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Alexander Pivovarenko

Ph.D. in History, Senior Research Associate, RAS Institute of Slavonic Studies, RIAC Expert

On July 1, 2015, the Office of the United nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported an 83 percent increase in the number of refugees and migrants who had crossed the Mediterranean Sea to get to Europe in the first 6 months of 2015: 137,000 people compared to 75,000 in the same period last year. Plans to combat the migration crisis, adopted by the European Commission, have proved to be less than efficient. Pragmatization of relations with Russia may offer an opportunity for the EU to cope with the refugee problem. Failing this, the crisis-ridden South-East Europe risks becoming an exporter of instability and falling into a trap, in which it has already been before.

On July 1, 2015, the Office of the United nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported an 83 percent increase in the number of refugees and migrants who had crossed the Mediterranean Sea to get to Europe in the first 6 months of 2015: 137,000 people compared to 75,000 in the same period last year. Plans to combat the migration crisis, adopted by the European Commission, have proved to be less than efficient. Pragmatization of relations with Russia may offer an opportunity for the EU to cope with the refugee problem. Failing this, the crisis-ridden South-East Europe risks becoming an exporter of instability and falling into a trap, in which it has already been before.

The scale of the crisis

The current migration crisis emerged for good reason. It was sparked by the events of the Arab Spring, the collapse of the statehood in Libya, as well as by creating chaos in Syria, Iraq and other regions. The first refugees arrived in southern Spain, the Italian and French Mediterranean and in Crete in the second half of 2011. On October 2, 2013 the world was shocked by the tragedy, which occurred when the boat sank in waters near the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa with more than 500 migrants from Africa. The number of illegal border crossings was gradually rising. Thus, according to FRONTEX European Service, in 2014 the Western Balkan countries (Albania and former Yugoslavia without Slovenia) faced 43,360 such cases, exceeding the 2013 figure by 2.2 times, and the 2012 one by 6.8 times.

According to the latest UNHCR data, more than 980 thousand refugees fled to Europe in 2015. Of these, 825 thousand arrived in Greece, 151 thousand in Italy, and 3.5 thousand in Spain. 84 percent of them arrived from 10 countries affected by various conflicts.

Although following the migration peak in September and October the number of arriving migrants has been gradually declining, and the issue of refugees has somewhat lost its urgent character due to other remarkable developments (the Russian operation in Syria, a series of terrorist attacks in the world, the deterioration of Russian-Turkish relations), it’s too early to speak about the end of the crisis.

First, the decline in the migratory activity is due to seasonal factors. Second, the big crisis in the Middle East, which is the root cause of the problem, has yet to be resolved. At that, only a part of the estimated 2.29 million refugees registered in Turkey has reached the Old World so far. And at least one more wave of migration is to be expected in 2016.

UNHCR
Fig 1. Breakdown of Men-Women-Children
among sea arrivals in Greece for the period
June – 30 November 2015

Third, more than half of migrants arriving in Europe are men (see. Fig. 1), and 69 percent of refugees are 18 to 35 years old. Many do not have any documents at all. This is rife with long-term demographic, cultural and criminal consequences. But the number of asylum seekers is on the rise. In 2014, it amounted to 625 thousand, almost reaching the peak level in 1992 during the war in Yugoslavia, namely 672 thousand.

Fourth, after the terrorist attack in Paris on November 13, 2015, the refugee problem in Europe has gone beyond the regional and humanitarian scope. It has been established that one of the terrorists who blew themselves up in Paris entered France through the so-called Western Balkan route, via Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia. The refugee problem has become a political and security issue of the continental scope.

The role of the Western Balkan route

The set expression “the Western Balkan route” is often found in the news and publications on the migration crisis. The term appeared in the late 20th century to denote smuggling routes that run through the peninsula (cigarettes, weapons, drugs and human organs) and may bear relation to certain political leaders, legitimized by Western Europe. However, it should be noted that since ancient times the Balkans have efficiently performed a transit and cushioning function between the East and the West. In the 5th century BC the Persians moved to Greece along the same routes as the refugees do now to get into Europe. Alexander the Great led his army into Asia through the Balkans; the same route was taken by Crusaders on the way to Jerusalem, and by Germany trying to gain access to southern seas.

Although following the migration peak in September and October the number of arriving migrants has been gradually declining, and the issue of refugees has somewhat lost its urgent character due to other remarkable developments it’s too early to speak about the end of the crisis.

The multi-layered expansion in the Balkans of the Ottoman Empire, culminating in two sieges of Vienna (1529 and 1683), offers the most striking example of the role assigned to the region. To stabilize the situation, the Habsburgs created a border region under special control – the Military Frontier. It included the lands of Transylvania, Southern Hungary, the Serbian Vojvodina, Croatia and some other regions. This resulted in the Peninsula’s islamization and orientalization, the changed national composition of the population, the emergence of striped ethnic pattern, which, in turn, predetermined future conflicts among the Balkan peoples in the 20th century.

The 2015 migration crisis has offered another example of the fact that having been unable to stop the crisis in external zones, Europe is forced to deal with it on its own periphery. The European Commission adopted two action plans. First, on April 20, 2015 it adopted a plan of 10 points, focused on strengthening maritime border control, up to sinking of vessels. According to experts, by doing so the EU tried to cut itself off the migrants.

