May 6, 2020 / 12:06 AM / a month ago

EU aims to counter Chinese, Russian influence at Balkan summit

* Two decades after first summit, leaders to talk by video

* Coronavirus, not EU enlargement, to dominate

* EU feels slighted by praise for China and Russia

By Robin Emmott and Aleksandar Vasovic

BRUSSELS/BELGRADE May 6 (Reuters) - European Union (EU) leaders host a summit on Wednesday with their six Balkan counterparts whose praise for Chinese and Russian support during the coronavirus crisis has ruffled feathers in the bloc, officials and diplomats said.

The EU says it has not been given enough credit for the 3.3 billion euros ($3.6 billion) it is providing, which officials said outweigh medical supplies Beijing and Moscow sent to Serbia and Bosnia in the early phase of the epidemic.

The summit, planned for the Croatian capital Zagreb 20 years after the first ever EU-Balkan gathering, will take place via video from 1430 GMT, linking the heads of Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia and North Macedonia with the 27 EU leaders.

Still scarred by 1990s wars, all six countries aspire to join the EU, though the response to the COVID-19 disease is likely to dominate.

“The summit itself is the message, to say: we want you to join,” said a senior EU diplomat involved in preparing the summit. “But we will also say that you cannot pander to the Chinese and the Russians when it suits you.”

China and Russia flew doctors and medical supplies to Bosnia and Serbia in March to help halt spreading of the coronavirus at a time when the EU’s initial response was slow.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic publicly thanked President Xi Jinping and the Chinese people.

The Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, Milorad Dodik, praised Russia last month, criticising Brussels for initially limiting exports of medical aid to non-EU members.

“The Europe we believed in ten years ago does not exist today,” he said at the time, although he later softened his language.

BATTLE FOR INFLUENCE

After years of neglect, the six countries now have the attention of EU governments, who have been worried about Chinese and Russian influence in the region for several years.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen warned in November that if the EU did not do more, “others will.”

In March, North Macedonia and Albania won approval to start EU membership talks after a two-year delay, helping to counter a sense in the region that hopes of joining the bloc were fading.

“We can’t go backwards. The people in the region have nothing to fear,” North Macedonia’s Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov told a think-tank event. “The whole (EU) process is to help become prosperous, functioning democracies.”

Vucic said on Saturday he had his own demands of EU leaders: “We will be asking (EU enlargement) commissioner Oliver Varhelyi for a bit more grants and fewer loans.”

To add to the problems, five EU countries do not recognise Kosovo’s independence, including Spain.

At the summit, all leaders will appear against neutral backgrounds to avoid any insignia that one EU official said “would make the video conference difficult” as lingering diplomatic tensions mean nationalist symbols could cause offence. (Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels and Maja Zuvela in Sarajevo; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

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