Russia’s comeback in the Balkans
Regional opportunities paired with a toolkit of disruption?
Perpetual news of Russia’s efforts to disrupt political processes and sow distrust in Western democracies tends to overlook the scope or the goals of Russian meddling in its ‘traditional’ backyard- the Balkans. Here, evidence on Russian interference is rebuffed with long running conspiracy theories, conflicting ethno-religious politics and dysfunctional institutions that tend to blur what is real and what is smoke.
And yet, as the top US military commander in Europe notes, ‘Russia is at work in the Balkans.’ High level EU officials concur on Russia’s increasing ‘competitiveness’ in the region and predict major geopolitical repercussions. To quote the highest EU official in charge of foreign policy, ‘the Balkans can easily become one of the chessboards where the big power game can be played’. How the region may become a chessboard, and the ‘toolkit’ employed to this end, requires comparative empirical detail to sort out.
Opportunities for Low Cost Balkan Policies
The Balkans, in general, hold a particular place in Russian politics because of its weight in the Pan-Slavic narrative, but also because of its geopolitical importance as a convenient theater of confrontation with the West. The US and Western Europe’s management of the Yugoslav crisis mounted to a humiliating loss for the Russian projection of power in its traditional Balkan domain. Post-Yugoslav states’ choice to pursue the EU and/or NATO membership, then, became the last nail in the coffin of Russian influence, but it also fueled a new impetus for Russia to take back control and halt those countries ongoing integration into European structures.
Kosovo’s independence in 2008, an act supported by the US and most European countries and vehemently opposed by Russia, created a new window of opportunity for the Russian comeback strategy in the region. Other regional problems – unsolved conflicts, divided polities, fragile institutions and contested states – created additional openings for the evolving Balkan strategy. As a US official with knowledge on the region puts it, ‘the Russians are taking advantage of the last part of Western Europe that remains politically dysfunctional.” An employee of the Russian Foreign Ministry further explains the link between region’s dysfunctionality and Russian policy: ‘[the region] is full of opportunities for us to play everyone against each other – and frankly, we don’t have to do very much.’
Considering the ample opportunities on the ground, but also other major and expensive operations in the Middle East and Crimea that dry out the bulk of its resources, Russia has opted for a low cost toolkit – hawkish undercover operations, obstruction of conflict solution initiatives and propelling friendly of pockets – which capitalises on the region’s own failings.
Russian engagement in the Balkans remains interwoven with spying and intelligence-nuanced undercover operations. Kremlin’s point man in the region, Nikolai Patrushev, is a career intelligence officer and Head of Russia’s Security Council. Kremlin’s other key Balkan strategist, Leonid Reshetnikov, is also a former career intelligence officer keen in masterminding a Russian ‘return to the Balkans’
Evidence from Russia’s involvement exposes a trend of covert and overt disruptive operations across the region. In 2016, Montenegro saw the unfolding of a surreal coup and assassination attempt against the Prime Minister, which allegedly involved 2 Russian citizens and 9 Serbian security operatives. The operation unfolded just ahead of country’s scheduled NATO membership. During the same year, Russia backed an unconstitutional referendum in the Republika Srpska, a move challenging the current architecture of the fragile Bosnian state. The move also went against any EU proposals to move the country towards the goal of EU membership. One year later, Russia was allegedly involved in the unfolding constitutional crisis in Macedonia, which risked halting the creation of a new government committed to minority rights and EU membership. In 2018, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats for ‘meddling in domestic affairs’, including efforts to sabotage an agreement with Macedonia, then crucially important to lift Greece’s veto of EU accession talks with the country. Back in 2017, Albania too become scene of a financing plot involving Russian-linked shell companies close to Putin, a Washington D.C. lobbyist and one of the major Albanian parties, seemingly intended to foment ‘political conflict’.
Russian financed media outlets that are active in the region provide backing for such operations by diffusing the Kremlin narrative and/or related propaganda material. Sputnik, the news agency owned by the Russian government, maintains a staff of 30 in Belgrade where it pays a network of local channels to rebroadcast its news while distributing free content, which is then republished hundreds of times a week. Another medium for Russian evolving strategy are Kremlin connect entrepreneurs who have shown able at ‘buying’ economic leverage and political influence across the region. Often, such leverage relies on ‘black accounts’, cash generated through proxies and other dubious sources that involve potential links with organised crime.
The Blocking of Solutions to Kosovo’s Status
The UN pending solution to Kosovo status has provided Russia particular opportunities to remain relevant and pertinent in the region by blocking the international initiatives to solve the issue. The Serbian President, who is otherwise a pro-European advocate, typically boosts on Russian support for Serbian territorial integrity. Following a meeting with Putin, for example, he announced: “President Putin stressed that … the Russian Federation will support the Republic of Serbia and its struggle to preserve …territorial integrity”. Politicians on all sides of the aisle, in general, prize Russia’s ‘principled stance on [Kosovo’s] non-recognition’.
