Perspectives | Politics

Global instability strengthens Russian influence in the Balkans

By - 07.12.2016

While all Western Balkan states are on the path to EU integration, with tensions between Russia and the West on the rise, Russian influence in the region appears to be growing.

October’s parliamentary elections in Montenegro drew a lot of attention around the globe. However, it was not the election results that attracted focus to this small Balkan country, but the event that occurred on election day — the arrest of several Serbian citizens, one of whom is the former leader of Serbia’s elite police unit, because of a suspected terrorist plot.

Many were quick to denounce this election day “terrorist plot” as a propaganda tool of Prime Minister Milo Dukanovic, who was believed to want to mobilize his voters by playing on the fears of Serbian hegemony and Serbian interference in the election.

However, this event would not have made the headlines without the accusations of involvement of a great power. According to official statements by Montenegrin officials and prosecutors, there was a Russia-supported plot to create chaos in Montenegro on election night by provoking a conflict between the citizens and the police, after which the opposition leaders — also supposedly involved in the plot — would take power. With Montenegro being a state on the verge of joining NATO, these were very serious accusations.

But while these events are still under investigation and there are many who doubt that there was any Russian involvement in this incident, one question has been brought to the fore: How strong is Russian influence in the Balkans?

Crimea the turning point

Russian connections with the Balkans are important, historical and deeply rooted. Sharing the same dominant faith and a fairly similar language to many Balkan states, Russia was historically an important player in the region. Russia also had an important role in resolving the conflicts in former Yugoslavia, being part of most international initiatives for ending the conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo, while economic ties established throughout the 2000s — especially in the energy sector — presented the main source of Russian presence.

The crisis in Ukraine and the 2014 annexation of Crimea were arguably the turning point in Russian relations with the European Union and NATO, which also significantly changed the Russian position in the Balkans.

As a region in the EU’s back yard, but also impoverished, unstable and having strong ties with Russia, the Western Balkans became a diplomatic and ideological battlefield.

Before the annexation of Crimea, which later resulted in EU sanctions against Russia and the beginning of what many label the ‘Second Cold War,’ Russia’s presence in the region was limited. Despite several setbacks, relations between Russia and the EU could have been seen as largely constructive, especially during Dmitry Medvedev’s tenure as Russian president (2008-2012), which had positive consequences for the region.

Russian investments in the region, such as the acquisition of the Serbian Oil Industry (NIS), massive investments in Montenegro and the building of the much-fabled ‘South Stream’ gas pipeline to Western Europe going through Bulgaria and Serbia, were not seen as a threat by the EU. Russia did strongly oppose NATO expansion in the region, but at the same time declaratively supported European enlargement, aiming to have allies inside the EU rather than problematic friendly states that are outside of it.

However, the beginning of the ‘Second Cold War’ after the crisis in Ukraine and Russian involvement in Syria, had major repercussions for Russia’s position. From being political rivals in an uneasy cohabitation, the EU and Russia became open geopolitical adversaries. As a region in the EU’s back yard, but also impoverished, unstable and having strong ties with Russia, the Western Balkans became a diplomatic and ideological battlefield.

The important ‘South Stream’ project was one of the first victims of the new reality, being cancelled by Russia in December 2014 after the increasing challenges of EU regulation and the worsening of relations with the West. Western Balkans EU candidate states friendly to Russia were now also required to either join the EU policy of sanctions against Russia — thereby enraging Moscow and putting their economies in danger — or refuse to do so and enrage Brussels and Washington instead.

Montenegro opted for the first choice, Serbia and Macedonia for the second. The position of Serbia was especially peculiar: Despite having a firmly pro-EU government supported by many key European leaders, Serbia had a crucial geopolitical ally in Russia. Coming to Serbia’s aid twice during last year — first by vetoing the UN resolution on the Srebrenica genocide and then by helping to block Kosovo’s entry into UNESCO, Russia has shown in practice the importance of its support. Serbia is currently balancing between the EU and Russia in style, managing to pursue the path of European integration by cooperating and complying on issues such as Belgrade–Prishtina dialogue and the migrant crisis, but at the same time refusing to join EU sanctions against Russia, thereby also keeping its important ally.

Russia has also supported Milorad Dodik and his government in Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Facing strong international opposition to his highly controversial referendum on Statehood Day in September 2016, Dodik found the support he needed in Moscow, with Russia declining to condemn the referendum.

Interestingly, the president of Republika Srpska found more support in Moscow than he did in Belgrade, since Serbian foreign policy in the region remained aligned with EU expectations. If the current controversy in Montenegro actually does turn out to contain Russian clandestine involvement in this state, that would represent one more example of Russia having a supposedly more ‘Serb nationalist’ policy in the region than Serbia itself. This fact itself may be of very high importance.

