The Balkans become again Europe’s geopolitical crossroads

Business File, September-October 2018, No. 117
by Professor Georges Prevelakis


Since the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit and the 2007 Enlargement to Bulgaria and Romania, the Balkans were more or less neglected by theEuropean Union. Enlargement fatigue, the economic crisis and Brexit shifted the focus away from the unresolved problems of the Western Balkans.


The situation changed dramatically, however, in 2018. Already in the beginning of the year, the European Commission issued important declarations, once again placing on the agenda not only the perspective but also the difficulties of enlargement to the Western Balkans. The Sofia Summit of 17 May confirmed the Commission’s analyses and approved the measures to pave the way for the gradual admission of the remaining Balkan countries to the Union.

At the same time, the Athens-Skopje dispute appeared to have been resolved at last. The Prespes agreement was presented to the European public as resulting from the courage of the leaders of the two countries. It could also be interpreted as the outcome of the very active— if not intrusive—diplomatic activity of both the European Union and the United States of America.

The new ‘Old Eastern Question’

How to explain the renewed western activity in the Balkans? Are we facing a new episode of the old Eastern Question? Arnold Toynbee’s analysis of the Near and Middle East situation, published in 1922, was entitled “The Western Question”. The historian, who was later to become famous, argued that the Eastern Question was due not to the supposedly savage character of the inhabitants of the Balkans and Asia Minor, but to the contradictory eff orts to introduce western institutions in a region that had its own civilisational heritage. Since the end of the 18th century, the same drama of the advances of “Europeanisation”, succeeded by disillusionment due to the resilience of traditional structures, is played again and again. Periods of enthusiasm on the part of the European and the westernised local elites are followed by regression, stagnation and neglect. Frustrated by the limited results of its efforts, the West then turns its attention elsewhere. However, the geographical realities soon oblige the western powers to reinvest in the region.

During the last two years, geopolitical pressures revealed to both Europe and the United States the dangers of their continued neglect of the Balkans, which probably stemmed from a repetition of old frustrations. The refugee problem highlighted the fact that the Balkan peninsula is the geographical hinge between the Middle East/North Africa and Europe. The enormous impact of the “Balkan corridor” on European public opinion and the voting behaviours in Europe showed that a western Balkan enclave was not tolerable. Other issues, perhaps less obvious but nonetheless no less important, attracted the attention of governments during those years: organised crime, corruption, and last but not least, Islamist and terrorist infi ltration found refuge in a cacophonous space integrated in varying degrees in the European political and security structures.

Turkey, Russia and…

To those internal Balkan challenges, two external ones of a very diff erent character have been added: Turkey and Russia.

Turkey has become less and less predictable. Nobody can seriously forecast what will happen during the coming decade(s) in this country, the image of which has shifted in a few years from monolithic, pro-western stability to impending chaos. Erdogan’s authoritarian rule, with its anti-western tones, is often perceived as a lesser evil in comparison with what might come after him. The threat of economic crisis may however undermine his recent political successes. Turkey could become the victim of contagion of Middle East instability. In this case, the Balkans must be able to play the role of Europe’s last barrier. If the refugee crisis that largely resulted from the Syrian conflict threatened the European political system, one can imagine the consequences of a Turkish crisis.

The Russian challenge is radically different but not less preoccupying because it is predictable. Russia is returning more and more to its old imperial strategies. Cautiously, patiently and systematically, it is taking advantage of the blunders and contradictions of the West in order to expand to the regions of its traditional influence. The largely Orthodox and Slav Balkan populations offer a strong basis for Russian diplomatic, religious, cultural and economic infiltration. The continuity of the Russian policies, defined by the same leaders for a very long period, contrasts strongly with the discontinuity of the activities of western democracies, influenced as they are by the ups and downs of the electoral processes and the polycentric structure of the West.


To those two traditional non-western actors of the region, a completely new one has been added: China. The maritime section of China’s “silk road” initiative comes into contact with European space through the Balkans. The acquisition of the port of Piraeus as well as the Chinese interest in the Morava-Vardan corridor (and the canal project that could create a direct maritime link between the Aegean Sea and the Danube) introduces a new element that might change the balance of power in the region, in a decade or two. Will the Chinese limit themselves to commerce or try to consolidate and secure their economic influence through a political and military presence?

The European Union and the United States realised quite suddenly the geoeconomic, geopolitical and geostrategic importance of the emerging Balkan crossroads. Their priorities are not however always the same, and might diverge even further under the Trump presidency (or presidencies?). Eventual dissonances in the West could add one more layer to the complications of the Balkan scene.

