Russia – European Union – Balkans
Brussels has lately been frequently evoking an event that took place in Thessaloniki 18 years ago, in June 2003. I am referring to the summit meeting between leaders of the European Union and a number of Balkan countries that aspired to EU membership (at that time, as you may recall, those were Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the Union of Serbia and Montenegro, as well as Croatia). The declaration adopted as the outcome of the summit stated bluntly, albeit for the first time, that “the future of the Balkans is within the European Union”, leaving no room for any alternative.
I would, however, like to remind you of other events that happened a bit later. On 27 April 2004 in Luxembourg, Russia and the EU adopted a Joint Statement on EU Enlargement and Russia – EU Relations. It reaffirmed mutual commitment “to ensure that EU enlargement would bring Russia and the EU closer together in a Europe without dividing lines, inter alia by creating a common space of freedom, security and justice”.
Another year later, on 10 May 2005, a further Russia – EU Summit in Moscow approved, among other things, the Road Map on the Common Space of External Security. It says, in particular, the following (I quote): “Russia and the EU recognise that processes of regional cooperation and integration <…> play an important role in strengthening security and stability. They agree to actively promote them in a mutually beneficial manner, through close result-oriented Russia – EU collaboration and dialogue, thereby contributing effectively to creating a Greater Europe without dividing lines ...”.
Definitely, a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. Only one country mentioned in the Thessaloniki Declaration, Croatia, has become an EU member. Some of the countries named in the document, such as FYROM or the Union of Serbia and Montenegro, can no longer be found on the political map of Europe at all. European integration, in spite of all the efforts, has not become, and could not have become, a panacea for all the problems in the Balkans – no one would dare to call the situation in this part of Europe perfectly stable and predictable today.
Russia-EU relations have also undergone changes – not positive, unfortunately – becoming, alas, hostage to an internal conflict in a third country. However, today we hopefully have a chance to build a new sustainable foundation for relations with the EU, which, of course, would be pointless to try to bring back to the previous system of coordinates, to "business as usual". They can be developed, though, using the best practices of past years, including the joint documents I quoted, moving towards a pragmatic partnership that recognises and respects each other's interests in key areas and regions. In the Balkans, too.
The Balkans have always been an important chapter of Russian foreign policy – by virtue of shared history and our long-standing involvement in the processes unfolding there. We have never regarded the Balkans as the "soft underbelly of Europe", as the region was often referred to in the West, following Winston Churchill. In our view, it is a crucial juncture of a variety of cultures, a region whose unique geographical position has forever defined its special, I would even say, fateful, role in world history. Influenced by different civilisations, the Balkans always maintained their identity and originality, its distinctive spirit and, so to speak, "their own truth". Recognising and respecting the Balkans’ particular features, Russia has never sought to gain any political, military or economic advantage in its engagement with the countries of the region. Instead, we believe that establishing constructive and mutually beneficial cooperation is key to stability, security and social and economic prosperity in the region.
Unfortunately, in the West there have always been, and still are, people who, for inexplicable reason, find it beneficial to create new hotbeds of tension in relations with Russia. Just remember recent events in the Baltics, countries of Central and Eastern Europe or, for that matter, Ukraine, if you want to realise how disastrous such destructive activities can turn to be. Here, too, the Balkans have long been diligently turned into an arena of confrontation with Russia. We see that an inherently false artificial choice is often imposed on the countries of the region – "either forward towards a bright Euro-Atlantic future or back to the dark past with Russia". Against the backdrop of developments around Ukraine, for instance, we cannot fail to notice the pressure that has been and continues to be exerted on the Balkan countries to force them to join EU sanctions against Russia without any regard to specific national interests and traditional ties. A country neighbouring Greece has even had to alter its name for the sake of Euro-Atlantic integration, a change made disregarding the opinion of the majority of its population. The flawed Western policy of drawing regional states into NATO, another matter lacking consensus in Balkan societies, adds fuel to the flames. In 21st century Europe such methods of building political alliances, having nothing to do with democracy, are unacceptable and even dangerous.
We never opposed EU enlargement. Moreover, and here I quote again the already mentioned Joint Statement on EU enlargement: in our opinion (which was back then, in 2004, entirely shared by the EU leadership), enlargement can offer new opportunities to strengthen Russia – EU partnership, as the accession of new members will also increase the interdependence of Russia and the EU, stemming from our geographical proximity and political, economic and cultural ties.
On the other hand, we oppose transformation of the Western Balkan countries' European aspirations into a tool of unfair political and economic competition. It is counterproductive to view South-Eastern Europe exclusively as a sphere of one’s influence and impose European integration, for all its appeal, as an option with no alternative. We are convinced that mechanisms should and can be found to enable countries of the region to benefit from their geographical position and close interaction with partners both in the West and in the East. Finding a proper balance between the Balkan states' course towards EU integration and their interests in relations with non-EU countries is quite feasible.
We do not want the Balkans to become an arena of geopolitical and geo-economic confrontation, especially today, when cooperation of all states is needed to counter common challenges. The major ones are nuclear security, international terrorism, protecting the environment, countering climate change and infectious diseases. Regional and transnational divisions also persist. Unresolved Serbian-Kosovar tensions remain explosive and need to be addressed on the basis of UNSCR 1244. Attempts to implement the idea of a “Greater Albania” can aggravate post-conflict normalisation in the territory of former Yugoslavia. Intra-Bosnian processes require attention. As someone who has been dealing with Balkans affairs for more than a quarter of a century, I could not have imagined that years later Russia would become the most consistent and active defender of the Dayton architecture of BiH. The reality, however, is that today it is a real guarantee of peace and stability. There is much speculation about modernising and adapting it to certain standards, but it does not stand up to serious criticism. None of the concepts being promoted can achieve the vital internal balance between the interests of the three peoples in the Bosnian context that Dayton envisages. Implications of new experiments can be quite dire.
Effective solution to these and other deep-rooted problems of the region, as well as promotion of its peaceful sustainable development can only be achieved by working together in strict compliance with international law. Russia, for its part, is open to close cooperation both with its Balkan partners and other players with a view to reconciling existing differences in the region.