• Daniela Žuvela

Invasion Aftershocks in the Western Balkans: Part 1

Soon after Russia’s 24 February invasion of Ukraine, the European Union’s (EU) peacekeeping alliance EUFOR deployed an additional 500 troops to Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia herein) as the deteriorating state of international security raised concerns that the Western Balkans could once again be at risk of destabilisation. Rife with deep-seated ethnic tensions, increases in extreme right-wing ideology, and facing rising inflation, the region has become increasingly vulnerable to malign Russian influence. The EU is well aware of this, and in March and April various EU leaders visited the region, signalling their continued commitment to the European integration of the Western Balkans. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerock stated, “we will not surrender this region in the heart of Europe to Moscow’s influence.” These decisive claims initially spurred hopes for the resumption of stalled EU integration plans, but a fast-tracked process remains a distant prospect for most of the Western Balkan countries, especially given their extensive local problems with rule-of-law issues coupled with enlargement fatigue within the EU bloc.


This three-part series looks at how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has affected the Western Balkans region. Part 1 provides an overview of each country’s geopolitical footing and response to the conflict. Part 2 delves deeper into Russia’s influence operations in the region. Part 3 addresses why the EU has failed to secure Western Balkan accessions into the bloc.


So first, where do the Western Balkan countries lie in their views on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and how are current events altering their geopolitical strategies?

 

Battle for Belgrade

Most Western Balkan countries are either current NATO members or are seeking to join the organisation, while all aspire to join the EU. The key exception to this is Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, who is staunchly against NATO membership as he has been attempting to reincarnate the infamous non-aligned foreign policy approach of Yugoslav strongman Josip Broz Tito. This approach has taken the form of Vučić’s “both Russia and EU” foreign policy which tries to preserve Serbia’s historical alliance with Russia without sacrificing the economic benefits of EU integration. For Serbia to become a member state it would effectively have to realign its foreign policy, including joining EU-led sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. The governing Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) has fiercely maintained that they will not impose sanctions on Russia because they are "governed by its [Serbia's] vital economic and political interests."

A building scarred by artillery fire in Bender, Transnistria
Blue: NATO+EU // Light Blue: NATO // White: Looking West // Light Red: Looking East // Red: Firmly East

The EU is Serbia’s largest trading partner, meaning it would be more in their interest to pursue greater integration with the bloc. However, Vučić is unlikely to align with the EU in openly condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine for three primary reasons. First, since the global financial crisis Moscow has accrued significant strategic control over key sectors of Serbia’s economy, particularly in the energy sector. Moscow provides the vast majority of Serbia’s gas through the January 2021 inaugurated Serbian section of the TurkStream gas pipeline. Moscow’s state-linked oil and gas producer Gazprom Neft also has a majority stake in Serbia’s leading oil and gas company, NIS. Thus, introducing sanctions on Russia would wreak havoc on Serbia’s own energy supplies.

"In Belgrade, Russia is ultimately seen as a globally influential, trustworthy protector of Serbia’s national interests"

Second, according to a 2021 survey by a Belgrade-based NGO, 83% of Serbian citizens consider Russia a great friend of Serbia. This view is bolstered by many factors, most notably the overwhelmingly Orthodox population of the country, Russia’s mobilisation to defend Serbians in World War I, and the cooperation against NATO in Yugoslavia in 1999. All of these events are deeply embedded in Serbia’s national historical memory and identity, and contribute to the electoral success of Serbia’s pro-Russian politicians. Finally, the Serbian government relies on Russia as their friend on the UN Security Council, particularly for the purposes of blocking Kosovo’s international recognition or membership of international organisations. In Belgrade, Russia is ultimately seen as a globally influential, trustworthy protector of Serbia’s national interests on the domestic and international stage, so going against Moscow is fundamentally against Serbia’s core interests and sense of identity.


This is not to suggest that Serbia is insulated from any spill-over effects from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however. Extreme right-wing groups in the country are on the rise, organising pro-Russia protests in Belgrade and circulating propaganda videos including one of Russian ultranationalist extremist Denis Gariyev urging the Serbian people to support “Russia’s renewal within its historical borders.” The growth of these groups gives Moscow leverage over the domestic political scene in Serbia, including the ability to incite public unrest and disrupt the normal functioning of the economy should the Serbian government move away from Russia and toward the EU.


Additionally, Vučić’s “both Russia and EU” tightrope has become increasingly unsustainable with pressure mounting within EU institutions for Serbia to be punished for failing to join sanctions against Russia. Vučić is now stuck between the core economic interests of his country and increasingly fervent domestic support for Russia which he has nurtured during his tenure. This leaves Vučić stuck in a trap entirely of his own making.

Increased western hostility will ultimately not bode well for Vučić’s government given it is encircled by NATO and EU member states, and requires EU political and financial assistance to remain afloat. The EU has provided this assistance in the past so long as the Serbian government guarantees regional stability. Now, there is a strong possibility the EU could freeze Serbia’s access to EU financial support, suspend the visa-free regime for Serbian citizens, halt Serbia’s EU accession talks or even entirely revoke its candidacy. These measures would have an enormously detrimental effect on the Serbian economy and deprive the government of the ability to cite economic growth as a source of legitimacy.

 

Bosnia: A New Front for Russian Aggression?

Serbia’s precarious domestic and geopolitical position is not the most dangerous development in the region, however. The Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite Presidency, Milorad Dodik, has become increasingly assertive and secessionist, which threatens to undo the fragile peace that has been in place for almost 30 years, inducing the biggest crisis in the country’s post-war history.

