The Systemic Battleground of Europe

By Clay Moore

Upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe received the opportunity to orient their economic and governmental systems to either the east or the west.  The region has been a transit-zone for aspirational empire-builders for hundreds of years, serving as a bothersome speed bump for hungry armies and glory seekers.  A fledgling European Union with expansionary vision viewed the region as an opportunity to expand European values across the continent, while a weakened Moscow remained apprehensive about the public animosity in the formerly occupied states of the Russian near-abroad.  Consequently, both Moscow and Brussels have attempted to influence Central and Eastern European states using distinct methods with varying success. Aside from the overarching economic and political influences represented by the European Union and Moscow, sub-regional and state-specific engagements have been met with varying success for both sides.  Using Federov’s and Moiso’s analyses, this product will examine how Brussels and Moscow apply their respective systemic norms and values to Central and Eastern European states as well as the ability for the East and West to apply sub-regional, “personalized” approaches, using the Western Balkans as a case study.

Forced Empire

Through much of history, Central and Eastern Europe has represented both a security threat and an opportunity to Russia.  Peter the Great viewed Europe west of the Vistula river as a model of what Russia should strive to become; wealthy, prosperous and technologically advanced.  However, Russia’s three most damaging wars in the past two centuries have featured Western European belligerents, using Central and Eastern Europe as a highway to Moscow.  As a continental nation situated in the passageway of Eurasia, Russia has been forced to expand her borders and influence to acquire the necessary breathing space to counter foreign invaders before they arrive at the Kremlin.  This geographic problem has permeated Russian foreign and security policy since the creation of a unified state, as Yuri Federov states, “expansion and building of the Empire became strategic values for the Russian discourse and are often perceived as norms of the country’s external activities.” (Federov, 2013)  Moscow has desired an eastern-leaning policy orientation in Central and Eastern European states at the very least, interfering when necessary to prevent the region becoming unacceptably western-inclined.

Russian foreign policy principles in Central and Eastern Europe have been relatively practical and adept.  Corrupt governments and loose rule of law in Central and Eastern European states have allowed Russia to influence its European near abroad in a myriad of ways with varying degrees of success.  Moscow utilized the formerly Soviet bureaucratic systems in the newly independent countries to manipulate policymakers through identity politics, bribery, assassination, and funding of pro-Russian politicians.  Additionally, the Russian energy giant Gazprom has served as an instrument of Russian foreign policy by manipulating energy prices to Central and Eastern European states. (Corum, 2013)  Moscow’s method of focusing on relationships and informal economic and political agreements are oftentimes attractive to a target national government or opposition as it translates to relatively quick, short term benefits without easily attributable public animosity.

Western Promises

European values and principles focus on rule of law, transparency, human rights, economic freedom, and voluntary participation.  The European Union has sought to embody these principles and serve as a model for Central and Eastern European states to aspire to reform to adhere to extensive admission requirements.  However, this institutional, identity-based approach can be exclusionary, as Sami Moiso states. “Specifying the criteria of admission is the same as building the boundaries of the community, which resolves the problem of long-needed European identity…” (Moiso, 2002)  The second round of post-cold war EU expansion in 2004 marked the first inclusion of both Central and Eastern European nations who were former independent members of the Warsaw Pact as well as the newly-independent Baltic republics.

The European Union’s consistent expansion from its creation expresses the western liberal inclination to spread common norms, values and institution building.  This institutional focus serves European Union interests well in the long term as it creates a common language of governance for all parties involved, however it can require significant economic and political sacrifice from targeted states in the short-to-medium term.  The European Union institutionalized this method via the Copenhagen criteria, which are a set of guidelines regarding human rights, democratic governance, economic openness and the implementation of European Union legislation. The accumulated body of laws, treaties, agreements, and court rulings is referred to as acquis communautaire, which is presented to aspirant states as a model for legal reform and standardization.

The Former Yugoslavia

            The violent breakup of Yugoslavia and the following war in the early 1990s highlighted the danger of political, economic and security vacuums in the context of ethnic hatred and division.  The European integrative effort in the region that followed actually did more to fragment the area than to unite it.  As the effort began, Slovenes and Croats attempted to, as Steil expresses, “recast themselves as lost sheep of the West, returning to the European flock.”  This lengthened the chasm between the poor nations of the region and the better-off ones, creating barriers expressed through crime, tariffs, smuggling, and bribery. (Steil et al., 1999)  The European Union’s Stabilization and Association Process began in 1999 in the region, using past integrative efforts with other states of Central and Eastern Europe as a framework. This led to the Thessaloniki Declaration in 2003, which assessed the progress that the countries of the Western Balkans have made on the path to European integration since 1993.

