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Russia will do everything to stir up the Balkans

przeczytanie zajmie 7 min

For Moscow, the Balkans were traditionally a region of Europe where Russia had allies. Therefore, the Kremlin will do everything to make the way to integration with the European Union as difficult as possible for the countries emerging after the breakup of Yugoslavia. How are the Russians trying to destabilize the Western Balkans? Interview with Grzegorz Kuczyński, head of the Eurasia program at the Warsaw Institute, author of the report The Hybrid war in the Western Balkans.

Unsuccessful coup in Montenegro, protests in Kosovo, Serbia, or Albania. In recent years, it’s been rather difficult to talk about stability and peaceful development in the countries of the Western Balkans. Where does it come from?

The increasing tension in the region, particularly the Western Balkans, i.e. the countries of former Yugoslavia, is to some extent the result of increasing Russian activity in the area. In recent years, this region has become one of the frontlines in Russia’s confrontation with the West, and in this case, it is not only Moscow’s rivalry with NATO, but also with the EU. Both these structures are expanding to encompass more Balkan states, thus eliminating the geopolitical „white spot” on our continent, which is very important for the stability and security of the entire continent. After all, the EU and NATO border is also the border of the zone of peace and development, economic reforms and democracy.

Here’s a specific example – the EU and NATO are no place for conflicts as intense as that between Serbia and Kosovo. So bringing these two countries closer to Western structures, and then making them members of the EU and NATO, would certainly put an end to this sharp dispute, or at least put it in a civilized political framework.

Why has Russia increased its activity in the Western Balkans?

Following 2014, Moscow has been perceiving various parts of Europe, or even the world, primarily as an open field for its rivalry with the West. Secondly, Moscow has always opposed the expansion of the EU, and even more so, of NATO. And we have been accelerating these processes in former Yugoslavia in recent years. Suffice it to mention Montenegro’s accession to NATO, accelerating the EU’s and NATO’s integration efforts towards Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia.

Besides, North Macedonia is an example of the positive results of rapprochement with the West for the entire region – it was the prospect of EU and NATO membership that ended Skopje’s long-standing feud with Athens over the country’s name. Russia has counteracted this and will continue to do so, despite its subsequent defeats, as in Macedonia recently, or earlier in Montenegro. One can add historical considerations here as well. For Moscow, the Balkans were traditionally a region of Europe where Russia had allies. The Kremlin must find particularly painful the situation, where Slavic and Orthodox countries and nations, friendly towards Russia since the 19th and even 18th centuries, seeing Russia as their greatest ally or even protector (against Turkey at the time), are now rejecting Eastern orientation and making different choices. Not only political or economic ones, but even civilizational.

Can Balkan problems escalate to a global scale?

Two particularly dangerous moments took place in Montenegro and Macedonia. Had Moscow managed to implement its own scenario there, we would now really be sitting on a huge Balkan powder keg. Fortunately, first the coup in Montenegro was thwarted – largely prepared and implemented by Russian military intelligence. As a result, the country is already in NATO. The second battlefield, where the Russians had lost, is Macedonia. Russian intelligence – again with the participation of certain Serbian nationalist circles – implemented a long-term destabilization plan there, which meant blocking government change and starting talks with Greece. The hostage of this Russian plan was the former ruling center-right party in Skopje. Fending off the prospect of losing power at all costs, Gruevski’s government went to far-reaching cooperation with Russia. But at the end of the day, the change of government was reached there as well. The new authorities quickly reached a new agreement with Athens, the name of the state was changed and thus the door to EU and NATO membership was opened.

However, one should remember that Russia still has great opportunities to act and destabilize the situation in Montenegro and, to an even greater extent, in North Macedonia. Moscow will surely do everything to stop Skopje’s pursuit of Western structures and discredit Montenegro’s NATO membership.

What role does Russia play in the game of superpowers in the Balkans?

Russia’s strategic goal is to block NATO and EU expansion, preventing as many countries as possible from joining these structures. Serbia and the Serbs are to be the bastion of Russian influence. In recent years, we have seen tighter Russian-Serbian cooperation, on the military level as well (e.g. another instance of Russian, Serbian and Belarusian military training has just begun). An important part of building Russian influence in the region is the expansion of the gas pipeline network pumping Russian gas – here we’re referring to the extension of the TurkStream. The Russians are also strong in the energy sector of several Balkan countries, with Serbia at the forefront.

The EU and NATO are a stabilizing force here, with the United States probably playing the most active player due to the strong pro-American sentiment among Albanians. One also should not forget about Turkey’s increasing activity (especially in the Muslim part of Bosnia and Herzegovina) and Chinese ambitions. Of course, Beijing is focusing on economic aspects.

It is no secret that Serbia is the country that Russia is most closely tied to. Not only politically, but also economically and socially. How are Russians using this friendship for destabilization?

Serbs are Russia’s major ally in its policy in the Western Balkans. I use the word Serbs, not Serbia, intentionally. First of all, this is all about Serbia itself and the Serbian part of the federal Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as about the Serbian minorities in other countries of the region. I am particularly thinking of the Serbs living in Kosovo. In the scale of the whole country, they are not a significant group (approx. 5 percent), but they live in the northern part of the country, which borders with Serbia. What are the primary most dangerous hot spots in the Balkans now? Most of all, it’s Kosovo with its increasingly harsh dispute with Serbia. And you can’t just blame one side for escalating the conflict.

