Judging from statements of Western officials, politicians and the press, Russian intelligence officers have recently moved to the Balkans. Such information campaign started yet during the last elections in Montenegro in late 2016, when the local authorities blamed Russia for alleged coup attempt amid their fears to lose their posts with NATO membership. At the U.S.-Adriatic Charter meeting in Podgorica, in August, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence made allegations against Russia saying, “Russia continues to seek to redraw international borders by force and, here in the Western Balkans, Russia has worked to destabilize the region, undermine democracies and divide you from each other and from the rest of Europe.”
So, it is no surprise that after recent statement by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic mentioning “external factor” in the espionage scandal between Serbia and Macedonia, frustrated journalists asked whether Russia should be blamed for that. The Serbian president replied in the negative.
Former High Representative of the international community for Bosnia and Herzegovina Wolfgang Petritsch, told Austrian media the Russian factor influence in the Balkans is overestimated. He said Serbia can “flirt with Russia” but steadily move towards EU. Petritsch is sure that Russian President Vladimir Putin is not concerned at all about the Balkans and demonstrates an interest in the region just to annoy Brussels. Serbian and Russian experts talk to EADaily about what they think of Russia’s presence in the Balkans and whether Russia’s interests in the region are justified.
Stevan Gajić, PhD, Institute of European Studies, Belgrade, sees nothing surprising in the words of the Austrian politician. He recalled that High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Wolfgang Petritsch waged an evident anti-Serbian policy looking to transfer powers and state rights of the Republika Srpska to the Muslim-Croatian Federation (presently Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina).
“Besides, it is important that he is Austrian, though Slav by origin. Why is this important? Because, Austria was the country that claimed Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Austrian-Hungarian occupation was the first spark in the fire of the World War I. During America’s domination in the world, after signing Dayton Accords of 1995, globalists entrusted the role of high representatives to Austria as traditional occupant of Bosnia and Herzegovina. For the time being, there is one such representative – Valentin Inzko,” Stevan Gajic said.
As to Russia’s foreign policy, the expert said, Balkans are of critical importance for it for some objective parameters, since it is the only region in the world where Russia can move towards the south because Slavic peoples, mostly, Serbs, live there. “It is a great potential Europeans are afraid of. Therefore, the Serbian people have been suffering for the last 30 years, and even longer. This issue goes back to the ‘Great Game’ between Great Britain and the Russian Empire in the 19th century,” the Serbian political expert said.
The expert thinks Russia is concerned about the Balkans currently but it appears to have no strictly developed strategy in the region. Earlier, Gajic told EADaily that for the last few decades Russia did several fundamental mistakes. “I am speaking about withdrawal of troops from Kosovo in 2003, afterwards, its silence (if not more) when Montenegro was separated from Serbia, which became a geopolitical disaster for Serbia, first of all, since it lost access to the sea, and now for Russia too, since Montenegro joined NATO,” the expert recalled. It was another open unfriendly gesture of the West with regard to Moscow, he said.
According to Gajic, the global problem of the Russian policy in the world is that it builds relations with governments not societies of other countries. The Serbian government is waging a policy that may be a result of blackmail. The government may act against the people by agreeing to make concessions to Brussels, Gajic said. Meantime, he said, the Serbian people are actually the world’s most pro-Russian society. Russophilia in Serbia is even stronger than in post-Soviet countries, which is an unprecedented advantage for Russia, he said.
“Russia still fails to find mechanisms of soft power and hard power,” Gajic said. “Russia with its great power appears to be naïve and actually humble when communicating with the local rulers.” For instance, the expert recalls the long-time leader Milo Djukanovic who enjoyed Russia’s support in all possible fields for long years and eventually joined NATO. The anti-Serbian policy has resulted in anti-Russian actions like the pro-Western policy easily turned into anti-Russian actions in Ukraine, Gajic said.
Russia still has a powerful resource – the central people in the Balkans, Serbs. Existence of Serbs has been endangered since the collapse of Yugoslavia. The Serbian people suffered because of their pro-Russian views in the WWI and WWII, as well as in the wars of 90s, since our enemies better than us feel these ties – the orthodox beliefs and Slavdom, language similarity,” the expert said. He hopes Russia will take advantage of that resource and support unification of the Serbian people in the region if it has at least half as much rationality as the Western countries has.
Russian expert in the Balkans, Institute of Slavonic Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, Georgy Engelgardt commented on Wolfgang Petritsch’s statements. He is sure that such statements just speak of “certain intensification in EU’s claims on Serbia.” Besides, he said, no one is going to admit the country to EU as a full member so far. Judging from the real negotiation process, not from declarations, no one can say, for instance, when Serbia will join EU, whether in 2019, 2020 0r 2022.