Steil and Woodward made the case in the Fall 1999 edition of Foreign Affairs that Europe must provide an economic “new deal” to former Yugoslavian states in order to form a basis of long-term stability, non-nationalist politics, and governmental reform.  The authors claim that regional economic development and integration with existing European Union monetary, trade and investment arrangements should be undertaken in southeast Europe, with the ultimate goal of implementing the Euro, deleting internal tariffs, and creating a customs union to harmonize external trade.  The intent is for these economic endeavors, along with an expansion of the Southeast European Cooperative Initiative and fair and equitable justice to Serbian perpetrators of war crimes, is to provide a framework for long-term economic and political security in the former Yugoslavian states. (Steil, 1999)

As the first decade of the twenty-first century has shown, the European Union has been effectively working towards Steil’s proposals.  Both Brussels and the Southeastern European States themselves have cultivated the Southeast European Cooperative Initiative.  These efforts lead to the Regional Cooperation Council, an extension of the Europe 2020 10-year growth plan, and a regional cooperative framework intending to promote mutual cooperation and European and Euro-Atlantic integration of Southeast Europe.  According to Eurostat, European Union exports to the Western Balkans have quadrupled since 2004, with imports increasing five-fold in the same time frame. (Eurostat, 2014)  The Central European Free Trade Agreement replaced the amalgam of bilateral trading schemes for Visegrad group countries.  In 2007, the former Yugoslavian states were added to the agreement, replacing the nations who exited the agreement in favor of the Eurozone.  In addition to several EU Stabilization and Association Agreements with Western Balkan states, World Trade Organization accession negotiations from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina are ongoing.  It is clear that the winds of westward integration are blowing in the Western Balkans.



A map the the EU’s European Neighbourhood Policy.    EU member states – Blue    Enlargement agenda – Green    ENP East – Purple   Russia – Red    ENP South – Orange    Other Union for the Mediterranean member states – Yellow Source: Wikimedia Commons 


These economic endeavors are not occurring in a vacuum, security issues are steadily being resolved as well.  On August 15th, Serbia signed four European Union-moderated agreements with Kosovo, marking a large step forward to normalizing the diplomatic relationship between the former adversaries.  These agreements focused on energy, telecoms, freedom of movement, and ethnic rights.  This steady approach towards mending the scars of the Balkan conflict and economic/political development and reform has been credited to EU guidance and persuasion.  The incentive-based strategy towards accession that the EU has implemented in the region is effectively influencing Balkan policymakers to initiate reforms, albeit at their own pace and with caveats aimed at ensuring fruitful ties with Moscow.

Despite this westward trend, western Balkan engagement with the east limps along; primarily from Serbia.  Despite making strides to gain accession into the European Union, Russian influences remain strong within the country.  In 2013, Belgrade and Moscow signed a declaration on a strategic partnership that focused on economic cooperation, easing the flow of financial investments.  However, Russian capital has already been flooding into Serbia.  Russia’s state-run railway company is currently upgrading a 350-kilometer long stretch of track in the country, and Russian oil giants Gasprom and Lukoil already own majority stakes of Serbian natural gas and energy delivery firms.  Additionally, Russia has been supporting anti-reform politicians in Bosnia and Herzegovenia who are preventing much-needed social, economic, and political reforms. (Dempsey, 2014) Moscow has been applying their foreign policy framework to the Western Balkans, aiming to prevent the region from becoming self-sustainable and fully integrated into the EU.

It appears that, despite the somewhat widespread belief that Moscow retains consistent leverage over Serbia and other Western Balkan states, movement towards Western European economic and security standards has progressed substantially over the beginning of the twenty-first century.  The former Yugoslavia is standing as an example of the effective expansion of European standards and norms into a region, which was in poverty, politically unstable, and scarred by years of ethnic violence and hatred.  This stands in contrast to not only what Moscow has provided but also what Moscow has represented to the inhabitants of the western Balkans.

In summation, the rule and institution-based framework utilized by European Union to influence Central and Eastern European states has operated very effectively, taking into account the individual challenges that aspirant states are forced to confront.  By contrast, Russia’s realpolitik-style, cynical application of coercion, bribery, and informal agreements has largely been ineffective, despite complicating matters for western-looking Central and Eastern European states. At face value, with weak governance, economic performance, and ethnic divisions, the former Yugoslavian states in 1999 appeared to present a strong challenge to European expansion, however the following years presented a successful picture of how these states have progressed westward.  Many years of reform and coordination lie ahead, but the process has been steadily working.  Likely to Moscow’s distain, western Balkan states have aligned their institutional frameworks and economic schemes to the northwest rather than to the east.


  1. Federov, Yuri. Continuity and change in Russia’s policy toward Central and Eastern Europe (2013, July 11). Communist and Post-Communist Studies.
  2. Corum, James. The Security Concerns of the Baltic States as NATO Allies (2013, August) The United States Army War College Strategic Studies Institute
  3. Moiso, Sami. EU Eligibility, Central Europe, and the Invention of Applicant State Narrative (2002, Winter) Frank Kass, London – University of Turku
  4. Steil, Ben, Woodward, Susan. A European “New Deal” for the Balkans (1999, November) Foreign Affairs
  5. European Commission, EuroStat – Total goods: EU Trade flows and balance, annual data 2005 – 2014,
  6. Dempsey, Judy The Western Balkans Are Becoming Russia’s New Playground (2014, November) Carnegie Europe


Clay's picClay Moore is a Master’s Candidate at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce.  He focuses on Russian and Eastern European economics and security.  Questions?  Comments?  Opportunities?  Feel free to email him at


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