Subjectio, the Western Balkans
by Vuk Velebit
During the last decades, The Western Balkan region has been the focus of two major world powers: the US and Russia.
Likewise, the countries of this region direct their foreign policies toward their Eastern and Western allies and consequently, public opinion is constructed and influenced in accordance with the current interests of the political elites. Relations with Russia can be divided into several periods, in line with key events, such as the arrival of Vladimir Putin in power and the period during the 1990s during the conflict in Yugoslavia, as well as the period after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. In the case of Serbia, there is another point in time, namely the unanimous declaration of Kosovo’s independence in 2008 and Russia’s support for Serbia at the United Nations Security Council.
During the 1990s, there was not as much Russian involvement and interest in the Western Balkans as there is today. The main reasons for the Russian interest in the Balkans was the breakup of Yugoslavia, as a similar scenario could happen in Russia, which at that time was facing the collapse of the country after the end of the Cold War.
In addition, during the 1990s, Russia sought a new position on the geo-political map of the world, as well as securing financial assistance from the West. In that time Russia attempted to avoid any form of confrontation with the US. This approach by Russia is best exemplified by the support given to the U.N. for imposing sanctions on the then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Until 1999, Moscow made an effort to maintain a good relationship with the West, however, the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the crisis in Kosovo demonstrated Russia’s weakness to react to the situation. The bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999 was a turning point in the relations between Russia and the West, while in Russia itself it seems that the real motive behind NATO’s intervention in Kosovo was perceived to scare Russia.
Today, only Serbia and Republika Srpska are considered Russia’s strategic partners in the Western Balkans, since the other countries are already NATO members or intend to become NATO members. However, with the democratic changes in Serbia in 2000, with the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime, Russia lost an important ally in the Western Balkans. Only a few years later the situation changed, when Kosovo relations with the West became strained, which opened the door for Russian return. The opening of the new chapter of alliances between Russia and Serbia was also accompanied by Russia’s interest through an energy agreement between Belgrade and Moscow, when the Serbian Oil Industry was sold to Russia’s Gazprom well below market price in 2008.
However, the question that arises is why this region is so important to both the West and Russia? On the other hand, why is it important for several political elites to aim for good relations with Russia, while the countries belong, or want to belong, to the EU. How do the domestic political elites in this region, with Russian support, create a pro-Russian narrative and how does this narrative affect the attitudes of the citizens of Western Balkans states?
Although the Western Balkans intend to become part of the European Union in the near future, yet the fact that several countries have close relations with Russia, provides grounds for Russia to position itself as a significant player in the region by strengthening and expanding its influence.
This opens the possibility for Russia, that if several countries in the region enter the EU, to use them as their “Trojan horse.” Serbia, as the largest country in the Western Balkans region, has the closest ties with Russia, together with Republika Srpska (entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina), thereby opening space for Russia to gain influence in the region. Russia is aware that it cannot economically bind the region on its own as the Western Balkan countries trade mostly with the European Union, but by playing the energy card Russia becomes an important competitor. In addition, by launching Kremlin’s channel Sputnik in Serbia as well as by supporting pro-Russian media portals in the region, Russia is seeking to strengthen its “soft” power, thus creating an anti-Western narrative.
Russia anticipates the opportunity to exercise its influence in several Western Balkans countries, collaborating with nationalistic leaders and extremist groups. An example is the existing connection between the leader of the Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, with the Night Wolves, a Russian motorcycle gang known as Putin’s Angels. The Night Wolves are known for their activities in 2014, when its members traveled to Crimea to set up roadblocks and provide support for a Moscow controlled takeover of the Ukrainian peninsula. Nationalist leader Milorad Dodik, has a strong connection with the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin. One can question how a leader of (a small) entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina has such a strong influence in Moscow as to be able to meet president Vladimir Putin so often in person? This is the perfect illustration of matching interests of both sides: Putin needs to have someone under his control in the Western Balkans and Dodik needs to have the protection from a great power as Russia.
Just two years later, the Night Wolves appeared in Montenegro, another Western Balkan state, to join events celebrating the Pan-Slavic solidarity and creating an atmosphere of hostility towards the West.
The Montenegrin authorities claimed that the coup attempt aimed at blocking Montenegro’s entry into NATO was sponsored by Russia.
Before Montenegro joined NATO, the ‘Balkan Cossack Army’ was created to promote Orthodox values and to counter Western influences and its values. At that time, the founding meeting was addressed by representatives of Russian Cossacks fighting alongside separatists in eastern Ukraine.
As Russia’s aspirations to influence political change were not successful in Southeast Europe, the current Russian strategy is to misuse domestic political tensions to confront the West or through confrontations with the pro-Western political elites in the Western Balkans. In recent tensions between Serbia and Montenegro regarding the status of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, voices were heard from Russia in support of anti-government protests, against a new law on religion (December 2019), stating that the national Property Directorate must include all religious buildings and sites that were owned by the independent kingdom of Montenegro, before it became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918, also known as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Thus, all religious communities must provide evidence of ownership, however, the Serbian Orthodox Church claims that this law is designed to strip the church of its holdings and ever since the law passed Parliament, protests have been organized by the Serbian Orthodox Church. At such occasions the Night Wolves appear to support their Slavic brothers. The leader of the bikers club said ‘we won’t give up holy places’, referring to the slogan heard before and during the protests. However, Russian foreign influence in the Western Balkans should not be overestimated as political elites are more pro-Western than it appears to be.
Soft power is the main card Russia plays, but yet without a clear strategy for action in the Western Balkans. Although there is constant talk on Russian influence, it is very limited given the geographical distance and economic independence of the region. Since Russia does not have a clear strategy for the Western Balkans and despite Russia’s attempts to destabilize or prolong the accession process, several countries have become NATO members. Russia’s strategy at the moment is to fuel political unrest, blame the West and expand its influence and strength in the region.
