Is Russia winning a battle of hearts and minds in the Western Balkans?

14297923873 9dd0bfdeb3 kSince crisis erupted in Ukraine in late 2013 many commentators in the Western media consistently see threats to EU security, due to Russian troublemaking in its eastern periphery. Meanwhile, a number of academics view events as a harbinger for a realist turn in the West’s foreign policy. What does this mean for the Western Balkans, where these themes are regularly invoked?


The ruling elites in Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia have all – although to varying degrees – been pursuing closer ties with the EU in recent years. Slovenia and more recently Croatia are now full members of the European community. The others, however, are at differing points along the path to EU - and in some cases NATO - integration. Serbia, the biggest of these states and the country which received the majority of the blame for the bloodshed of the Balkan Wars, recently opened the first two chapters in the EU accession process while Montenegro was offered NATO membership at the end of last year.


Macedonia also has aspirations to join the EU but has been stuck in a long-running dispute with Greece over its name (the northern region of Greece is also known as Macedonia) and a corruption scandal during the past year, which the EU has closely supervised. In fact corruption, ethnic grievances and the thorny issue of war crimes tribunals have dogged all the fledgling states in the Balkans. It has, perhaps, been surprising that the region’s proximity to the migrant crisis has not caused more internal turmoil.


Many fear that following Russian intervention in Ukraine, its annexation of Crimea and increasing assertiveness in Syria, the Western Balkans could also be a target. For instance, Voice of America recently reported that “Observers say Russian propaganda, NGOs and cultural organisations have made significant inroads in the Balkans – in Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro and Albania. Most Balkan countries aspire to join NATO and the European Union, but Russian influence in the region is growing through Russian investments.”


That is not to say there are currently fears of direct military intervention but more likely other tactics to prevent further European integration of the former Yugoslav countries currently outside the EU and NATO. In the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine the EU has looked weak and sluggish to respond. It has been bamboozled by the hybrid warfare and ‘little green men’ used by Russia as well as its potent propaganda. How credible are these fears of Russian interference in countries such as Serbia if they continue to pursue EU integration?


Russian security concerns


NATO membership is the issue that most riles Russia. Montenegro’s move to join the alliance met with fierce criticism from Moscow. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview of Montenegro’s move: "It's not about Montenegro. It's about NATO's attitude toward the development of relations not only with Russia, but also in ensuring global security. NATO is responsible for its own territory, and as it was written in the Washington Agreement, provides collective defense. Well in that case, sit within your borders, and no one will touch you."


Lavrov invoked NATO’s actions in the Balkans during the 1990s and called for a Montenegrin referendum on membership: “They know that most likely the people whom NATO bombarded a couple of decades ago have not forgotten it, and that will be difficult to accept with enthusiasm the idea of their leadership to forget many things by joining NATO”. The issue has split Montenegrin society and religious leaders in neighbouring Serbia have also urged the country to call a referendum. This alludes to a familiar worry, as in countries such as Ukraine, that the divided allegiances of its citizens can be exacerbated by Russian propaganda. Serbia, for instance, has well-known historic ties with Russia. A recent IRI poll showed that 50 per cent of Serbian people canvassed thought the country was “going in the wrong direction”, while only 46 per cent said they would vote in favour of EU membership.


Support in Serbia and its neighbours for EU integration is also vulnerable to another trend: enlargement fatigue in EU member states. With so many crises to deal with, from migration to Eurozone bail-outs to the Brexit referendum, it is unsurprising that European leaders have little appetite for another wave of enlargement. In turn this is being reinforced by the rise of anti-EU populists in many member states. A number of these are open about their admiration for, and also suspected of receiving support from, Putin’s Russia. This has the potential to further weaken pro-EU sentiment in accession countries in the Western Balkans.


Propaganda wars


Since Russian intervention in Ukraine much has been made about the potency of Kremlin propaganda and this is at work, although at a much lower level, in the Balkans. Sputnik News recently claimed that “A Serbian survey found that Serbs trust Vladimir Putin more than their own leader, and most would be happy to enter into a political and economic union with Russia”, while Russia Today claimed “Western nations are making ‘huge efforts’ to prevent a NATO membership referendum in Montenegro.” For its part, Serbia has said it will not seek membership of NATO and has taken part in military exercises with Russia.


Pull of the EU still strong in the Balkans


The sheen of EU membership has diminished over the past few years as its problems have mounted. Nevertheless, and despite the fears of Russian influence in the region, further EU integration is still an attractive prospect. The countries of the former Yugoslavia not incorporated into the EU have seen their economies left behind by other former communist neighbouring states. Access to EU markets, investment and development funds act as a powerful incentive to accession states. For this reason Western Balkan countries have all handed over military leaders to the war crimes tribunals in The Hague. In this respect Serbia was particularly intransigent but eventually gave up well-known individuals such as Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić, both implicated in crimes against humanity in the Bosnian conflict.


The carrot of EU membership has forced Balkan countries to make institutional reforms and crackdown on the corruption that blights the region. To the surprise of many, having opened EU accession talks in December, the Serbian government almost immediately launched an anti-corruption operation and arrested 79 officials. Kori Udovički, current Deputy Prime Minister in charge of public administration reform, is an economist with a PhD from Yale who seems to understand the workings of Brussels. Nevertheless, Udovički has identified the huge problems Serbia faces in reforming its institutions while concurrently having less money to spend. At the same time EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn has closely supervised the crisis in Macedonia following a wire-tapping and corruption scandal there last year, helping install a transitional government, the resignation of incumbent Nikola Gruevski and new elections due for summer 2016.