NATO enlargement

The United States has an interest in containing Russia and maintaining (and extending?) the instruments of their military influence stationed in the Balkans— and influencing a much larger area. Thus, for the United States the Prespes agreement was a clear success because, irrespective of the final outcome of the Athens-Skopje dispute about the name, it definitively solved the problem of the NATO enlargement. For the European Union, which will have to manage the eventual future political complications, the matter is more complex. The Macedonian issue is obviously only one among many European challenges resulting from the renewed “Eastern Question”. The European Commission seems to have no illusions about the difficulties when, for example, it states that the Western Balkans are “showing evident signs of State capture, covering links with organised crime and corruption at all levels of government and administration, as well as a major overlapping of public and private interests”.

The Europeanisation of the Balkans

Those challenges have arisen at a moment when a consensus seems to emerge about the often debated question concerning the definition of the European Union’s space. In the emerging imagined space of Europe, the European border in the south-east now coincides with Turkey’s western one. The gradual clarifi cation of European imagined space reinforces the image of a West Balkan geographical anomaly. Europe cannot tolerate the existence  of a “black hole” in its emerging imagined territorial body. The imperative of the Europeanisation of the Balkans becomes more pressing than ever. From peripheral, the problems of the Balkans become central, not only materially but also—and mainly—symbolically. The return of the Eastern Question is directly related to a question that Europe tried to elude during more than half a century, which was suddenly brought to the surface by the refugee crisis: Who are we? A clearly defined and continuous territory is one of the possible ways to answer this question.

These multiple challenges, suddenly realised, explain the surge in diplomatic and other activity in the Balkans during the last months. However, the sudden focus on the Balkans reveals also the lack of diplomatic, political, and intellectual preparedness in coping with these issues, despite the fact that they are not new. The leaders of the European Union who rush to issue declarations seem to ignore the accumulated experience of diplomats and academics, going back to the old Eastern Question. The Cold War, during which the West nurtured the illusion that the geopolitical problems of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire had been solved for good, seems to have deleted from institutional memory the profound understanding expressed, for example, in Arnold Toynbee’s aforementioned book. It is not by suggesting to the Balkan populations that they “produce less History” (Donald Tusk) or “change their minds” (Johannes Hahn) that the cause of Europeanisation can be promoted. Those leaders should in fact consider that, since the Balkan problems are not only due to the Balkan mind-set but also to western perceptions of this nearby but culturally distant region, their own mind-set should also evolve.

The Prespes agreement

The Prespes agreement between Athens and Skopje is a good example of these drawbacks. It has been greeted in western capitals as a sign of substantial progress, despite the fact that this outcome of western diplomatic engineering is opposed by the populations of both countries—in Greece by a crushing majority of 70% of the population. The way it has been obtained, obviously under the time pressure of the last NATO Summit and after decades of neglect, has created a major challenge for the moderate political leaders of both countries. They now have to face the danger of a possible populist, nationalist, and anti-western backlash that could lead to the spreading of “illiberal democracy” from the north of Eastern Europe to its south.

Greece, and especially northern Greece, finds itself in the epicenter of momentous Balkan European challenges. This situation creates dangers and opportunities. Europe and the United States will desperately need Greece in the future in order not only to cope with but also to understand the complexities of this region. A Greek leadership able to respond—politically and intellectually—to this need, will be able to take advantage of the situation in order to restore the prestige and the influence of the country. On the other hand, if the political situation becomes unstable, if the economy stagnates, if the diplomatic blunders continue, Greece may revisit the nightmares of its Balkan past, those that the rapidly disappearing geopolitical stability of the last decades had led Greeks to consider as permanently confined to “the dustbin of History”.


Professor George Prevelakis of the Sorbonne (Paris 1) University, a former Constantine Karamanlis Chair in Hellenic and Southeastern European Studies at the Fletcher School and a former Greek Ambassador at the OECD, is an expert on the Geopolitics of the Balkans and of the Eastern Mediterranean. Among his books are: «Qui sont les Grecs? Une identité en crise», CNRS Editions, Paris, 2017, «Who are we? The Geopolitics of Greek identity», Economia, Athens, 2017 (translation of «Ποιοι είμαστε; Γεωπολιτική της ελληνικής ταυτότητας», 2016), «Géopolitique des civilisations. Huntington, 20 ans après», Anatoli n° 4, CNRS Editions, 2013, «Pour une nouvelle Entente balkanique», Anatoli n°1, CNRS Editions, 2010, Géopolitique de la Grèce, Complexe, Brussels, 2005.

Professor Prevelakis is the co-director of the French academic journal Anatoli (Paris, CNRS Editions), whose special 2019 issue will be dedicated to the relationship between Greece and Europe in the context of the economic crisis. He is a regular contributor to Kathimerini and a member of the scientific boards of DiaNEOsis and of the Constantine Karamanlis Institute for Democracy.

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