On November 3rd, The West University of Timișoara and the New Strategy Center organized the fourth edition of the “Security Challenges in the Balkans” conference, within a partnership that wants to highlight the strategic importance of the region. Officials and experts, mostly participating online from Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Croatia, Serbia, Poland, the United Kingdom, Italy, France and the United States, discussed important issues for the Balkan region.
The fourth edition of the conference was opened by the organizers and official representatives of local institutions in Timisoara, Mr. Marilen Pirtea, the Rector of the West University of Timisoara, Mrs. Liliana Oneț, the Prefect of Timiș County, Mr. Alin Nica, Timiș County Council President, Mr. Dominic Fritz, Mayor of Timisoara. On this occasion, the importance of a platform for debate of this type in Timisoara was underlined, an ideal setting for this initiative, given its strong traditional connections through its variety of sales and religious communities and its ability to bring together and develop a such a diversity of cultural influences.
The first panel of the conference, entitled “The Balkans and the Security Challenges in the Pandemic Crisis. The Day After Tomorrow” had as speakers Mrs. Simona Cojocaru, Secretary of State for Defense Policies, within the Ministry of National Defense, Ambassador Sergiu Celac, Honorary President of the New Strategy Center, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Romania, Mr. Lazăr Comănescu, Member of the New Strategy Center Scientific Council, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Romania and HE George Bologan, the Romanian Ambassador to Italy.
In the debate moderated by Mr. Laurențiu Ștefan, Researcher at the West University of Timișoara, an assessment was made of security threats in the Balkan region in a context strongly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic crisis. This space in which many delicate cases have not yet been resolved needs a revisitation of mediation formats with new perspectives and a strong commitment from all actors involved.
It is noted that the paradigm of regional cooperation is affected by the security situation in the area, and the actions of the Russian Federation contribute directly to the deterioration of the situation in the region. Therefore, it is important to avoid deepening cracks in the vulnerable zone of the Western Balkans, a complex area that requires a multilateral approach by the states in the region and international actors.
The European Union, as an actor that aims to influence global events, must pay special attention to the Western Balkans and continue its efforts to integrate the states in this region. Invigorating the enlargement policy towards the Western Balkans should remain a strategic priority for the European Union, especially as the potential costs of delaying these steps are much higher than accelerating them.
The second panel of the conference, “Security challenges in the Balkans and the Great Power Competition”, moderated by MG (Ret.) Leonardo Dinu, Member of the Scientific Council of the New Strategy Center, addressed the issue of this space, as an intersection of the interests of international actions with a traditional or newer presence in this space. The USA, Russia, Turkey, or China and the Gulf countries, but also the EU as a whole or Germany, Italy or France have their own political and economic interests in the Balkan region.
This discussion benefited from the contribution of General (Ret.) Vincenzo Camporini, former Chief of the Defense Staff of Italy, LTG (Ret.) Ben Hodges, Pershing Chair for Strategic Studies, CEPA, USA and former Commander of the US Forces in Europe, LTG (Ret.) Florian Coldea, Professor at the National Intelligence Academy and the West University of Timișoara, and Mr. Yordan Bozhilov, Founder and President of the Sofia Security Forum, Bulgaria.
The Black Sea region presents a platform for Russia to project its interests in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, and beyond, and the Balkans is a complementary space in this strategy. Hence the strong interest in Moscow to influence the situation in the Western Balkan states. Therefore, the Black Sea region and the Balkan region cannot be seen and treated separately by NATO and the EU, because they are an interconnected strategic space, which must be integrated and coherent, developed in partnership.
The pandemic brings with it the accentuation of pre-existing vulnerabilities in the Western Balkans such as strongly nationalist rhetoric, illegal migration, the presence of foreign fighters, all of which erode internal security and the rule of law. A growing presence of China and Russia in this space exploits these vulnerabilities through various practices, and the EU must continue to offer credible alternatives and firm commitments to the reform and prosperity of these states.
The third panel, “Economic Crisis after Pandemic: Threats and Opportunities for Regional Cooperation“, was moderated by Mr. Marilen Pirtea, Rector of the West University of Timisoara. Mr. Liviu Rogojinaru, Secretary of State for Business Environment within the Ministry of Economy, Mr. Radomir Tylecote, Senior Researcher, Institute of Economic Affairs, UK, Mr. Octavian Stancu, Head of Cybersecurity Worldline Services, Atos Romania, Ms. Ana Maria Boromisa, Coordinator of the Department for International Political and Economic Relations, IRMO Institute for Development and International Relations, Croatia, Mr. Alexander Klein, General Manager and Vice President Flex, Romania and Mr. Adam Eberhardt, Director, Center for Eastern Studies – OSW, Poland contributed to this debate as speakers.
Beyond the security effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic dimension cannot be ignored. This crisis erupted at a time when the economic situation was already unstable, but was exacerbated by the way it used to react to the pandemic, especially through blockade decisions. Many small and medium-sized enterprises were directly affected during this period. In addition, the crisis has shown that the digitalisation and cyber security model of many companies and governments is not prepared for such a situation.
The pandemic has a major impact on the economic environment and the way it works, and to counteract its negative effects, cooperation between individuals, governments and companies is needed. In addition, pressures from Chinese activity and competition in the Western Balkans will force the EU to make clearer decisions, including on the integration process. The need for regional cooperation and regional political coordination is also greater than ever, with important steps being taken through the Three Seas Initiative, which has the potential to connect the economies of the Western Balkans with those of other regions.
With regard to Romania, it is important that it continue to develop bilateral relations with the Balkan states, both in terms of trade and by extending aid in the accession process to countries aspiring to become members of the EU.
The last panel of the 2020 edition, “Hybrid Warfare in the Balkans. Infodemics and not only” was moderated by Mr. Emanuel Copilaș-Ciocianu, Associate Professor of the West University of Timișoara. This debate benefited from the contribution of Mrs. Alina Bârgăoanu, senior associate expert of New Strategy Center and Dean of the Faculty of Communication and Public Relations within SNSPA, Mrs. Jelena Milic, Director, Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies, Serbia, Mrs. Antonia Colibășanu, Analyst Geopolitical Futures, Mr. Greg Melcher, Chief Operations Officer, Center for the Study of New Generation Warfare, USA and Mr. Murat Aslan, Professor at Hasan Kalyoncu University, Turkey.
In the Western Balkans, the functioning of the institutions and the rule of law is still deficient, the cracks in society are deep, and the economic crisis generated by the pandemic is increasing the discontent of the population. Therefore, this space becomes vulnerable to a variety of actions from the hybrid arsenal of the Russian Federation.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, part of the media prone to misinformation, as well as various channels of social networks, have promoted issues in the field of conspiracies related to the origin and stake of Covid-19. The thesis that the EU has abandoned the Western Balkans, despite the package of bilateral financial assistance allocated to support states in the region during the pandemic crisis, was also strongly promoted.
In contrast, there are a number of positive communication campaigns related to “pandemic diplomacy” used by countries such as China and Russia. In addition to the fragility of institutions and disinformation campaigns, the Balkan region also faces pre-existing economic problems and a marked energy dependence on the Russian Federation, which the pandemic can only exacerbate as negative effects, in the absence of an alternative set of integrated measures developed by NATO. and the EU, together with the states in the region.
New Strategy Center thanks to those who participated in this conference and we assure you that together with the West University of Timișoara, we will organize this event next year, because the Balkan region is very important for the security of Romania, the EU and NATO.