Credit: Balkan Insight

In October 2021, Dodik announced an initiative to re-establish the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) which was disbanded following the end of the Bosnian War in 1995 and was involved in what Jasmin Mujanovic describes as the “wholesale expulsion, imprisonment, torture and extermination of non-Serbs…[most famously known for the genocide in Srebrenica] but identitical pogroms also took place in Prijedor, Bijeljina, Foca, Visegrad, Zvornik and dozens of other municipalities across the country.” This announcement was nonetheless one among many seeking to assert the autonomy of Republika Srpska (RS) as part of a decade-long strategy to fracture Bosnia's state institutions. Dodik’s initiative came in response to the 23 July 2021 ruling to criminalise the denial of the Srebrenica genocide alongside other war crimes in the country, and to prohibit the glorification of war criminals. President Dodik has also threatened to prevent the October 2022 general elections from taking place in RS. If the US and EU mediation efforts fail to broker a political agreement between RS and central authorities in Sarajevo, Bosnia could credibly unravel as a unified state.


Dodik’s efforts to destabilise Bosnia have been matched by Russia which considers Dodik and the RS government among their closest allies in the Western Balkans. This alliance should be seen in the context of the Kremlin's wider geostrategic objectives with the EU and NATO, in which it promotes RS and Dodik in its mission to keep Bosnia teetering on the edge of political instability to prevent it developing a coherent foreign policy. Russia’s efforts are also helped by the leader of the nationalist Croatian Democratic Union, who ostensibly support Bosnia's accession to NATO and the EU while simultaneously pushing for electoral reforms that would further entrench ethno-political divides in the country; thereby stifling Bosnia's real-world likelihood of joining either NATO or the EU.

"The Kremlin's mission is to keep Bosnia teetering on the edge of political instability to prevent it developing a coherent foreign policy"

Perhaps more alarmingly, we saw a pretext emerge for possible intervention in Bosnia when Russian ambassador to Sarajevo, Igor Kalbukhov, stated on 17 March that Bosnia could face a “Ukraine-like scenario if it decides to join NATO.” Russia could conceivably recognise the sovereignty of RS and supply them with paramilitary units and arms, as they did in the 1990s, making Bosnia a potential future theatre for Russian induced conflict.

 

Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, and North Macedonia

Moldova commemorated those who fought and died in the war with Russian-backed separatist forces that seized control over the eastern region of Transnistria in 1992.

Looking elsewhere in the region, Montenegro is internally divided between the EU and Russia, with its pro-Russia bloc largely composed of ethnic Serbians who are traditionally sympathetic to their Orthodox Christian allies in Russia and Serbia. The bloc is pushing for fresh elections in Montenegro in the hopes of installing a new pro-Russian government, whose first move would be to pull the country out of NATO. Members of Russian ultra-nationalist groups are also instigating instability in the country by organising disruptive protests at Moscow’s behest and levelling bomb threats targeted at schools and infrastructure. While Montenegro managed to adopt some sanction measures against Russia on 09 April after significant political wrangling, this decision clearly comes out of exogenous circumstances, and not coherent internal planning.


Meanwhile the other Western Balkan countries of Kosovo, North Macedonia and Albania all supported EU-led sanctions on Russia from the onset of the invasion, as they are all entirely committed to the accession process. However, their negotiation statuses remain complex. North Macedonia’s accession is blocked by Bulgaria due to the two country’s complex history and ongoing disputes, and Albania’s candidacy has been tied to North Macedonia’s as the two sought to join together. Sofia’s veto has led Albania to seek EU accession on its own, a likely prospect given the EU’s concern about increasing Russian influence in the region, but many EU member states still remain wary considering Albania’s extensive corruption issues. Finally, Kosovo is still yet to be recognised as an independent state by other EU members (Spain, Slovakia, Greece, Cyprus and Romania), so they are a long way from EU accession.


Russia's invasion of Ukraine further complicates all of these states’ domestic security environments. North Macedonia is wholly dependent on Russian gas, Montenegro is internally divided and hugely dependent on Russian investment and tourism, Albania relies on Russia and Ukraine to import over half of its wheat, and Kosovo remains preoccupied with its ethnic tensions that are vulnerable to Kremlin influence. The consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have only just begun to bear fruit, and persistent economic stagnation combined with low living standards and poor food security are powerful tinder for the fire of civil unrest in the region.

 
The EU's Loosening Grip

Years of US neglect, EU appeasement of local autocrats at the expense of substantive reform, and the decline in support for EU enlargement have made room for Russia to establish a strong foothold in the Western Balkans region. The Kremlin carries out information and propaganda campaigns, sponsors anti-Western groups, and props up local ultra-nationalist, populist and autocratic leaders that raise ethnic and political tensions in the region, particularly in multi-ethnic, struggling states such as Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, and North Macedonia. With increased socio-economic pressures, continually stalled EU accession efforts, and an increasingly aggressive Moscow to the East, the key question now is how long Western European governments will wait to take the urgently needed preventative action required to address these critical security concerns in the Western Balkans.

 

For more context on the Western Balkans, The Red Line Episode 58 specifically examined Bosnia’s precarious position with guests James Ker-Lindsay, Majda Ruge, and Tim Marshall.

 

Written by Daniela Žuvela

Edited by Owen Swift