Russia and the Western Balkans

Ljubomir Frckoski / Photo: Free Press Archive

The EU is getting a competitor in the area of ​​economic aid and projects in the form of China (which accepts loans for completely non-profit projects just for the sake of entering the region and through it to Europe). Some of the countries had public finances completely dependent on financial obligations to Chinese creditors (and are they "on the way" to the European Union?). But on the second level, on the ideological value influence, there is an increased Russian pressure and presence.

We are entering a very critical period of geopolitical influences in the Western Balkans (Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia). It can be critically assessed from two positions: the situation with EU enlargement (the Euro-Atlantic late-liberal ideological influence) and at the same time the influence of Russia (sporadically economic of China, especially in the context of the Russian aggression on Ukraine) – eastern orthodox authoritarian value influence.
Those reference points give a clear picture of the state of the region and of the phantasms of the states that are yet to evolve into some kind of international entities under these influences.
Formally, the situation with the Euro-Atlantic integrations is as follows:
- Macedonia: in NATO, in the advanced position of EU-integration ("leader in the region" whatever that means, it is only kept "under blockade" by the internal pro-Russian conservative resistance to constitutional changes and the introduction of Bulgarians as a minority in the Preamble of the Constitution) ;
– Albania: in NATO, in the advanced position of EU-negotiation;
- Serbia: with ideological resistance to Euro-Atlantic integration, with a position of waiting for a geopolitical world change and greater influence of Russia and China, the collapse of the EU and America - NATO and "returning history", i.e. correcting all the injustices against Serbia since the wars of The 90s, Kosovo, Bosnia, etc. An extremely regressive nationalist position followed by authoritarian political leadership, but also economic progress and Chinese financial influence in the country;
– Montenegro: in NATO but in limbo with EU integration due to the negative political balance between pro-Serbian and Montenegrin pro-Western political influences in the country's institutions;
– Bosnia and Herzegovina: a non-functional state under permanent blockade by Republika Srpska and threat of secession, with a received call to start EU-negotiations and an uncertain outcome of the same;
– Kosovo: in constant effort for wider international recognition, but with recent tension towards American partners and constant renewal of incidents with Serbia, thus compromising the process of American-European mediation in the crisis of relations with Serbia.
The active crisis hotspots in the region are under some kind of "control" (Kosovo - Serbia, Republika Srpska - Bosnia) - namely, they are not able to spread the crisis more widely, but they remain open all the time.
Brussels' language regarding EU enlargement with the countries of the Western Balkans is significantly better (especially after Russia's aggression against Ukraine), but enthusiasm for that enlargement on the ground is declining (although it is still over 50 percent positive). That is the paradox of the EU in the region.
The process of EU-enlargement is conducted cumulatively on two levels: economic aid, conditional on political reforms and reforms for the rule of law - and in that scheme it is key to essential democratic changes of the countries it refers to, so not only economic aid and not just pressure for political change.
Countries react differently to that EU "conspiracy": some accept it as useful for them, some reject it, sharing it and maneuvering (if they can) with other partners. In that gap of policies of acceptance-rejection of the EU-policies, Chinese economic and especially ideological Russian interest and influence are drawn.
Today, at this critical moment we are talking about, the EU is getting a competitor in the area of ​​economic aid and projects in the form of China (which accepts loans for completely non-profit projects just for the sake of entering the region and through it to Europe). Some of the countries had public finances completely dependent on financial obligations to Chinese creditors (and are they "on the way" to the European Union?). But on the second level, on the ideological value influence, there is an increased Russian pressure and presence.
Historically, Russian influence in the Balkan region has a long tradition. But after the aggression of Ukraine and especially after Russia's estimated "successes", there - the focus and self-confidence of that influence becomes clearer and more aggressive.
If we assume Russia's "Plan A" for the region it would be: after the "annexation" of Belarus and Ukraine as large Slavic nations to "Mother Russia" (here by the term "annexation" we mean de facto subjugation, placing under the dominant influence of Russian interests), the region of the Western Balkans, or especially the Slavic states in it, should be made a buffer zone of neutrality (with hidden or open Russian influence, they call it the "Russian world". The Serbs (Vulin) copy it expression, saying "Serbian world" for their imagined territories from the wars of the 90s of the last century) towards the Western states and their defense and economic associations (NATO, EU). It is a kind of operational realization of the nationalist line of Ilya Ilyin - Dugin - Putin, in the current geopolitics of Russia in this part of the world, which is not complicated to understand, but is quite brutal in its implementation.
However, Russia is failing to realize that "plan A": The war in Ukraine is still with an uncertain end; Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro are members of NATO; the remaining ones (except Serbia, which, according to Putin's words from the Fox News interview - T. Carlston, together with Hungary, are his greatest successes in Europe) - are on some way to the EU.
In that situation, Russia seems to be developing a "Plan B":
Russian influence is usually associated with right-wing, nationalist parties, authoritarian and populist driven and inspired by anti-Muslim, Islamophobic concepts; xenophobic concepts, oriented towards refugees and migrants; anti-feminist, anti-LGBTQ+ concepts; conservatively familial supposed-values ​​and patriarchal hierarchies of male identity, formed on dominance or fantasy of dominance; support and stimulate the involvement of the Orthodox Church or its factions in politics on the basis of Pan-Slavism and Pan-Orthodoxy; offer international associations, under the title of anti-neocolonialism, as an alternative to the EU (BRICS, did the statement of the Russian ambassador to Montenegro go unnoticed that not only NATO, but also EU membership for Russia will be treated as a threat to their security and national interests?! What remains after this as a choice for the countries of the Western Balkans?).
Russian services do this by funding political parties; funding civil society NGOs that "fight against the imposition of 'Western values' on our healthy national body"; and the purchase for such purposes of business facilities and ownership of land and buildings.
But by far the most toxic is their propaganda orientation of using social media to create a general state of limbo of uncertainty, of instability about the future, of a post-truth social state where spreading fake news and lies is a regular information game and where the winner is the one that spreads more of those. The goal is to create an individual and collective state of emotional irritability and disbelief in anything, a provincial nihilism and the reign of conspiratorial conspiracy theories and the possibility of everything "being possible and equally impossible". In that sense and direction, Russian investments in the purchase, directly or through intermediaries, of televisions, portals, newspapers and hacking - is a dramatically serious threat to democracy in the young democracies of the Balkans (an interesting example of such operations I received from Bulgarian colleagues who showed me document - analysis where 72 percent of all negative articles against the normalization of Bulgarian-Macedonian relations today are written by a media house owned by a Russian oligarch!?).
By the way, these tendencies, which we feel particularly strongly and dramatically, are also a European problem with Russian political interference. The recent political tour through the European countries of European Commissioner V. Jurova was fully committed to that danger, saying that entire governments (meaning the Hungarian one) serve as a platform to spread the Russian narrative.
What are the critical moments that can be used by this toxic Russian influence on the countries of the Western Balkans and what can be expected from them in a summary form:
The first danger would be a slowing down of the pace of EU integration (due to blockages caused by pro-Russian elements in the countries or by internal European power balances); the second danger is the withdrawal of the USA from its multilateral presence in the Balkans due to a possible change in the foreign policy priorities of the new US president (if a change occurs); the third danger is atrophy and devolution in the very fragile democracies of these countries, most often with the closure of the country by populist, nationalist and authoritarian leaderships.
In conclusion, Terry Eagleton's notion of "dark hope" comes to mind, which would mean maintaining hope without becoming (unfounded) optimistic!


(The author is a university professor)


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