Ioannis Michaletos
(RIEAS Analyst)


The Balkans Peninsula has claimed the fame numerously in history as the “Tinderbox of Europe”, the “Soft underbelly of Europe” and its inhabitants were accused that they “produce more history than they can consume”.  The previous quotes are apt oral depictions of the significance of this Peninsula for the European affairs. The developments over the past period have proved once again that global players tend to filter their tactics in the Balkans and in the process gain or loose significantly.

The summer of 2007 witnessed the dynamic tour de force of President Bush in Albania and Bulgaria, claiming the forthcoming entrance of NATO well into the Western Balkans and the turn of the balance between USA and Russia. In parallel, Moscow prepared itself and retaliated with a series of transnational energy agreements that saw the commission of a 4 billion nuclear power plant by Sofia, the drafting of plans for a new “South Stream” gas pipeline and the imminent sale of the main state energy corporation of Serbia to Gazprom.

Bucharest’s dawn

By far the most intriguing development in the power struggle between world powers and powerful interests was the recent NATO Bucharest summit. Albania and Croatia received the ticket for the eventual NATO entrance, whilst FYROM was left out due to the Greek Veto and Georgia and Ukraine were effectively left out because of the fierce denial from Paris and Berlin mostly.

The Russian-American rivalry bring European nations into a difficult spot, since they are very much dependent on the secure and stable energy flow from Eurasia which is under the influence of the Russian companies. Most importantly any sudden change of the balance of powers brings closer the prospect of another Balkan conflict and perhaps even that of a major peripheral war that would render EU’s ambitions as the most important stabilizing force in the contemporary world.

In short the Europeans and the Russians rejected American plans and gave a heavy blow to an ill-formed expansion that would have eventually laid the basis for a third world war because of a European economic crisis and an insecure but nuclear capable Russia.

A very enlightening aspect of the above was the Greek veto towards the application by Skopje for NATO membership. Athens since late August 2007 had drafted the policy of vetoing its neighbor due to the Macedonia name issue. The reaction by almost all NATO partners could be considered as hostile to Greece, since they deemed this issue as not so important as the entrance of yet another Balkan state to the Euro-Atlantic framework. At least that were the analyses presented by the international media and commentators, that failed to grasp the “Devil hidden in the detail”. Greece’s stance became a perfect opportunity for the European capitals to show their version of a red line in connection to the State Department’s ambitions.

Thus France and its President Nicola Sarkozy backed Athens claiming his Greek-Jewish roots from Thessaloniki while Italy, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Luxemburg, and Iceland took a clear pro-Greek stance. UK, Canada, Germany, Bulgaria and Romania either stayed in the sidelines of tacitly backed Greek propositions in order to distant themselves from the American side. In essence for the first time in NATO’s almost 60 years history, Washington became isolated from its historical partners managing only to have the support of Turkey, Slovenia and the Baltic states. The “Old Europe” took its revenge just 5 years after Donald Rumsfeld arrogantly declared the emergence of a “New Europe”, which judged under a realistic prism, is more of an American follower, rather than a partner in the true sense of the word.

Greek connection & role

The developments now seem difficult to predict, but in relation to Greece the path followed remains towards the continuation of administered talks with FYROM that will culminate after the 1st of June and the election period in the country. On the Kosovo front Athens remains adamant in recognizing Pristina since that would violate its policy of strict adherence in the International Law and the situation in Cyprus that could deteriorate due to a precedent like the Kosovo one.

The Cypriot government from its turn, signed an important agreement with France signaling close intelligence cooperation, coupled with an overall defense agreement. The traditional Greek-French cooperation that dates back centuries has been enchased and the coming visit of Sarkozy in Athens in May 2008 will signal according to many industry pundits the agreement for the procurement of 4th generation “Rafale” fighters by Greece, worth more than 4 billion Euros.

Athens moved fast over the previous month in securing a great deal with the German telecom giant Deutche Telecom that bought 20% of the Greek one for 2, 5 billion Euros and it presently negotiates for the management by acquiring an additional 5%.  The Greek corporation owns a majority and minority shares in the Romanian, Serbia, Albanian, FYROM, and Bulgarian telecom sectors. Therefore the Greek-German alliance provides ample opportunities to the latter to expand its reach well-into the Balkans. The Greek electricity company has also signed a memorandum concerning Balkan investments with the German RWE and in overall those two agreements enchase Germany’s role in claiming a stake in the Balkan telecommunication and energy networks.

