By Dimitar Bechev*
(FPRI) — “There are three hundred million of us,” people in Montenegro once boasted. “Together with the Russians,” they would hasten to add. The tiny state, tucked between the Adriatic Sea and the Dinaric Alps and whose population is a little over 600,000, long has claimed a special relationship with faraway Russia. Peter the Great provided stipends to the Montenegrin prince-bishop in the 1710s. In 1904, as an expression of gratitude and as sign of solidarity with the Tsarist Empire, Montenegro declared war on Japan. Today, throngs of well-heeled Russian tourists populate the cafes of Montenegro’s glitzy coastal towns in the summer. But now, Russia is sowing deep divisions in the Balkan republic, which, on June 5 this year, became the latest country to join NATO.
Mere weeks after joining the Alliance, a trial opened in Podgorica, the capital city, against 14 former and current security operatives accused of plotting a coup on the eve of the parliamentary elections in October 2017. Their goal was to derail NATO accession. Among the defendants are two Russian citizens allegedly affiliated with the GRU (Russia’s military intelligence) and nine individuals from neighboring Serbia, including Ret. Gen. Bratislav Dikić, a former gendarmerie commander. Dikić faces charges of masterminding the assassination of Prime Minister Milo Djukanović, the country’s long-standing leader who at one time had extensive business links to Russia. The pro-Russian and anti-NATO opposition says the alleged coup attempt is a fabrication by the authorities to silence critics.
Montenegro, together with the rest of former Yugoslavia, has now become an arena of contest between Russia and the West. Visiting Podgorica in August 2017, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence put it starkly: “As you well know, Russia continues to seek to redraw international borders by force. And here, in the Western Balkans, Russia has worked to destabilize the region, undermine your democracies, and divide you from each other and from the rest of Europe.” His words echo the Obama administration’s rhetoric. “Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia, other places. They’re all in the firing line [together with] Georgia, Moldova, Transnistria,” stated former Secretary of State John Kerry before the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee on February 24, 2015.
European dignitaries, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel or High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, have also sounded alarms about Russia’s mischief making. But there is a risk of seeing the Balkans solely through a geopolitical lens, especially if it encourages the European Union and United States to ignore governance failures that are the main drivers of the region’s problems—and which opens the door for further Russian meddling.
Finding Russia at Every Corner
Western media coverage is on the same wavelength. Journalists and pundits tend to find Russia at every corner. Thus, street protests in Macedonia triggered in 2015 by high-level graft and abuse of power have been cast as an episode in the standoff between pro-Western forces and a government in cahoots with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin has an old grudge against the West dating back to NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, we are told. He is simply paying back Europeans and Americans for the humiliation Russia—and the Orthodox world at large—suffered during the 1999 bombing of Serbia, it is often argued.
Russia itself feeds narratives of victimhood and retribution. Its Foreign Ministry blasted the color revolutionaries in Skopje as American stooges challenging a legitimate government and pandering to extremism, which Russia argues is the Western strategy of choice, from Kosovo to Syria to Ukraine. Yet, Russia is up to more than just propaganda to make the U.S. and EU look bad. Macedonian officials note that Russia has doubled the staff of its embassy in Skopje in past years. It is anyone’s guess how many of the new appointees are also on assignment to one of the several security agencies that jostle for influence and resources in Moscow.
Macedonia, which has now taken a pro-Western turn after a new coalition government assumed office in May 2017, is small fry compared to next-door Serbia, which, in some ways, is Russia’s closest friend in the former Yugoslavia (outmatched only by Bosnia’s Republika Srpska region). Formally committed to a policy of neutrality, Belgrade cooperates on security and defense with Moscow. Russia is donating to Serbia six MiG-29 fighter jets, 30 T-72 tanks, and other military hardware. Since 2008, Gazpromneft controls oil and gas company NIS, the country’s largest business entity. Vladimir Putin and Russia enjoy high public opinion ratings, rivaled only by those of President Aleksandar Vučić. Serbia has been courting Russian investment, refusing to join the Western sanctions imposed in 2014 over the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine. “Russia is back to the Balkans,” many people say.
