Date: 30 May 2019
Conference summary: “Western Balkans: Infrastructure and Energy from a Geopolitical Perspective”
The international conference “Western Balkans: Infrastructure and Energy From a Geopolitical Perspective” was held on May 29 in Warsaw, Poland. The conference was co-organized by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the editorial team of the geopolitical quarterly The Warsaw Institute Review. The event was part of the official program of Poland’s presidency of the Berlin Process and served as a preparatory meeting for the 2019 Western Balkans Summit, which will take place in Poznań. The event’s contents partner was the Warsaw Institute think tank.
The primary purpose of the conference was to encourage an expert discussion on EU integration processes in the Western Balkan countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, North Macedonia, and Serbia) in such domains as infrastructure and energy along with the impact exerted by global and local geopolitical processes. The conference was attended by top scholars and experts, representatives of non-governmental organizations, media and state administration from both the Western Balkans and the European Union.
In his welcoming remarks, President of the Warsaw Institute Krzysztof Kamiński outlined the key topics of the discussion while highlighting the importance of the expert debate on EU integration of the Western Balkans. He described general assumptions of panel discussions regarding infrastructure, energy and geopolitics. He emphasized that Polish expert centers, such as the Warsaw Institute think tank or the editorial office of The Warsaw Institute Review geopolitical quarterly, are ready to undertake important initiatives together with experts from the Western Balkans, aimed at supporting the region’s efforts in integration with the European Union.
In the keynote speech, Deputy Foreign Minister of the Republic of Poland and Plenipotentiary of the Polish Government for the Western Balkans Summit Szymon Szynkowski vel Sęk said that the development of infrastructure and energy sectors in the Western Balkans is of key importance for the European integration process.
He emphasized that Poland is fully aware of the significance of infrastructural connections and networks as it overcame similar development challenges.
Mr. Szynkowski vel Sęk underlined that Poland strongly encourages any efforts made to integrate the Western Balkans with the European Union.
The event was an occasion to present a conference report containing an extensive description of infrastructural and energy issues while focusing on the influence of crucial international actors in the Western Balkan region. The most important theses of the report were then discussed by Jakub Lachert, an expert at the Warsaw Institute and the principal author of the paper.
Any issues vital for the integration of Western Balkan countries with the European Union were raised during the panel discussions, during which participants spoke about the development of road, railway, aviation, and maritime infrastructure in a regional context. Also, panelists discussed energy projects in the Western Balkans and possibilities to boost energy security in the region and in Europe. Given an increased activity of multiple international actors in the area, the discussion then addressed geopolitical approaches to the Western Balkans’ cooperation with China, the European Union, Russia, Turkey, the United States, and NATO.
Session 1: Infrastructure
The first expert panel was moderated by a researcher and expert of EU projects Armela Maxhelaku (Albania) who briefly characterized the infrastructure of the Western Balkans and described foreign mechanisms for bankrolling regional investments.
For his part, President of the European Movement in Montenegro Momcilo Radulovic (Montenegro) claimed that the Western Balkans’ infrastructure needs are enormous and cannot be fully financed by EU grants and loans. Despite their will to use the EU financing mechanisms, the Balkan states are pushed to cooperate among others with China to cover their demand for investments. Given the lengthy EU integration process of the Western Balkans and the lack of understanding from some European partners, the Balkan states expect its EU peers to assume a partnership approach to their integration, which is first to be achieved by tightening economic ties.
Assistant Professor of the Faculty of Political Sciences at the Zagreb University Robert Barić (Croatia) argued that what is the biggest shortcoming of the Berlin Process is that it encompasses both political and diplomatic undertakings yet fails to offer sufficient infrastructure solution that–once put forward–could exert a positive impact on accelerating integration mechanisms. Also, he stressed out the importance of Chinese investments in the region under the New Silk Road initiative, referred to as Beijing’s gateway to Europe, pointing to their plausible positive (general infrastructure development in the area, easier accessibility of transport services and market expansion) and negative (no transparency, unclear and unfair economy practices, dependence on Chinese loans and using foreign authority to build political influence) consequences. “Chinese-funded investments could be referred to as a double-edged sword,” Barić added. Asked about using infrastructure for military purposes, he said that the Western Balkan countries remain focused on developing its infrastructure solely from the economic point of view as a critical factor determining economic security.