Russian soft power

The importance of Russian soft power can hardly be overestimated. Major Russian state media such as Sputnik news agency and Russia Today have proven to be quite a thorn in the side of the U.S. and Western European states. Providing their readers and viewers with high-quality English language content frequently critical of the U.S. and the EU, these media have found fertile ground in increasingly shaken European and American societies. Russian soft power has therefore been labeled as a major threat for the EU and NATO numerous times; the latest ‘alarm bell’ came last month in the form of a European Parliament resolution about the dangers of Russian and Islamist anti-EU propaganda, which highlights the necessity to reinforce the EU’s strategic communication by means of “investing in awareness raising, education, online and local media.

A number of different media outlets in Serbia, most importantly tabloid newspapers, pursue an openly pro-Russian and pro-Putin agenda.

This phenomenon is even more evident in the Western Balkans, where the aforementioned Russian media outlets have started to highly influence the media landscape in the region. As in other parts of Europe, Russian soft power is frequently directed against the EU and NATO and endangers the ideological hegemony that these organizations and their member states have constructed over recent decades. But with many Western Balkans states displaying a rather opportunistic — as opposed to ideologically driven — approach to European integration, this Russian influence might have far-reaching consequences.

This is perhaps most evident in Serbia, whose population historically harbors pro-Russian sentiments, but also strong animosity against the West since the 1999 NATO bombing campaign. The Serbian edition of the Sputnik news agency was launched in 2015, becoming the first and only one in the Western Balkans; other Sputnik services in the wider region are the Turkish and Moldovan/Romanian language services. Also, a number of different media outlets in Serbia, most importantly tabloid newspapers, pursue an openly pro-Russian and pro-Putin agenda.

Serbia and Russia

Increase in anti-EU sentiments in Serbia goes hand in hand with the strengthening of Russian involvement in the region. Many Serbs see Russia as a protector, an irreplaceable ally and something resembling a kin state. Some right-wing groups even believe that the current Serbian government is pursuing an anti-Serb policy in the region due to negotiations with Kosovo, friendship with Dukanovic and the support for a unified Bosnia and Herzegovina, with Russia being the only true protector of Serbian interests. This is exemplified by the popularity of a famous statement by former Russian ambassador in Belgrade, Alexander Konuzin, who in 2011 asked during a public discussion about Kosovo, “Are there no Serbs in this room?” referring to a perceived lack of support for Serbian interests within Serbian civil society.

As long as Serbia pursues the policy of attempting to thwart Kosovo’s bid for international recognition and joining international organizations, Russian support will be of great importance.

With the EU in crisis and a clear global authoritarian swing under way, the appeal of Russia and President Vladimir Putin in Serbia seem to be constantly increasing. It is debatable how much this tendency actually has to do with Russian involvement, but the strengthening of Russian soft power and appeal in the region is beyond any doubt. This is still not followed by a pro-Russian political shift, but taking into account recent events in Bulgaria and Moldova, where pro-Russian candidates managed to win presidential elections, and the upcoming presidential elections in Serbia in 2017, this possibility remains realistic.

But, as stated before, Serbia is clearly on the path of European integration and its government enjoys strong support by some of the key Western players. Moreover, despite a proclaimed military neutrality, Serbia is having much closer ties with NATO than with Russia, having adopted an Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) in 2015 without any significant opposition. Even the controversial military exercises with Russia are far fewer than those that Serbia organizes with NATO member states.

It seems clear that Russian support to Serbia over Kosovo remains the most important aspect of their alliance. As long as Serbia pursues the policy of attempting to thwart Kosovo’s bid for international recognition and joining international organizations, Russian support will be of great importance. However, the big question is how much this Serbian foreign policy of balancing between Russia and the West can last in the ‘new Cold War,’ given Serbia’s EU integration aspirations.

What does the future hold?

This complex geopolitical game we are witnessing might have significant negative consequences for the region, especially if the U.S. reduces its involvement during the new Trump administration. For example, normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo remains a sensitive and fragile political process that might be easily hurt by geopolitical turbulences. Similar could be said for the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina and other regional problems. Acting in the EU’s back yard, Russia is currently a source of destabilization for the region, which could become even more significant if the global crisis continues.

However, its influence on states such as Serbia should not be overestimated. Except the strategic alliance with Serbia on the issue of Kosovo and the support shown to several regional players, including Dodik and former Macedonian prime minister Nikola Gruevski, it does not currently have much more to offer. The Western Balkans remains economically, politically and militarily integrated into EU and NATO structures and Russian involvement does little to hinder this dependency.

However, if the EU loses its grip on the Western Balkans, due to either a lack of enlargement or the loss of legitimacy of the liberal democratic model — currently deeply shaken by Brexit and the Trump victory — Russian influence seems likely to grow.

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0