The Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, José Manuel Albares, conducted a tour of the Western Balkans in mid-2023. The tour included almost all of the Western Balkans 6 (WB6) countries, except Kosovo (a country not recognized by Spain) and Montenegro. This visit served as preparation for Spain’s upcoming presidency of the European Union, which begins in July 2023, highlighting the high priority that the Western Balkans represent for the EU. WB6 are the EU’s last frontier for a long time. During the tour, the Spanish Minister visited four countries: Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Albania, and North Macedonia (SM). Let’s discuss each of these countries briefly, explaining their particularities.
Firstly, it’s worth noting that the countries in the region are part of the Stabilization and Association Process (SAP) of the European Union, since 1999 and 2000 respectively. This process involves establishing long-term relations between these countries, formerly part of the former east bloc countries and had limited institutional ties with the EU (then the European Economic Community). The only exception was the unique case of Yugoslavia. After the dissolution of the Balkan country, each country had to start anew, with the challenging task of determining the successor states to Yugoslavia.
Initially, the focus of the countries of the former Yugoslavia was on recovery from the war and building peace. Over time, a more ambitious goal of integration into the EU was pursued. Therefore, all these countries have signed Association and Stabilization Agreements with the EU, which include various aspects such as economic, trade, and cultural relations, as well as concessions and economic assistance to prepare the countries for EU membership.
Although not part of the current visit, Montenegro will be discussed in this context, as it would be in no sense excluded. On the other hand, Kosovo will have opportunities for future discussions. Still, it is not deemed pertinent to include it in this post on international relations with Spain, as it is not officially recognized. In any case, Spain has cooperated with Pristina in areas that do not compromise its position regarding Serbia’s territorial integrity, such as humanitarian aid, post-war reconstruction, governance, the rule of law, and cultural cooperation.
Having made this brief digression, let’s now turn to the countries that were the focus of Spain’s tour.
Serbia was the first stage of the tour. The Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs was received by Serbia’s political elite, President Aleksandar Vučić, Prime Minister Ana Brnabić, Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić, and Minister of European Integration Tanja Miščević. Spain maintains fluid relations with Serbia and, due to its stance on Kosovo (not recognizing its independence), is more inclined towards understanding. This strengthens bilateral ties and makes them allies in this aspect.
Diplomatic relations between Spain and Serbia were established in 2001, when starts Serbia’s integration process, initially as an association, with the European Union. Spain has been supportive of Serbia’s integration into the EU and has worked to enhance relations between Serbia and the Union. Cooperation between the two countries has expanded in areas such as trade, investment, culture, and education. Notably, agreements between universities have led to the teaching of the Serbian language at some Spanish universities.
In terms of international politics, Spain’s position aligns with the EU’s requirements for Serbia to fulfil democratic standards, the rule of law, and the EU’s foreign policy guidelines, including the stance on Russia in the Ukraine conflict. However, Serbia may have differing views on the EU’s foreign policy, particularly regarding Russia and the war in Ukraine. As Spain assumes the EU’s rotating presidency, it will also have to address the influence of Russia in the region.
China also has a significant presence in the area, undertaking infrastructure projects in Serbia through loans. These projects have raised concerns within the EU due to their lack of transparency and violations of EU competition rules in contract awards. In addition, the European Union (EU) will be closely monitoring Serbia’s procurement of technological equipment for law enforcement purposes, specifically from China. This includes the acquisition of facial recognition technology, which goes against EU legislation. The monitoring initiative reflects Spain’s commitment to strengthening bilateral relations and supporting Serbia’s integration into the EU. Furthermore, it acknowledges the complex dynamics and challenges present in the region.
After Serbia, the Spanish Foreign Minister travelled to the capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Sarajevo. There, he met with the Prime Minister, Borjana Kristo, and the Foreign Minister, Elmedin Konaković.
BiH is the poorest country in the Western Balkans and suffers from unstable institutional stability. Bosnia-Herzegovina operates as a constitutional federation with two entities established by the Dayton Agreements in 1995, without going into extensive details. It is a complex puzzle where any piece can be disrupted at any moment, jeopardizing the entire picture. These two political entities in BiH are the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska. Each entity has extensive powers and its political system, including parliaments and presidencies. They live under the same roof but with their backs to each other. They often function with limited coordination, creating a challenging and intricate situation in BiH.
