Balkanalysis on Twitter

Why the EU Needs a Strategy for the Black Sea Region

By Lara Scarpitta*

It is old news that geography matters in foreign policy. A dormant EC/EU had to learn this vital lesson in 1989, when communism crumbled behind its safe walls. Faced with the sudden prospect of bordering poor, unpredictable and unstable neighbours, it responded by anchoring the former soviet satellites of Central Europe with the offer of EU membership. But now that a new enlargement has been completed, geography matters even more. With the accession of Romania and Bulgaria on the 1st of January, the EU’s new eastern border has moved south, to the shore of the Black Sea. Across its waters, however, lies one of the most unstable and conflict-prone regions of post-Soviet Eurasia.

For centuries, the Black Sea region has been a theatre of violent conflicts and power struggles, due primarily to its geographical location and character as a transit route. During the Cold War, all Black Sea states (except Turkey) were within the Soviet sphere of influence and at the periphery of international strategic interests. But as the Soviet Union began to break down in 1991, the Black Sea region plunged into chaos, torn apart by several ethnic and separatist conflicts. The end of the Cold War’s artificial stability freed long concealed (and suppressed) historical grievances and a number of new independent states such as Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Azerbaijan emerged from the ashes of the Soviet Empire.

Nevertheless, most of them are still very weak democracies, facing territorial separatism, ethnic tensions, undemocratic trends in domestic politics, slow economic progress, environmental degradation and endemic corruption of public officials. The long years of armed conflicts have caused disruption to trade and damaged infrastructure. Due to its potential for conflict, the region has attracted relatively little foreign investment and most such countries are still today heavily dependent on the Russian economy. Unemployment rates are generally very high, with almost all states suffer from a hemorrhagic migration abroad of a consistent percentage of the working-age population.

Today the Black Sea region is also a major source and transit area of several security threats, from terrorism to international organised crime as well as arms and human trafficking. It is home to four so-called “frozen” conflicts — Transnistria, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia – the unresolved separatist issues which followed the breakdown of the USSR.

Despite years of diplomacy and talks, hopes for finding a peaceful and long-standing resolution for these conflicts remain bleak. Apart from fuelling bilateral tensions, these “frozen’ conflicts have been a bane for the region’s democratic and economic development, breeding instability and corruption and favouring the proliferation of organised crime. Uncontrolled territories in Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh, for example, have become safe havens for the activities of powerful organised criminal groups involved in people smuggling, human trafficking as well as goods and arms trafficking. The phenomenon of arms trafficking is widespread in the region and much of the large weapons stockpiles abandoned by Russia in the early 1990s have ended up on the grey and black markets. The region is also a major source of drug production and a trafficking route for drugs coming from Central Asia and the Middle East (especially Afghanistan) into Europe. Large profits are also being made from smuggling people across the region with a promise of a better life in the West, and there is evidence that these profits are being reinvested into drugs and arms trafficking, as well as financing terrorist activities, as a recent Europol report highlighted.

This situation carries significant implications for EU security. A power vacuum in the region can potentially result in a security vacuum with consequences which are self-evident yet highly unpredictable. Because of its sudden and new geographical proximity to the wider Black Sea states, the EU will no longer be immune from the backlashes of instability and conflicts in the region, but rather will be directly exposed to a whole range of security threats, from organised crime to drugs and arms trafficking, as well as refugee and illegal migration pressures.

Aside from these security concerns, however, the Black Sea region offers many positive opportunities. The most obvious is in the field of energy. Thanks to its proximity to the oil-rich Caspian Sea and its vast energy resources, the Black Sea region can play a major role for the EU’s energy strategy, to secure alternatives to Russian energy supply.

Many ambitious pipeline projects were launched in the 1990s to guarantee direct access to Caspian oil via the Black Sea. These include the U.S. East-West Energy Corridor and the EU Traceca project (Transit Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Central Asia).

