Chinese investment is winning hearts and minds in western Balkans

Four of the top five biggest investors in Serbia are from the EU, but Serbs think China and Russia are in the top three, according to a government survey

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 June, 2018, 12:35pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 June, 2018, 10:31pm

To get a sense of China’s influence in Europe’s Balkan backyard, check out the Serbian town of Smederevo on payday.

That is when Sopranos Pizzeria, a short drive from the Zelezara steel mill that is the area’s biggest employer, cannot push pepperoni pizzas out the door fast enough and traffic picks up at the clothing store Jasmina Sljukic runs on main square. Hesteel invested in 2016 to keep the factory alive and the significance of the Chinese investor is not lost on the retailers.

“It would have been a complete catastrophe without them,” said Sljukic, 49, surrounded by lace tops, floral summer skirts and other women’s garments.

Why Europe is pivotal player for China in a three-way trade puzzle

A little goes a long way when it comes to winning the hearts and minds of a region that has lagged behind other former communist countries in Europe because of war, sanctions and political chaos.

The takeover of the steel mill fits into a string of high-profile investments that raised China’s esteem across the Balkans. It, along with Russia, now outshines the European Union, at a fraction of the cost.

Four of the top five biggest investors in Serbia hail from the EU. Yet Serbs think China and Russia are in two of the top three spots, far ahead of Germany, according to a government survey. And with support for joining the EU on the wane, there is growing concern of the organisation losing its grip on parts of former Yugoslavia.

“All this has political consequences because it undermines the idea that the EU is the region’s best and only hope and, by extension, erodes popular consent for the painful reforms needed to qualify for EU entry,” said Timothy Less, a political risk analyst at Nova Europa, a think tank based in Cambridge, England.

Is China using ‘divide and rule’ tactics to gain influence in Europe?

Aspirant EU countries need to adopt strict rules and regulations as well as settle some political differences. Serbia’s targeted membership date has been pushed back to 2025 and, if it happens, it would be 12 years after Croatia and more than two decades after Slovenia, the only two former Yugoslav states in the bloc.

In the jostling for influence in the Balkans, perception trumps reality. The 28-nation EU calculates it accounted for 73 per cent of all 2017 trade within the non-EU western Balkans, which includes Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo and the Republic of Macedonia, as well as Albania. China and Russia each had a share of about 5 per cent.

China considers the region a key corridor into Europe, part of its “Belt and Road Initiative”. Projects include a sea bridge in southern Croatia. Huawei Technologies will upgrade the Serbian phone company, and is building a highway in Montenegro to connect Belgrade and the Adriatic.

Russia, which has ethnic and religious ties across region and especially in Serbia, is working on rail upgrades and has opened a “humanitarian centre” in the city of Nis to provide aid.

“A positive attitude to China has been rising,” said Srdjan Bogosavljevic, the head of the IPSOS Strategic Marketing consultancy in Belgrade. “It’s reached a very high level probably because investments from China are presented or communicated as a gesture of good will. Only the attitude towards Russia is better.”

Is China’s investment in infrastructure projects driving Western Balkan nations into debt?

On an official level, nothing has changed. Serbian authorities including President Aleksandar Vucic have maintained they plan to join the EU, though the independence of Kosovo, a former Serbian province, remains a rough spot in negotiations.

Montenegro and the Republic of Macedonia, which is in the process of settling a dispute with Greece over its name, are also in the pipeline to join.

European lawmakers see the competition between global power centres breaking along lines of interest. While the EU is focusing on the rule of law, aid and business development, the US has put a premium on security, Russia on energy and foreign policy and China on infrastructure and markets, according to the latest report.

“Each partner has its own specific interest and comparative advantage,” the European Parliament, the bloc’s legislature, said in a study published in November that Serbia “is in an unstable equilibrium”.

As a result of Vucic’s balancing act and willingness to “entertain all comers”, the country’s leaders would probably accept a turn in public opinion against the EU, it said.

Still, a policy U-turn would be expensive and risky, according to Steven Blockmans at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels. The EU’s technocratic approach “is devoid of political clout, which is needed in an increasingly politicised region”, he said.

Merkel warns against China's influence in Balkans

Sem Fabrizi, the EU’s ambassador to Serbia, acknowledged a weakness in connecting with the people, even as its money flows in to support projects from improving governance standards and the rule of law to supporting media freedom, civic society and education.

“We’re striving for better visibility, more visibility,” Fabrizi said in Belgrade. “That is something we’re aware of, but I wouldn’t say that in the popularity contest we’re not in a good position. I see a positive trend, it’s an incremental one, we could do better, but it’s not that we’re losing, on the contrary.”

Back in Smederevo, where 1.8 million tonnes of Chinese steel will roll out of Hesteel’s smelters this year, China is helping pay the bills. Next door to Sljukic’s clothing store, Tanja Vujovic is finishing her shift at the dry cleaners. To her, there is nothing out of the ordinary about global powers fighting for influence over the country.

“Everybody talks about Serbia’s balancing between east and west, between the EU and Russia, but why is that unusual?” she asked as she closed up shop. “It’s our destiny, it’s been like this for centuries, since forever.”