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The Balkans and the Great Powers

February 10, 2022

Speaker: Vuk Jeremic, Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development (CIRSD), SerbiaModerator: Professor Michael Leigh, Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe.On February 10th, Vuk Jeremic, currently President of the Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development (CIRSD) in Serbia, joined the SAIS Europe community in Bologna to shed light on the relationship between the Balkans and the great powers of today.Emphasising the ‘very complicated’ nature of the region, Jeremic began the discussion by unpacking the ‘fundamental forces’ of geopolitics – geography, history, and culture – that have come to define the Balkans. From Alexander the Great in 335 BC, to the Ottoman conquests in the 14th Century, and Soviet control in the 20th Century, the Balkan region has throughout history served as a crucial arena for those intent on ‘projecting power.’ Historically seen as the ‘highway or buffer of empires,’ the region continues to hold immense geostrategic importance today. Moreover, Jeremic outlined the importance of religion in the region and, in particular, the struggle between Christianity and Islam. Rather than being the driving force of great powers, however, theology has instead come to define the small powers – a point clearly exemplified in the Balkans. As such, Jeremic argued, the region has also become known as an area often ‘on the verge of conflict.’Following this, the former President of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly outlined the thorny relationship between the Western Balkan region and the European Union (EU). While the likelihood of EU integration and enlargement in the area may have been a ‘foregone conclusion’ just a decade ago, such prospects are no longer realistic Jeremic claimed. In his view, the realistic snapshot at this moment is so that countries in the Western Balkans have become ‘less and less qualified’ for accession to the EU. With multilateral organisations struggling to deliver on promises and even survive, he argued that the world has fallen into a ‘geopolitical recession’. Harder to quantify than an economic one and far longer in duration, this type of recession has come to represent a dim outlook for the future of multilateral cooperation. The EU, however, is not the only organisation threatened by this trend. Reflecting on his candidacy for UN Secretary General, Jeremic noted that since the ‘peak of multilateralism’ in 2015 the UN, too, had become a much less dynamic ‘place of stalemate.’ Against the backdrop of these challenges for multilateral organisations, however, Jeremic emphasised the continued need for diplomacy and cooperation, especially among the great powers.Before taking questions from members of the audience, Jeremic also drew attention to the increasingly significant role of China in the Western Balkan region, and especially in Serbia. Noting the manner in which European influence in the region has been largely curtailed to the economic sector, there have been other arenas left open to Chinese influence. Particularly in the case of the current COVID-19 pandemic, China’s vaccine diplomacy has been particularly successful in delivering Sinopharm to the region.Lastly, as a ‘hybrid regime’ that is ‘part Hungary, part Belarus, and part Turkey,’ Jeremic contended that the reason for Serbia’s unrealistic prospects of EU accession are two-pronged. On the one hand, Brussels is demonstrating an unwillingness in enlargement, while countries in the Balkans are showing a disregard for political reform. Jeremic urged the EU to engage in a more serious and honest dialogue with the West Balkan region to allow for more concrete steps towards “Europeanization”. Moreover, he contended that the EU should find a better model with which to engage and incentivise the Western Balkan states to reform their political systems, and thereby increase their resemblance to the other member states. Given the recent ‘precipitation in democratic standards’ in the region, however, the current prospects are not exactly promising.