The West University of Timisoara and New Strategy Center held the fifth edition of the international conference “Security challenges in the Balkans” on Friday, the 18th of June 2021, highlighting the region’s strategic importance and complexity.
The official opening of the event was attended by Mr. Marilen Gabriel Pirtea, the Rector of West University of Timisoara, Mr. Alin Nica, President of the Timis County Council, Mr. Dominic Fritz, Mayor of Timisoara and Mr Zoltan Nemeth, prefect of Timis County. The usefulness of a debate platform of this kind, bringing together independent and institutional expertise, was highlighted, given the complexity of the current geostrategic context and the need to integrate the Balkans into the Euro-atlantic area. The themes of this conference draw attention to the most pressing security challenges in the region, of interest not only for the Balkan countries and Romania, but also for Europe as a whole.
Panel I. Emergent Challenges in the Balkans. Building Together a More Resilient Region in the Context of Pandemic Crisis
The first panel was dedicated to emerging challenges in the Balkan region and building a resilient region in the context of the pandemic, moderated by Gl.mr.(R) Leonardo Dinu, Member of the New Strategy Center Scientific Council, and with Mr Nicolae Ciuca, Minister for National Defense, Mr Lucian Bode, Minister for Internal Affairs, Mr Christopher Cker, Director of LSE IDEAS, London School of Economics, United Kingdom, Deputy Cristian Diaconescu, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Member of the Scientific Council New Strategy Center, Mr Emmanuel Dupuy, President of the Institute for European Perspectives and Security, France.
The Balkans is a highly complex security region, an area of strategic interest and competition for many external actors such as the EU, the US, Russia, China and Turkey. The severity of the threats in the region, both conventional and unconventional, is noted, with a high destabilizing potential. The Balkan region’s vulnerabilities have been exacerbated by the health crisis and enhanced by the actions of regional actors. Since the start of the pandemic, cyberspace, which was used intensively at this time when activities were moved online, has become an uncertain environment. Problems such as organized crime, human trafficking, the intensification of nationalist trends and mass migratory flows have grown. These moves highlight that integration into the Euro-atlantic institutional space remains the most viable solution for stabilizing the Balkan area. In this context expanding the European Union must be carried on.
The Balkan region is vital to Romania’s security, and that is why our country is contributing to the programs to strengthen regional stability and supporting regional cooperation and the European ambitions of these countries. In addition, by hosting the Euro-Atlantic Center for resilience, Romania can help build robust response mechanisms to the threats facing the Balkan region.
Panel II. Energy Security: New Opportunities to Enhance the Independence of South East Europe
The second panel focused on new energy opportunities, which can bring greater energy independence for the Balkan region. The issue of energy security has extensive implications for this area, heavily dependent on energy sources in the Russian Federation.
The panel had Mr George Niculescu, State Secretary, Ministry of Energy, Romania, Mr Alexandru Maximescu, as speakers, Vice-President Regulation & Corporate public Affairs, OMV Petrom, Romania, Mr Christian Egenhofer, Associate Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Energy, Climate and Environment Program, Center for European Policy studies (CEPS) – Belgium and Mr Laurentiu Pachiu, Vice-President of Energy Policy Group, Romania and Mr Claudiu Contanu, Chief Officer trading & supply Chain, Rompetrol – KMG International, being moderated by Claudiu Botoc, the Prodean of the Faculty of Economics and Business Administration at the Western University of Timisoara.
The region’s energy security is heavily affected by its dependence on Russian gas, the militarization of the Black Sea and the control of the Russian Federation over regional energy infrastructure. By harnessing the potential of resources in the Black Sea, Romania has the chance to become an energy exporter and a strategic actor in this area, which would help to ensure the region’s long-term energy independence. Exploiting these resources is a major economic opportunity and the key to a beneficial energy transition. In the context of the European Green Pact and the commitment to achieving climate neutrality by 2050 at European level, these efforts to exploit and exploit gas from the Black Sea must be carried out as soon as possible. Another possible source of energy is wind, in the Black Sea offshore area, with high potential. Romania can become an important exporter to the region using this form of energy, with an important impact on Dobrogea’s economic development as well.
