The power dynamics on Europe’s periphery are shifting. In the 2010s, the Balkans became exposed to the influence of non-Western actors. NATO has expanded into former Yugoslavia and the EU dominates in the economic sphere, having also welcomed Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia as members. Yet Western institutions’ normative aspirations – anchoring democracy and the rule of law as well as strengthening governance capacity – have largely remained unfulfilled. Democratic backsliding is pervasive and countries like Viktor Orbán’s Hungary have emerged as role models. The surge of populism in core Western democracies exacerbates the trend, in that it undermines claims of moral higher ground.
In consequence, rival powers such as Russia, Turkey (formally a member of NATO, but pursuing an autonomous course), and increasingly China have made inroads across post-communist Europe. That has happened by the invitation of local players (governments, political leaders, business elites), not against their will. They engage external actors to maximize their domestic power or generate rents. Thus [e.g.] China’s 17+1 initiative which promises billions of investment in infrastructure grabs headlines from Athens to Warsaw. Erdoğan’s Turkey wins plaudits as an ally in stemming illegal migration or, in some countries, as an external supporter. The same is true of Russia which uses transnational elite-level links to compete against the West.
During his Europe’s Futures fellowship in 2020/21 Dimitar Bechev will research the critical role played by peripheral countries and their elites who rather than being the object of great powers' decisions manipulate rivalries in pursuit of political advantage.