In reality the policy of Greece assists in the stabilization of the Balkans through the use of the largest European states who always had major interests in this region and are in need of setting up bases in order to formulate their ambitions. In parallel the support of Greece to the planned pipeline networks by Russia, plus the inauguration of the Greek-Turkish pipeline carrying Azeri gas, further attests to the ability of Athens to promote the interdependence of the Eurasian producers and the Western consumers that will mainly drive away any fears for a renewed cold war, at least in the foreseeable future.

Another interesting point to consider when judging Greece’s new role in the evolving Balkan scenery, is the existence of the world’s largest merchant fleet owned by Greeks. Approximately 20% of the worldwide shipping industry is directed by Greeks and if one calculates that 90% of the world trade is carried by Sea, then the importance of the 18 million Greeks in the world stage is illuminated further. The existence of some 400 billion USD in capital reserves by Greek shipowners and their excellent connections with the Chinese, Japanese and Arab and Jewish capital influenced markets makes them ideal partners for any power wishing to acquire a greater role in the Balkans. In that respect Athens considers itself ready for more bold initiatives in the region within the coming period.

Lastly a major security issue that concerns Balkan stability nowadays is the existence of radical Islamic armed groups, with a focus in Kosovo, Western FYROM and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The role of Greece could be of importance judging by its warm relations with the intelligence apparatus of both Israelis and Arabs in the Middle East and its well-formed security infrastructure. It is of importance to consider the practicality of establishing security frameworks in the Balkans by outside forces when the already existing ones have the necessary means and mentality to cope with the perils and are perfectly acquainted with the existing landscape.  Moreover Greece’s role complimented with Bulgaria and Serbia secures in a geopolitical sense the balance of powers in the region and diminishes any probabilities for dramatic upturns that could lead to a conflict of any kind.

American disorientation

The American diplomacy during the ‘90’s passed a historical milestone that witnessed the end of the Cold War, the proliferation of its agencies, departments and foreign accreditations along with the redirection of its strategy from the Soviet Union to countless other engagements such as international terrorism. Even though the Balkan region became a testing ground of Washington’s new role as envisaged by certain ideologically frantic American circles, the reality proved to be of different nature. The single-polar world never existed, apart from a brief period in the ‘90’s that quickly passed in the realm of history. The modern challenges require flexibility, cooperation with partners and most importantly adherence to the rules of the game as described by the International Law and Treaties.

In that sense Kosovo’s independence could have been prevented hence enabling USA to become the factor of stability for the Balkans. Nowadays this role is quickly undertaken by the EU and Russia who is also making strong advances in order to gain lost ground.

It should be noted that the principle power that can assist in the speedy resolution of the long-standing issues in the Balkans and beyond is USA, therefore its responsibility for the consequences of its own actions is great. The American 2008 elections in November do not show any signs of improvement though, and it might be proper for the groups of the “international sages” to move forward and provide their advices to the disoriented politicians and the hesitant diplomats.

Future outcomes

The role of Greece remains of paramount importance for the Balkans, and its strategy has wider ramifications. The future projections can be summoned on two parameters. Firstly Greece will seek an even louder voice in the regional developments by using the connections it has cemented in the previous years. That means it will seek to keep the Aegean-Panonian axis secure from political instability that may be caused by Albanian radical elements. Already the Greek business confederation in Belgrade is optimist around a 100% increase on Greek investments in Serbia, totaling 4 billion by 2010. Moreover Greek security networks closely monitor the arms contraband trade in the triangle between Tetovo-Kukes-Pristina and in parallel keep a vigilant stance towards moves by the Turkish intelligence to establish support bases in the Southern Balkans.

The existence of destabilization plans concerning the Balkans and directed by transnational criminal groups that assess the loss of their influence in the region, will most certainly inflict Greece. During the catastrophic wildfires of summer 2007, the analysis based on the frequency of the fires, the geographic location and the commentary coming from credible sources; indicated a relation between the evolving Balkan scenery and the existence of non-state criminal actors that sought to manipulate events to their ends and viewed Greece as a threat because of its stabilization role.

Provocations, ranging from extremist plans to psychological warfare and fierce business in fight in Greece should not be excluded. Moreover the important elections in Serbia in the coming days will reveal more of the tactic Belgrade will follow and that is another point to assess for.

Once again the Balkans become accustomed to their political nature as it was quoted by Bismarck who claimed that a new war could come about from some “Silly thing in the Balkans”. Perhaps the evolving Balkan landscape might not be silly at all for power interests that have capitalized extensively in instability and decadence and are viewing the latest developments under a distressful eye fearing the loss of their bases and influence. Certainly the current age is suitable for serious consideration by world policy makers that must make clear of their intentions concerning the preferred balance of powers in the world. Not everyone could be content and those who profit through instability is better to be isolated swiftly and without hesitation.

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