Russia in the Balkans
Yet, Russia is not returning to the Balkans because it never left. Under President Boris Yeltsin, Moscow claimed a role in the conflicts in Bosnia (1992-5) and Kosovo (1998-9). What was at stake, in the eyes of Yeltsin and Foreign Ministers Andrei Kozyrev and Evgeny Primakov, was not just the Balkans, but the European security order. Lacking the diplomatic heft of military strength to match the West, Russia was bound to suffer one setback after the other. Even worse, it became prey to wily and self-serving politicians like Slobodan Milošević who was keen to cling to power by playing off external powers.
Curiously enough, it was Putin who pulled Russian blue helmets from Kosovo and Bosnia in 2003, seeing such entanglements as a liability. Russia was to make a comeback in the mid-2000s, this time as an energy superpower, rather than a conflict manager. The wider region of Southeast Europe (former Yugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, and Turkey) became central to the strategy of bypassing Ukraine as a conduit for natural gas shipments to the EU. Multibillion dollar projects such as the ill-fated South Stream gas pipeline became the flagship of Russia’s policy, with Putin taking personal charge. Energy underscored the interdependent relationship between Russia and Europe, notwithstanding disagreements on crucial issues such as the status of Kosovo.
The clash with the West over Ukraine ushered in a new phase of the Russian involvement in Southeast Europe. A regulatory dispute with the European Commission led to the cancellation of South Stream, while the seizure of Crimea, the war in the Donbas, along with the sanctions they triggered turned relations between Russia and the West zero-sum. We are now in an altogether new stage defined by Moscow’s low-intensity campaign against EU and NATO in the region. When Romania and Bulgaria joined the NATO in 2004, followed by Croatia and Albania five years later, Russia kept a low profile. From its perspective, there was no harm in having more Russia-friendly countries like Bulgaria and even Slovenia and Croatia in Western clubs. Now, by contrast, any gain for the West counts as a loss for Russia, and vice versa. And the Kremlin has a blunt message to the EU and NATO: “You mess in our backyard, we stir things up in yours.” For every Moldova, there’s a Montenegro. For every Ukraine, there is a Serbia.
Spoiler tactics are an indirect recognition that Moscow plays second fiddle to the West. The Balkans is not part of the “sphere of privileged interests” Russia claims in the former Soviet Union. While Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, gets a say in hotspots such as Kosovo and, especially, Bosnia, no core national interests are involved in either. Unlike NATO, Russia has no boots on the ground. Other than imports of natural gas and crude oil, economic relations are not extensive. On average, Russia accounts for about 10% of imports and a meagre 1.5% of exports. Even for a country such as Serbia, which benefits from a free-trade agreement with the Russian Federation, the percentage of exports was 5.4% in 2015. In comparison, the EU generates about two-thirds of the trade flowing in and out of the Balkans (both member states and EU accession candidates). The Eurasian Economic Union (EEU)—Putin’s pet integration project—is not going to enlarge to the Balkans anytime soon.
Russian in Domestic Balkan Affairs
At the same time, Russia has both the means and the will to infiltrate domestic politics in these countries. The list of allies and fellow travellers is long: pro-Kremlin opinion makers, Russophile parties, prominent clerics, civic groups, and media outlets (some with murky funding sources). High-level Russian companies like Gazprom or Lukoil can be mobilized if need be. Do not forget the free-lance purveyors of Russian soft power, always on the lookout for opportunities to indulge the Kremlin and curry favor. Consider, for example, “Orthodox oligarch” Konstantin Malofeev, who is currently under Western sanctions over his role in the early stages of the so-called “Russian Spring” in the Donbas in 2014. Malofeev’s Balkan connections allegedly laid the groundwork for the coup in Montenegro, with the GRU taking over the operation later on.