The issue of Kosovo is very significant for Russia and it is one of the misconceptions that Russia is giving blanco support to Serbia at the UN. The interests of Russia and Serbia overlap in this situation, where it is important for Serbia to have the support of a force such as Russia, while it is in Russia’s interest to support an open conflict policy. As long as the issue of Serbia’s relations with Kosovo remains unresolved, it will be a guarantee that Serbia cannot become a NATO member. The moment an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo is reached, it will open up NATO membership one day, although at this time there is no such prospect.
As a result of its limited projection of political, military or economic influence, Russia tries to gain the support from the citizens of the Western Balkan countries by creating a negative image of the West and by presenting itself as an alternative to the bureaucratized EU. Serbia is a unique case, because there exists already a strong pro-Russian public opinion as well as closeness of traditions, culture, religion and linguistic family; all together making it easier for Russia to project its connection. Thus, Russia does not need to invest much in strengthening its influence in Serbia.
By maintaining close relations with the Western Balkans, Russia demonstrates to the West that it has influence and control over at least part of the political elites in these countries; some of the ruling political elites of the region are able to show the West that there is another side to which they can turn if they lose Western support. Thus, with his frequent meetings with Vladimir Putin, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic demonstrates to the West that he has an alternative alliance to turn to. However, the political elites of the region, its citizens, the West, and even Russia itself, are aware that this region is economically inextricably linked to the West.
Although Russia is trying to play on the emotions of the citizens of the Western Balkans, the citizens are aware that a better life lies in the West. The best example of this thesis is expressed in the public opinion polls in Serbia, which show that Russia is a favorite country among many citizens and Vladimir Putin is the most popular foreign politician, but when asked where you would like to live, citizens always cite Western European or US states and hardly ever Russia. Although many citizens’ hearts embrace the “Russian soul,” the “mind of the money” is set on the West. Therefore, the Russian influence is limited and the question is raised how to reach the Russian goal to win the sympathy of the Balkan citizens.
There is no possibility of a political alliance with Russia because of the geographical distance. All Western Balkan countries proclaimed to join the EU, as the region is culturally, geographically, economically and physically inseparable from the European Union, linking this region firmly to European soil. Yet, historical ties with Russia are used to present itself as a force on the European continent, as was the case as in 2014 a parade was organized in Belgrade, hosted by Vladimir Putin, making Serbia the only European country where Putin received such a welcome after the annexation of Crimea.
Ambivalent politics of “sitting on two chairs” can cost the citizens of Serbia credibility in the long run, as well as other states where political elites would lead a dual policy. Unless a clear EU orientation is expressed, no clear perspective on membership is possible. During this time, the West does not favor the relationship between Russia and the pro-Russia ruling political elites in the Western Balkans. Although all countries in the region have good relations with the US and the EU, several countries’ foreign policies are not so aligned with the EU policies. If it is the interest of the citizens and countries of the Western Balkans to be part of the EU, then both the EU and the Western Balkans need to develop a closer relationship.
The most important question is what the powers, like Russia and the US, want to achieve by exercising their influence. Is it their interest to confront each other, or is it in the interest of the Western Balkan countries to progress in building democratic institutions and free media? Russian influence leaves no room for strengthening democratic processes and procedures, since Russia is breaking down these processes (in its own country). Western influences are more in line with the interests of the region and through the promotion of the values of liberal democracy provide the way into the EU.
Bearing in mind that the societies of the Western Balkans are not yet consolidated democracies, yet geographically and economically belonging to the European sphere in the first place, there is more room for influence from European countries (than some others). As the countries of the region are in the process of EU accession, it is important to fulfill the necessary conditions in order to one day become a full member of the European Union. Today, almost the entire Western Balkan region is facing a rise in authoritarianism and a backslide in democracy. The extent to which the West has influenced democratic consolidation is in question and the question arises of how sincere the intentions of the Western Balkans political elites have been to bring the region closer to the EU. Although large numbers of Western Balkan citizens leave to earn a living in the West, these citizens are quite reserved in regard to their countries’ cooperation with the West. They perceive the West as something “bad”, constantly blackmailing and demanding conditions to be fulfilled, while Russia is not demanding but also not giving.
In Serbia, the image of the West has changed considerably over the last two decades. Serbian citizens continue to have negative emotions in the context of NATO’s bombing and the Western support for Kosovo’s independence; two major events in the recent history of Serbia-US relations that affect the image of the West. Although the countries of Western Europe and the US are the largest donors and investors in Serbia, the West has not succeeded in improving its image among the citizens of Serbia. Despite this, people search for a better life in Western countries, which shows that a rational perspective is overcoming emotions and negative memories. Still, in order to further promote its ideas, the West must invest in creating a better image of itself among Western Balkan citizens, even though citizens of Western Balkans are acutely aware that the Western way of life is more attractive to them than a life in Russia.
Political analyst Vuk Velebit (Belgrade, 1994) studied at the University of Konstanz in Germany and is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of the University of Belgrade. Vuk Velebit completed a master’s degree in International Security with an investigation intoRussian influence in Serbia; how Russia is presented in the Serbian media and how it is perceived by the Serbian public and its political elites. After graduating, Vuk Velebit started as an investigative journalist for the web portal “European Western Balkans” where he discussed topics related to the Euro-Atlantic integration of the Western Balkan region. Vuk Velebit writes columns for the Serbian weekly “NIN”, daily “Danas” and Talas.rs, an independent platform for publications about politics and international relations.