BERLIN – The direct Russian interventions in Ukraine and Syria, as well as the scandals of the U.S. presidential campaign, have overshadowed another ongoing Russian power play — one in the Balkans. It’s quieter and far less violent than other assertive moves by the Kremlin, but that doesn’t make it any less important in the 21st century re-enactment of the Great Game.
Like the former parts of the Russian empire and the Middle East, the Balkans are a longtime Russian playground. While Russia tended to look inward following the Soviet Union’s collapse, it could only manage a weak protest when the West oversaw a division of former Yugoslavia that punished traditionally pro-Russian Serbs. The Western view of these objections at the time was aptly described in a recently declassified CIA analysis from 1993: Some Russians ask why the West and the United States in particular should inject itself in an area that Russia always regarded as its traditional sphere of influence. The West shouldn’t take this argument very seriously in today’s world.
The world is changing, however, and not just due to the nostalgic efforts of Russian President Vladimir Putin. “The U.S. has been withdrawing for some time as the provider of security,” Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki told the Austrian daily Der Standard in December. If the administration of Donald Trump proves as isolationist as Trump has sounded during the campaign, it will be up to the European Union to maintain the current order in the Balkans. Russia feels pretty confident these days facing a fragmented and fairly toothless EU. So its engagement in the region is increasingly a foregone conclusion.
Nikolai Patrushev, the head of Putin’s Security Council, recently named a potential expansion of NATO to include Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia among the biggest Western threats to Russia.
The Kremlin has already seen Bulgaria, once a key Balkan ally, join NATO and the EU — and watched it scupper a major Russian natural gas pipeline project. All Moscow can do in Bulgaria now is back pro-Russian political figures — such as new President Rumen Radev — and hope they can resist Western pressure. Putin’s goal in other Balkan nations is at least to keep them neutral and, if possible, in limbo when it comes to membership in Western structures. To that end, Russia is pushing for the closure of the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, set up under the Dayton Accords that ended the Yugoslav war and now headed by Austrian Valentin Inzko. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference last week: “We have reminded our Western partners multiple times that it’s getting indecent to retain in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is considered to be an independent state, the so-called Office of the High representative, which has the powers of a governor general and can impose any decisions on the three state-forming nations of Bosnia and Herzegovina — the Bosniaks, the Serbs and the Croats.”
In the Balkans, as elsewhere, Russia is testing the boundaries of the possible, and it’s happy to have strong allies among Serbs, both in Serbia proper and throughout the former Yugoslavia.
Lavrov has vehemently defended Milorad Dodik, president of the Republika Srpska, a constituent part of Bosnia, for his constant efforts to assert a Serbian identity. Dodik, who speaks emotionally of his dream of Serbian unity and calls the U.S. ambassador there a “proven enemy” of the Serbian population, is considered to be a troublemaker by the West: The U.S. last week even sanctioned him for obstructing the Dayton agreement after he instituted the Bosnian Serbs’ own independence day.
To Moscow, he’s a useful tool in mitigating Western influence in Bosnia and perhaps even breaking up that state. Russia’s decision last December to pay back to Bosnia part of the Soviet debt to Yugoslavia, $125 million, is the most direct way it can help Dodik and still say it supports Dayton.
Russia was a highly interested observer of a recent incident with the first train sent from Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, to the Mitrovica district, a Serb-populated town in northern Kosovo. “Kosovo is Serbia” was painted on the Russian-made train in 21 languages, which so outraged the Kosovar authorities that they stopped the train at the border and sent it back. There’s nothing new about the slogan itself — Serbia, along with many other countries, doesn’t recognize Kosovo. Kosovar President Hashim Thaci, however, fumed at the provocation, accusing the Serbs of preparing to use “the Crimea model” to take over the northern part of his country.
That’s ironic. The Western recognition of Kosovo was the precedent Russia used to justify the spurious referendum that led to the formal Russian takeover of Crimea. The Russian allusion, however, is apt. Lavrov boasted at his news conference that his Serbian counterpart called him the day of the incident to explain it and took the Serbian side in saying the Kosovar authorities had no right to stop the train.
Serbia is not entirely pro-Russian — it is, after all, an EU accession candidate, and about 40 percent of the population is pro-EU. But Russia holds joint military exercises there (the latest one was in November) and a majority of Serbs are sympathetic to Russia because of historic ties and a deep distrust for NATO. In other former Yugoslav states, where Russia doesn’t have allies as open as Nikolic and similarly broad popular support, its influence is more underhanded.
Russia backs the Putin-style regime in Macedonia and saw 2015 protests against it as a Western attempt to take over the country. In Montenegro, where the government is pro-Western and about half the population backs membership in Western structures, Russians were accused last year of plotting a coup and the assassinations of top officials. The accusations could have been a political ploy, but Russia has a clearly expressed interest in keeping Montenegro out of NATO.
In one way or another, Russia is involved in every Balkan nation, and that involvement is increasingly active. It includes a Serbian-language propaganda machine and a network of friendly local nongovernmental organizations and media outlets. If things heat up, political and military interference won’t be out of the question. Unlike his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, in the 1990s, Putin doesn’t believe spheres of influence are an obsolete concept.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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