Although these failed to materialise when conflicts erupted in the Balkans and in the South Caucasus in the 1990s, it is in the interests of the EU that these projects be reinvigorated to ensure greater Western access to Caspian energy resources.

Perhaps most importantly, the Black Sea region matters for its strategic importance, owing to its proximity to the Middle East. Since 9/11, the US has played an active role in the region to safeguard its vast security and economic interests, especially access to Caspian oil and gas reserves. American “pipeline politics’ has gone hand in hand with its war on terror and the U.S. administration has been keen to support the NATO aspirations of some Black Sea countries.

Yet is the EU ready take up these challenges with similar energy? Can it exploit the region’s huge and lucrative potentials and prevent the Black Sea from becoming a permanent source of security threats?

Most likely, it will only be able to do so partially. The reasons are multiple. First, the EU does not have a Black Sea policy, or at least not a coherent strategy as such. It has opted instead for a patchwork of policies and approaches: enlargement to South-eastern Europe and Turkey, the “European Neighbourhood” policy and a structured cooperation with the South Caucasus states.

Indeed, therein lays part of the problem. While the EU enlargement policy – with its strict conditionality and convergence to EU norms and standards – has (at least so far) been relatively a success story, other policies failed to deliver the expected results. Bilateral cooperation with post-Soviet Eastern neighbours like Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, as well as with the South Caucasus states (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan), put in place since the mid-1990s hardly proved a recipe for stabilisation and prosperity. The over 3 billion euros from the EU’s TACIS funds allocated in the last ten years have failed to convince reluctant post-Soviet governments to introduce sound democratic and market-based economic reforms. Part of the problem is that the EU lacks sufficient leverage to push for such reforms. This is hardly a surprise if one considers that most of these states are still heavily under Russia’s influence. The 2006 energy crisis in Ukraine and Moldova, as well as Russian import bans on Moldovan and Georgian wines and water are a stark remainder of Russia’s economic power over its neighbours.

The EU, by contrast, continues to have a limited impact on the region. But the EU “stabilisation’ policy has also been too weak in its incentives to push for reforms. The so-called Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (PACs), lacked not only a prospect for membership but also a strict conditionality and were based primarily on a multidimensional cooperation on economic and cultural questions and a political dialogue on issues concerning minorities, human rights and security in Europe.

The “European Neighbourhood” policy, launched officially on the eve of the 2004 “big bang’ enlargement, was aimed at addressing some of these problems. But judging by the results so far, the innovative offer of “everything except institutions,” has not been the trump card the EU was looking for as an alternative to enlargement. The colour revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia have not given way to the expected substantial democratic reforms. Moldova continues to struggle to control its separatist region of Transnistria and there are no signs of Belarus abandoning its totalitarian regime. Little progress has been made in fulfilling the various Action Plans, the EU’s own financial commitment for the region for 2007-2013 has increased but remains marginal and the EU has continued to politely dismiss the long-term membership aspirations of some of its pro-Western neighbours.

Paradoxically, with these differentiated approaches towards its neighbours the EU has in fact achieved the rather unexpected results of widening the economic, political and social gap between them. While in Romania and Bulgaria the EU accession process has arguably ensured the successful creation of sound democratic institutions and fast economic growth, the EU’s eastern neighbours have witnessed a halt or reversal of their democratic process, as highlighted by the 2005 Freedom House Report, with most struggling with macroeconomic and structural difficulties and declining standards of living.

So what should the EU do? For a start, think strategically. After the 2007 enlargement and with the accession negotiations already underway with Turkey, the EU has already become an actor in the Black Sea region. Developing a coherent and well articulated Black Sea policy to protect EU economic and strategic interests has therefore become imperative.

No doubt, anchoring the countries of the Black Sea region is not going to be easy, not least of all because without a realistic prospect of EU membership for most of these states, the EU lacks its most powerful point of leverage. On the positive side, however, the EU is now in a far better position to develop an ambitious and realistic policy for the region than it was some years ago. It can now draw on its expertise and the instruments developed in the past decade, by abandoning rhetoric and reinforcing its concrete actions.

