July hot topics in the Western Balkans: Football frenzy in Croatia; Trump’s comments puzzle Montenegrins; Dangers of Russia’s influence in the Balkan regionAdriatic Journal 2 August 2018
Croatian football team lost 4:2 in the World Cup final against France, but still achieved an enormous national success in the most popular sport in the world. Arriving back home, an estimated 500,000 Croats greeted the team at Ban Jelačić square in Zagreb. The celebrations were silghlty marred by controversy when the Croatian nationalist singer Marko Perković Thompson took to the stage and performed one of his songs. Perković’s attendance is viewed as politicising a situation that should have been the country’s moment of unity. Instead, it caused divisivness and criticisms both internally and internationally.
But the football team’s success had a positive impact on the Croatian economy: according to the media reports, Croatian consumers left between 11 and 14 percent more money in the shops on the days when the Croatian national team was at the football pitch.
At the Western Balkans summit in early July, hosted by the British Prime Minister Theresa May in London, the leaders of EU countries and European and international institutions reaffirmed their commitment to assist the Western Balkans in achieving stability, security and prosperity, aligned with European values and systems. The EU leaders stressed that the fight against corruption, which is hampering economic progress and investment, will need to be strengthened. Amongst the main discussion topics was the need to increase regional cooperation on security, in particular on organised crime, violent extremism and terrorism. The fight against the latter, including illegal migration, requires assistance and support from the Western partners, the summit concluded. The European Commission, together with partner financial institutions, will also launch a new guarantee instrument in 2019 with the aim to leverage up to EUR 1bn in investments into sustainable socio-economic development and regional integration. It was also agreed that young people are the region’s biggest asset and more needs to be done to harness their potential.
Russia’s influence in the Western Balkans was also mentioned at the summit. The British Foreign Affairs Committee has concluded that Russia is ready to do anything to destabilise the region, a report from the meeting, published in the Serbian daily Blic, states. In the report, the committee concludes the EU has neglected the Western Balkans in the last 10 years and left a vacuum that was exploited by certain countries, including Russia, China and Turkey. Although the Russian influence in the region is relatively weak due to the weaker economic presence compared to China and Turkey, it is still the most dangerous because “Russia is ready to do everything to destabilise the Western Balkans and its path to stability and democracy«. »This was evident in the Russian support for the coup attempt in Montenegro in 2016,” the British committee wrote in the report. Such Russian intentions are also linked to the worsening of diplomatic relations between Russia and Greece, after two Russian diplomats were expelled from Greece due to suspected Russian meddling in the Macedonia issue. Within the committee, many experts also touched upon Russia’s ability to worsen already bad situations. Through the president of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, Russia allegedly wants to destabilise an already fragile Bosnia and Herzegovina. An example of this is Dodik’s continuing threats with a referendum on the secession of Republika Srpska from BiH, the report notes.
Donald Trump’s comments in the interview with Fox News that Montenegrins are “very aggressive” people who could cause a WWIII are puzzling many in the region and beyond. Ranko Krivokapić, leader of the Montenegro’s opposition Social Democratic Party, told BBC: “With this kind of president, with his knowledge of foreign policy, who knows what is going on? ” Comments on Twitter, such as those by CNN’s Jake Tapper as well as by US Senator John McCain, suggest that some suspect mentioning Montenegro was not a coincidence. Last year Montenegro accused Russia of a failed coup on its former prime minister prior to the country joining NATO. It appears that Trump and the Russian president Vladimir Putin have been strenghtening ties recently, as Trump had invited Putin to visit Washington a few days after they met in Helsinki, which was followed by Putin inviting Trump to visit Moscow.
Serbia and the countries of the Western Balkans will need 50 or 60 years to reach the living standards of the EU member states, the British report presented at the Western Balkans summit in London reveals. Among the detected obstacles, the report which overviews the living conditions in six Western Balkan nations, mentions chronic economic stagnation, permanent bilateral conflicts, as well as ethnic conflicts. Although some issues have been settled in recent years, the region is still burdened with numerous problems. Some of those have deteriorated, while local elites have an interest in maintaining a status quo. Another study, conducted by the World Bank, has shown the Western Balkans’ countries are approximately 40 years away from the living standard comparable to the EU. According to another estimation, the region will achieve this objective only in 200 years. The British report on the Western Balkans also predicts a war in the region in less than 25 years.