Finland Should support the Western Balkans EU integration as it did with the Baltics

Kalevi Sorsa Foundation has supported democracy in the Western Balkans since 200. Additionally, we want to bring the voices of the Western Balkans into the European debate. In this article, the President of a Serbian think tank Academy for Democratic Development, Balša Božović writes about why Finland should take an active role in supporting the Western Balkans path towards the EU membership. He suggests that Finland could support the Western Balkans the same way it did with the Baltic's in the 1990's when they were applying for their EU membership.

· Balša Božović

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Russia has proven its ability to provoke unrest in the Western Balkans

The conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East have highlighted Europe’s vulnerabilities. These developments present European Union with a novel set of circumstances requiring the consolidation of its strength, reorganization of its internal capabilities, and the continuation of its role as a beacon of peace, democracy, and freedom across the continent.

In these changing geopolitical landscapes, the European Union finds itself lacking the capacity to defend Ukraine or influence the cessation of hostilities in the Middle East. Obviously, EU must continue the supporting Ukraine, but it also has the opportunity to solve problems in its own immediate neighborhood, notably the Western Balkans.

The onset of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has further complicated the dynamics within the Western Balkans. Russia has demonstrated not only its ability to halt the region’s progress towards EU integration but also its capacity to instigate unrest, cause instability, and intimidate Europe by suggesting the possibility of opening a ”second front” in the Balkans.

Although lacking the power to incite a widespread war in the region, Russia has shown it can provoke disturbances i.e. in Northern Kosovo, which is evidenced by the terrorist attack in Banjska, Kosovo, thereby signalling to the EU and its Western allies its active and destructive presence in the Western Balkans.

This malign influence is predominantly funnelled through the regime of President Aleksandar Vučić in Serbia. Vučić’s administration, alongside Lukashenko’s in Belarus, stands out in Europe for its refusal to align Serbian foreign and security policy with that of the EU. Amidst the war in Ukraine, Serbian officials have been rewarded by Putin for adhering to a so-called military and foreign policy neutrality, which, in reality, solely benefits Moscow’s regime.

Serbia remains the only country, besides Belarus, not to impose sanctions on Russia. Instead it has chosen to deepen its cooperation with Russia since the onset of aggression against Ukraine. Thus, Russia impedes Serbia’s EU integration and reform processes. Russia has also extended its influence to Northern Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and even North Macedonia.

Does this necessitate Serbia’s isolation? No. Should efforts towards strengthening democracy and rule of law in the Western Balkans be abandoned? Certainly not. Any neglect by Western partners, whether partial or total, merely solidifies Russia’s influence network and further undermines peace in the region.

The Nordic countries could help in resolving the Western Balkans’ Challenges

Firstly, the political instability of the six small Western Balkan states should be addressed by the European Union. The EU must assert that the Western Balkans fall within its sphere of influence and interest. It needs to demonstrate the functionality of its political mechanisms and its capacity to successfully integrate the Western Balkans. Such actions would significantly bolster the EU’s self-confidence and credibility, as becoming a global power necessitates proving its efficacy as a regional force first.

Secondly, the time has come for EU member states to shoulder part of the burden of Western Balkans European integration, showing additional solidarity with the EU’s consolidation efforts. It’s widely acknowledged that the existing model of EU enlargement has depleted its capacities and trust, necessitating a rejuvenating approach, particularly with the aid of EU member states themselves. Here, the Baltic model of EU integration, associated with Finland, merits consideration.

During the 1990s, as the three Baltic states embarked on their journey towards EU membership, three Nordic EU member states—Denmark, Sweden, and Finland—partnered with Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. These Nordic countries provided the Baltic’s with training for public officials, assistance in law harmonization, institution building, and the establishment of necessary decision-making and implementation procedures. They also facilitated communication with EU institutions. This approach is heralded as the most successful instance of EU integration since 2004, if not in its entire history.

The neutrality of the Nordic countries is one of the reasons to apply the Baltic model in the Western Balkans. The role of the largest member states or neighboring countries, would be problematic for the Western Balkans as they have political interests in the region. It could undermine the citizens trust in the EU and the integration process.

Therefore, the six EU member states – Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Estonia would be excellent partners. They are stable democracies with no particular political interests in the Western Balkans. In addition, they are strongly committed to the EU.

Finland can be of great importance to the Western Balkan countries

Finland’s relevance to the Western Balkans extends beyond its democratic achievements and economic stability. Its most critical asset is its extensive experience in counteracting Russian influence, the primary vulnerability of Western Balkan states, especially Serbia, which is the most susceptible to Russian sway.

The advocacy for the Baltic model in the Western Balkans was initiated by Prof. Dr. Vesna Pusić, former Croatian Minister of Foreign Affairs, during the international conference PLENUM in Zagreb in 2022. She articulated the necessity of surrounding Serbia with success to counteract Russian influence, emphasizing the need for a successful integration story by 2030 to restore the EU’s credibility and agility, particularly important for Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and the Western Balkans.

Montenegro, despite its small size and economy, is ready for EU membership but faces political crises instigated by pro-Russian factions and with Serbia’s assistance. Their aim is to derail the country’s European path. Finland, along with Estonia, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Ireland, can support Montenegro, Albania, North Macedonia, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina in their democratic reforms and European integration efforts. The support would also symbolize Europe’s return to the Western Balkans.

Serbia, with its substantial pro-European opposition and societal need to escape decades of Moscow’s influence, requires robust and decisive partners like Finland to realign with Europe. The Baltic model of European integration could serve as a vital instrument for the region’s Europeanization, ensuring peace and stability in Southeast Europe.

Balša Božović is the president of Academy for Democratic Developmend which is a Serbian-based regional Think Tank promoting the culture of dialogue and development of democratic processes through policy making. Among other things, Božović has previously been a member of the Serbian parliament for many years and the city counselor in the Assembly of the City of Belgrade.

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