Western Balkans as Russia’s New Anti-Western Playground

Is Russia back to the Balkans? Is Moscow playing the provoking destabilization card in the Balkans’ countries that are still out of the EU’s (and NATO) umbrella in order to return to the region’s identity its famous reference of being “a powder keg of Europe”? If so, this in turn will prevent EU’s enlargement throughout and over the whole region.

After the Ukraine crisis that led to the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and the war in Donbas, these questions are being brought up over and over again across the Western world. They are followed by fears that tensions in Russian “sphere of influence” could spill over west of the former soviet borders and reach the Balkans, ensuing confrontation between Russia and the West on the Balkans playground as it was during the Cold War. “Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia, other places. They’re all in the firing line – together with Georgia, Moldova, Transnistria”, stated former US Secretary of State John Kerry before the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee on February 2015.

To make things worse, the Western Balkans’ societies, while dealing with the incomplete business of state partition and conflict, have been going through an extensive financial and economic crisis and are now suffering from the dwindling enthusiasm in their unification into the EU. Moreover, the Western Balkan’s political elite is extremely corrupted as well as still volatile at home, not caring about democracy, human rights and freedom of speech. A large number of the current leaders have managed to transform from ex-fighters or their mouthpieces into peacemakers (Kosovo President Hashim Thaci and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucić), playing two-level games: as democrats when they talk to Brussels and as autocrats at home.

“The Balkans can easily become one of the chessboards where the big power game can be played”, was declared by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, on March 6th 2017. Three days later the European Council held a meeting on the region and the European Council President’s closure of 9 March 2017 confirmed the “fragile situation in the Western Balkans” and the “internal and external challenges that the region is facing”. The conclusions then acknowledged the EU’s indisputable backing for the European angle of the Western Balkans and indicated the Union’s engagement and obligation to assist the region in operating EU-related reforms. It was additionally confirmed on February 6, when the European Commission adopted an enthusiastic enlargement strategy for “a credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans, confirming the European future of the region as a Geo-strategic investment in a stable, strong and united Europe based on common values”.

source: pexels.com

Is this a comprehensive Western reply to Russia as this country has been threatening lately the EU eagerness of the Western Balkans?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is one of the few European leaders who have pointed that out. Unfortunately, over the past few years, the EU’s policy regarding the states of the Western Balkans - Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia - has been one of benevolent neglect, to say the least. There has been one special case. Catherine Ashton, the EU’s former foreign policy chief, invested extensive amounts of her time in negotiating reconciliation and between Serbia and Kosovo, after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Behind the scenes, the German Chancellery had played an essential part in nudging the two sides to the table. For Berlin, this was about transferring long-term support to the Western Balkans. It was also about bringing the region closer to the EU and, someday, to EU membership. That is something that Russia is now attempting to slow down, if not stop.

After considerable years of disregard, the Western Balkans have reappeared to the spotlight of the EU’s consideration once again as a geopolitical arena where ‘big power games’ may pressure Europe’s balance and stability as a whole.

Nevertheless, a lot has changed since the outset of World War I, the Cominform period and also since the civil wars that pursued the separation of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, to name just a few incidents when the Balkans established danger for Europe or a test for the EU. The ongoing brittleness of the region is not improbable to start to an open military conflict, nor among the countries on the peninsula neither between the big powers pointed out by HR/VP Mogherini. As the current involvement of Russia in the region shows, it is more likely that the Western Balkans may develop into a geopolitical playground where opposing powers strive for authority.

Generally, the interest of Russia’s foreign policy is preoccupied at restoring the geopolitical competence of the former USSR and leading Russia towards Greater Power status. The Balkans represents one of the best opportunities for Russia to demonstrate this country’s comeback at the European and world scene. That is why Russia today emerges as the most methodical, disruptive and dangerous alarming determinant in the region, raising sometime a real alarm, especially when it has to do with its policy towards Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina (Republika Srpska/Serb Republic), Kosovo and Serbia.

Crucial ally for Russia

The real game changer was an attempted coup in Montenegro amid parliamentary elections in October 2016. A number of Serbian ultra-nationalists and paramilitaries fresh from battling in the Donbas was planned to storm the parliament, cause turmoil on the streets of Podgorica, and help the pro-Russian, largely ethnically Serb opposition seize power. This would have meant a striking turn in Montenegro’s foreign policy, halting its accession to NATO just before the Alliance’s decision to admit this country into its family. Probably the first regional casualty - if the coup succeeded - would be withdrawing Montenegro’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence, with extensive consequences within the region. Although prevented, the aftermath of the attempted coup is a political deadlock in the country. There is optimism, however, that things will calm down since Montenegro became the 29th member of NATO on 5 June 2017.

Serbia is Russian crucial ally in the Western Balkans, which in turn made Russia aiming much of its thinking on Belgrade. The two countries signed in 2013 a declaration on strategic partnership that was followed by a military cooperation agreement. And in October 2014, much to EU’s annoyance, Serbia rolled out the red carpet for Vladimir Putin, with than President Tomislav Nikolić assigning him the country’s highest order. These cases are just the political edge of the iceberg. Russia’s state-run Russian Railways (directed by Vladimir Yakunin, who is on an EU list of individuals outlawed from entering any EU country) is upgrading a 350-kilometer distance of track in Serbia. Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned energy giant, has a massive stake in Serbia’s natural gas supplier. And Lukoil, another giant Russian energy company, holds almost 80 percent of Beopetrol, a Serbian gas-station chain.

Belgrade and Moscow need each other more than ever right now – Russia because it is isolated, Serbia because of Kosovo.