The coming months may be crucial for the development of a coherent EU Black Sea strategy. German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier made it clear that Germany intends to achieve concrete results in Black Sea Region during its presidency by examining the effectiveness of the European Neighbourhood policy.

Still, by itself this policy is not sufficient. The stability of the region requires political courage and long-term strategic thinking. The EU should certainly put “some meat on the bone’ on its neighbourhood policy, by offering to its neighbours concrete and lucrative economic incentives in exchange for serious and tangible commitments to democratic and market-based reforms and the protection of human rights. But a credible EU Black Sea policy also needs to demonstrate that the EU is serious about the resolution of all the “frozen’ conflicts in the region. The support for the EU Border Assistance Mission between Ukraine and Moldova and the appointment of a EU Special Representative for Moldova in 2005 is a positive sign that EU commitment heads in this direction.

However, concrete steps must be taken at regional and bilateral levels to find durable peaceful solutions. In this respect Brussels must also find the political courage and determination to take the initiative diplomatically with Russia. Unfortunately, EU reactions to Russia’s allegedly “imperialist’ policy to its near abroad have remained weak and not much more has been done beyond expressing disappointment.

Finally the EU needs to step in with greater support and financial involvement to support regional cooperation efforts. So far the EU has paid lip service to regional cooperation preferring to focus instead on bilateral relations. As active regional partners and new EU members, Romania and Bulgaria are likely to play an active role in this respect.

Romanian President Traian Basescu has made it clear on several occasions that Romania intends to promote more assertively the idea of a strategic vision for the Black Sea region and a greater involvement in regional dynamics. Black Sea economic cooperation in particular can offer the EU an ideal forum for promoting projects in the field of energy as well as non economic areas, such as the protection of the environment, controlling immigration and fighting arms and human trafficking. Ultimately, the extent to which the EU will be able to secure its immediate and distant neighbours in the Black Sea region will depend on its ability to increase its role and impact on the region and become a pulling factor for democratic change. A democratic and fully integrated Turkey will be crucial in this respect.

The benefits of a coherent, realistic and forward-looking strategy towards the Black Sea region are enormous. If the EU’s “close’ and “distant’ neighbours can successfully complete their economic and political transition, security threats will be weakened. Similarly, the creation of stable democratic institutions, functioning economic structures and vibrant civil societies will undermine the operation of criminal groups. To achieve this long-term objective all EU instruments and forces should be mobilised. Otherwise, the region may well plunge once again into chaos. However, this time EU citizens many not be immune.

*Lara Scarpitta is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies of the University of Birmingham. Before embarking on a PhD, Lara worked in Holland, Italy and recently in Brussels where she worked as an intern in the Cabinet of Vice President of the European Commission Franco Frattini, EU Commissioner for Freedom, Security and Justice.

Limited Opportunities and the Rise of Islamic Extremism in the North Caucasus, Balkans and Turkey

By Alisa Voznaya

The tenets of Islamic radicalism, often associated with Wahhabism, a fundamentalist form of Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia, are slowly penetrating the previously secular populations in the Balkans and the North Caucasus. In Turkey, where 99 percent of the population identify themselves as Muslim, the unique sense of secularism is also beginning to disintegrate in the face of the resurgence of violence from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and rising national discontent, as illuminated by the most recent terrorist attacks in Marmaris, Antalya, and Istanbul.

The suppression of any kind of religion during the Soviet communist regime, the forced amalgamation of religions and nationalities in Yugoslavia, and the ascent in the dawning 21st century of politically, rather than religiously, motivated leaders in Turkey have secured what now appears to have been temporary secular rule. Today, secular politics face an internal threat from the emerging elements of international radical Islam. However, the degree of such incursion varies among these three regions: from marginal streams in the Balkans to growing unrest in Turkey and to fully formulated jamaats with strategic visions in the North Caucasus. Yet, the motivation behind these recent insurgencies stems from the same root; the flag of radicalism brings attention to the political and economic problems experienced by the marginalized groups, such as the Kurds, Balkan Muslims and Chechens.

The most recent concern regarding radical Islam in the Balkans is the fear that Al-Qaeda has begun a recruitment campaign of “white Muslims.” The arrest and pending trial of three young men in Bosnia, suspected of planning terrorist attacks on Western targets, has raised questions regarding Bosnia’s vulnerability of becoming a haven for terrorists. The suspects were arrested last October in the Sarajevo suburbs of Butmir and Hadzici.

Since their arrest, Bosnian police has appealed to Scotland Yard and the FBI for forensic assistance to strengthen the case against the men. Jamestown Foundation reports that this particular investigation has extended well beyond Bosnia, signifying the likelihood of a “white Al-Qaeda network” operating across Europe. Though it is highly unlikely that Bosnia would officially support Islamic extremism, it is nevertheless a home to several hundred Arab mujahideen warriors who came to Bosnia during the 1992-95 war to fight on the side of the Bosnian Muslim against the Serbs. Thus, the Jamestown Foundation speculates, Bosnia’s institutional weaknesses, primarily its decentralized power centers, and its wartime history of cooperation with Arab mujahideen could make it an easy and symbolic recruitment point for a new, “white Al-Qaeda” network.

The situation was aggravated by the recent decision by Bosnian authorities to deport 50 naturalized citizens, mostly former Islamic fighters. The Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) State Commission for the Revision of Decisions on Naturalization of Foreign Citizens began its work of reviewing the status of citizens who acquired BiH citizenship between April 1992 and January 2006 in March 2006. Around 1,500 people could potentially be affected by the work of this commission. However, the commission has yet to locate most of the people on its lists, as their coordinates are currently unavailable to the government. Meanwhile, the potential for conflict increases every day — the Muslim fighters, who see themselves as heroes and liberators in Bosnia may request outside support to bolster their right to Bosnian citizenship. Once again, external radical forces may influence the internal make-up of the Bosnian Islamic space.

Bosnia is not the only Balkan country undergoing an ambiguous Islamic revival. Indeed, the global trend for radicalism is appearing in Albania and Kosovo, predominantly populated by Muslims. According to TOL, Wahhabism seeped into the countries through energetic and enthusiastic graduate students who studied at foreign universities and through Islamic charities. The Islam conveyed through the prism of these two sources is a distortion of the traditional Hanafi Sunni Islam, known as tolerant and peaceful, and widespread in Turkey as well as the Balkans. Yet, the religious radicals have yet to secure a wide support base for their cause: last year in Albania, young radical Muslims attempted to change the statute of the Islamic Community to bring it closer to their way of more rigid worship. In Kosovo, the Wahhabi movement is in its early development and does not yet have a well-organized structure, albeit it has already inspired sensationalism in the local papers regarding the extensive proportions of Wahhabism in Kosovo.

While Wahhabism is making its inaugural appearance in the Balkans, radical Islam is beginning to reappear in Turkey. The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, a branch of the PKK, quickly took on the responsibility for the recent bombings in the country’s tourist areas. The terrorist acts bring to light the existing problems that Turkey has yet to resolve with its Kurdish community. The Economist reports that around 60 new Islamically-minded groups have formed in recent years. Such groups offer scholarships, financial aid and “moral support” to the poor. In fact, disenfranchised Kurds are not the only segment that could be easily subverted to radicalism. Current disapproval of Israeli and American actions runs high among all members of Turkish society. Coupled with financial incentives and moral rigidity, the appeal of radicalism directly confronts the political and economic decisions of the secular government.