Russia, for its part, has persistently hindered possible UN solutions, and has instead made use of the UN forums to blame the West for the Kosovo ‘problem’. In one of his UN speeches, the Russian Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya warned, ‘ten years after the unilateral declaration of independence, “sponsors of this project” should consider the consequences of the move’. Other tactics to stymie the solution consist in emphasizing the twilights of Kosovo new state-building experience. Besides, Russian officials have been active in stonewalling possible bargains that might emerge from the EU- brokered dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. Sputnik promotes the narrative that official Russia will block via New York (UN) what Serbia might be forced to compromise in Brussels. Concurrently, other media tabloids emphasise the advantages of closer economic alliance between Russia and Serbia for the latest territorial integrity: ‘if Serbia asks for and is accepted into the Eurasian Union and the KCBO, the problem of Kosovo and Metohija would become a Russian problem, which would guarantee security of Serbia….’
Shoring Friendly Pockets in the Region
Another priority of Russia’s comeback strategy in the region is cementing alliances, particularly with sections of the Serbian political spectrum that nourish cultural and historical ties with Russia and/or carry a grudge towards NATO intervention in Kosovo. Serbia proper has often been a privileged conduit and interlocutor of Russian return. Russian gift to Serbia extend to MiG-29 fighter jets, 30 T-72 tanks, other military hardware, common trainings, paramilitary extremists as well as a controversial ‘humanitarian’ center that many believe to conduct counterintelligence activities. Just recently, Serbian armed forces joined the ‘Slavic Brotherhood 2018’, a tripartite military exercise with Russian and Belarusian colleagues. Still, the ruling Serbian elite more often than not utilises the real or perceived ‘traditional’ alliance with Russia in order to gain leverage during the ongoing negotiations with Kosovo, the EU accession process, or even shun any Western critiques regarding falling democracy and rule of law scores.
Amidst the diverse and evolving Serbian political spectrum, the main advocates of Russian influence remain Eurosceptic parties– the Serbian Radical Party, the Democratic Party of Serbia, the Dveri, and the Serbian People’s Party. Those parties are also characterised by a rigid stance on Kosovo as the cradle of Serbian national identity, which allures to conservative and pro-Russian strata of the electorate. They usually strive for closer ties with Russia. The Serbian Radical Party, for example, explains: ‘We want integration with Russia, the customs union, and the military alliance. We even want a joint army to have, under one command, the same uniforms… This is a question of survival for us. We want Russian bases in Serbia.’
Kremlin linked entrepreneurs, some of whom are active political actors, remain effective interlocutors on the ground. Nenad Popovic, for example, a politician with business ties to Russia, and since 2017, the Minister for Innovation and Technology, champions ‘increased trade and investments’ between the two countries. He also advocates granting diplomatic status to the staff of the controversial Humanitarian Centre, a decision that is so far pending. Russia itself is at work to propel such interlocutors. In a statement following the 2016 national elections, Putin himself made it clear: ‘I want to express my hope that, whatever is the future composition (of the government), the places will be taken by decent people who will seriously pay attention to the development of our bilateral relations.’
Altogether, the regional opportunities combined with Russia’s disruptive toolkit enable a low cost Balkan strategy with high returns. It allows Russia a foothold in the region and risks turning it into an area of perpetual crisis and instability next to the EU, and that with relatively few sources. Hence, the frontlines where the Russian battle for the Balkans will be fought in the future are the most difficult to tackle and potentially explosive lines of conflicts. Running hypothesis for exchange of territories and revision of borders as a possible solution to Serbia-Kosovo conflict, which are among others entertained in Sputnik news, may well be where Russia is heading next.
Arolda Elbasani is currently visiting scholar at the NYU, NY; academic Advisor for a project on new state building, Soros Foundation Kosovo; and senior analyst for Wikistrat. Her research interests straddle the fields of Islamic politics, Rule of Law, post- conflict state-building and EU foreign policy. Some of her most recent publications include: Managing Islam and Religious Pluralism, Rule of Law, Corruption and Democratic Accountability in the course of EU Enlargement, and State-Building or State-Capture?
Katarina Tadic currently works as a researcher in the European Policy Centre in Belgrade and she is an upcoming Chevening scholar at the University of Bristol. Her research interests cover the EU enlargement policy, state-building process in Kosovo, public administration reform in Serbia. Her most recent publication is: State-building and patronage networks: how political parties embezzled the bureaucracy in post-war Kosovo