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The Balkans – the crossroads East of the West and West of the East

БНР Новини
Photo: Friedrich Ebert Foundation - Bulgaria

“Nationalism is back in the Balkans, without ever having left it.” These disturbing words belong to prominent Bulgarian historian Prof. Andrey Pantev and can safely be said to be one of the principal conclusions from the conference held in Sofia with the participation of leading Bulgarian diplomats. The forum, organized by the Friedrich Ebert foundation was dedicated to the processes taking place in Southeast Europe.

“For centuries the Balkans have been a periphery of European politics, but also a frontier zone,” says Dr. Bobby Bobev from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences Institute of Balkan Studies and ambassador to a number of Balkan countries through the years.

“The borderline between Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism runs precisely across the Balkans. It is a borderline that is a civilizational border of a kind. After the end of World War II the Balkans reverted to being a frontier zone, this time between NATO and the Eastern bloc. After 1989 things seemed to turn in the right direction, yet a number of complications set in because everything happening in the region afterwards was connected with the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Nonetheless in our day, for the first time in the history of the region, all countries are looking in the same direction and have the same foreign policy priorities: membership of NATO and the EU. We, the EU must face up to the fact that we made a mistake. Why did a president of the EC have to declare a moratorium on the enlargement of the Union until 2020? This bred negativism and I shall adduce just one example – a serious social survey in neighbouring Macedonia shows that in 2008, 96 percent of the population were in favour of membership of the EU. This year this percentage is down to 71.”

Lyubomir Kyuchukov, Director of the Economics and International Relations Institute and former deputy minister of foreign affairs talks of the danger of encapsulation of the Western Balkans. In his words, the enlargement of the EU is no longer a priority for Brussels, moreover the question of the accession of new member countries is not even on the agenda.

“This is having a highly demoralizing effect on public sentiments and the willingness to implement reforms,” the diplomat says. Some observers say that it is precisely the delay in Euro-Atlantic integration that underpins Russia’s growing influence in the region. Lyubomir Kyuchukov disagrees:

“The dilemma – Europe or Russia – is to a great extent fictitious and unrealistic, in Bulgaria it is used solely for domestic policy purposes. All countries of the region have clearly stated their Euro-Atlantic orientation and aims. Yes, Russia has always been a factor in the Balkans for at least 250 years, but I think that in the past 25 years Russia has not been an alternative for the countries in the region because save for the energy industry, it has no economic resource, nor does it have an ideological alternative to offer, as was the case during the cold war. Russia does not have the potential to cause a rift in the region,” says Lyubomir Kyuchukov. Instead, he identifies another critical problem.

“Will moderate Balkan Islam serve as a barrier to the infiltration of radical Islam into Europe or will it come under attack itself with the purpose of being radicalized? Radical Islam has never been a factor in the Balkans, yet there does exist a risk of its turning into an alternative. Data regarding the recruitment of fighters from the region by ISIS give sufficient cause for concern.”

Many political observers say that the danger of Islamization in the region was underestimated as far back as the 1990s, nonetheless it should be noted that Muslims in the Balkans are not religious fanatics. The fighters recruited in Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania are mostly poor people.

“One fundamental mistake  NATO and the EU made is that they did not outline any social and economic prospect for the region along the lines of the Marshall plan for the recovery of Western Europe after the end of World War II,” says diplomat Valentin Radomirski. “There is danger of the region remaining a grey or buffer zone due to lack of any prospect of integration. The inflow of refugees is radicalizing the countries of the Western Balkans and is putting societies there to the test. The region is not receiving the support it needs from Brussels for coping with the problem.”

English version: Milena Daynova

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