The May attack by Alparslan Arslan that claimed the life of Turkish Council of State judge Mustafa Yucel Ozbilgin brings to light the growing conflict between the secular government and the increasingly religious sentiments among a substantial segment of Turkey’s population who oppose the ban of the hijab in public institutions. In fact, internal pressure has caused the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to consider overturning the longstanding ban. And although Turkish Islam, similar to its Balkan neighbours, is Hanafi Sunni, the inflexibility of the government’s secularism, the most recent policy decisions regarding EU membership and cooperation with the United States, and the continuous PKK attacks, it may soon develop a more widely supported radical base through the demands of disgruntled Turks. Thus, while Turkey is a far cry from a radical Islamic republic, its government must take heed of its population’s desires, without conceding a reverse of its efforts to give the Kurds a better deal.

Alternatively, many analysts have labeled the North Caucasus, particularly Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia, as a breeding ground for tomorrow’s Islamic radicals. In part, the situation in the region could well support such statements, yet the rise of radicalism in this particular area has been a complex issue, with divergent factors influencing its continuous ups and downs.

Radical Islam originally emerged in Chechnya during the second war that has begun in 1999. During that time, Wahhabist groups entered Chechnya with finances and weapons to help the Chechen rebels resist the Russian attacks. Interestingly enough, Chechnya, where radicalism has been consistently suppressed by the efforts of the federal government and the pro-Kremlin regional authorities, is no longer the locus of separatist movement. Instead, Ingushetia and Dagestan have absorbed many of the radicals exiled from Chechnya.

One of the factors contributing to the popularity of radical Islam, such as Wahhabism, is the pressure and discrimination from the Russian government. Mosques have been consistently closed down not only in the North Caucasus but also in other parts of Russia. There are also reports that Russian authorities discriminate widely against people who appear to be Muslim. The Russian mistakes go much deeper than that, though — today’s youth in the North Caucasus have grown up in the midst of war, and have no employment opportunities due to destroyed infrastructure and a lack of investment in the region. The fundamentalist message, abetted by financial rewards, becomes lucrative in the face of repression by the Russian government and the lack of other opportunities within the region.

Similar to the Balkans, experts like Sergei Markedonov, the head of the ethnic relations department at Moscow‘s Institute of Political and Military Analysis, argue that the collapse of communism has left a void that was quickly filled in by religious ideologies. The problem of addressing Islam in the North Caucasus, however, stems from the bifurcation of the religion into official state-sponsored Islam, the Salafi Islam, and independent jamaats, or local communities of Muslims, organized at an often basic level to share spiritual pursuits.

These communities rely exclusively on the members from their locality and on their appointed leaders. Normally, they emerge spontaneously, although recently their growth has been propped up by the now deceased Shamil Basayev, who devoted his last few years to harnessing such movements. Some of the jamaats, like Dagestan‘s Sharia one and the Kabardino-Balkaria Yarmuk jamaat, have become quite influential, and thus more dangerous. The Yarmuk jamaat claimed responsibility for the October 2005 raid in Nalchik.

Jamaats, like the religious movements in Turkey and the Balkans, represent more than just a religious phenomenon — they provide a niche for the disenfranchised and unemployed to settle economic and territorial issues. Radical Islam serves as a conduit to resolve tensions that exist between the federal centre and the region, yet, if the Russian government does not take measures to restrain the spread of insurgent movements and the development of new jamaats through moderate policy toward Islam, it stands to lose the fragile political stability that the region is currently regaining.

The Balkans, Turkey and the North Caucasus have all recently experienced a revival of radicalism within their territories. Partially, this could be explained by the increasing dissatisfaction of its respective denizens with the inability of the secular governments to deal with pertinent political and economic crises and the lure of possibilities of radical Islam. Yet, although one could be inclined to assign the extremist trend to the global dissemination of Islamic ideas, the three territories discussed in this article are largely comparable due to their similar domestic situations. Thus, the efforts to curtail the spread of extremism should come from internal policies rather than foreign machinations. In order to maintain balance within their regions, the governments of these territories must address the demands of their populations or face a possibility of the disintegration of their secular states.

2004-2009 Back Archives