The substantial efforts required to meet the acquis of the European Commission also drive liberal economic reform in the region. For instance, although the methodology is disputed by critics who believe they are easily manipulated, Macedonia has recently been placed 12th in the World Bank’s ‘Ease of Doing Business’ rankings. Likewise, in the Heritage Foundation’s 2016 ‘Index of Economic Freedom’, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia rank higher than countries such as Italy and France. Therefore the potential of EU integration does appear to be one catalyst for reform.


The Kosovo issue


One of the most difficult and painful issues for Serbia to resolve before it can join the EU is over the status of Kosovo. EU leaders specifically linked Serbia’s accession talks with normalisation of its relationship with its former territory. Germany is playing an increasingly influential role in the region and many Balkan leaders now look to Angela Merkel for headway on integration. The German Chancellor visited the region in July 2015 before Serbia and Kosovo signed an agreement on several contentious issues in August, including one over more autonomy for the Serb minority in northern Kosovo. In November, however, the accord was struck down by the Kosovo constitutional court after demonstrations by the ethnic-Albanian majority. Nevertheless, despite Kosovar protestations, EU Foreign Policy chief Federica Mogherini praised Serbia’s attempts at rapprochement with Kosovo and opened EU accession talks soon after.


If expanding NATO membership antagonises Russia it is less clear that joining the EU triggers similar anxiety in Moscow. The trade block clearly has a political dimension but the Balkans has historically been more independent than the countries of the former Soviet Union, where Russia has tried to pursue its own economic area, the Eurasian Economic Union. In fact Tito’s Yugoslavia was a past master at keeping both East and West at arm’s length, while simultaneously acquiring support from both sides. Yugoslavia split from the Moscow-led communist world; left Stalin’s Cominform in 1948 and became a leading member of the ‘Non-Aligned Movement’. It is a historical comparison that few mention when viewing today’s situation through an increasingly polarised lens.


If Tito was a skilful strategist, it is the tradition of Realpolitik that a number of academics have invoked for the post-Ukraine situation in Europe. The policy of European expansion over the past 25 years has been rooted in shared values such as democracy and human rights. This era, for many, appears to be fading with so much instability in the region. The current mood is of narrower self-interest. An article by the European Council on Foreign Relations last year argued that the EU should make overtures to then heavily sanctioned Belarus in order to pull it away from Russia’s grip, on account of it only having a few political prisoners. In fact Belarus’s President Lukashenko has distanced himself from Russia in the past year and released its remaining political prisoners in August 2015. The Presidential election that took place on October 11th 2015 drew little criticism from the EU - despite Lukashenko’s unabashed victory with 83.5 per cent of the vote - as a result. Lukashenko – similarly to Tito – has become adept at working both sides. The influential German think tank, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, suggested that we are now entering a new era of foreign affairs based on interests, rather than values; that is to say a realist turn.


With the perceived threat of Russia increasing, there is evidence to suggest that a more realist approach is prevailing in the Western Balkans. The clearest example is the offer of EU accession talks to Serbia. In the past the issue of a ‘normalisation’ of Serbia’s relationship with its former territory in Kosovo has proved an obstacle to further progress. Over recent months, however, the EU has essentially ignored the complaints of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo to push through its agreement with Serbia. Having backed Kosovo in its war of succession in the late 1990s, then supported its independence in 2008, the EU is now more concerned with mending fences with Serbia, once the enfant terrible of Europe. Then there is the NATO offer to Montenegro. The tiny state has been considered the worst offender in the region’s poor record over corruption. Long-standing Montenegrin leader Milo Đukanović was last year named ‘Person of the Year’ by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) for his “his work in promoting crime, corruption and uncivil society.” European leaders, however, continue to back the regime in Podgorica.


Meanwhile in neighbouring Macedonia a corruption scandal there threatened civil unrest in 2015. EU leaders quickly intervened to support opposition figures and effectively try and oust the government. The conservative block in the European Parliament – albeit containing a motley crew of right wing parties – complained of double standards over the treatment of Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia. Another way of looking at things is that European leaders are exercising Realpolitik (in, to paraphrase Dr John Bew’s new book on the subject, the mid-19th century Ludwig von Rochau sense of the term) in cutting short term deals to pursue their longer-term ideals. Similarly - although without the idealism - the EU’s recent deal over the migration issue with an increasingly draconian Turkish government reveals a cynical pragmatism.


In conclusion, how can we summarise fears of Russian influence in the Western Balkans? While it is true that Russia has interests in the region and would doubtless want to impede European integration there – particularly NATO membership – the situation is less sensitive than in its ‘near abroad’, for instance Ukraine. The countries in the Western Balkans are in any case encircled by other NATO and EU countries. What of Russian soft power? Again, although there are pro-Russian sympathies in the area and despite the EU’s splintering façade in recent years, the economic pull of Western Europe cannot be seriously compared to the clientelist Russian model. Therefore the EU candidate countries in the Balkans will continue on their pro-European trajectory. The situation, however, is delicately poised and is vulnerable to external events and crises, which currently are not in short supply.


Robert Ledger is a freelance researcher and writer on British and European politics. He holds a PhD from Queen Mary University in London.