During the Bosnian War (1992-1995), the Federation of BiH, predominantly populated by Bosniaks and Croats, experienced a conflict between these two groups. However, their collaboration was enforced by the United States.
n the other hand, the Republika Srpska is primarily inhabited by Serbs. Its President, Dodik, is known for making controversial statements and aligns with Serbia’s Vučić and Russia’s Putin, particularly during the Ukraine conflict. It is an open secret that Dodik’s dream is to join Serbia, which poses an additional challenge for EU negotiators and the current Spanish presidency.
Spain has had a strong presence in the country since the war in the early 1990s. Bosnia is not an unfamiliar place to the Bosnians. Starting in 1992, Spain maintained a contingent as part of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) to monitor the fragile peace agreements (which were violated soon after) and to protect humanitarian convoys and the civilian population. After 1996, following the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords and the cessation of hostilities, the Spanish contingent became part of the NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR), with a reduced role of monitoring the definitive peace agreements. SFOR transitioned to EUROFOR in 2004, under direct EU command. In 2010, was transformed into a European mission focused on training and advising the Bosnian armed forces. The last Spanish advisors left in 2015. On the other hand, the Republika Srpska is primarily inhabited by Serbs, over 42,000 Spanish military personnel served in BiH (23 of whom died during the conflict). Spanish cooperation in the region continues, including projects like the reconstruction of the Sarajevo library, destroyed during the war by Bosnian Serb forces. Economic and cultural relations between Spain and BiH are fluid, with Spain also contributing to the preservation of Bosnia’s cultural heritage, as exemplified by the library project mentioned earlier.
As an interesting fact, Albania is among the countries that show strong support for Spain in the Eurovision Song Contest. The historical relationship between Spain and Albania dates back to the mid-15th century when Albania, under the leadership of Skanderbeg, allied with Fernando de Aragon, one of the medieval kingdoms that make up present-day Spain. This alliance continued to have an impact beyond the lifetimes of these leaders.
However, during the era of the Eastern Bloc, Albania became one of the most closed countries in the world, similar to the present-day situation in North Korea. Albania had severed ties with the USSR and aligned itself with China. The «Land of the Eagles,» which is the literal meaning of Albania, was not only isolated from the rest of the world but also restricted its own citizens’ access. I remember walking through the former «bloc» neighbourhood in Tirana in 2007 with my friends Isabel and Mario. This area was exclusive to party members of the Communist Party and off-limits to the general population.
During his visit, Minister Albares met with Albanian Foreign Minister Olta Xhaçka and Prime Minister Edi Rama in Tirana. In 2021, a treaty on reciprocal extradition was signed between Spain and Albania, as the 1957 European Convention on Extradition did not permit the extradition of citizens between the two countries.
Trade between Spain and Albania has shown an irregular trend in recent years, with fluctuations and variations. Since 2021 and in the early months of 2022, it has experienced a slight increase.
In terms of investment, flows of investment from Albania to Spain have been very limited in recent years. Similarly, Spanish investment in Albania has also been scarce, with few exceptions.
Regarding cooperation, Spain has had a significant presence in Albania, implementing projects in institutional strengthening, support for micro and small enterprises, the agricultural sector, rural development, education, and health. However, in recent years, Spain’s presence in Albania in terms of cooperation has decreased.
José Manuel Albares, from Tirana, travelled to Skopje to meet with Vice Prime Minister Bojan Maricic and Foreign Affairs Minister Bujar Osmani of North Macedonia.
Despite its small size, North Macedonia is a topic that warrants several theses and thousands of articles. It used to be one of the poorest republics of Yugoslavia (SFRY), alongside Kosovo. Nowadays, Bosnia-Herzegovina holds that position, which is understandable after experiencing nearly four years of devastating and all-encompassing war. Nonetheless, North Macedonia remains among the least developed countries in the Western Balkans.