President and CEO of IMPETUS Center for Internet, Development and Good Governance Liljana Pecova-Ilieska (North Macedonia) familiarised participants of the event with the responsibility held by the Western Balkan states in preparing and implementing further investment projects, arguing that their transparency remains a considerable challenge that needs to be addressed. In the further part of her speech, she made a reference to the conference report and agreed that the European Union offers the best condition for bankrolling investments in the Western Balkans. She yet claimed that they need full transparency and entail a lengthy bureaucratic process, which prompts the Western Balkan states to opt for easier and faster foreign loans, including Chinese ones.
Deputy Director of the International Cooperation Department at the Ministry of Infrastructure Marcin Rzeszewicz (Poland) provided an outline of Poland ‘s experience as a member of the European Union over the last fifteen years and paid particular attention to the country’s efforts to upgrade its infrastructure. Having cited relevant statistic data, he informed fellow conference participants that Poland is one of the largest beneficiaries of EU funds in this respect. Over the last fifteen years, Poland benefited from EU support, mainly in the form of non-returnable grants, and built or upgraded up to 4,700 kilometers of railways and 4,000 kilometers of various types of roads. Last but not least, he emphasized the effectiveness of Poland’s cooperation with other countries within the structures of the European Union and the Visegrad Group as it allows for pushing ahead significant infrastructure projects of transnational importance, which may be a good sign for the Western Balkan states.
Session 2: Energy
The second discussion panel was moderated by an editor of the Energetyka24 website Maciej Zaniewicz (Poland) who provided a brief insight into the energy and electricity sector while discussing the regional oil and natural gas market.
Director of the Department of Sectoral Policies at the Ministry of European Integration Vjosa Beqaj (Kosovo) outlined the priorities of the Kosovar government in setting new energy-making capacities with the use of both conventional and renewable sources, also informing that the government has been investigating launching gas connections as the country lacks such infrastructure. Speaking of regional energy cooperation, Ms. Beqaj focused on the need to enhance local coordination provided that the Western Balkan countries seek to both implement legislation and fulfill their obligation under the EU Connectivity Agenda. As she said, challenges in integrating particular energy markets have arisen from some political reasons, which need to be handled appropriately by individual countries of the region.
Editor for the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) Besar Likmeta (Albania) said in turn that all Western Balkan states need to put forward an appropriate “masterplan” for regional cooperation. While some countries rely on generating electricity from renewable sources, the amount of energy generated does not always comply with local demand, hence a need for importing electricity supplies and enhancing both quality and efficiency of connections between individual states. What he also stated was that corruption and unclear procedures applying to investments financed by taxpayers have emerged as a considerable challenge that needs to be tackled. Furthermore, he said that there were no long-term studies or risk analyses referring to the extensive use of hydroelectric power plants that enjoyed high popularity in the region.
Director of the Energy Regulatory Agency Novak Medenica (Montenegro) drew attention to short and long-term costs of generating electricity, saying that coal-based energy is far cheaper than renewables and it is easier to use it to boost output capacity yet such a solution entails long-term environmental and health costs. Also, he pointed to the very high share of black coal and lignite in the energy mix while explaining technical and legal factors behind the regional electricity grid and emphasizing a particular role of both operators and regulators in the entire process. Finally, he said that of all Western Balkan countries, Bosnia and Herzegovina is the only electricity net exporter, with others having to ship energy supplies from abroad.
Journalist at an online platform “Balkan Green Energy News” Vladimir Spasic admitted the Balkans’ privileged position in using renewables as a salient feature to be employed to develop the region and reduce CO2 emissions. Also, he referred to the plans of Serbian decision-makers to introduce actions allowing faster development of solar and wind energy. Asked about the role of natural gas in the region, Mr. Spasic said that while most European countries view blue fuel as a good source of transitional energy used for transforming power, the Western Balkans find it challenging to ensure the security of their gas flows. Moreover, he stressed the importance of large energy infrastructure projects in the region, with the TAP, TANAP, and TurkStream pipelines at the forefront.