FRONTEX
Western Balkans subroutes

The second 17-point plan of action (Juncker’s plan) was adopted on October 25, when it became clear that the influx of refugees into the continent not only continued, but even intensified (see. Fig. 2). By that time, tens of thousands of refugees had left Greece and had come close to the borders of the Schengen area. The main elements of the new plan included improvement of the land border control between the countries outside the EU and the Schengen area, migration quota distribution, and construction of refugee camps. Thus, “external” maritime barriers gave way to deterring the migrants’ flows at the European periphery with a parallel creation of conditions for flexible adaptation of those, whose extradition appears impossible.

Refugees’ factor in the Balkans

The Balkan countries took the heat during the migration crisis. Greece gripped by the economic crisis and neighboring the coast of Asia Minor became the first victim. The crisis then spread to neighboring Macedonia. At first, the Macedonian government tried to deter refugees by force. A state of emergency was imposed, and on August 21, 2015, the police used force near the border town of Gevgelija. However, apart from being unsuccessful, these efforts resulted in the death of a Macedonian policeman and were condemned by the media.

After that, the government changed the approach and announced a rule of 72 hours, during which the refugees had to either ask for asylum or to proceed to the north and leave the country. An additional bus service and campsites were organized. As a result, although some 4-7 thousand (sometimes up to 12 thousand) migrants crossed the Macedonian border daily, the presence of the refugees did not disrupt the normal life in the country: there were no refugees at all in the Macedonian capital Skopje, as well as in tourist cities of Bitola and Ohrid.

Any map of the transit flow shows that it has always passed through the territory of today's Serbia and Belgrade. Since the capabilities of the Serbian border services are rather modest, it made sense to open the door as wide as possible in order to reduce the inevitable damage, rather than close it on the migrants.

UNHCR
Fig 2. Comparison of monthly Mediterranean
sea arrivals

Serbia is interested in letting the migrants pass through its territory as quickly as possible. To this end, it established humanitarian centers in areas bordering Macedonia and intensified bus service to Belgrade and Novi Sad (8-10 hours of travel). This made it possible to avoid the accumulation of migrants in Central Serbia and move them as close as possible to the northern and western borders. Prime Minister A. Vucic has turned the difficult situation to advantage. In his speeches, he has never tired of repeating that his country's borders will remain open, if only because the Serbs, who know from their own history, what it means to be displaced, understand the Syrian comrades in distress perfectly well.

The state media share this approach when covering the situation. Thus, Serbia has been trying to score points in the eyes of the EU, and to show moral superiority over its neighbors. By and large, A. Vucic succeeded in the latter, especially against the backdrop of failed actions of his Croatian colleagues. However, the closure of the border with Hungary (on September 14, 2015) and the provisions of the Juncker’s plan, according to which Serbia, like other countries of the Western Balkans route will have to create on its territory permanent facilities to accommodate the refugees, means their settling in large cities and suburbs with all that it entails. Settling refugees in border areas with a predominantly Albanian population (Presevo, Bujanovac) raises concerns in connection with the intensified threat of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism and creates conditions for criminal elements’ penetration in Europe from neighboring Kosovo [1].

After the terrorist attack in Paris on November 13, 2015, the refugee problem in Europe has gone beyond the regional and humanitarian scope.

Hungary’s decision of September 14, 2015 to close the border with Serbia has caused a chain reaction and strengthening of border controls in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands). It also triggered a crisis in Croatia. On October 17, 2015 Budapest closed the Croatian border, causing a collapse in the neighboring Slovenia.

The Croatian and Slovenian governments were not prepared for it. On September 16, 2015 Prime Minister Z. Milanovic boldly declared that his country was ready to render all-round assistance to refugees and even condemned Hungary’s preventive measures to protect its borders. But on September 17, 2015 when the first 6500 people entered the country, the Ministry of Interior of Croatia was forced to admit that the humanitarian resources were at the end and tried to close the border with Serbia. This sparked clashes between the Croatian police and migrants at the border town of Tovarnik, details of which were covered by all media.

UNHCR
Sea arrivals in 2015

Slovenian services were not ready to cope with the flood of refugees. Initially, the Slovenian government expected to receive from 3 to 5 thousand people a day, then this figure dropped to 2.5 thousand people, while in reality the average number of migrants who crossed the border daily varied from 6 to 12 thousand people. In the midst of the crisis from October 17 to 26, Slovenia received more than 76306 people, of whom only 47920 left the country. The problems of the Western Balkans route were most vividly in evidence there: poorly equipped refugee reception centers; lack of food, water, warm clothing, and volunteers.

The difficult situation forced the Slovenian government to use the army and seek international assistance to protect its border (which is also the Schengen one). The blame for the crisis was put on Croatia, which “opened all the existing directions” and border crossings.

