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4 January 2017

Do the Russians want a hybrid war in the Balkans?

The Kremlin’s anti-Western policy hinders cooperation with all countries in the region, including Serbia

Given the crisis in relations between Russia, the European Union, and United States - i.e. key partners and donors in the region - Russia’s attempts to enhance its influence in the Balkans are a bone of contention. Concerns raised by political leaders like former Prime Minister of Montenegro Milo Djukanovic, President of Croatia Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, and leader of Bosnian Muslims Bakir Izetbegovic, pertain to the negative role played by Moscow which allegedly, is aiming to challenge NATO enlargement and weaken EU integration processes. Moscow policy is increasingly slanting towards anti-Western propaganda, and support for nationalist forces. However, the scope of Russian influence in the region is limited.

Initially, Moscow approved of the desire of the Balkan elites to be part of Europe and did not undermine the key role played by NATO in ensuring security in the region in the aftermath of the conflicts of the 1990s in former Yugoslavia. The withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from Bosnia and Kosovo in 2003 justified by “a significant improvement of the situation” as well as the absence of any official reaction to the fact that Croatia and Albania joined NATO created the impression that Russia was no longer interested in the preservation of military leverages in a distant, unstable region and hence had abandoned its fight for influence there.

The conflict with the West in the aftermath of the 2014 annexation of Crimea increased the importance of the Balkan states in the eyes of Kremlin propagandists who recognized the Balkans as the “first-line target” and decided to work “in a more decisive and consistent manner” in the region. Countries which are only halfway through their integration process with the EU and NATO (Montenegro), or have just embarked on this journey (Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as Macedonia), seem most vulnerable in this context.

Meanwhile, Russia, weakened by the economic crisis and international sanctions, cannot affect local elites whose main priority is integration with the EU since two thirds of the region’s trade is with EU member states no matter what the scope of their interest in cooperation with Moscow is. Economies of these countries, undermined by the conflicts of the 1990s, are in need of reform and large-scale foreign investments. This implies a need for a liberal-and-democratic development model and close cooperation with NATO.

And although some of the countries - like Serbia - are able to maintain balance in foreign policy thanks to their ties with Moscow, their further development depends to a large extent on resolution of the crisis in relations between Russia, the EU and the United States. Russia’s limited role in the region is exhibited by problematic implementation of a mutually beneficial South Stream pipeline project. Moscow had to discontinue the project in late 2014 having already invested 5 billion dollars. In addition, NIS - the largest regional oil company with Russian shareholding - as well as Sberbank’s and VTB’s subsidiaries are subjects of EU sanctions.

The countries in the region have no say in the settlement of conflicts between Russia, the EU and US but they value their European perspective. Under these circumstances, it is futile to discuss large-scale projects with Moscow (especially as an alternative to EU and Euro-Atlantic integration). Nevertheless, attempts are being made to promote the concept of Eurasian integration and military neutrality. According to pro-Kremlin parties and organizations in the region, Moscow is prepared to support the implementation of the concept.

The Kremlin believes that the “geopolitical expansion” of NATO and the EU as well as the Western policy of deterrence of Russia are the reasons behind the crisis in international relations. This notion finds its reflection in political statements as regards the Balkans. Russian diplomacy speaks of attempts to “prompt anti-Russian actions among non-EU member states” made by the West. It harshly criticizes the policy of the EU which acts as an intermediary in negotiations aimed at settling disputes between Belgrade and Kosovo (Russia is not involved in the talks), highlights unrealistic threats such as the proposed establishment of “Great Albania” and speaks of the “betrayal” of Montenegro which is going to gain full NATO membership in the coming months.

Moscow has repeatedly indicated to Western countries that it is ready for confrontation in the region. Thus, it abstained from voting in the UN Security Council over the extension of the mandate of the EUFOR forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina for the first time in many years in 2014, and blocked the British draft resolution on the Srebrenica massacre deemed a genocide in 2015. Moscow’s moves have been approved by the Serbs including politicians who deny that large-scale crimes were committed by Serbian forces during the war and resort to extremely nationalistic rhetoric. Russia has played into the hands of nationalists again in 2016, having in fact backed a public holiday referendum conducted by the Bosnian Serbs in spite of appeals by the Western parties involved in implementing the peace process. The organization of the referendum was accompanied by another surge of emotions in the Balkans, and threats to use force. The initiator of the referendum - the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Milorad Dodik, who recognizes the annexation of Crimea, and intends to organize a referendum on the independence of the Republika Srpska in the future merited another audience in the Kremlin on the eve of the vote.

Dodik’s policy aimed at disintegration of the Bosnian state, and obstruction of the EU and Euro-Atlantic agenda is most irritating to Western stakeholders. He is not the only one of Moscow’s partner to declare adherence to Russian policy. Russia seeks support among a variety of conservative forces in the Balkans including right-wing radical organizations which support Eurasian integration and neutrality as an alternative to the pro-Western policy pursued by the local elites.

So-called “patriots” who employ pro-Russian rhetoric have made their way back to Serbia’s parliament. Reference is made both to relatively politically correct players (the Democratic Party of Serbia or the Serbian movement Dveri) and the notorious Serbian Radical Party led by Vojislav Seselj who spent 13 years on trial in The Hague on charges of involvement in war crimes. Seselj is one of the most favored interlocutors of Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin and Russian diplomats. As a popular politician in the nationalist milieu, he intends to run in the 2017 presidential election.

