Covid-19: China, US, EU and Russia vie for Balkans influence
The FT's South-East Europe correspondent Valerie Hopkins reports on moves by China, Russia, the EU and US to gain the upper hand in Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and the western Balkans
Filmed by Justin Spike. Graphics by Russell Birkett. Archive footage from Reuters and Getty. Produced by Josh de la Mare.
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Western Balkan countries like Kosovo and Bosnia were among the first in Europe to close their borders and impose strict lockdown measures. Some did so even before registering cases of coronavirus because of their ageing populations, troubled health systems, and a decade of doctors migrating to richer countries. So far, cases and deaths have remained relatively low compared to the rest of Europe. And there is the prospect of some relaxation of lockdowns.
But even with borders closed foreign powers have continued to vie for influence in the western Balkans, which also includes Serbia and Montenegro. China and Russia have competed to deliver masks and protective equipment while Washington has exploited the crisis in Kosovo to try to inject momentum into negotiations between Serbia and its former province. After initially taking a lax approach to the coronavirus, Serbia imposed one of Europe's toughest crackdowns with an 86-hour complete lockdown during the orthodox Easter weekend.
Critics warn the state of emergency declared by President Aleksandar Vucic has given him the power to increase his control over the media and lay the groundwork for a massive electoral victory once the state of emergency ends.
In the northern city of Novi Sad a journalist was arrested for writing about the lack of necessary equipment at a hospital. The hospital later admitted it was true but that it had not made it public to avoid people panicking.
Mr Vucic has also used the crisis to get closer to Beijing. In March, he lambasted Brussels, saying that EU solidarity was a fairytale and that only China can help. He thanked Chinese President Xi Jinping for sending medical experts and planeloads of equipment.
Moscow also tried to capitalise on its relations with Belgrade, sending military jets with less crucial supplies but receiving much media attention. The EU, which has provided grants to Serbia totaling 3.7 billion euros, was pilloried as slow to respond. Serbia has spent almost a decade negotiating with its former province Kosovo, whose independence it still doesn't recognise. EU-backed talks have stalled. But US President Donald Trump has sought to play a more active role.
He appointed an envoy to the process, ambassador Richard Grenell, now acting head of US intelligence, who called for the removal of Kosovo's prime minister, Albin Kurti, over his intransigence in talks with Belgrade. Mr Kurti is set to be replaced as premier and warned that the government's collapse could make the fight against coronavirus trickier in Kosovo. The country has so far registered more than 600 cases and 18 deaths, an indication that the government mobilised swiftly and coped very well, despite having a strained health system.
In nearby Bosnia-Herzegovina, the lockdown conjures up images of the 1992 to 1995 war and, in the capital Sarajevo, the longest siege in modern history. At checkpoints in the borders people have to be quarantined for two weeks in a massive tent. Streets are empty. People are under curfew and have been stockpiling flour and other essentials. Many Bosnians say that, during the war, at least they knew who and where the enemy was while today it's invisible and omnipresent.
Postwar Bosnia is divided into an unwieldy system. There's a Bosnian Serb republic and a Muslim-Croat federation, which is divided into 10 cantons, meaning the country of 3.3m people has 13 ministries of health. Still, the health system, a legacy of former Yugoslavia, has functioned well with a higher testing rate than elsewhere in the Balkans.
Some of the success in Bosnia, as elsewhere in the region, may be due to the low trust many Bosnians have in their state to protect them, meaning a stricter adherence to the lockdown and to social distancing rules. But it may complicate Bosnia's recovery from the virus. Its divided leaders have squabbled over how to distribute vital emergency funds from the IMF.
North Macedonia, which was considered a bright spot in the region for concluding a deal with Greece on its name, has been thrown into turmoil due to the pandemic. Elections planned in April, which would have seen a fight between leftist reformers who signed the name deal, with Athens and nationalists who want to overturn it, have been indefinitely postponed.
The vote was triggered after Brussels failed to open accession talks to the EU last October. When North Macedonia finally got the go ahead from the EU in March to start talks it was to little fanfare because lockdowns had started.
While all countries in the region will struggle with the economic recovery, Croatia, Montenegro, and Albania, whose Adriatic coastlines collectively host tens of millions of tourists every year, will face severe difficulties. Croatia, which joined the EU in 2013, is among the countries in the world most reliant on tourism, up to 18 per cent of its GDP recently. Its capital Zagreb was also rocked by the worst earthquake in 140 years in late March as coronavirus infections grew.
Tiny Montenegro relies on tourism for at least 11 per cent of its GDP. And economists have predicted a 9 per cent recession for the country of 600,000 people. And Albania, which emerged from one of the most brutal communist dictatorships in the 1990s and recently got the green light to start EU accession talks, will also be hard hit. Tourism accounted for nearly a quarter of GDP.
As some of the lockdowns begin to relax, observers say that the authoritarian powers gained in Serbia and elsewhere may outlast the crisis. And as the EU struggles internally to cope with the political and economic fallout of a pandemic, Beijing, Moscow, and Washington will continue seeking to increase their influence in the region.