- September 24, 2020
On September 24, 2020 the Aspen Institute Germany hosted the second issue of its Online Expert Workshop Series “The COVID-19 Pandemic in the Western Balkans: Consequences and Policy Approaches“. The closed-door workshop focused on “The Changing Roles of Key International Actors in the Western Balkans Amidst the COVID-19 Crisis” and gathered a select group of regional and international experts, high-level representatives of the U.S. and EU member states as well as from EU institutions to assess the situation and jointly develop recommendations on how to respond to the current dynamics. The workshop dealt specifically with the roles of China, Russia, and Turkey in the Western Balkans.
While participants agreed that China gained strong media presence in the region through its “mask diplomacy” also at the expense of other actors, the Russian involvement in the Western Balkans was marked by a continued utilization of its crisis-relief infrastructure already in place. Turkey, in turn, seemed to have used its pandemic-related assistance to the region also for domestic political purposes. At the same time, it was stated that the EU had difficulties to be present with its support in local communication channels due to a lack of independent media in some countries of the region. Participants also noted that disinformation and conspiracy theories further spread throughout the region, especially concerning health-related topics. Regarding the question of how the U.S. and the EU should react to these tendencies, the importance of cooperation and coordination between the two actors was highlighted. Furthermore, the need to fight disinformation, to increase resilience and to strengthen independent media was emphasized. Additionally, the EU (along with its member states) was encouraged to act faster, to be more blunt in messaging and to show a stronger personal presence in the region to increase its visibility and credibility.
The Expert Workshop Series was organized in the framework of Aspen’s Regional Dialog on the Western Balkans, kindly supported by the German Federal Foreign Office. While the first issue in June focused on political effects of the pandemic, upcoming issues will deal with economic and social developments in the aftermath of the public health crisis as well as effects on regional cooperation.