The most well-known extremist organizations (Obraz and Nasi) which emphasize their affinity with the Russian official authorities and ideologists of the pan-Russian world are also engaged in the pro-Russian campaign. Moscow is in no hurry to distance itself from them. This raises issues from at least an image point of view.

For instance, Mladen Obradovic, the leader of Obraz associated with Serbian radicals is among experts of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS), a think tank which provides information to the Presidential Administration. Serbian authorities deemed Obraz to be a “clerical-fascist” organization and banned its activities via the Constitutional Court in 2012.

By the way, some experts link the expansion of Russia’s activity in the Balkans with the opening of the Belgrade branch of the RISS headed (until early January 2017) by a retired Lieutenant-General Leonid Reshetnikov of Russia’s foreign intelligence service. He is notorious for words such as the need to display “a hardline stance” towards the Balkan elites as well as many other scandalous statements: Reshetnikov called Montenegro, among others, a “pseudo-state” dominated by the United States. He also openly called for the ousting of Djukanovic’s ruling party, and predicted bloodshed in connections with Montenegro’s NATO accession.

Moscow has been accused of plotting a “bloody scenario” and destabilizing the Balkans against the backdrop of the campaign in support of the Montenegrin anti-NATO opposition joined by the Russian state-owned media, the United Russia party and Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in recent months. Whether the Montenegrin authorities can prove it remains to be seen. Nevertheless, pro-Russian Serbian nationalists are among the accused in this case. Thus, a former commander of the Serbian gendarmerie and the leader of the Patriotic Movement of Serbia Bratislav Dikic has been in detention since October of 2016. Right-wing radical activists are also among the suspects. One of whom, whose name currently appears on the wanted list, was recently spotted in Belgrade attending a meeting between the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and activists of the Zavetnici movement.

Representatives of organizations which disapprove of EU and NATO membership, support re-orientation towards Moscow, and Eurasian integration get access to Russian state fora no matter what their political gravitas or whatever the extent of their public support happens to be. The abovementioned Zavetnici, the Balkan Cossacks or local motor heads from the pro-Kremlin motorcycle gang Night Wolves are frequent visitors to Russian House in Belgrade - a branch of the Rossotrudnichestvo Federal Agency. It is impossible to determine the number and location of the Cossack and motorcycle organizations in the Balkans. Their statements border on bigotry, and their goals are difficult to decipher (barring the spread of anti-Americanism).

In other words, Moscow’s attempts to form an anti-Western front in the Balkans appear comical at times. At the same time, promotion of the “Orthodox-and-Eurasian” agenda along with radical organizations is nothing but a strengthening of divides in a multinational and multi-confessional environment - this is precisely what the Russian authorities oppose according to their official statements. Having no serious impact on the Balkans, Moscow has nevertheless managed to instil fear among some of the expert community and political establishment who speak of a possible “hybrid war” accompanied by increased activity of special services, disinformation and the supply of arms.

On the one hand, it could not remain unnoticed that Moscow’s statements which stir radical sentiments and play into the hands of forces that are against the Western integration projects have come to the fore in the absence of new economic projects in the Balkans. On the other hand, it is unlikely that Moscow wanted to elicit averseness towards it on behalf of local influential leaders. It rather results from misguided self-positioning and a lack of understanding of the essence of the divides in the conflict-affected region.

The question arises: What is at the core of Russian strategy in the Balkans apart from a desire to hinder the processes of NATO and EU enlargement? It is difficult to judge given the lack of transparency of the Kremlin’s foreign policy, and the fact that no direct mention of the region or constituent countries has been identified in foreign-policy concepts over recent years. However, Russian officials often speak of the historic and geopolitical role of the Balkans from Moscow’s perspective. And this is the point of departure for propaganda theses.

There are hints at the region in the passages of the last 2016 foreign policy concept which mention the intention to develop ties with the Slavic peoples and countries which are not members of military alliances. This is especially true of Serbia which has no plans to join NATO (unlike other Balkan states). The 2008 strategy stipulated that “Russia is open to further development of pragmatic and mutually respectful cooperation with the countries of Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe provided that they demonstrate a commitment to do so”.

This commitment will remain limited. Confrontation with the West, and the downturn in the Russian economy have naturally weakened leverages employed by Moscow in the Balkans since the 2000s. Large-scale investment in the energy sector of the countries of former Yugoslavia were Russia’s main leverage. Relations with the majority of the countries of the region have deteriorated due to the sanctions against Russia and the reduction in the scope of economic cooperation. Russia will not be perceived as a promising investor or predictable political partner given the crisis in relations between Moscow and the West.

Anti-Western policy and alarming signals targeted at advocates of Euro-Atlantic integration halt cooperation with all the Balkan states including Serbia whose political elite wishes to avoid confrontation with the West and deterioration of relations with neighbors. Local politicians who underline historic ties with Russia and the Orthodox Church pursue their own objectives in the first place. The Russian card is often played in order to demonstrate independence from the “dictate” of Brussels, mobilize supporters and to combat opponents with no real intention of establishing closer ties with Moscow. And this does not at all imply disapproval of the ongoing integration projects.

Russian ties with the region will remain weak. Ideas such as involvement of the Balkan countries in Eurasian integration or ensuring their military neutrality will not be entrenched since they are simply unrealistic given the economic instability of the Balkan states themselves, the lack of military leverages which could be used by Russia in this distant region and Russia’s own financial and economic problems. 

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