining the EU, compared to 57% from a government survey last year.
Some blame it on a pro-Russian line in Serbia's media, which is fueling anti-Western sentiments. In addition, there are Western fears that Russian influence will poison Serbia's Balkan neighbors too, especially through ethnic Serb separatist leader Milorad Dodik in Bosnia. In both Serbia and Montenegro, the Russian biker group Night Wolves, which is close to Putin, is seen to have a hand in anti-Western actions.
While several Balkan nations have important historical links to Russia over centuries, that cannot be said of China. As the Asian powerhouse is extending its clout across the globe, it also reached nations like Serbia and Montenegro.
“Chinese loans are Beijing’s primary foreign policy tool to strengthen its position in the region,” said an EU Parliament study. Those loans have clauses that if loans cannot be repaid, “China can request political favors or exercise unfavorable contractual clauses such as the seizure of assets or even land.”
EU estimates for Chinese investments in Serbia up through 2021 amounted to 10.3 billion euros.
Chinese companies have been involved in building roads, bridges and other major infrastructure projects in Europe and elsewhere that are financed through Chinese loans. The EU has warned that Chinese companies and banks fuel corruption in the already volatile Western Balkans because they make state-to-state deals without competition.
In Serbia, Chinese companies now own the biggest steel mill and copper and coal mines, and they are building roads and bridges.
Among the most controversial Chinese projects in the Western Balkans has been part of a highway linking Montenegro’s Adriatic Sea coast with the Serbian border that was far beyond the small nation’s means.
Montenegro took out a $944 million loan in 2014, but was later unable to repay it, as the construction dragged on and debts accumulated, throwing the country into a financial crisis. The Balkan country of just 620,000 people eventually struck a deal with one French and two U.S. banks to restructure the Chinese loan and has since made its first debt payment. The first portion of the highway was inaugurated this year.
Jovana Gec in Belgrade and Samuel Petrequin in Brussels contributed to this story.