No wonder Serbia has been unwilling to support EU sanctions on Russia, despite being a candidate country for the EU membership and despite launching accession talks with Brussels in January 2014. As Serbia terribly needs EU accession funds to modernize its economy, on one, and does not want to give up its friendship with Moscow, on the other hand, its government has been trying over the past years, in particular since speeding up its accession talks with the EU, to balance between the East and West, forging a close rapport with Russia and trying at the same time to bring Serbia nearer to the EU.

Russia is also interfering in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina. There, Moscow has long been a loyal supporter of the Republika Srpska, one of the country’s two entities, and of its president, Milorad Dodik. Russia’s annexation of Crimea encouraged Dodik to consider seceding from Bosnia. He was apparently stopped from doing so by President Vučić, who - sitting in two chairs - has been trying simultaneously to balance Belgrade’s ties with Russia and the EU as two matching or not contradicting processes at least.

Kosovo is one of the best examples of not only for Russian approach and aspirations in the Balkans, but also of its foreign policy, in particular towards small neighbors. Kosovo’s declaration of independence was followed by a fierce opposition by Serbia. The unilateral move was subsequently recognized by most Western powers who claimed that Kosovo’s independence was a legitimate product of unique circumstances. According to this perspective, Kosovo’s statehood was justified by its history of oppression and years of UN rule over the territory that had made the province’s de facto independence irreversible. But, Russia aligned with Serbia in opposing Kosovo’s independence move. Russia has a close, historic friendship with Serbia and has constantly followed an aggressive policy against Kosovo’s Declaration of Independence. Russia’s approach to Kosovo aligns with its expansive interests in the region, such as maintaining political and economic power in the Balkans, as well as by conflicting the integration of the Western Balkan countries to the EU and NATO.

The Kosovo question

In opposing an independent Kosovo, Russian officials echo a Serbian position. "Kosovo is not a state; Kosovo is a de facto protectorate. Then why do they want to create their own army? A clear reaction of the international community is needed… We believe that Kosovo will remain a part of Serbia and that the Serb people in Kosovo and Metohija will be fully protected," the Ambassador of the Russian Federation in Belgrade, Aleksandar Chepurin, said. Russia is continuously lobbying to present Kosovo as “a half state” in the international arena. “February 17 is the 10th anniversary of Kosovo's so-called statehood. This is a reason to closely review the infamous outcome of Pristina supporters’ course for post factum legitimization of NATO aggression in 1999 and Yugoslavia’s forced dismemberment,” the spokeswoman of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Marija Zakharova, wrote on her Twitter account ahead of Kosovo turning 10. “Unilateral secession in 2008, in violation of fundamental principles of international law, did not resolve the Kosovo matter, the prospects of which remain vague. Kosovo’s ‘benefactors’ turned it into a black hole with a disputable status,” she added.

Kosovo’s Government has fiercely opposed such statements and comparisons, and it has strived to argue that its case is sui generis, but the Russian comparison with frozen conflicts in former Soviet territories, including Moldova, has a force on many countries, including the EU five member states that still do not recognize Kosovo.

In a time when Kosovo’s goal is to start an upgraded dialogue with Serbia under the same Brussels-led auspices that could in the course of time provide Serbia’s green light for Kosovo’s chair in the United Nations in exchange for Serbia’s chair in the EU (Chair for Chair Strategy), it is not realistic to expect that, in the short-term, Russia would agree and support the process of Kosovo’s admission as a full member state at the UN. So, it is more realistic that, sooner or later, Kosovo’s admission in the UN will ultimately fall as an issue onto the agenda of Russia and the Western countries in the UN Security Council, rather than by finding a resolution through the EU facilitated dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. Moreover, Russia has a reason not to wish a successful completion of the Brussels negotiations, fearing that any new arrangement between Kosovo and Serbia could secure the membership of Serbia in the EU and eventually bring “the little brother” into a convenient relationship with NATO.

Brussels vs Moscow

All this said highlight why is Moscow targeting increasingly on the Western Balkans. The first and most obvious background of Moscow’s increased interest and involvement into the Balkans’ affairs consist of Russia’s policy of not wanting the region to become part of the West or wanting to keep the EU and NATO as far as possible from its borders and its interest zones in East Europe and Balkans. And even in countries in the broader region that are in the EU, such as Bulgaria, Moscow continues to try to exercise its influence through its constraint on the energy sector.

Brussels should think how to prevent further Russia’s interference in the European backyard of Balkans. This interference interrupts the main EU enlargement stream in the region, exercising pressures to weaken the cohesion of the region, its security and the European future of the Western Balkans. What should be used as a healing therapy for such a tendency of the Russian bear? It is the one that has been proved as the best so far. The one that has worked in the case of the eastern European countries after the fall of the Berlin Wall: as much and as quick progress as possible in integration of the Western Balkans into Europe that would end with a successful EU enlargement over the last large European region that remained out of the EU. So, the cure for “the Russian disease” could be called Europeanization of the Western Balkans.

About the author

Rina Hajdari is completing her graduate degree in International Affairs at the Hertie School of Governance, with a specific interest in economic policies and international crisis management. She was previously based in her native Kosovo, where she was involved in initiatives that analyzed developing post-conflict countries in the Balkans. Her aim is to be able to one day provide a fresh approach to policy-making with regard to foreign affairs and conflict resolution.

Further reading on the topic in our library:

GALEOTTI, Mark - Do the Western Balkans face a coming Russian storm? - https://goo.gl/qSLZ88

HOPPE, Hans-Joachim - Russia's Balkan policy - https://goo.gl/vyexHK

MOORE, Cerwyn - Contemporary violence - https://goo.gl/Uc8uPq