Changing German Foreign Policy and the Balkans with “Zeitenwende”

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Russia’s attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022 upset the global balance, particularly in the European continent. While this ongoing war brings with it many threats; this has caused states to reconsider their foreign policy and made it difficult for them to keep up with this emerging conjuncture. Germany, which has important relations with Russia, especially in the field of energy, has made a significant change in its foreign policy after this war. While the process of change is pointing to a break with some traditional approaches in Germany’s foreign policy that has been going on for many years; It is also important for Berlin’s position within the European Union (EU).

In this context, on February 27, 2022, a few days after Russia’s attack, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, in his speech in the German Bundestag, in which he evaluated the developments, said that Russia’s name was a “Zeitenwende”; that is, he described it as a turning point and stated that it would bring significant changes. In the continuation of his speech, Scholz said that in response to Russia’s attack on Ukraine, significant changes would be made in German foreign policy.[1]

When the changes in this context are analyzed, it is seen that Germany will increase its military expenditures. This situation points to a break with the tradition of limiting military expenditures, which has continued since the end of the Cold War. This is also of great importance for the EU. Because, the statement in question, Scholz reaffirmed his commitment to institutions such as the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); he gave the message that Germany will assume the leadership and security of the EU, which is at a turning point.

On the other hand, with this development, Germany has also revealed that it will experience a radical departure from the “Ostpolitik” tradition, which expresses mutually good relations with Russia and Eastern European countries. Although a new and clear Russian policy has not been determined, important steps have been taken to reduce energy dependence on Russia. It is already understood that Ostpolitik, which focuses on diplomacy today, does not work very well. In addition to this, it was understood that the policy of “Wandel durch Handel (Change through Trade)”, which expresses a policy of appeasement through mutual commercial and economic relations, was also frustrated.[2]

While Schlolz’s statements expressing the change faced different reactions in Germany and EU countries, Eastern European countries under the imminent threat of Russia expressed that this was a late step.[3] However, Germany, one of the leading states providing significant support to Ukraine at this point, has entered a significant transformation in its foreign policy after the Cold War. In particular, his promise to undertake the security of Europe points to important changes within the EU; it has been a remarkable development that China has come to the fore as an important actor in terms of how to fill the gap in the fields of economy, trade and energy.

The Balkans After “Zeitenwende”

This change in Germany’s foreign policy also had an impact on the Balkans. However, it should be noted that; Germany, which could not (could) not remain indifferent to the developments in the region, especially after the collapse of Yugoslavia, is one of the important actors in the Balkan geopolitics. Germany, which closely follows the process of harmonization and integration of the region with Europe-Atlantic institutions, is one of the important actors playing a decisive role in the continuation of dialogue processes.

Accordingly, there is a continuosness in Germany’s regional policy. Therefore, while the effects of the Russia-Ukraine War were felt significantly in the Balkans; the increase in the elements of instability in the region has especially worried the EU countries. For this reason, Russia’s effort to increase its influence in the region has caused EU countries such as Germany to focus more on the region.

As will be remembered, Scholz’s remarks on the Western Balkans in his article published in Foreign Affairs at the beginning of 2023 are interesting. Scholz argued that Russian President Vladimir Putin would “divide Europe into spheres of influence and blocize it into great powers and subordinate states” and pointed out that this blocization would take place in the Balkans.[4] It is possible to say that Scholz’s inference has a grain of truth, especially when considering similar developments in history and current events.

For the reason above-stated, Scholz stated that the integration and harmonization processes of the Western Balkans with the EU should be accelerated, emphasizing the importance of completing the membership processes. In this context, Scholz underlined that the process carried out with the Balkan countries is more important than ever and underlined the need to break Russia’s spheres of influence. As a matter of fact, as stated by the German Chancellor, Germany took important steps in reviving the Berlin Process.[5]

As can be expected, Germany’s emphasis on the region also had important benefits. In particular, Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is one of the important potential crisis areas in the region, obtaining EU candidate country status can be interpreted as an important development in this regard. It is also possible to interpret the resumption of membership negotiations with North Macedonia, one of the important states of the region, as a part of the process in question.

Another important step taken by Germany was in the military field. The Berlin administration, which decided to send troops to EUFOR, the peacekeeping force in Bosnia, in July 2022, after 10 years,[6] extended the terms of duty of the soldiers in KFOR, which was previously the peacekeeping force in Kosovo. With this development, it has also increased its military visibility in the region.[7]

In addition to all these, shortly after Scholz’s “Zeitenwende” statement, in March 2022, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock paid a visit to the Balkan countries. In the statement made by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before the Minister’s visit, it was stated that the visit took place in the shadow of Putin’s aggressive steps and it was aimed to confirm Germany’s responsibility towards the region with this visit; the following sentences from Baerbock reveal Germany’s approach to the region:[8]

“Today I am going to the Western Balkans, first of all, to listen to what the people there expect from us, and at the same time to show that we will not surrender this region in the heart of Europe to the influence of Moscow. In the last few days, Europe has shown that it is able to act and is determined to counter the aggressive actions of the Russian President. Now we have to prove that we are ready to show the same spirit in our forward-looking relations with the countries neighboring the EU.”

As a result, there is an element of continuosness in Germany’s Balkans policy; however, it is possible to say that the importance attributed to the region has increased as a result of recent developments. In particular, the Balkans, which act as a corridor between Russia and Europe, is not just Germany; it is also a strategic region for Europe. In the face of the energy crisis and the challenges posed by economic and trade crises, the Balkans have significant potential. Therefore, Germany, which is aware of this and wants to show that it can assume a leading role within the EU, can be expected to increase its interest in the region in the coming period.

[1] Isabel Muttreja-Bernhard Blumenau, “How Russia’s Invasion Changed German Foreign Policy”, Chatham House,, (Date of Accession: 12.01.2023).

[2] Bernhard Blumenau, “Breaking with Convention? Zeitenwende and the Traditional Pillars of German foreign Policy”, International Affairs, 98(6), 2022.

[3] Liana Fix, “German Foreign Policy After “Zeitenwende” (Change of an Era)”, Council on Foreign Relations,, (Date of Accession: 12.01.2023).

[4] Olaf Scholz, “The Global Zeitenwende-How to Avoid a New Cold War in a Multipolar Era”, Foreign Affairs,, (Date of Accession: 12.01.2023).

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Njemačka spremna ponovno rasporediti trupe u BiH u okviru EUFOR-a”, Radio Slobodna Evropa,, (Date of Accession: 12.01.2023).

[7] “Nemačka za produženje mandata KFOR-a”, Radio Kim,, (Date of Accession: 12.01.2023).

[8] “Reise in die Länder des westlichen Balkans und die Republik Moldau”, Auswärtiges Amt,, (Date of Accession: 12.01.2023).

Mustafa Çuhadar, İstanbul Üniversitesi Edebiyat Fakültesi İngiliz Dili ve Edebiyatı Bölümü mezunudur. Lisans döneminde disiplinlerarası çalışmalarına ağırlık veren Çuhadar'ın başlıca çalışma alanları, Balkanlar ve İstihbarat çalışmalarıdır. 2021 yılında Ankara Üniversitesi Türk İnkılap Tarihi Enstitüsü’nde yüksek lisans eğitimine başlayan Çuhadar, halihazırda Bosna Hersek’teki siyasi partileri inceleyen yüksek lisans tezini hazırlamaktadır. Çuhadar, iyi derecede İngilizce, Boşnakça, Hırvatça ve Sırpça ve temel seviyede Almanca bilmektedir.