After the European Union and Turkey signed an agreement on migration, it seemed that the number of migrants choosing the Balkan route would drop dramatically. Many people, however, were skeptical. They pointed out the dangers of letting Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan, who is steadily expanding his political power, have effective control over the security of Europe, and giving him a tool that could potentially be used to blackmail the EU.
With spring coming and the temperature rising, many migrants are arriving in Europe from Greece. Human smugglers are looking for new routes and the one from Greece across Albania, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina is becoming increasingly popular. While Muslim Bosnians have generally had positive attitudes toward the predominantly Muslim migrants, Orthodox Christian-majority Montenegro has expressed concern over the issue.
The Government in Podgorica has declared it is ready to build a fence if pressure on its border continues to increase. In response, the Hungarian government has offered to supply the material for a 25 km long fence if Montenegro chooses to undertake this project. The construction along the Albanian-Montenegro border would be intended to stop the rising flow of refugees. Another, more regional aspect of the story is the rapidly growing Albanian minority in the small Balkan country. The fear of being absorbed into a “Greater Albania” makes the Montenegrin political elite eager to defend the border with Albania ferociously. This anxiety also played an important role in Montenegro’s decision to join NATO [Montenegro joined the US-led mutual defense pact in 2017, while Albania has been a member since 2009.]
It is also possible, however, that the new route won’t really gain importance since bad infrastructure and high mountains may prevent a large number of people from passing through. The main Balkan route today still runs from the Greek coasts through Skopje and Belgrade to the Serbian-Croatian border, and it is likely to remain the primary direction for migrants coming from Turkey.
The Montenegrin reaction mentioned above well demonstrates that anti-migration policies which evolved out of the great refugee crisis of 2015 and call for intensive border defence are gathering momentum. At the moment, lengthy fences can be found along the Bulgarian-Turkish and the Hungarian-Serbian borders. The possibility can’t be excluded that this kind of defence system will be extended in the future involving new states. If Turkey doesn’t keep its promise to stop migrants from getting into the European Union, we have a good reason to presume that fences may be built along the Serbian-Macedonian, the Macedonian-Greek and the Montenegrin-Albanian borders as well.
To date, there hasn’t been to much information in the international press about Montenegrin plans to build a fence, nor about the circumstances that gave rise to it. In any case, major newspapers have reported that Montenegro is considering a fence on its border. Overall, however, reactions to this plan have been far less animated and negative than they were in 2015 when the Orbán government decided to erect a border fence along the Hungarian-Serbian border in response to the wave of migration that was facing the EU, which included approximately one million people. While there may be several explanations for this difference in reaction, one thing is certain: the fact that the Hungarian government was willing to enter into the question of checking mass immigration, an issue which was regarded as a taboo in the European Union at the time. With this move, Orbán undoubtedly set a historical precedent which may in turn be followed by Austrian, Macedonian, and Montenegrin leaders. One can’t fail to notice the large shift in the European political arena from the ’Wilkommenskultur’ of 2015 to a stance calling for strengthening external borders, security policy and public safety. Orbán made a political gamble in involving his small country and his personal future in this whirlwind of great-power politics, which means that his own career will, at least in part, be decided by these issues. If the winds of history blow his way, he may be able to parlay his political stance into future electoral victories as well.
By Dénes Sályi
Image via dubrovnik-tours.hr