Because of America’s indirect military engagement in Ukraine, the stability of nations to the west of the war zone is of utmost concern to the U.S. The Balkans are, arguably, the most vulnerable part of the Intermarium, lands between the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic seas.
There are several major factors impacting the Balkans, both domestic and foreign. The latter include such major heavyweights as the United States, the European Union, Russia, and China.
Each great power would like to influence the region to its own liking; and their respective objectives, which aim at achieving or maintaining domination, cause friction. They sometimes even lead to serious conflict not only externally between the great power contenders but also internally among the Balkan nations.
Thus, in their political and economic maneuvers in the region, the foreign great powers must reckon not only with the will of their mighty peers and competitors, but should also pay attention to the local players, no matter how puny.
All outsiders try to leverage their influence in a variety of ways, including economically. For instance, it is with increased energy deliveries that Russia rewards Hungary and Serbia for their tepidity for Kiyv and amity toward Moscow.
Meanwhile, China softly circles around and endeavors to make its own mark in the region, for example vying for economic domination in the western Balkans or making a huge, multi-billion investment in advanced technologies, a battery plant, in Hungary.
While the external influences are certainly significant, internal factors are crucial for stability, as a look at the Balkans reveals.
Romania struggles with the usual Balkan corruption issues domestically and looks askance at Hungary’s unstated designs on its contested western provinces. Otherwise, Bucharest continues as a reliable ally of America as a NATO member, for example holding massive joint air force exercises in July.
Moldova is arguably the most vulnerable and poorest nation in the region. It accepted about 471,000 Ukrainian refugees, including over 80,000, who resolved to stay. That is the highest number per capita in a nation with a 2.6 million population.
By comparison, with over 5 million Ukrainians crossing into its territory, Poland, with fewer than 40 million citizens, hosts the greatest absolute number of displaced persons.
The refugee influx and the war in Ukraine triggered a resurgence of the pro-Russian orientation in Moldova. In addition, Russia deployed once again its energy weapon there. Chișinău’s staunchly pro-Western government finds itself hemmed in.
The nation has also been hit particularly hard by inflation and other woes, making it an economic basket case, regionally behind even Northern Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Greece, which likewise continues to struggle with its own migrant problems.
Although usually pro-Russian and rather tepid toward the West, Bulgaria has kept a sharp anti-Moscow turn until very recently. The Bulgarians have accepted additional American troops on their soil and support the Ukrainians in their war effort.
There have been expulsions of Russian diplomats, Soviet monuments have been defaced, and anti-Kremlin riots have erupted, the latest triggered by high energy prices. America has pledged to help with an increased supply of LNG.
Further, mysterious explosions rocked a Bulgarian ammunition manufacturer, and some suspect Moscow’s hand, in particular since the Russian intelligence tried to poison the owner seven years prior.
In addition, anti-government demonstrations erupted over road construction contracting disputes. Sofia has lately experienced a rather large turnover in governments, and new elections are scheduled to take place shortly. Perhaps the pro-U.S. ride will end then.
Meanwhile, in western Balkans, sparks have flown once again between Serbia and Kosovo. The latter’s shabby treatment of the Serb minority led to a brief border closure and even fighting. Roadblocks went up; shots were exchanged.
The EU and NATO intervened to stem the unrest but the problem continues to simmer. No permanent solution is in sight but the West has managed to patch things up for now.
Russia, of course, persists as the champion of the downtrodden Serbs. Moscow involves itself elsewhere in the Balkans as well and its influence reportedly keeps growing.
And so do the Kremlin’s espionage activities, for instance, as revealed lately in Albania. Such snafus inevitably put a damper on Vladimir Putin’s drive for Balkan hearts and minds.
That is something the U.S. should take advantage of in the popularity contest.
All in all, the game never ends in the Balkans (or elsewhere), and the U.S. should stay sharp if it does not want to be sorry.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of statecraft in Washington D.C.; expert on East-Central Europe's Three Seas region; author, among others, of "Intermarium: The Land Between The Baltic and Black Seas." Read Marek Jan Chodakiewicz's Reports — More Here.
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