Actually, European officials and politicians undertake no commitments to Belgrade, but they “are ready to decide the fate of Serbia, to decide which countries it can develop relations with,” Engelgardt told EADaily.
As to Russia, the expert said, it should wage a more consistent policy in the region not to get kicks, including from Petritsch. Russia has no strict policy in the region and fails to protect its interests there, so everyone feels free to slam and blame it, Georgy Engelgardt said.
He brought the example of Montenegro where Milo Djukanovic’s government and their Western partners have managed to “resolve a series of their problems” by joining NATO and suppressing the domestic opposition. All that was done by using mostly Russia’s money, considering the role of the Russian financing in Montenegrin economy, including in the tourist sector, the expert recalled. “Yet, everyone sees that one can violate Russia’s interests and get away with it. I think Moscow needs to care for its interests, investments and presence in the region more seriously,” Engelgardt said.
His colleague, expert in the Balkans Anna Filimonova, is even more categorical in her assessment of Russia’s place in the Balkan region. She is sure that the Balkans is a zone of Russia’s geostrategic, political, economic and national interests. Like her Serbian colleague Stevan Gajic, Anna Filimonova believes that Russia has a unique resource in the Balkans. “As the phrase goes, Russia’s only allies are army and navy. The Serbian people should be added as the third ally. This is about devotion without reservations, the very historical phenomenon which Russia has no right to ignore or fail to protect,” she said.
Filimonova said Serbia is the only entry point to the territory of Europe for Russia. “There are no and there will be no such people and regions ever. That is why Russia should undoubtedly ensure its presence in the Balkans and support the Serbian people,” Filimonova said.
However, the expert sees certain difficulties therein. “We are experiencing evident crisis in the relations with the Serbian government. We need to speak about this openly,” she said. The expert believes that Russia needs to decide how to deal with Aleksandar Vucic’s government. A wrong decision will cause a strategic failure and Russia will not get a chance to return to the Balkans any time later, Filimonova said.
The first thing Russia should do is to stop considering Vucic’s regime as patriotic and pro-Russian, the expert said. She recalled that Vucic-led Serbian progressive party was established by the former president Boris Tadic’s minions. “As an absolutely pro-Western person, Tadic faced certain restrictions he could not overcome. Those barriers were broken by the people who seemed to have unbreakable patriotic authority that they have gained for decades,” Filimonova said.
“Since Vucic’s government is considered patriotic, any criticism is a taboo here. It is an incredible paradox. The party and the leader that chose ever stronger pro-Western policy, are suddenly presented here as pro-Serbian and pro-Russian ones. However, there is nothing really national, and much less pro-Russian, there,” the expert said.
Anna Filimonova emphasized that the Serbian opposition, though split, was still there when Vucic came to power. However, Russia is losing institutional and personal support by the Serbian citizens so dramatically that at the next elections, the Serbian opposition cannot claim more than 3%-5% of votes. “We have faced a situation when the 5% barrier to the parliament is a dream for the patriotic opposition in Serbia. Its leaders have certain contacts with representatives of the West probably not because they want to do it, but because contacts with the party they strived to lean on have brought no results,” she said.
In spite of everything, Russia did its utmost to involve Vucic into cooperation. “It appeared to be impossible. There are still no MiGs. It is clear that the problem is not in Russia, since there are no technical problems with the armed forces. The Russian center in Nis still has no diplomatic immunity, and Serbia is involved in cooperation with NATO to the maximum,” Filimonova said.
“We need to abandon our bureaucratic approaches, revise our strategy and forget about ceding Serbia calmly,” she said and recommended not to think of Republika Srpska as another ally, since it is part of Bosnia and Herzegovina that strives to NATO and EU. “Leader Milorad Dodik and small Serbian people (two million people live in Republika Srpska) alone cannot resist the pressure by U.S., EU, Arab states, Turkey, various special services operating there,” Filimonova explained.
The expert is sure that no big financial investments are needed to ensure presence in Serbia. “We can open Russian universities there, in two-three cities in Serbia. This will immediately ensure a high trust and finally, we will start creating human resources,” she said.
Besides, Filimonova urges a hardline policy on Kosovo to prevent Aleksandar Vucic’s “treasonable initiatives on further strengthening of Kosovo ‘statehood’”. “Any actions, including by Russia’s representatives, that pose threat to Serbia’s territorial integrity is a crime,” she said.
Head of Srpska.ru Aleksandar Kravchenko is sure that Russia can influence the processes in the Balkans, but whether it needs to interfere into complicated regional situation and what it can gain from that.
“I think, Russia will not involve into these processes seriously, since it is very dangerous and will bring no serious dividends to Moscow,” Kravchenko said. He is sure that these processes cannot be stopped. Russia’s potential efforts could be justified in case of global changes in the world, for instance, if EU started collapsing. “In that case, Russia might play its special role,” he said for conclusion.