The author argues that Russia’s influence in the Balkans is not to be ignored. (iStock photo.)

“The Balkans produce more history than they can consume.” This quote is often wrongly attributed to Winston Churchill. While the attribution is incorrect, there is a lot of truth to this quote.

Over a century ago, as the Ottoman Empire was collapsing, Balkan countries fought two bloody wars. At first, they defeated the Ottomans and grabbed as much land as they could. Then they turned to one another and killed as many as they could. The Balkan Wars were characterized by extreme nationalism and manifested in mass cruelties, particularly against defenseless civilians.

This process of breaking up of bigger, multinational countries and creating smaller, ethnically homogenous and hostile countries is referred to as balkanization. Yes, it is an actual word in the English dictionary. The term has a negative connotation, sadly, as people view balkanization as contributing to wars and destruction. This is not surprising considering that the Balkan Wars largely helped to set the stage for World War I and all the carnage that followed.

Nevertheless, there is another side to the story. While for most, Balkanization may represent only death and destruction, for some, particularly the people of the Balkans, it is the process by which they were able to finally rule themselves. Balkanization has been a crucial driving force in the region, as the process continued throughout the 20th century and even in the 21st, with the independence of Montenegro, in 2005, and Kosovo, in 2008, from Serbia. Even today, there are minority groups in most western Balkan countries, such as Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albanians in Northern Macedonia, who continuously demonstrate their dissatisfaction for being citizens of the countries they reside in, instead of their perceived “motherlands.”

Russia has been trying to capitalize on this widespread dissatisfaction in the Balkans over the last few decades. This is made evident by the official and unofficial actions of Russia and its agents in the western Balkan countries, which include:

  • In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia openly and exclusively supports Republika Srpska, the Serb-majority entity of the country, who are increasingly threatening the country with separation in order to join Serbia. Aside from major investments focused exclusively on Serb-majority areas, Russia has also provided advanced weapons to the Serbian police in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Russia intentionally avoided the Bosnian military, as it is composed also of Bosnians and Croats living in the country. Currently, ethnic tensions in Bosnia and Herzegovina are at their highest since the 1990s, with the leader of Bosnian Serbs calling for secession of the Serb-majority parts from the country.[1] Russian support for Serbs is a common theme across many western Balkan countries and is rooted in historical and religious grounds, being that they are both Slavic and orthodox Christian.
  • In Kosovo, Russia openly supports the Serb minority, while continuously antagonizing and refusing to engage at any level with the Albanian majority. Aside from not recognizing Kosovo and threatening to use the veto in order to block its admission into the United Nations (U.N.), Russia has also been active inside the country. Their activity started in 1999, when, as NATO troops liberated Kosovo, Russian troops rushed in and captured the country’s only international airport, holding major Serb war assets. This created a very tense situation, as NATO troops were also ordered to take the airport. Then, Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Jackson, the British commander of the international peace implementation force, allegedly refused to obey the order, a decision that potentially prevented a global conflict.[2] After Russian troops left Kosovo in 2003, as most of the population was hostile to them, they continued to fuel Serb-minority resistance toward Kosovo’s institutions. Recently, an alleged Russian agent working as a UN official was expelled from Kosovo for allegedly inciting Serbs to protest against and sabotage the work of local authorities.[3]
  • In Montenegro, Russia has been extremely active and has a vested interest. This is illustrated by reports that claim that Russian citizens own around 40 percent of the country’s coastal real estate.[4] Nevertheless, Montenegro is aligned with western powers, aiming to join the European Union (EU) and is one of the youngest members of NATO. Before the Montenegro parliament was to vote on joining NATO, however, Russian and Serbian agents, allegedly, conspired a coup d’état. This incident further escalated ethnic tensions between Serbs and Montenegrins. In recent years, these tensions have been further amplified by disputes over the independence of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church from the Serbian Orthodox Church. While many Montenegrins prefer an independent church, the Serb minority, supported by Russia, vehemently oppose it.
  • In Northern Macedonia, Russia has tried to change the course of some of the most important decisions of the country. In 2018, Northern Macedonia reached a deal with Greece to change the name of the country from Macedonia to Northern Macedonia. The purpose of the deal was to eliminate the Greek blockade toward Northern Macedonia for joining NATO and the European Union. A referendum was held in Northern Macedonia and parliamentary votes were held on both countries. Russia was allegedly active on both sides attempting to swing public opinion toward a refusal of the name change, thereby preventing Northern Macedonia from joining NATO and the EU. When Northern Macedonia finally joined NATO in 2020, Russia publicly condemned the move and the Russian ambassador to Northern Macedonia declared that the country would be a legitimate target if a conflict arises.[5]
  • In Serbia, Russia has its biggest ally in the Balkans. The two countries share a long history of alliances. With Russia openly supporting Serb positions on every issue and Serbia being the only country in the Balkans not interested in joining NATO, the two countries have gotten increasingly closer recently. Russia supports Serbia’s militarily by providing weapons and conducting regular joint training exercises. Russian companies are also highly involved in the energy, financial and other sectors of Serbia’s economy. More concerning is Russia’s influence on Serbia's media.[6] According to Reporters Without Borders, press freedom in Serbia has been deteriorating for the last few years, as government-backed sensational media has become increasingly dominant.[7] These outlets, often through deliberately falsified news, have consistently sided with Russia on any major issue while being against the EU and the West at large.[8] This has the effect of instilling doubt on Western projects, such as the EU. In turn, this ensures that Serbia’s foreign policy continues to be aligned with that of Russia, in contrast to every single one of Serbia’s neighbors, thereby retaining the conditions for continued tensions in the Balkans.

