"Western Balkans: With friends like these..."

"The most recent addition to the regional power game is China; and the EU suspects that it may exploit its economic heft for political gains."

Source: Tanjug
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(Thinkstock)
(Thinkstock)

This is stated in a report published ahead of this year's Munich Security Conference, dubbed, "The Great Puzzle: Who will pick up the pieces?"

The segment of the report dedicated to this region is entitled, "Western Balkans: With friends like these...," and it states that EU leaders "recognize the strategic importance of this missing piece in the 'jigsaw of Europe'."

"However, the lack of political and economic progress in the region as well as enlargement fatigue within the European Union have diminished the belief in the inevitability of EU accession on both sides," it continued.

At the same time, the report went on, "the region remains fragile: in December 2018, Kosovo - against NATO's wishes - decided to set up its own army, which Serbia answered by threatening an armed intervention."

Meanwhile in Sarajevo, the Munich Security Conference document said, fears of escalating ethnic tensions have risen as "Serb nationalist Milorad Dodik" won a seat in the country's presidency.

And, according to this, "the people of the Western Balkans express their discontent both through protests and with their feet as young people, especially, are leaving the region."

"The negative developments in the Western Balkans are being reinforced as other actors increase their influence, in particular China and Russia," the report said, adding:

"The latter has been a traditional player in the region, but now views the Balkans as a key part of a new 'great game', which may help distract and weaken the European Union."

Moscow has been accused of employing measures to destabilize the Western Balkans, including active efforts to foment ethnic conflict and to exacerbate frustration with the European Union by means of anti-Western propaganda, the report noted.

But, it continued, "most recent addition to the regional power game is China."

All Western Balkan states, except so-called Kosovo are "embedded in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative through the 16+1 format," the report said.

"They have welcomed the much-needed aid, trade, and investment flows, which are increasing steadily and in some areas rival the European Union’s economic influence. While Beijing supports EU accession of the region, its activities have raised suspicion within the European Union that China may exploit its economic heft for political gains. In addition, Chinese projects do not necessarily conform to EU standards of sustainability or transparency. China’s economic outreach thus poses risks to the region, notably in terms of debt, because much of the investment comes in the form of loans," the conference paper said.

According to this, the European Union has only recently "woken to the risks of these developments."

"Both NATO and the European Union are now actively pushing back against Russian propaganda, and the European Union has launched a series of European connectivity projects to compete with those of China.The coming year will give some indication as to whether the region itself also still believes in a European future," stated the report, published ahead of the Feb. 15-17 conference held in Munich, Germany.

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