“Serbia will join the EU during Turkey’s presidency” is a running joke in Belgrade. But the growing sense that the country may never get to join the union is no laughing matter. Just two decades ago, the Western Balkans were terrain of genocide, and of the largest conflict and displacement of people on European soil since the end of the second world war.
For the nations that once comprised Yugoslavia, the promise of EU membership became a cause for both governments and electorates to get behind. It is a promise that contributed to bringing war criminals to justice, and one that has helped to keep the past in check, curbing nationalism and religious and ethnic tensions across the region. The prospect of joining the European Union charted a pathway of reforms that has kept alternative roads at arm's length.
Two, Slovenia and Croatia, have already joined the EU. Three are candidates to join – the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia – while Bosnia and Herzegovina hopes to do so one day. As does Kosovo, even though some EU member states still don’t recognise it as independent.
But these Balkan states may be about to see their EU ambitions become one of the first unintended casualties of Brexit. As a result of Britain’s decision to leave the EU, many in the region not only fear that they will be losing a champion in Brussels, they also worry that the enlargement process could be permanently put off track by an EU distracted and forced to look inward by Brexit.
The "enlargement process is like a headless chicken", one former Serbian government official told BuzzFeed News. "It still runs around but in reality the chicken is dead."
And the consequences could be dangerous. In this limbo, the former official said, "the biggest risk to the region post-Brexit is Russia".
A senior Hungarian official close to prime minister Viktor Orban agreed: "Russia feels weakness, and Russia strikes where it sees weakness."
In the wake of Britain's vote to leave the EU, enthusiasm towards the EU has dampened in the Balkan states, especially among young Serbs. The phrase "our head is with Europe, but our heart is with Russia" is one that many who work in Serbia often relay. Across the wider region, up to one-third of people are now opposed to Western integration, according to the prime minister of Montenegro.
Among Orthodox Christians in Serbia, Montenegro, and the Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia's favourability remains high. And for many politicians in the region, the ways of central European leaders such as Orban look increasingly more appealing than the medicine proposed by Brussels. The region's leaders are increasingly turning to nationalist rhetoric to win votes.
Britain has long been a strong advocate for both the EU’s enlargement and its active engagement in the entire Western Balkans region.
"The UK has been a great supporter of the Balkans' EU accession," a Montenegrin government official said. "Brexit has already shown some negative signs in Montenegro and I fear this might grow in the future."
The Serbian former official described the current relationship between the EU and the region as a "mutual deception".
But even if true, that deception has so far suited both sides. There has been relative stability in what remains a fragile area of the world, and important steps – albeit too often slow – have been made where progress was by no means inevitable.
That stability is crucial to Europe, and not just to prevent another slide into the nationalist, ethnic violence that erupted in the early '90s. The region is the place where many of the EU's biggest current challenges come together – from the tens of thousands of refugees and migrants trying to enter Europe through the Balkan route to security threats in the forms of weapons smuggling and an assertive Russia.
But at the same time as the EU needs the Balkans more than ever, it now finds itself with a lot less leverage with some leaders. "Just look at the migration crisis," the former Serbian official says. "Europe can no longer tell Erdogan [the Turkish president], or Orban, or some of the leaders in the Western Balkans who have been in power for years, 'You’re bad.'"
A policy of mutual deception cannot last indefinitely, the official said, otherwise "it becomes like a religion. Be good, and you'll see the benefits once you die."
Brexit comes just as concerns are growing about Russia's influence in the region. Although European officials say direct parallels with Ukraine would be exaggerated, the common denominator is a Kremlin strategy that nudges towards political deadlock and fans nationalism.
Sources interviewed by BuzzFeed News claimed that Russia asserts its influence on the region's hearts and minds through its media outlets, such as Russia Today. A former UK government official who has worked in the Western Balkans told BuzzFeed News that "you have to assume that the Russians are doing some serious propaganda while Europe is distracted”.
And it seems to work. Polling commissioned by the Serbian government, for example, reveals that voters believe Russia to be the country's single biggest aid benefactor when in reality Russian aid doesn't even figure near the top of that particular ranking. The same figures also show that voters struggle to understand the specific benefits of the EU.
"It is difficult to keep the population on your side by offering to open some obscure chapter next year that nobody quite understands," said the former Serbian official. "The last practical thing that people link to the enlargement process, and understand, were visa liberalisations. Meanwhile, we pay more for Russian gas than Germany does. But people see images on television of joint military exercises and blankets donated by Russia."
Sources point to evidence and reports that Russia is ramping up its media presence and influence in the country through state-owned news agency Rossiya Segodnya/Sputnik, which launched in Serbia last year in an already sympathetic domestic media, as well as through government-backed cultural centres.
Russia's presence in the region's media landscape isn't limited to state-owned initiatives. Alida Vračić, a fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) and founder of the think tank Populari, told BuzzFeed News that "Russia's dominance position in many Montenegrin companies, for example, gives it political power there."
