Glimmers of hope in the Balkans

Glimmers of hope in the Balkans

What with the general insecurity in the broader region, it has almost gone unnoticed that there just might be cause for hope in our neighborhood. Perhaps it is because the shock of a mass influx of refugees and migrants tested relations between countries but also prompted closer cooperation; perhaps the change of climate stems from the change of government in Skopje; perhaps it is simply time for Southeastern Europe to find a way out of chronic inertia, as its countries display anemic growth; perhaps China’s dynamic entry is getting things moving. What matters is that various forms of cooperation are developing in a region distinguished by tension and conflict.

Indicative of this is that Greece, Bulgaria and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia are working together to guard their borders, for the better management of refugees and migrants and for greater effectiveness against organized crime. The relationship is both bilateral and within framework of the European Union. The current quietness on Greece’s northern borders is, of course, the result of the EU-Turkey deal which saw migrant flows dry up (until they picked up again over the last few months, with 4,800 new arrivals in September). Also, the Frontex common border force and newly minted European coast guard, along with intense pressure from Brussels, resulted in greater cooperation. This is a priority for Bulgaria, which undertakes the EU’s revolving presidency on January 1 and is also a candidate for joining the Schengen Area of passport-free travel. For Skopje, cross-border police cooperation is part of a package of confidence-building measures being negotiated with Athens.

Greece supports Bulgaria’s and Romania’s efforts to join Schengen, despite the fact that it finds itself in an awkward situation with its partners within the zone, with Germany imposing strict controls on airline passengers traveling from Greece. It is encouraging, however, that the government whose leader famously declared that it would be no big deal if Greece were booted out of the Schengen area now appears to understand its value and willing to fight to remain within it.
On the economic front, China’s dynamic entry into the region, which began with shipping company Cosco’s investment in the port of Piraeus, has had a broad impact. As part of its “One Belt, One Road” initiative, Beijing is working on major infrastructure and logistics projects, as well as having Chinese state banks offer low-interest loans to businesses. In a recent report for the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, economist Jens Bastian noted how an “anchor investment” like Cosco’s in Piraeus creates a spillover effect – from further Chinese investments in local companies to rail links in Central Europe. Such thinking is contagious: In September Greece and Bulgaria signed a memorandum of cooperation for rail links between the ports of Thessaloniki, Kavala and Alexandroupoli and the Black Sea and the Danube.

The change of government in Skopje seems to be leading to warmer relations with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’s neighbors, including Greece. United Nations-mediated negotiations on the name issue in Brussels on December 11-12, along with a visit by the country’s deputy prime minister, might lead to some progress. Skopje is aware that its hopes for joining NATO and for starting accession talks with the EU pass through Athens.

The Balkans are, of course, synonymous with nationalist passions, endless historical conflicts and dashed hopes. Without being led astray by excessive expectations, though, it would be useful to note positive signals and encourage any moves toward cooperation between neighbors, for their common security and development.

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