FRONTEX
The changing Western Balkan route

The flow of migrants along Athens-Macedonia-Belgrade route would not have been so impressive, had Bulgaria taken a different stance on the issue of migrants. In 2013, it followed the example of Greece and launched the construction of a wall, equipped with live wire and video cameras along its land border with Turkey. Although refugees do arrive in Bulgaria, but the scale of their flow is a far cry from the Greek one, namely only 13 thousand people in 2015. Having taken early measures, the Bulgarian police can now act more radically: organize raids, authorize policemen to use force, expel illegal migrants back to Turkey. Bulgaria’s drastic measures even lead to two demonstrations in Greece, whose participants wanted Bulgaria to display “greater solidarity” on the issue of refugees’ passage. However, even in these conditions, at least 100-200 people a day cross the Bulgarian-Serbian border.

Conflict of interest

The 2015 migration crisis has offered another example of the fact that having been unable to stop the crisis in external zones, Europe is forced to deal with it on its own periphery.

In terms of its scale, the current refugee crisis has not yet become as severe as the one that the breakup of Yugoslavia sparked off. Then, at least 4.5 million people were displaced, of whom 3.3 million were granted the refugee status [2]. However, these two phenomena should be compared not only in terms of quantity, but of quality too. Then, the migration took place in line with the “Europeans to Europeans” approach, while now migrants do not belong to the European cultural area, although they come from once a secular state. In the 1990s, migrants entered advanced countries of Western Europe that were on the rise. Now people arrive in developed Western countries that are no longer as prosperous as they used to be, and in South East Europe that has degraded economically (and in some cases politically as well).

The Yugoslav crisis of the 1990s, although it was resolved with the help of external forces, was an internal European crisis. The current challenge is of external nature. Europe faced the latest challenge of this kind in the 15th century, when it was threatened by the Ottoman Empire.

FRONTEX

The key to solving the crisis is the reduction in refugee numbers in Turkey, which requires a general stabilization in the Middle East. However, there is little doubt that the EU cannot do it single-handedly, while the existing differences with Russia do not allow pursuing a coordinated policy. Therefore, the EU can take only tactical measures, aimed to eliminate the obvious security threats.

It should be noted that different value systems keep possession of the key countries and groups of countries in the EU. The main proponent of refugees’ integration in Europe is Angela Merkel. But even in Germany not everybody supports this idea. The position of neighboring France after the tragedy of November 13, 2015 is facing a great challenge. And the United Kingdom does not intend to accommodate refugees on its territory.

The humanitarian aspect of the crisis management, advocated by official Berlin, clashes with the security aspect, which worries the countries of the Visegrad Group and the Baltic states a lot more. And the matter at issue is not just socio-economic considerations. For Central Europe liberalism is closely associated with nationalism and preservation of the homogeneity of its ethnic groups. For this reason, agreements on quotas for resettling migrants are achieved with difficulty not only with antagonistic Hungary, but with quite loyal the Czech Republic too. Something that is perceived in one part of Europe as a high mission, the other part views as a threat to the existing cultural identity and way of life. In this respect, the events in France have substantiated the arguments put forward by Central European states - the terrorist threat can justify any reduction in refugee quotas.

FRONTEX

There seems to be no alternative to just compromises and half-measures. The most obvious option appears to be localization of threats within the crisis-ridden region and creating conditions for distributing the load from the epicenter, which is Greece, among other countries. At bottom, this means creating a sanitary filtration area similar to the Military Frontier of the Habsburg Empire, but on a larger territorial scale.

Consequences

The consequences of the current crisis are not yet long-term, but over time may well become so. The fiscal, social and environmental burden on host countries will be growing. On October 25, 2015 the European Commission decided to set up refugee reception centers along the Western Balkans route, equipped with everything to live through winter. Greece is expected to increase reception capacity to 50,000 places (30,000 places at its own expense and another 20,000 with external financial support); other countries along the Western Balkans route are to increase reception capacity to 50,000 places as well. Obviously, this will be financed by state budgets, and the number of seats may have to be increased.

Russia is not interested in the crisis aggravation and in the destabilization of the situation in South-East Europe.

p>Due to geographic reasons, the influx of refugees from Europe to Russia in the existing conditions is unlikely. However, Russia is not interested in the crisis aggravation and in the destabilization of the situation in South-East Europe. First, it will affect the Balkans, which is the only region in Europe that takes a sincere liking to our country. History shows that should Russia run into danger, local peoples are ready to extend a helping hand, including taking up arms, irrespective of the course pursued by their governments. Second, the growth of social tension, combined with the penetration of radical Islam could destabilize the situation in certain regions such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, where fundamentalists’ enclaves already exist, Montenegro or Macedonia. This can be used by external forces, such as Turkey, to strengthen their positions in the Balkans and weaken friendly to Russia republics.

As for Brussels, the marginalization of South-East Europe does not meet its interests either. However, under certain specific conditions it can become the lesser evil.

1. According to EUROSTAT, Kosovo occupies the second place (88 495 people), and Albania the fifth place (33,825 people.) in the list of countries whose citizens were the EU asylum-seekers in June 2014-June 2015. Over the past year the number of asylum-seekers from Kosovo has increased by 386 percent, while of those from Albania by 354 percent.

2. M.U. Martynova, The Balkan Crisis: Peoples and Politics. Moscow, 1998 [in Russian]

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