Russia Stirs the Hornet's Nest

Russia Stirs the Hornet's Nest
AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic
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Forecast

  • Russia will keep trying to exploit divisions in the western Balkans, traditionally a theater of competition for many world powers.
  • Russian influence will continue to spread in some of the Balkans' most turbulent areas, including Serbia, northern Kosovo, Montenegro and Macedonia.
  • By stoking tensions in the region, Moscow could engineer a series of crises too challenging for the West to contain. 

Analysis

The Balkan Peninsula has long stood at the edge of empires. The region, with its jumble of ethnicities, religions and political movements, has been a playing field for competing world powers throughout its history. Russia began to vie with the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires for influence over the area in the 19th century. During the Cold War, Yugoslavia became a battleground between the Soviet Union and the West, despite its officially nonaligned status following World War II. While the West tried to woo the country with economic aid, the Soviets played to its ruling Communist Party, and the two sides continued in deadlock through the 1980s. Once the country dissolved in 1991, however, the tides turned. The collapse of the Soviet Union left Moscow in no position to see Yugoslavia's constituent states through their transition to sovereignty, leaving that task to the European Union. The West has dominated the Balkan states' economic and security relationships ever since.

Russia still maintained its footholds in the Balkans, though. And today, as the European Union's divisions deepen and uncertainty prevails within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Moscow has turned its focus to the region once more. The Balkans' stability has been such a hot topic in Russian President Vladimir Putin's meetings with the Kremlin Security Council this year that the council's chief even said it was a top priority for Moscow. Incidents of Russia's meddling in the Balkans have been on the rise, meanwhile, raising questions about whether it will the next theater in Moscow's ongoing struggle against Western power and unity. After all, stoking tensions in Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia offers the Russian government a convenient means to increase its influence and further distract the West.

Rattling Sabers in Serbia

Since the end of the Cold War, Serbia, unlike many of its Western-leaning neighbors, has stayed in the middle of the Russia-West dynamic. The country has drawn on its cultural and religious bonds to Russia to keep a strong relationship with Moscow while also pursuing membership in the European Union. Over the past two years, however, Russia's influence in Serbia has grown noticeably. The number of Russian media outlets and nongovernmental organizations in the country has jumped from fewer than a dozen to more than 100 since 2015, according to the Belgrade-based Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies. The Kremlin's two main news networks, Sputnik and RT (formerly Russia Today), have both begun offering television programming, online news and radio broadcasts in Serbian. In addition, Russian state newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta prints Nedeljnik, a widely read weekly, in Moscow before delivering it to Serbia. The publications make frequent use of anti-Western rhetoric, for instance through references to NATO's 1999 bombing of Serbia and Moscow's support for Belgrade during that conflict. And the strategy seems to be working: A poll conducted in February by Serbian weekly Vreme indicated that some 68 percent of Serbs prefer relations with Russia to ties with the European Union.

At the same time, Russia and Serbia have flaunted their military connections in recent months. A Russian plane carrying 40 metric tons of food, clothing and medical supplies from Serbia set off for Syria in October 2016. The following month, the Russian and Belarusian militaries held drills in Serbia to coincide with NATO exercises just across the border in Montenegro. The government in Belgrade, moreover, will receive six Mikoyan Mig-29 fighter jets and dozens of tanks and combat vehicles in the next few weeks as a gift from Moscow, which has also offered to sell it the Buk anti-aircraft missile systems. (The equipment will be a welcome update to the Soviet technology that the Serbian military still relies on.)

Much of this saber rattling is political theater meant to appeal to Serbia's nationalist voters ahead of the April 2 presidential election. But beneath Belgrade's politicking runs an undercurrent of tension between the country and its neighboring states — particularly Kosovo, whose independence Serbia does not acknowledge. The two almost fell into conflict in January when Kosovo's government deployed special police forces to stop a train headed from Belgrade to the state's northern territory, home to mostly Kosovar Serbs, and emblazoned with the phrase "Kosovo is Serbia" in 21 languages. Responding to the incident, Kosovar President Hashim Thaci accused Serbia of attempting to use the "Crimean model" to take over the northern part of his country. Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, meanwhile, telephoned his Russian counterpart to ask for support, sparking fears that a new war was nigh.

