With the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s in the Western Balkans, the region’s social, economic, and political transformation and the process of integration into the European Union (EU), in other words, to the West, started. This trend continues today. Although positive steps have been taken throughout this period, many issues threatening regional stability, especially economic and political problems, continue throughout the region. It can be said that among the problems are increased extreme nationalism, separatist discourses, corruption, unemployment, and low level of welfare. However, at the point reached today, it can be said that the energy issue has come to the fore.
When the energy portfolios of the countries in the region are analyzed, a connected energy network emerges. The most important feature of this network is that the countries of the region are foreign-dependent in energy, especially natural gas and oil. On the other hand, although the countries of the region, which entered into a struggle for development after the events in the 1990s, focused on diversifying their energy policies by trying to invest in the energy field, at this point, energy comes to the fore as a problem in the Western Balkans.
The problem has reached a different dimension with Russia’s attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Because the West, reacting to this attack on Russia, has implemented various sanctions targeting the Moscow administration. However, the sanctions created a boomerang effect and brought along an energy crisis in Europe. The dependence of many European countries on Russia in the field of energy further deepened the crisis. Because of this dependency, Moscow turned the situation into an opportunity, used its energy card against the West, and suspended the natural gas flow to European countries.
When the developments are analyzed, it is seen that Russia has cut off the natural gas flow to the countries that refuse to pay in rubles due to energy supply. After the sanctions, Russia announced that the Nord Stream-1 Natural Gas Pipeline was suspended due to “repair.” This has led to the assessment that the winter will be challenging throughout Europe. European countries, which started to take measures against the energy problem, began to increase energy prices. As a result, people organized protests, as in the Czech Republic and Germany.
The repercussions of this crisis on energy in Europe began to be felt in the Western Balkans. The region, which acts as a corridor between the West and the East and has geopolitical and geostrategic importance, also plays a critical role in energy security. However, the power cuts experienced throughout the region, especially in the winter months since 2021, reveal that the energy crisis has shifted towards the Western Balkans. In other words, the fact that the region’s countries have a sensitive structure in terms of energy security and are mainly dependent on Russia pushes the states here to seek a solution to the problem.
When the energy baskets of the countries in the region are examined, it is seen that countries such as Serbia, North Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina use coal, which is one of the fossil fuels, except for Albania, where hydroelectric power plants are relatively common, and it is understood that they are largely dependent on Russia for natural gas supply. The EU’s non-compliance with its sanctions against Russia ensured that Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Serbia were relatively unaffected by Russia’s energy cuts. However, this energy crisis will inevitably not be affected by the Western Balkans due to rising prices and the regression of the country’s economies.
On the other hand, North Macedonia, one of the countries in the region, announced that it declared an emergency in the field of energy in August 2022; while Kosovo’s declaration that it has implemented emergency measures to secure the electricity supply, can be interpreted as an indicator of the crisis spreading throughout the region.
In addition to all these, Serbia, which predicts that even though it has close relations with Russia, it will also suffer from this crisis, announced in August of 2022 that there is not enough coal supply and stated that the approaching winter is full of uncertainties.
In Montenegro, technically incumbent Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic stated that the country imports electricity and the cost of this is an unbearable burden for Montenegro with the energy crisis and emphasized that he is not sure how long the Montenegro economy will last.
In this context, it is possible to say that the reflections of the energy crisis experienced in Europe have begun to appear in the Balkans. Considering the fragile economies of the countries in the region, it can be argued that any crisis will have severe economic consequences. Moreover, these economic consequences will endanger stability in the area. It is evaluated that the regional balances became fragile after the Russia-Ukraine War. Therefore, the economic depression to be experienced may trigger the frozen crises in the region. This will have dire consequences not only for the Balkans but also for the European states.
At this point, it is helpful to state that the Western Balkans is a part of Europe in terms of its location. Therefore, the energy security of the continent in a way depends on this region. In other words, the West, which wants to prevent the deepening of the energy crisis, is expected to cooperate with the region’s countries.
It can be said that there is a long list of what the regional countries and the EU will do to ensure energy security in the Balkans. At the beginning of this list, starting the harmonization process with the EU and taking concrete steps in the energy sector come first. In addition, it can be foreseen that efforts for harmonization and coordination will be increased in the transition to green energy, where renewable energy plays a key role. The Sofia Declaration, signed in 2020, is an example of efforts in this direction in the region. However, the intense use of coal energy in the area complicates the transition to green energy and undermines the adaptation processes. At this point, another item on the list comes to the fore. This is the diversification of the energy basket.
It is expected that the region’s countries will diversify their energy baskets to successfully transition to green energy and reduce their dependence on foreign energy. Although the recent increase in hydroelectric power plant investments in the region is promising, it is observed that the energy crisis brought about by the Russia-Ukraine War interrupted this step and increased the use of coal. However, diversification of the energy basket is perhaps the most applicable item on the list.
It can be foreseen that the region’s countries will take steps to improve their cooperation to get out of the energy crisis relatively unscathed. In this context, it is not a coincidence that the energy issue is also on the agenda in the negotiations between North Macedonia and Bulgaria. Moreover, both countries emphasized increasing cooperation. Undoubtedly, economic cooperation will play an essential role in improving energy security.
On the other hand, a memorandum of cooperation in energy and mining was signed between Albania and Serbia. On the occasion of the agreement, it is planned to increase cooperation in the energy and mining sectors, especially constructing a liquefied natural gas (LNG) warehouse in Albania. In addition, it is seen that the region’s countries focus on hydroelectric power plant investments to reduce foreign dependency. This step will have positive outcomes in the field of energy for the Western Balkans, a mountainous region rich in water resources.
On the other hand, Croatia has announced that it will increase the capacity of the LNG warehouse located in the Krk region. This development is not only for Croatia; It can be interpreted as a positive initiative for the region’s countries to benefit from the capacity.
As expected, energy investments may pave the way for creating new natural gas pipelines and energy storage areas, especially in line with bilateral agreements. In addition, the region has the task of a corridor in almost every sector. For this reason, the energy measures to be taken are also necessary for EU countries. Therefore, the leaders of the Western Balkan countries, who recently came together under the Open Balkan Initiative, focus on cooperation in many fields, including energy. This indicates that the importance of the initiative will increase. In addition, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s emphasis on the importance of the EU’s help and energy support is an event that cannot be ignored.
Head of EU Foreign and Security Policy Josep Borrell, drawing attention to the proximity of the Balkans to Europe, affirmed the region’s role in the energy field, stating that ending Russia’s energy monopoly and diversifying its energy basket is vital for the EU’s energy security. In this context, it can be expected that the EU will accelerate its initiatives to ensure energy security and lead the countries in the region to work more together. This will play a vital role in the ongoing rivalry between Russia and the West.
As a result, at this point, the energy crisis foreseen in the Balkans has started to become a reality. Because the possibility of an energy crisis in the region has always existed, but the developments accelerate this situation even more. Although the region’s existing practices are insufficient to prevent this energy crisis, they are only short-term solutions. In this context, the region must take long-term and concrete steps to overcome the energy crisis.
On the other hand, recent regional developments have pushed the EU to increase its regional presence and visibility. At this point, the EU may need to increase its energy engagements in the Western Balkans. At the beginning of this, it is crucial to diversify the region’s energy basket and create new energy routes by turning the region’s location into an opportunity and cooperation. Although the energy market in the Balkans is not very large, it can be said that the region can play an essential role in the energy security of the EU due to its location because the importance given to energy security in the Western Balkans may enable the implementation of a more comprehensive and applicable energy concept for Europe.
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