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Afghan crisis shows the Balkans is a geopolitical backwater | View

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By Vuk Vuksanovic
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Afghanistan is the hot news on everybody’s foreign policy agenda right now and the ramifications of the debacle are being felt far and wide.

Take for example the Balkans, where there are three key impacts.

The first concerns Balkan countries providing housing to Afghans who collaborated with the US.

The second is that while some governments like Kosovo will try to use the Afghan drama to get closer to the US, others, like Serbia, will try to preserve its balance among great powers.

Third, and potentially the most dangerous ramification for the Balkans, is the possibility that Afghanistan can generate waves of migrants and refugees towards Europe.

The immediate reaction of the Balkan countries was to evacuate their citizens from Afghanistan. However, there are other issues on the agenda as well. Firstly, as the US struggles to secure safety for the Afghans who assisted the US, the Balkans are divided on whether to help the US by housing Afghans until their entry visas to the US are cleared.

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said Albania is willing to host up to 3,000 Afghan refugees. For that purpose, the government enforced a last-minute eviction of students from their dormitories without adequate notice. However, the initial arrival of 300 refugees to the country has been delayed twice. North Macedonia agreed to house 450 Afghans, while Kosovo ambitiously flaunts the number of 10,000 people.

In contrast, while Montenegro joined the EU-US statement on the safe passage from Afghanistan, it does not feel obligated to offer refuge to Afgan citizens. Serbia also joined the statement but is unlikely to provide housing for Afghans. As Timothy Less from the Centre for Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge explained to the Serbian press, Serbia attributes the loss of Kosovo to the US policy of nation-building and is unlikely to help the US rescue its failed project.

Secondly, while some are using the opportunity to score with the West, primarily the US, Serbia struggles to maintain its balance between the West on the one hand and Russia and China on the other.

For the three countries that did accept Afghans, this was a way to play the US card, with the prospects of EU membership distant. As former Albanian ambassador to the US, Agim Nesho openly stated for Albania, “this action was a chance to court acceptance by the West.”.

As a favour to the US, Albania already hosts 3,000 members of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK), a radical Iranian anti-regime group.

Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti was even more direct: “Kosovo has the US as its main ally and irreplaceable strategic partner. The issue of housing Afghan refugees, apart from the aspect of humanitarian solidarity on our part, has a dimension of an alliance and partnership with the US.”

In the case of Belgrade, the Afghanistan crisis is another challenge for its policy of balancing between Western and non-Western powers. According to the Serbian press, Belgrade was reluctant to join the mentioned EU-US statement on Afghanistan to avoid angering Russia and China but caved in due to pressures from the US and Germany as a way to ease future pressures on the Kosovo dispute. Indeed, Serbia is not closing its door on the US. The chair of the Serbian parliament, Ivica Dačić, recently stated that during his time as the Serbian Foreign Minister (2014-2020), Serbia hosted several secret talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban representatives, including talks with former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani via video link.

While Serbia only provided the location, it was confirmed that this was done with US backing. Dačić, considered part of a pro-Russian faction in the Serbian government, criticised the West for the increase of narcotics production in Afghanistan under their watch and the fact that the former Afghan government recognised Kosovo. Still, he also noted that both the Washington and Moscow led Afghan talks failed. For Serbia, the main challenge remains to have an open channel with the US and Kosovo’s non-recognisers, Russia and China, without fully tilting to either side. The Afghan fallout just confirmed that reality.

The Balkans could also find itself as a corridor for Afghan asylum seekers heading towards Europe. Greece has already completed a 40km wall on its border with Turkey with an auxiliary surveillance system. The last migrant crisis (2015-2016) moved the region away from the EU and instilled fear in the Balkans that the EU only views it as a buffer and dumping ground for migrants.

During the last crisis, Serbia scored good reputational points for its humane treatment of refugees. Now the situation is different. Many in the EU are wary of taking in new refugees. Neighbouring Croatia continuously practices draconian pushback against migrants. The Croatian President Zoran Milanović openly stated: “All of them should find their place in the United States. We can symbolically receive a small number of people. It is no longer 2015.”

Meanwhile, the far-right groups are capitalising on anti-migrant sentiments and fears that are rising across the former Yugoslavia.

To make matters worse, Turkey has been known for using migration flow to leverage Brussels. Ankara is reinforcing its border with Iran. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that Turkey would not become Europe’s “refugee warehouse” while urging Europe to accept responsibility for the Afghans.

Indeed, the Balkans are at risk of being on the migration route and being in the middle of a political tit for tat between the EU and Turkey.

The threats of terrorism and religious radicalisation should not be exaggerated, but uncontrolled migrant flows are an inductive environment for these threats to emerge.

Sadly, the Afghan episode does not offer any geopolitical wisdom or policy prescriptions for the Balkans and the people living there.

It is just a painful acknowledgement that the region remains a geopolitical backwater on the Western periphery whose elites can only react to the global forces to which the Balkans is exposed from the outside and pray they do not get burned in the process.

Vuk Vuksanovic is a PhD researcher in international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), an associate of LSE IDEAS, LSE’s foreign policy think tank, and a researcher at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP).