German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Nov. 16 that Serbia has completed the prerequisites to lift the restriction of the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the European Union. Merkel's comments are a major step for Serbia — the SAA is the last step before Serbia's final application to the European Union. Additionally, EU foreign ministers supported Albania's request for official EU candidate status. The moves to support two Western Balkan countries reflect the European Union's efforts to limit growing Russian and Turkish influence in the region.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Nov. 16 during her meeting with Serbian President Boris Tadic in Berlin that Germany believes Serbia has fulfilled all of its conditions to have the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the European Union unfrozen, a key step before Serbia's final application to the European Union. She also said that Germany would continue to talk with its European partners that are keeping the process frozen, meaning The Netherlands. This is a great boost for Serbia, since Germany is an EU heavyweight that can exert significant pressure on the rest of the bloc to make Belgrade's candidacy become a reality. Also on Nov. 16, EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels backed Albania's request for official EU candidate status. It will now be up to the EU Commission to decide whether Albania is eligible for the candidacy. The two moves are the clearest indication thus far from the European Union that it is serious about bringing the rest of the Balkans into the European Union as soon as possible. This indicates that the bloc is finally prepared to pay the price — which will be quite high considering the economic and social state of Western Balkans — for getting the region under its control and staving off recent Russian and Turkish attempts to edge back into the region. The expansion of the European Union is a process influenced by geopolitics. The accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007 was largely motivated by the European Union's desire to block off any Russian influence in troubled Western Balkans. The two countries were technically not ready to accede to the union then, and judging by continued corruption and organized crime concerns, may not be ready even today. (click here to enlarge map) The European Union slowed down its enlargement initiative following Romania and Bulgaria's accession to deal with its internal constitutional reforms, and to stymie public opposition to enlargement. The shift in the European Union's stance is motivated directly by the influence of Russia and Turkey in the Balkans. Turkey recently demonstrated its backing of Bosnia-Herzegovina — and specifically of the Muslim Bosniaks — by lobbying the United States to back off from the constitutional reform process in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the so-called Butmir process. This occurred to the chagrin of the European Union, which was enthusiastically taking charge of the process. Both Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made it clear that Bosnia-Herzegovina is a key concern to Ankara, with Davutoglu telling U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a meeting in Zurich in October that what happens in Sarajevo constitutes internal politics for Turkey, according to STRATFOR sources in Bosnia and Herzegovina's government. Turkish political and business influence has also been on the rise in Albania and Kosovo, with Davutoglu making trips to the region in October and with Turkish businesses moving into the region. Meanwhile, Russia has become more active in the region. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev made a much publicized visit to Belgrade in October, bringing with him a 1 billion euro loan and talk of a strategic partnership with Serbia. Russia has also become more involved in Bosnia-Herzegovina where it has touted itself as the guarantor of Republika Srpska, the Serbian political entity. During his most recent visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina at the beginning of November, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for the closure of the Office of the High Representative, the international administrator of the country, a line favored by Bosnian Serb leaders. From the European Union's perspective, political meddling by Turkey and Russia will only make matters worse for the region. The European Union's ability to force countries in the region to do what it wants rests on EU accession, which is the key incentive that it can offer to various Balkan countries. With Turkey telling Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina that they are a central part of its sphere of influence and with Russia handing out money and support to Serbia and Serbs in Bosnia there is suddenly an alternative to the long and arduous accession process to the union. Until now, the European Union could confidently leave the Western Balkans contained (surrounded by other NATO and EU member states) with no real sense of urgency, content that the region had no other choice but to progress toward the European Union. However, Moscow's and Ankara's enthusiasm to renew influence in the region worries the European Union. Particularly troubling is the potential that various ethnic groups could view Russia and Turkey as backers for renewed rounds of ethnic contestation in the region. The last thing the European Union wants on its periphery is another round of security concerns. The question now is if it waited too long to make this shift.