How to Create a Crisis

Now that Kosovo is once again flirting with the idea of transforming its lightly armed security force into a bona fide army, relations between the two states are coming under further strain. The United States and its fellow NATO members have threatened to rescind their support and protection for Kosovo if it follows through with the plan. Even so, Thaci sent a draft law approving a regular army to the legislature during the week of March 20, citing Serbia's recent military deals with Russia and Belgrade's influence in northern Kosovo as grounds for the measure. The Kosovar government in Pristina is concerned that between the European Union's internal divisions and the new administration in Washington, the West won't have the time or attention to devote to keeping the nine-year-old sovereign state safe. And if tensions continue to mount between Kosovo and Serbia, Russia could use them to engineer a full-blown crisis down the line.  

In fact, Moscow is currently facing allegations that it tried to do just that in Montenegro. The country's government has accused Russian security forces of plotting to assassinate Milo Djukanovic, then the prime minister, just before parliamentary elections in October in an effort to thwart its bid for NATO membership. Russia's former deputy military attache to Poland, who was ejected from Warsaw in 2014 for espionage, organized the plan, according to Montenegro's chief special prosecutor. Adding to the intrigue, Djukanovic said Moscow poured money into the country's parliamentary campaigns in the runup to the elections. Serbia detained and deported a group of Russians accused of planning the coup in the weeks after the vote, and another 21 suspects were arrested in Montenegro. Moscow, for its part, has denied involvement in the plot and accused the country's government of falsifying events to cast it in a negative light. Regardless, a prospective new election in 2018 could give Russia another opportunity to sow seeds of discord in Montenegro's fragile government.

A Referendum on Russia's Influence? 

A vote in Bosnia-Herzegovina's Republika Srpska, likewise, could give Moscow a chance to increase its sway there. The republic's president, Milorad Dodik, has called for a referendum next year on the independence of Republika Srpska, which is home primarily to Orthodox Serbs. (The proposal recalls the independence vote that Crimea held just before Russia annexed it.) Dodik, who first suggested the referendum during his campaign for the presidency in 2014, has made no secret of his ties to the Kremlin. Two weeks before the presidential vote, he traveled to Moscow to meet with Putin, and on election day itself, he liaised with Russian ultranationalist and propagandist Konstantin Malofeev at a posh hotel after casting his ballot. Malofeev is an agent of Russian presidential aide Vladislav Surkov; together, the two have reportedly organized and funded referendums in Ukraine's restive Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk regions. What's more, he arrived at the election day meeting with a group of Russian Cossacks later seen walking the streets near polling sites.

Dodik managed only a slim victory in the vote, limiting the amount of clout Russia has in Bosnia-Herzegovina through him. Nevertheless, more and more Russian media has been creeping into the country over the Serbian border for the past two years to spread Moscow's word. Though voters in Republika Srpska are divided over the issue of secession, the Kremlin's media campaigns will likely ramp up as the possible referendum approaches, perhaps igniting one of the largest political powder kegs in the Balkans today.

Disseminating Disinformation

The mostly Slavic state of Macedonia is already in the thick of a Russian disinformation campaign. Russia's Foreign Ministry has accused the European Union and United States of supporting separatist movements among theinherently fragile country's Albanian minority, which makes up 25 percent of the population. Over the past few weeks, members of Macedonia's Albanian community have taken to the streets to demand their own government, a cause Moscow claims the West is supporting in the interest of creating a so-called Greater Albania. According to a Stratfor source, the German and Austrian embassies in the country are trying to counter Russia's propaganda, as is the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Even so, recent polls show that most Macedonians would sooner turn to Russia for help in the future than to the West because they doubt Western governments' commitment. (Indeed, Washington is reportedly planning to cut funding for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, creating a vacuum in the Macedonian media for Russia to fill.)

Although the instability in Macedonia pales in comparison with that in Kosovo or Republika Srpska, the situation there offers yet another example of Russia's activities in the Balkans. Of course, not all states in the region have accepted Moscow's advances: Croatia, a member of the European Union as well as NATO, has actively worked to keep Russian or pro-Russian media from spreading inside its borders, according to a Stratfor source. A fellow NATO member, Albania, has also attempted to resist Russia's influence as the Kremlin's media outlets have expanded their coverage to include Albanian-language services. Still, the campaigns are sure to continue. For Moscow, meddling in the Balkans is a low-cost and high-yield endeavor. The Russian government has no illusions that it will be able to win the Balkan countries over to its side. Instead, it views the region as a hornet's nest. By stirring it up, Moscow could create a series of crises too deep for the European Union or NATO to contain, thereby giving it another card to play in its negotiations with the West. 

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