Grassroot support for Russia in the region is particularly important. Popular sympathy reflects historical memories or the recognition of religious and cultural bonds, but also resentments of more recent vintage. In Serbia, Republika, Greece, Bulgaria, and Montenegro, there are plenty who scapegoat the U.S. and EU for all manner of sins: from siding with Balkan Muslims during the Yugoslav wars, to austerity in the wake of the global financial crisis, to the influx of asylum seekers from Syria and Iraq, to the end of the good old days of communism. The media readily caters to those narratives.
Conversely, Putin’s Russia is often portrayed as a knight in shining armor on a mission to right past wrongs and exact punishment on the perfidious West. Russia is also celebrated as generous: a survey in Serbia from 2015 found that 47% of respondents believed that Russia provides more financial aid than EU. In truth, it lags far, far behind. Whereas the EU contributed €3.5 billion in grants between 2000 and 2013 alone, Russia has only committed to extend a loan of $338 million to the Serbian railways. Even distant Japan has given more.
Don’t Overestimate Russia’s Influence
There is a catch, however. Polls in Serbia indicate that even those who harbor admiration for Russia would rather go to the West for employment, education, or tourism. An IPSOS survey of 18-35 year olds from 2016 found out that the U.S. and EU remain the prime reference points when it comes to popular culture, lifestyle, fashion, sports, etc. Russia is barely visible. While 64% of respondents support an alliance with Moscow and 57% favor Russian military bases in Serbia, more than two-thirds prefer to pursue education and to find work in the West. Knowledge of Russian society, domestic politics and culture, as well as Russian language, is scant. In Bulgaria, a majority sees Russia in a favorable light, but two-thirds would vote to stay in EU and NATO in a hypothetical referendum.
Popularity, however, is different from influence. Juggling the East and the West is an old tradition in this part of Europe, with memories of Josip Broz Tito’s diplomatic artistry still fresh. It is hard to find a mainstream politician in the Balkans who would choose Russia over the EU, if they must make an either-or choice. Politicians benefit from their inclusion in a Brussels-centric web of institutions and policies, but also strike advantageous side deals with the Russians. And who can blame them? In this respect, Balkan leaders are little different from Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, Viktor Orbán of Hungary, or, for that matter, former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder who recently landed a cushy job on the board of Russian energy giant, Rosneft.
Good Governance Will Limit Russian Meddling
Just as Russia exploits its Balkan assets, local wheelers and dealers use Russia, too. They have their own, often parochial, priorities: outmanoeuvring domestic opponents, acquiring funds and distributing them to political clienteles, and acquiring extra bargaining chips vis-à-vis the EU and the U.S. Moscow’s presence in the region is a gift for these Balkan elites. The Russian menace blunts external pressure for political and institutional change. The EU’s mission to promote the rule of law and accountable governance is not what the region’s power holders are about. They are all too happy to talk Europe’s talk, but walking the walk is another matter, particularly if it means giving up control and resources—and, in extreme cases such as the former prime minister of Croatia Ivo Sanader, serving jail time.
But when there is a geopolitical challenger, the West’s focus shifts from transformation to stability. That is why the EU, as well as the U.S., seems prepared to cut some slack to Balkan leaders to ensure they don’t fall into Russia’s lap. The scarier Putin is, the more leeway Balkan wannabe-Putins have.
This is not to trivialize the challenge: Russia’s disruptive impact is real. Yet, the root of the problem is not the Kremlin, much less Russian imperial designs targeting South Slavs or Orthodox-majority lands. Local conditions and forces matter most. It was not Putin who created state capture, clientelism, corruption, militant nationalism, and xenophobia in Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria, or Montenegro. Russia cannot be held responsible for the bloodshed of the 1990s, which poisons Balkan politics to this day. Local pathologies amplify Moscow’s influence and advance its goal of subverting the Western-led order in Europe and beyond.
About the author:
*Dr. Dimitar Bechev is a research fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Senior Nonresident Fellow at the Atlantic Council.
This article was published by FPRI.