After the end of the Cold War, Europe enjoyed the fruits of democratic stability and economic prosperity—except in the Balkans. Yugoslavia experienced a catastrophic civil war, Albania faced major domestic uprisings, Bulgaria and Romania witnessed many failed efforts to establish the rule of law, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* and Kosovo attempted nation-building processes on unstable foundations. The only stable state able to offer political solutions to preserve the Balkan balance of power was Greece, a NATO and European Union member. Athens granted economic and political assistance to Bulgaria and Romania, allowing both countries to hold their first free, post-Cold War elections. It also offered employment to hundreds of thousands of Albanians after the collapse of Tirana’s communist regime. Even now, Greece maintains a military force in Kosovo under NATO command, and its grand strategy is oriented toward the preservation of the regional status quo. With the failure of the Greek state, however, a new power gap is appearing in the Balkans, poised to bring chaos to the region and beyond.
When the Greek crisis began in 2010, only a few analysts understood that the state was buying a non-stop ticket to the land of dystopia. Now, at 23.1 percent, unemployment is the highest in the Eurozone, brain drain is damaging the prospects of eventual normalization, the sovereign debt is growing larger day by day and therefore cannot be served by Athens, and Greece has to face daily Turkish provocations in the Aegean Sea as well as Albanian nationalism, which manifests in Tirana’s hard-line policies toward Albania’s Greek community and its claims to territory in northwestern Greece. On top of that, since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Greece and Italy became the main gathering spots for hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees seeking a safer future in the West.
When the Greek Civil War ended in 1949, Greece became a pivotal Balkan actor. It became a NATO member in 1952; its economy boomed with U.S. assistance under the Truman Doctrine and, later, the Marshall Plan; and after the restoration of parliamentary democracy in 1974, its political system was the strongest in the region. For a long period of time, Greece was a source of stability and a role model for other Balkan states. Furthermore, it was an indispensable NATO partner in every regional crisis in the early years after the Cold War. The Vance-Owen peace plan to end the Bosnian War was signed in 1993 in Athens, and it was Greece’s decisive role that blocked the outbreak of civil war between the Slavic majority and the Albanian minority in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in 2001.
When the Greek crisis began, the Balkans witnessed an extended period of political and economic destabilization. Greece is no longer in a position to meaningfully contribute to regional security. In the spring of 2016, clashes erupted between the border police forces of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and migrants leaving Greek refugee camps for Germany or other Western European states. The Greek government’s inability to deal with the migration problem and the Turkish government’s unwillingness to efficiently patrol the Aegean Sea opened the door for various European states such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany to impose border controls for a considerable period of time. This decision temporarily eradicated a key structure of the European Union—the Schengen Agreement, which abolishes internal border checks—giving euro sceptics an opportunity to cheer on the demise of the Union. This development was critical for the Balkans, as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Serbia built fences in order to halt the arrival of migrants, in the process isolating Greece from the rest of the European Union and augmenting the feeling among Greeks that they were left alone to face this crisis.
The Balkan region additionally faces gloomy economic prospects because of the Greek sovereign debt. Aside from the fact that Greece’s ruined economy cannot absorb more unskilled workers from neighbouring countries, a possible Grexit would result in a general collapse of the Balkan economy, mainly due to the long process of Greece regaining its footing, as well as the protectionist policies that Athens would adopt after reverting to a national currency. Economic interdependency makes the Greek problem a Balkan problem, if not a wider Western one—a risky situation in a region where economic frailty is coupled with political instability.
The power gap in the Balkans after the Greek failure can be seen in the following cases. First is Montenegro’s failed coup of 2016 against the pro-Western government, which threatened to destabilize the whole region and, according to the Montenegrin authorities, was orchestrated by the Kremlin. The second is in the emerging crisis in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which is facing the grim prospect of a civil war between Slavic and the Albanian factions due to the structural weaknesses of the state and the friction produced by competing Slavic and Albanian nationalisms. If Greece were in better circumstances, then it would be possible for Athens to implement efficient crisis management policies, as it knows how to navigate the region’s delicate sociopolitical conditions. In addition, after last July’s failed coup attempt in Turkey and Ankara’s open flirtation with the Kremlin, the Greek crisis opens a vacuum for Western interests in the region.
Russia has been re-issuing its Pan-Slavic agenda in the Balkans, mainly through a new version of soft power called Russkiy Mir (Russian World). This new soft power policy is already bearing fruit for the Kremlin in its strong influence on many Christian Orthodox churches in the region, as was revealed during the Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church in Crete last June. Together with Moscow, the Arab speaking Patriarchate of Antioch in Syria, the Bulgarian Church, and the Georgian Church did not attend the event. The West has to find a viable response to Russian influence, and the collapse of Greece—a state that formerly had Western-oriented soft power at its disposal—disrupts this effort.
A violent change in the Balkans’ balance of power could precipitate a wider geostrategic crisis in Europe, too, with the renewed popularity of nationalism and populism and with the regional stabilizer, Greece, focused on reversing its domestic stagnation. Europe and the rest of the Western world must remember the popular Balkan saying that describes the volatile nature of the region: “This is the Balkans, not a place for fooling around.”
*The term Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (the U.N. designation) is used at the request of the author.
Spyridon N. Litsas is an associate professor of international relations at the University of Macedonia, Thessaloniki. Follow him on Twitter at @Spyros_Litsas.