Overall, Russia’s influence in the Balkans is extensive and has increased dramatically with the advent of social media. Russians have even started outsourcing “fake news” propaganda machines, as was the case with a troll farm in Northern Macedonia that was allegedly involved in influencing U.S. elections[9]. Furthermore, Russia also intends to connect the region to gas pipelines, further increasing its influence in the region.

Nevertheless, one might argue that, since the whole region, aside from Serbia, is aligned with the West, Russia’s influence on the region is of no significant impact. I believe that this is an oversimplified viewpoint, and Russia’s influence on the region should not be ignored. A Western-aligned and stable Western Balkans is not in Russia’s best interest. Russia will be likely to do anything to counter that, including the instigation of ethnic conflicts within and between Western Balkan countries.

Furthermore, in several occasions the West has sent worrying signals of unreliability toward the Western Balkans countries. One notable case is that of Northern Macedonia. The EU conditioned Northern Macedonia to resolve the name issue with Greece in order for the country to continue in its EU accession path. While Northern Macedonians made the bargains and reached an agreement with Greece, the EU has backed out of the deal and has essentially frozen the integration process for Northern Macedonia. Most EU members supported Northern Macedonian accession into the EU; France and the Netherlands, however, opposed it. Their stance was likely influenced by the refugee crisis in Europe, following the civil war in Syria.  

Another, rather bizarre case, was that of U.S. President Donald Trump, who openly questioned NATO’s common defense commitment toward Montenegro, whom he labeled as “very aggressive.”[10] Trump made these remarks during a period when he was criticizing NATO members for their failure to commit the agreed minimum of 2% of their GDPs to defense spending. Nevertheless, these comments made a huge impact in the region, opening debates about U.S. commitment and reliability.

With an increasingly more active Russia and a reluctant West, balkanization does not seem too far-fetched. I believe that this process in the Western Balkans could have a detrimental impact on regional and global security. Unfortunately, Western Balkan countries, given the sheer size and resource differences with Russia, do not seem capable of effectively combating Russia’s influence on their own. Therefore, I believe that western assistance toward the region is crucial.

To address this issue, countries such as the United States, which have gained considerable experience in combating mass disinformation, should assist these countries in building similar capacities. Overall cybersecurity needs to be improved with increased awareness on how to prevent the spread of disinformation. Most importantly, however, I believe that the West needs to demonstrate a relentless commitment toward the region.

Western commitment toward the region was at an all-time high during and following the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. With Western help, the region enjoyed great economic development with relatively stable democratic institutions, culminating in Croatia and Slovenia joining the EU. However, global forces, such as the 2008 economic crisis and the recent refugee crisis, seem to have significantly shifted Western attention increasingly more toward internal issues.

Nevertheless, for the countries of today, there are hardly any exclusively internal issues anymore. A crisis in the Balkans can easily spill over to Europe and the whole world, as it has in the past. I believe that the expectation of a better future in the EU is the main stabilizing and uniting force in the Western Balkans. Hence, if Russia manages to convince more countries in the region that the West is an unreliable partner, Balkanization will be the natural order of things again.

NOTES:

[1] Paul Stronski and Annie Himes – “Russia’s Game in the Balkans, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

[2] Mark Tran – “‘I'm not going to start Third World War for you,’ Jackson told Clark,” the Guardian.

[3] Radio Free Europe – “Kosovo Expels Russian Official Due to ‘Harmful Activity’.”

[4] Samir Kajosevic – “Russians Remain Biggest Real Estate Buyers in Montenegro,” Balkan Insight.

[5] Marc Santora and Julian E. Barnes – “In the Balkans, Russia and the West Fight a Disinformation-Age Battle,” the New York Times.

[6]Jovana Presić – “How Russia influences Serbian media,” Global Voices.

[7] Reporters Without Borders – “Serbia.”

[8] Marija Šajkaš – “How influence of Russian media risks making Serbia a Moscow bureau,” Committee to Protect Journalists.

[9] CNN – “The Fake News Machine, Inside A Town Gearing Up for 2020.”

[10] Alana Abramson – “Why President Trump's Comments About Montenegro Were a Win for Vladimir Putin,” Time.com.

 


Lirim Bllaca, a retired captain in the Kosovo Army, is a consultant in areas of compliance, national and information security. He taught at the Kosovo Military Academy and has worked in projects related to accreditation, leadership and character education.

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