Panel III. EU and NATO enlargement in the Western Balkans and the Impact of Post-Pandemic Challenges
Addressing the theme of the accession of the Western Balkan countries to the EU and NATO and the impact of post-pandemic security challenges on the region, the third panel held by Silviu Rogobete, a professor at WUT as moderator. The panel speakers were E.S. Ivo Josipovic, former Croatian President, Mr Stanislav Raščan, State Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Slovenia, Ms Iulia Matei, State Secretary for European Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr Ian Brzezinski, Senior Fellow, Sowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council, USA and Mr Dirk Dubois, Head of European Security and Defense College, Belgium.
The instability of the Western Balkans has a direct effect on the stability of Europe, and the importance of completing the process of integrating the Balkan countries into the Euro-atlantic area is thus indisputable. Nationalism, a precarious rule of law, organized crime and corruption are some of the most dangerous obstacles that the region faces. The challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic create further obstacles to the integration of Balkan States which are not yet part of NATO and the EU. Unfortunately, the EU now seems to be focusing more on its internal problems, without the Western Balkan States having a clear prospect of integration.
Following the pandemic, the Western Balkans will be even more vulnerable, which is why strengthening regional resilience is of great importance at the moment. At the same time, the impact that some external players, competing with the EU and NATO, such as Russia and China, have in the region, at political, economic and social level, must not be overlooked.
To mark the fifth edition of the conference, at the initiative of the New Strategy Center and West University of Timișoara, the study “the Balkans – an Unfinished Business”, a comprehensive analysis of the challenges and possible developments in the Balkans region, was published. The paper is the result of cooperation between New Strategy Center and experts from Romania, Croatia and Bulgaria. This volume was the subject of the fourth panel, moderated by Mr ambassador (ret.) Gheorghe Magheru, Member of the Scientific Council of the New Strategy Center. The speakers in this panel were the authors of the book: Mr Ambassador (ret.) Doru Costea, Senior Associate Expert, new Strategy Center, Mr Yordan Bozhilov, founder and president of Sofia Security Forum, Bulgaria and Mr Sandro Knezović, Senior Research Associate, Institute for Development and International Relations – IRMO, Croatia.
The study looked at a number of perspectives on the issues, such as political, economic, foreign influences in the region, traditional and hybrid threats, soft power actions by external actors.
Panel V. Economic Development and Digitization in the Context of Pandemic Crisis
The last panel of the conference was moderated by Mr. Cosmin Enache, Prodean at the West University of Timișoara, and the spekaers were Mr. Sabin Sărmaș, Chairman, Committee for Information Technologies and Communications, Chamber of Deputies, Lieutenant General (ret.) Florian Coldea, Professor, National Intelligence Academy, Mr. Alexandru Rusandu, Global Cybersecurity Services, Atos IT Solutions and Services, and Mr. Bogdan Pătru, Public Policy Director Romania and Croatia, Mastercard.
The fourth industrial revolution is rapidly approaching. The Balkan region must adapt fast enough to these changes so that it does not face the risk of falling behind. The panel stressed the importance of digitizing public services, an important aspect in the economic development and of the critical infrastructures and also to ensure national stability and security. The private sector is currently leading technological development. The capacity of the State to keep pace with technological change is a strategic vulnerability, thus encouraging cooperation between the public and private sectors. It has also been mentioned that the iliberal regimes are also using the access to advanced technologies to destabilize democratic states.
During the pandemic, we could see an intensification of disinformation campaigns and fake news both in Romania and especially in the Western Balkans. The digital transformation of the Western Balkans is a necessity, with the potential to contribute to economic development by creating jobs, ensuring cyber security as advanced as possible and strengthening resilience.
The organizers thank partners, speakers and participants for their support and presence.
We mention that the event was organized in line with all current epidemiological protection rules, including by carrying out rapid Covid-19 tests for all participants.