“The Balkans have always been the scene of rivalry between the great powers. In the 19th century, between the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. In the 20th century, after the Second World War, between the liberal West and Soviet communism. In the 21st century it is the scene of competition between the ‘Collective West’ – as Russia cites it in reference to NATO, the US and the EU – and the revisionist powers. But its current interest is above all whether the coming world order will be multipolar or bipolar and in both cases China has an enormous interest in the region,” Mira Milosevic-Juaristi, principal researcher at the Elcano Royal Institute, explains to this newspaper.

The Balkans are already the favorite objective of almost everyone, although they barely stand out on the maps. China builds corridors, infrastructure, mines… Turkey, infrastructure in addition to selling weapons, providing political and religious support… Russia consolidates its political, religious and economic ties. The United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, are showing their heads under construction. And there is the US, with a military base like the enormous Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo. The Western Balkans are where the interests of Europeans and the main global powers that target Europe collide. And they go further.

“Everyone is looking for influence, and in the case of China, also, building an economic network that reaches Europe, something highly discussed in the European environment as seen for example in relation to the control of its investments and the ban on TikTok,” he explains. For her part, Ruth Ferrero, political scientist at the Complutense University, specialist in this region. “The Balkans are a very suitable region, because they are located on the immediate periphery of the European Union and perhaps they can enter it in a not very long period of time,” she continues.

Its geographical location is strategic. Located between continental Europe and the maritime areas of the Adriatic Sea and the Mediterranean, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Albania are member countries of NATO. And the first two from the EU. And although they do not have many natural resources, they do need investment. It’s a big market. It’s a great opportunity.

The Balkans may not have great strategic importance, but they do have instrumental importance, because they are a key part of the EU’s defense architecture regarding immigration channels, organized crime, relations with geopolitical rivals, ports and roads with commercial relevance. . explain the specialists. And so it is not surprising that Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Serbia a few days ago as part of his first trip to Europe in five years.

They are, in all cases, a gateway to the EU. And Miguel Roán, also a specialist in the Balkans, asked if it is his way of assaulting Europe “but through the back door,” answers directly: “They are bilateral relations, although obviously the counterweight is exercised by power. Relationships also depend on local interests. Sometimes they seek investment, other times they force Brussels and Washington to divert their agenda towards the area. Each country has its strategy apart from what the powers decide and are interested in.”

There are plenty of cases. Kosovo, for example, has close relations with the US and avoids dealings with China, but offers itself to Turkey. Serbia, for its part, is very sympathetic to China to the point of defending Chinese demands on Taiwan and approaches Moscow to defend the non-recognition of Kosovo or to oppose a UN resolution on Srebrenica, but when Putin relates the legitimacy of the independence of Donbass with Kosovo, shows its discontent.

The key is given by Marc Casals, journalist, writer and resident of Sarajevo for years, who quotes this newspaper: “The majority of projects are not designed for street people. The clearest example is the Belgrade Waterfront, developed by an opaque construction company in Abu Dhabi. Perhaps there is slightly greater sympathy depending on who is promoting them, but except for those who directly benefit, they are generally seen with a distance.”

Governments seem to be their favorite target.

The map highlights how China invests in public debt in Serbia and Montenegro, builds basic infrastructure such as highways in Montenegro and North Macedonia or the railway line between Belgrade-Budapest, in addition to already controlling key communication nodes such as the port of Piraeus in Greece. and Tirana airport in Albania. Then there is its softpower, investing in cultural centers, radio, internet and press media or scholarships.

Problem: “There is practically no local adherence to Chinese culture. Russia and Turkey, with less economic weight, have strong local roots and resort to softpower to make their imperial ancestry (Russian and Ottoman) profitable, the first in the Slavic-Orthodox world (Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro) and the second in the Muslim and Bosnian (Sandzak, between Serbia and Montenegro; Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo…) with the financing of religious centers or the sale of weapons,” Roán specifies.

How it is lived at street level is also summarized by Casals: “Above all, investments from China are discussed, due to their novelty. Russia, Turkey and the Emirates have been present in the Balkans for years, so their presence is almost taken for granted. Of course, the perception varies according to the country and, above all, according to the nation: Serbs feel an affinity with Russia, and Bosnians with Turkey; “It is a historical-cultural affinity that sometimes makes its presence seem greater than it really is,” he explains.

The reason: the investments of the EU and especially Germany in Serbia are much greater than those of Russia, and Turkey invests much more in Serbia than in Bosnia.

The European response is, once again, to reactivate the community enlargement policy (here the recent Vanguardia Dossier special on the issue). However, as former Spanish diplomat in the area Josep M. Lloveras recalls, “there is diversity on both sides. There is no single European policy regarding this region apart from the European enlargement policy, where the sensitivities between the Member States are diverse. And Serbia, due to its history and its place, generates particular mistrust and vice versa.”

Although the maps speak for themselves and say that the region is filled with lines and points of investment by foreign powers. The Western Balkans are once again protagonists in the tug-of-war between the powers.