Starting with the annexation of Crimea in the spring of 2014, scholars and analysts have been debating the standoff between the West and competitors such as Russia, Erdogan’s Turkey, and lately China on Europe’s periphery. “The return of geopolitics” has become a standard phrase to describe the new moment in the international politics of Eastern and Southeast Europe. A contrast is drawn with the 2000s, the highmark of the European Union’s “transformative power” and NATO’s eastward expansion. But the top-down view highlighting the preferences and actions of big players, including core EU member states like Germany and France, Russia, Turkey etc. overlooks the critical role played by peripheral countries and their elites. Rather than being the object of great powers’ decisions, they manipulate rivalries in pursuit of political advantage. Though the domestic arena provides entry points for external actors’ influence it also empowers incumbent elites in the target countries. The talk drew on examples from Southeast Europe (the Western Balkans, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece) but drew parallels to the post-Soviet space.