The country suffers from chronic political instability, with several episodes that complicate the situation for a nation aspiring to live in peace. Undoubtedly, the Spanish presidency will not be uneventful:
- Controversies with Greece and Bulgaria regarding the country’s name and language: For many years, North Macedonia was known as the «former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia» (FYROM) until it officially adopted its current name in 2019. Greece also vetoed the country’s NATO membership as FYROM.
- Concerning China: Following the trend observed in other Western Balkan countries, China has provided loans to fund infrastructure projects in North Macedonia, including road construction and power plant modernization. However, the viability of these infrastructure projects is questionable both environmentally and economically. Concerning the latter, the Chinese loans could potentially lead to an unsustainable debt burden for North Macedonia, as we will explain in the case of Montenegro.
Other challenges faced by North Macedonia include:
- Ethnic tensions: The country has a significant minority population of ethnic Albanians (approximately 30%). In 2001, a civil war erupted between the National Liberation Army of Kosovo (UCK), which refused to demobilize, and the Macedonian government. The conflict ended with the Ohrid Agreement, granting more rights to the Albanian minority. In 2015, there was another incident in Kumanovo. In addition, other ethnic protests did not escalate into armed conflict.
- Institutional instability: The government headed by Nikola Gruevski from 2006 to 2016 had considerable scandals, including espionage and treason within the country’s intelligence service, as well as widespread corruption within the executive branch. These issues led to Gruevski’s departure and seeking refuge in Hungary under Viktor Orbán, a leader with questionable democratic convictions. The internal situation significantly set back North Macedonia in critical areas of accession negotiations, particularly in the rule of law domain. As a result, the EU tightened the accession conditions and suspended negotiations. Negotiations eventually resumed in 2019 but did not commence until mid-2022 due to Bulgaria’s veto.
After a transitional government, elections resulted in coalition governments of SDSM-DUI (2017-2020) and the current government (2022). Their mission is to steer North Macedonia back towards the path of European integration and reforms, with a focus on combating corruption.
Bilateral relations between North Macedonia and Spain are generally positive. Diplomatic relations have existed since 1994, Spain was providing political and economic support to the government during the Kosovo War crisis in 1999, when Albanian Kosovar refugees sought refuge in North Macedonia, threatening the country’s stability.
In terms of economic cooperation, it is noteworthy that Spain has a trade deficit with North Macedonia, importing more from the Balkan republic than it exports to it.
Spain also participates in various projects aimed at sustainable development, managing EU funds, improving the tax system, and assisting North Macedonia in harmonizing its legislation with EU standards. Additionally, during the minister’s tour, memoranda of understanding were signed with each country visited to strengthen cooperation in extradition matters.
Montenegro and Spain enjoy a cooperative and fluid relationship. Since Montenegro gained independence in 2006, Spain has established diplomatic relations with the republic and supported Montenegro’s integration into the European Union and NATO. Economic relations between the two countries are based on agreements previously signed with Yugoslavia. While Spanish investments in Montenegro are limited, they benefit from the protection provided by bilateral and multilateral agreements.
The cooperation between Spain and Montenegro dates back to the agreements with Yugoslavia and has continued to strengthen over time. Following the armed conflicts of the 1990s, the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID) in Sarajevo played a significant role in managing projects in Montenegro, focusing on strengthening the rule of law, education, economic development, conflict prevention, and peacebuilding.
Spain has contributed to the financing and construction of various projects in Montenegro, such as the waste treatment centre in Podgorica, the renovation of the Clinical Center of Podgorica, and the establishment of a hydrological system in Lake Skadar. Spain also provides advisory support to the Montenegrin tax agency.
The Joint Sustainable Development Goals Fund, a collaborative initiative between Spain and Montenegro under the auspices of the United Nations, is a prominent ongoing project that aims to promote sustainable development in Montenegro and address key social and environmental challenges.
However, there are challenges in Spain’s relationship with Montenegro, such as Montenegro’s substantial debt to China and difficulties during its integration into NATO in 2006, particularly during the preliminary phase. Despite these challenges, Spain remains committed to strengthening its cooperation with Montenegro on various initiatives, emphasizing sustainable development, economic growth, and the consolidation of democratic institutions in Montenegro.