Stuart Notholt - Albania: The Balkan Pivot



Followers of Sherlock Holmes will recall that Sherlock’s older and brighter brother, Mycroft, occupied a unique and peculiar position within the British government. Says Sherlock, "The conclusions of every department are passed to him, and he is the central exchange, the clearinghouse, which makes out the balance. All other men are specialists, but his specialism is omniscience … you would also be right in a sense if you said that occasionally he is the British government”.


Such a practitioner of what we would now call ‘joined up government’ would be invaluable in any administration, but perhaps rarely more so than now. Brexit, and subsequent shocks in the form of COVID-19 and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, mean that US Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s famous maxim that Britain has lost an empire and has yet to find a role - a problem essentially parked while Britain was within the EU - now needs urgently revisiting if the concept of ‘Global Britain’ is to be more than a soundbite.


Mycroft, dispassionately considering this problem, would seek to identify a country or region meeting a number of criteria.


It should be:


· One with issues worth addressing, both for its own benefit and that of Britain - but preferably not insurmountable;

· Sufficiently significant to justify the investment of diplomatic, security, and financial assets;

· One in which there is an actual or potential power vacuum that Britain could realistically help mitigate, and which may otherwise be filled by hostile actors;

· Preferably already well disposed to the UK.


Inevitably, his calculating eye would be drawn to the Western Balkans, and to Albania in particular. Indeed, there is ample evidence that the UK is in fact conducting a conscious Western Balkan ‘pivot’, with Albania as the lynchpin.


Thanks to historical UK support for Albanian independence, the well-remembered involvement of Britain’s Special Operations Executive during the Second World War and perhaps even the national love affair with Norman Wisdom, Albania can broadly be said to be ‘pro-British’. In recent months, Tirana has seen a regular stream of high-profile British ministerial visits, as well as a visit to London by Prime Minister Rama. Albania is also a strong supporter of NATO - it was the first country to formally endorse Swedish and Finnish membership applications - and participated fully in the recent key NATO Madrid summit.


As Alastair King-Smith, the UK’s ambassador to Albania, says, “This year, we are celebrating the centenary of diplomatic relations between the UK and Albania. One hundred years on from that historic moment, we are determined to broaden and deepen our relationship with Albania and the Western Balkans.


“We are all very aware of the tragic events in Ukraine, and our thoughts are with Ukraine and its people. That is why we welcome Albania’s leadership in the United Nations Security Council, where it is helping isolate Russia diplomatically. Albania remains a likeminded ally and friend in NATO.


“Russia’s unacceptable aggression has also refocussed attention on the Western Balkans. Albania is in a unique position to become a net exporter of energy and become part of the solution for energy needs across the region. As part of this, we want to boost UK investment in Albania in key areas such as renewable energy and infrastructure. The Foreign Secretary recently announced how we aim to mobilise $100 million of UK-backed investment by 2025 across the Western Balkans, and we have also made available up to £2 billion worth of UK export financing.”


At the regional level, we have seen the appointment of Sir Stuart Peach as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy, with a mandate to promote strong democratic institutions, help tackle organized crime and address shared security challenges - for the region also meets Mycroft’s requirement that Britain invests political capital into areas in which there are wider geopolitical concerns. While Albania is firmly anchored in western security institutions, the same cannot be said, in varying degrees, for other states in the region. At the other end of the spectrum we have Serbia, whose traditional Russophilia has found new expression in its opposition to sanctions against Moscow, and where the Chinese also have ambitions - it is no coincidence that the two most prominent skyscrapers in Belgrade are the adjacent regional headquarters of Gazprom and Hauwei. Next door, increased bellicosity on the part of Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik signals an erosion of western authority in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a country until recently an EU protectorate in all but name.


The United States maintains an active interest in the Western Balkans - there are few regions of the world where that is not the case - but it has to be conceded that, Dayton Agreement and Kosovo war notwithstanding, the Balkans has rarely been a high priority for Washington. This may of course change with an enhanced focus on Russia’s regional influence - the US sees weaning the region off Russian gas as an over-riding priority, with Albania as their principal ally in this endeavour.


In contrast, the European Union’s relationships both with Albania and the broader region look increasingly problematic. Having seen Albanian and Macedonian accession talks joined at the hip, Tirana has had to look on from the sidelines as Macedonia first wrestled with its naming dispute with Greece, and then with an ongoing spat with Bulgaria. Exasperation at the glacial pace of progress toward EU membership has seen Tirana initiate the first tentative moves to forging independent non-EU structures in the form of the Open Balkans project, which aims to open borders and trade between Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia. Brussels is at best lukewarm about the Open Balkans programme, but finds itself unable to significantly influence or retard its development. Against a backdrop of waning EU influence, the fact of the United Kingdom not being an EU member may be an actual advantage, placing London in the potential role of honest broker.


As a final observation, it may be noted that Britain’s newfound involvement in the region has not gone unremarked, not least by players who do not wish the UK well. The Russian journal Pravda claims, for example, that British involvement in the region marks the country’s “return to big politics”, noting - correctly - that Britain “does not conceal that it is going to play an active role in the Balkans”. Becoming somewhat over-excited, Pravda then goes on to allege that the “UK sets Balkans on fire to displace USA from the top”, seeks the outright destruction of Republika Srpska, is busily arming Kosovo, and archly recalls that Sir Stuart was a NATO commander “during the bombings of Yugoslavia”.


Such criticism is unlikely to cause too many sleepless nights in King Charles Street, nor, indeed, in the Diogenes Club.