With the horrors of Russia’s war in Ukraine exposed to anyone with a free press, two of Vladimir Putin’s friends were re-elected to government in Europe last week. Both have claimed their friendship is based solely on the best interests of their nation, but their apparent adoption of Putin’s political approach and tactics tells a different story.
The OSCE deemed both elections “unfair” because the ruling party had conquered the media and abused the public sector to its advantage. Both elections were won with a landslide victory and the winners were eagerly congratulated from Moscow. But Serbia has been a candidate for EU membership for 10 years and Hungary has been a member for almost 20 years. The back door of the EU is open.
In times of war, Europe should certainly reconsider its defensive stance and combat readiness. But wise leaders should also ask themselves what weaknesses an enemy saw that prompted them to embark on a disastrous enterprise.
The perceived error in Europe was probably more political than military. Putin’s invasion plans were likely based on a lack of political will to support democratic principles and come to the aid of a democratic neighbor. Of late, Europe’s resolve has been firm. But the EU’s continued failure to take sides in local pro-democracy struggles might well have raised a different expectation. Let’s look at the recording.
Over the past decade, six EU candidate countries in the Western Balkans have become more confused and insecure. Three are NATO members.
Albania quietly joined in 2009, but after 2012 Russia tried to prevent further expansion. She planned a coup d’état in Montenegro months ahead of a vote on NATO membership and fomented protests in North Macedonia to derail negotiations over a strict NATO requirement to change the country’s name. A Greek veto claimed the old name signaled intentions to annex its northern province. Both countries eventually rallied, and when President Trump questioned why the US should protect a tiny country like Montenegro, its Secretary of State wryly reassured Americans that its 2,400-strong army would nonetheless live up to its obligation to defend them. The military question was answered.
But questions about the political status of these countries were piling up. Macedonians were also promised final EU accession talks should they vote for a name change, but the EU rejected the deal. In subsequent 2020 elections, the government narrowly survived a Russian-backed nationalist resurgence and the country is divided down the middle. Albania was similarly disappointed, and in an atmosphere of frustration and disorientation a new government in neighboring Montenegro worked against EU and NATO interests. EU politics is bogged down in legislative minutiae, demanding member states to rewrite their neighbors’ history books. Reforms went unrewarded and eventually stalled.
Meanwhile, in the three non-Nato EU candidate countries – Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia – Russia openly supports its “cousins”. Serbia expects Russia to slow down recognition of the independence of Kosovo – a former province – and EU-led negotiations on the issue have achieved little. Tensions arise regularly. Leaders in the Serbian enclave of Bosnia have so far backed reforms, but frustrated by 25 years of oversight by a deputy international proconsul – and egged on by Russia – they are now undermining that country’s unity. Denied a sense of a European future, citizens are slowly returning to their past.
Since the beginning of the war there have been protests across the region and suspicious politicians are waiting to see what will happen. The EU has a chance to regain its composure and must stand firm. Serbia refused to back sanctions, but when solid US pressure was applied, it backed a UN resolution condemning the invasion. Serbs in Bosnia tried to derail their vote for the UN resolution but have since gone silent. The government in Montenegro collapsed and its pro-EU president dispatched a Roman Abramovich superyacht.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, traveled to North Macedonia and Albania to reassure people – once again – that “promises will be kept”. let’s hope so The EU recognizes that its failure has undermined its credibility and opened the floodgates to Russian and Chinese interference.
Finally, in 2020, it streamlined its accession process to make it less bureaucratic and more political. It is time for EU leaders to support democrats who deliver and shun those who undermine democratic principles.
The same applies to anti-democratic member states. In 2014, Viktor Orbán cited the good examples of Russia and China as he set about building his “non-liberal state” in the EU. Poland and Slovenia followed his example, weakening their courts and manipulating their media. The EU has been newly empowered to refuse support to members who undermine the rule of law. It must remain. That’s what this war is about.
Gary O’Callaghan has worked in the Western Balkans for more than 25 years, including for the IMF and the EU
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/eu-failures-have-left-door-open-for-russian-and-chinese-interference-41538215.html The failure of the EU has left the door open to Russian and Chinese interference