In turn, Energy and Climate Change Program Coordinator of the Center for Ecology and Energy Denis Žiško (Bosnia and Herzegovina) argued that the Western Balkan countries should focus on developing both the renewable and prosumer energy sector, saying that it is vital to launch decarbonization processes to drastically reduce harmful CO2 emission. Mr. Žiško claimed that the region faced a challenge of selecting an appropriate path of its energy development and called for developing renewable energy instead of its conventional type as the latter will need to be abandoned within the next few decades. The Western Balkans require considerable financial outlays in both respects, yet Mr. Žiško insisted on investing in clean energy to avoid the need for further energy transformations.
In his closing remarks to the second part of the discussion, Mr. Zaniewicz referred to three crucial areas of energy challenges of the Western Balkan states, among which were their high reliance on coal, cooperation between particular energy regulators and allowing coherent coordination of energy connection to be managed by grid operators.
Session 3: Geopolitics
The third discussion panel was moderated by Jakub Lachert (Poland), an expert of the Warsaw Institute and a co-author of the conference report. He outlined the main geopolitical challenged that need to be addressed by the Western Balkan countries as well as he concentrated on an impact exerted by global and regional players. Marija Jankuloska (North Macedonia), a researcher at the Euro-Atlantic Council of Macedonia, who later took the floor, said that it was in NATO’s interest to attract new members. While Albania and Montenegro, both of which have joined the Alliance, and North Macedonia–which hopes to accede to the organization sometime in the future–agree over the direction assumed by transatlantic integration, other countries of the region either oppose the plan or struggle with too many difficulties to be able to join the NATO structures. For countries that welcome NATO’s presence in the area, their integration with the Alliance safeguards their security to a greater extent than in the case of their ties with the European Union.
Assistant editor-in-chief of the Kapital magazine Igor Petrovski (North Macedonia) drew attention to the long-term efforts made by the Western Balkans to tighten EU integration, saying that – despite many bids – the European Union has delayed the process of admitting the six Balkan states into its own community, which sparked off impatience and frustration across the region. To make matters worse, this has given both political and economic ground for other players, including Russia, Turkey, and China, to expand their own influence in the area.
Resident Country Director in Bosnia and Hercegovina at International Republican Institute Borislav Spasojevic (Serbia) spoke about the role played in the region by the United States from the 1990s until now. As he said, Washington remains focused on the area while undertaking diplomatic efforts yet avoiding direct actions, primarily if they refer to the Serbian-Kosovo conflict. Also, he pointed out that while EU integration of the Western Balkans has gradually become a longed-for phenomenon, comparable to finding the Holy Grail, not all Balkan states seem to enjoy the progress made in their transatlantic integration.
Director of the Institute for National and International Security (INIS) Darko Trifunović said that the Western Balkans needed to face a number of threats posed by Russia, including disinformation, media activities, harmful influence, dishonest and unclear economic practices, terrorism and attempts to meddle into other states’ domestic affairs, as exemplified by the attempted coup in Montenegro. Speaking of the latter event, he outlined efforts made by the government in Podgorica to join the Alliance, choosing first to integrate with NATO and then with the EU. While referring to geopolitical influences in Serbia, he said that “neutrality is very expensive” when it regards security issues. Serbia has turned down an invitation from NATO in a bid to remain a neutral state. Under the hybrid warfare, which is, according to the expert, now taking place in the area, the country needs the region’s solidarity in order not to become “a Russian foothold in a Europe full of missiles.” Last but not least, he added that “Serbia is under no illusions that, once deprived of European help, it will lose to Russia and it is unlike to be granted such support.”
We kindly thank our guests and participants for attending our conference.
Click here to see the archive page and the event’s detailed agenda.
Launched seven years ago, the sub-regional cooperation 16+1 format, aimed at boosting economic partnership between China and its partners in the Balkans and Central and Eastern Europe encounters, has yet been developing with varying degrees of success. So far, countries such as Hungary, Albania, Bosnia, and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia have taken most from the project.
Russia sees further processes of NATO and EU enlargement to the Western Balkans as a potential threat, hoping to keep the region away from these Western structures. Russia destabilizes the region by sustaining “frozen conflicts” and escalating tensions.
The region of the Western Balkans comprises the countries of the Balkan Peninsula that found themselves surrounded by the EU Member States after the accession of Hungary and Slovenia (2004), Bulgaria and Romania (2007), and Croatia (2013) to the European structures. Outside the EU structures are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Montenegro, Serbia, and Kosovo.