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Commentary | 26 May 2017

Russia’s Comeback to the Balkans

Image of Dimitar Bechev

Dimitar Bechev |Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center

Balkans Russia Russia-West Relations Euro-Atlantic Security

Russia never ceases to cause anxiety in and around the Balkans. Since the start of the Ukraine crisis, senior Western policymakers, including US Secretary of State John Kerry, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU foreign and security policy chief Federica Mogherini, have gone on record about the threat of Russian influence in the former Yugoslavia. Serbia, Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina have refused to join in applying EU and US sanctions against Moscow. Russia is stirring trouble in local politics. It provides diplomatic cover for Republika Srpska’s combative president, Milorad Dodik, as he flaunts the idea of a secession referendum in defiance of the central state institutions in Sarajevo and the Western powers. In September 2016, right after the Montenegrin parliamentary elections, authorities in Podgorica announced that they had foiled a coup plotted by rogue security operatives and the Russian services, aimed at blocking the country’s accession to NATO. Some have even seen Kremlin’s mischief-making behind and linked to the chronic crisis bedevelling Macedonia. In addition, in Serbia, President-Elect Aleksandar Vučić pursues the balancing act of negotiating membership in the EU and working with NATO while cooperating with Moscow on security and defence matters. No wonder Russia rules the airwaves these days.

From Russia’s perspective, the Balkans is not a top priority, whatever Vladimir Putin’s countless admirers in the region, or indeed his detractors, believe. There are other issues ranking much higher on Moscow’s foreign policy agenda: relations with the US, the ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine and the intervention in Syria. For all the talk about centuries-old ties and shared Christian Orthodox traditions, Southeast Europe is, at best, a sideshow. It is worth remembering that Putin, who is now feted as a reincarnation of the 19th century Tsars renowned for protecting South Slavs, oversaw the withdrawal of the Russian Federation’s peacekeepers from Kosovo and Bosnia in 2003. Back then, he saw the Balkans as an unnecessary hang-up from the Yeltsin era in the 1990s. Back then and now, the Kremlin’s main concern was and is, its ties with the US and the big EU member states. Early in his tenure, Putin pursued a policy of engagement. Later on, especially since his return to the Kremlin following the Medvedev interlude between 2008 and 2012, he switched to push-back mode, convinced that the West was plotting to foment regime change in Russia as it allegedly did in Ukraine. In response, Putin and his entourage exploit Western vulnerabilities, whether they are the extreme right and far-left parties across the EU or the lingering tensions in the Balkans, Europe’s soft underbelly.

Russia does not want to replace the West in the Balkans. What it is up to is scoring points against the EU and the US by mobilizing contacts with friendly politicians, business elites, clerics, opinion makers and civil society groups; as a rule, it gets the maximum bang for its buck. Its primary achievement is having conjured up a perception in the media as well as in the popular mind-set, demonstrated by polls results, where it is seen as standing as a co-equal pole with the West. That despite lagging behind when it comes down to such objective measures as military deployments, share in Balkan trade and investment, amount of financial aid, and the intensity of people-to-people links and exchanges; for instance, the number of Serbs who work, study and visit Germany, compared with the number who undertake the same activities in Russia. However, in this day and age, it is often appearances that matter most. Opinion surveys in Serbia, RS, Macedonia and even in EU and NATO members, Bulgaria and Greece, register consistently high ratings for both Russia and Putin.

The truth is that nearly everyone has a stake in exaggerating Russian influence. Russia presents itself as more powerful and threatening than it actually is to boost its leverage vis à vis the West. Its Balkan cheerleaders are only too keen to join the choir. Those sitting on the fence, like Vučić, use Russian assertiveness to seek a better deal from the EU and US; meanwhile, others who raise the alarm about Moscow’s encroachments, such as the uncrowned master of Montenegro, Milo Djukanović, are only too happy to switch international attention away from the deficient rule of law in their own countries.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.