Serbs are certainly being incited by Moscow, but Kosovian authorities also act provocatively at times – which is even met with criticism of the West seeing the associated risks. One example is the US administration’s appeal to the government in Pristina to withdraw from 100% customs duties on Serbian products. It was not Belgrade but Pristina that had started this trade war. The second flashpoint is the Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Ruled by Milorad Dodik, it pursues a nationalist policy, carries out Moscow’s guidelines and even strives to break away from Bosnia and Herzegovina. On the other hand, there are also sometimes quite provocative behaviors, be it on the part of Croats or Muslim Bosnians.

These two hotspots, one regarding Kosovo and Serbia, the other regarding the status of the Serbian part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, are part of two great historical geopolitical concepts that have been competing in this part of Europe since the 19th century. I’m referring to the idea of Greater Albania, i.e. the unification of all Albanians in this region into a single country (and, apart from Albania and Kosovo, they are currently also present in Montenegro, Serbia and North Macedonia). But there is another concept: The Greater Serbia. This involves the unification of the Republic of Serbia with Serbia in the first stage, and then reaching for areas inhabited by Serbs in Montenegro, Croatia and North Macedonia, not to mention Kosovo – here comes a very strong historical factor. For Serbs, Kosovo is the cradle of their nation and their statehood. Needless to say, Russia plays these resentments efficiently well, especially the Serbian ones, using the old cliche of the eternal rivalry between the Slavic and Turkish (Albanian) elements, the Orthodox with Muslim ones.

Where does this Serbian sympathy for Russia come from?

Nowadays, the major factor pushing Belgrade to embrace Moscow are the events of the last 20-30 years. In some sense, Serbs feel wronged by the international community (primarily the West), just like the Hungarians following the Treaty of Trianon. First, Yugoslavia fell apart. Then the Serbs lost the war with the Croats. Finally, the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the federal model of the state. The most painful of all, however, was the loss of Kosovo following 1999. NATO air raids on Serbia are remembered. And later still, the detachment of Montenegro. In a sense, there is a strong sense of betrayal in Serbia, loss of prestige, pride, territories and of having left compatriots outside the country. And this also means besieged fortress syndrome.

Although Belgrade is formally open to the EU, it is increasingly tied to Russia. And Russia plays the Serbian sentiments and warns Belgrade that NATO is a tool of Albanian expansion, one supported by the US. Russia is the best ally for the Serbs, offering protection against further – as Belgrade sees them – aggressive aspirations of Albanians. Moscow did not recognize Kosovo’s independence and supports Serbia in its conflict with this new state. In short, if the Serbs still dream about even partial recovery of their losses from the last few decades, then this can only happen with Russia’s help. NATO and the EU expansion to the entire region will mean consolidating the current situation. Belgrade has a choice: Western course, with its stability, peace and development, or Eastern course, i.e. destabilization, uncertainty, and potential threat of war. At this point, it seems that if not even the majority of the population, then most of the political elites in Serbia are certainly closer to the latter.

Russians do not treat Serbs as partners. For Moscow, Serbia is merely a valuable political tool in the Western Balkans. Tied to Russia, it will always be the focus of region’s destabilization, even as an island surrounded by the NATO-EU sea. An example of Russia’s instrumental treatment of Serbia could be the coup in Montenegro. In this case, Russian military intelligence treated Serbia as a base of operations, from which it would conduct the operation of destabilizing a neighboring country. Serbian nationalists, as well as army and police veterans, took part in the plot. When the coup failed, the conspiracy was revealed, two Russian GRU officers in charge of the Belgrade operation were detained by Serbian services. Nikolai Patrushev quickly arrived in Belgrade, convincing his Serbian partners that the Russian state is not behind the action and that the detained Russians are trouble-makers acting on their own. He convinced them to release the prisoners. Then the Serbian authorities realized that their Russian ally had misled them.

The condition of the Russian economy is not the best. Are you sure the Russians will not give up the Balkans?

Russia’s activities in the Balkans, and their intensity, are closely related to the entire policy of the Russian state. If the situation between Moscow and the West continues to aggravate, Russian destabilizing operations can also be expected in the Balkans. The intensification of Russian actions can certainly be expected before key decisions (referendums, elections) regarding EU and NATO membership in individual countries of the region. Dragging the EU accession negotiations with several countries in the region will be a favorable circumstance for Moscow. The faster the expansion of Western structures in the Balkans, the less room for Russians maneuvers. Particular attention should be paid to developments between Kosovo and Serbia. Provocative action cannot be ruled out.

Can Poland somehow contribute to stabilizing the region?

It can, by actively supporting EU accession processes with other Balkan countries. It is particularly important to link Serbia with the West and counteract Russian influence in Belgrade. It is equally important to support the aspirations of the region’s countries to join NATO. Connecting the Balkans to the Polish Central European gas pipeline system would also have a stabilizing effect on the region. Of course, let’s not forget that Poland has been directly involved in peace processes in the region for many years e.g. by participating in international missions in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Kosovo.

Poland’s cooperation with the countries of the region, not counting bilateral contacts, should be assessed through the prism of the Three Seas Initiative and of NATO and the EU. Here, a particular field for activity is in this first area. One should remember relations with Croatia, especially in the context of energy cooperation. Ultimately, Poland and Croatia should form one of the axes of the Three Seas Initiative – through gas connections of the already working LNG portal in Świnoujście, with the planned LNG terminal on the island of Krk. Therefore, Polish energy interests in the region will primarily be threatened by Russia’s energy expansion (expansion of the TurkStream). Generally speaking, the weaker the Russian influence in any place of the world, the better for Poland.

The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland. This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.