Russian officials, however, reject the portrayal of "Russia as an octopus whose tentacles are all over the place". Referring to reports and polling published after the UK referendum, an example one official gave BuzzFeed News is the belief that somehow Russia was the only country in the world happy that Britain voted to leave the EU. "They forget to include the British people in that list," the official said. They insist that Brexit didn't feature in any of Russia's plans.
They also claim there is nothing dark about Russia's media and cultural operations. "Russia simply wants to give its perspective on global issues. The Sputnik expansion into Serbia, and elsewhere, is part of the "rebranding and refurbishment" of state-owned media Ria Novosti and Voice of Russia, the official said.
Privately, other officials point to audience figures and social media followers to suggest that the actual impact of some aspects of Putin's soft-power strategy are often overblown by Western media. "Some of these cultural centres are just a librarian in a room with a few books," the official told BuzzFeed News.
Russia does not oppose EU membership for the region in any way, the official told BuzzFeed News. "It's a decision for the countries' governments and their populations," they said.
The Russian official believes that talk of EU enlargement is, in any case, speculative. Russia believes that following Brexit, the EU is weakened both politically and economically, and that no new member will be joining the EU anytime in the near future.
However, on the issue of NATO membership Russia's stance is less sanguine. The Russian government regrets that Montenegro, which is in the process of joining the military alliance, refuses to hold a referendum on the issue, the official said.
"Even a small country joining NATO is not welcome and has direct and indirect consequences. It changes the security balance of the region. The deployment of troops anywhere near Russia's borders has to be met with countermeasures. It also makes cooperation on issues of mutual interest more difficult," the official told BuzzFeed News.
This year the numbers have dropped considerably although tens of thousands have still migrated through the route. Alongside tighter borders, one of the reasons for the fall in numbers is an agreement between the EU and Turkey to stem the flow of migrants reaching Greece. Under the deal, those arriving in Greece are expected to be sent back to Turkey if they do not apply for asylum or their claim is rejected. For each Syrian returned to Turkey, a Syrian refugee will be resettled in the EU.
But just as Turkey–EU relations have become more turbulent and confrontational in recent weeks, jeopardising the implementation of the agreement, those between Russia and Turkey are again more closely aligned. According to some reports citing diplomatic sources in Ankara, Russian intelligence warned the Turkish government of military preparations ahead of July's failed coup.
At the beginning of August, Putin met with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The two countries are currently on a path to restoring full-fledged relations. Officials even suggest there is talk of a free trade zone in future.
The SWP's Alida Vračić told BuzzFeed News that "the recent softening of relations between Russia and Turkey complicates things further in the Western Balkans. Turkey, whose prospects of EU membership have decreased substantially, is also very much interested in exercising its influence over the region."
According to a Russian official, “alongside the migration crisis, Russia provides Turkey with additional leverage over the EU."
The Turkish government has threatened to pull out of the deal with the EU if visa-free travel isn't granted to Turkish nationals. Bulgaria's prime minister claims the agreement is essential to preventing "2 million" migrants from crossing central Europe, the Balkans, and Greece.
In recent years Turkey has turned some of its attention to soft power, and is again very present in the Balkans, particularly through aid and development agencies in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where about half the population is Muslim.
But some in central Europe are suspicious of the country's motives. A senior Hungarian official told BuzzFeed News: "Erdogan realises that Turkey will never be an EU member, so he is trying to assert his influence through other means. He wants to recreate an Ottoman Empire in cultural terms."
"There is a risk of Islamic radicalism in a volatile Bosnia," the official added.
And into this already volatile mix comes Brexit. The British government says it remains committed to the region. A UK Foreign Office spokeswoman told BuzzFeed News that “the UK remains committed to supporting security and prosperity across Europe, where we will continue to have close relationships and mutual interests.
"In countries aspiring to join the EU, our bilateral focus will remain on strengthening stability, security, good governance, and the economic fundamentals, and building the resilience and capability to tackle global threats and challenges (e.g. migration, terrorism).”
Meanwhile, the European Commission is adamant that there will be no reversal of EU policy towards the Western Balkans following the British vote. “There is the overwhelming agreement of all member states, the UK leaving the EU will not have an impact as the region's past shows what happens otherwise,” a senior EU official told BuzzFeed News.
But for the former Serbian official, that “nothing has changed” attitude from the EU is the most worrying response: “It means they’re not really looking at this properly."
Experts believe it would be “naive” to think that the UK's vote to leave the EU will not affect enlargement in the region.
The SWP's Alida Vračić told BuzzFeed News: "There are several very immediate threats in the region due to the notion of Brexit, rather than Brexit itself. Macedonia is mired in a corruption scandal. Bosnia and Herzegovina is still under the protectorate more than two decades after the war ended, and other countries are not doing so great either. Brexit might empower domestic political elites with an excuse to not reform, and to pursue more assertive populist and nationalist narratives instead. Their electorates could follow suit.
"Surrounded by a bloc of countries that feature populism on a significant scale, such as Poland and Hungary, leaders and voters in the Western Balkans might well want to follow that path."