Europe politics: Russia’s role in the western Balkans

Content Type
Country Data and Maps
Economist Intelligence Unit
No abstract is available.
International Relations, Politics, News Analysis, Forecast
Political Geography
Russia, Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • There is increasing alarm among observers in the EU about Russian meddling in the affairs of western Balkan states and about Russia's growing influence in the region.
  • Tensions between Russia and the West have been stoked by a series of controversial incidents in recent years, including an alleged failed coup in Montenegro, military ties and the role of Russian news outlets.
  • The Balkans is a contested region, a periphery between east and west, in which Russia will continue to be a presence. However, it cannot compete with the West in terms of economic, military and cultural influence.
  • The furore about Russia's role in the region is much ado about little.

Tensions between Russia and the West have been stoked by allegations of Russian involvement in a failed coup attempt on the day of the Montenegrin parliamentary election in October 2016, aimed at kidnapping and/or assassinating the then Montenegrin prime minister, Milo Djukanovic. There is incessant media coverage of Russian use of "fake news" and Russian propaganda efforts in the region. There is also concern in the EU about Russian military involvement in the region, although this pales in significance when compared with NATO's role in the area. For example, although the Serbian government has received just six Mikoyan MiG-29 fighter jets, and dozens of tanks and combat vehicles from Russia as a gift, Croatia, Albania and Montenegro are NATO members and the EU maintains a military force, EUFOR Althea, in Bosnia and Hercegovina (BiH).

At a summit in March 2017 EU leaders said that "external challenges", meaning Russia, had contributed to the "fragile situation" in the western Balkans. The UK prime minister, Theresa May, has warned of "destabilising Russian disinformation campaigns" in the region. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Federica Mogherini, have also sounded warnings about Russia's alleged mischief-making in the region. Furthermore, visiting the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, in August 2017 the US vice-president, Mike Pence, stated: "As you well know, Russia continues to seek to redraw international borders by force. And here, in the western Balkans, Russia has worked to destabilise the region, undermine your democracies, and divide you from each other and from the rest of Europe."

A contested periphery

The Balkans is a contested region, a periphery between east and west, in which Russia will continue to be a presence. Russian policy in the region is part of its generally more assertive foreign policy of recent years. It is opportunistically taking advantage of the vacuum left by the EU's relative disengagement from the western Balkans in recent years, as have Turkey and China. There is a ritualistic repetition of the Thessaloniki commitment of 2003 by the EU, whereby it promised that the future of the western Balkans was in the bloc. However, this has been on the back burner ever since.

Russia's alleged role in the region is much ado about little. First, the EU dominates the external trade of the region. Some three-quarters of the region's total trade is with the bloc. Furthermore, the vast majority of foreign direct investment (FDI) and aid to the region is also from the EU.

With its soft power policy in the Balkans, Russia's influence is limited. With the exception of Bulgaria, the Russian language is not widely read or spoken in the region. Even in Bulgaria, although polls show that a majority see Russia in a positive light, two-thirds want to stay in the EU and NATO.

The main tools of Russia's information policy are RT, a television network, and Sputnik, an internet portal. The scale and impact of Russia's propaganda campaign in the region are exaggerated. Russia's efforts are small compared with Western-owned local media and the role of the US's Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Russia also does not have to try hard to achieve its goals. For example, it can easily leverage anti-NATO sentiment in Serbia, as well as historical ties. There is also the leverage that it gains by opposing Kosovo's independence. Meanwhile the Serbian president, Aleksandar Vucic, pursues a Titoist balancing act of playing off both sides. Russia's main aim is to keep Serbia and BiH out of NATO, although the Serbs do not want to join NATO for their own reasons.

Russian setbacks

Russia has suffered serious setbacks in the region, including Montenegro's accession to NATO and the formation of a new pro-Western government in Macedonia after two years of crisis, despite Russian backing for the former leader, Nikola Gruevski.

Even in Serbia, opinion polls indicate that even those who admire Russia would rather go to the West for employment, education or tourism. Although two-thirds of Serbs support an alliance with Russia and 57% even favour Russian military bases in Serbia, more than two-thirds prefer to pursue education and find work in the West. Knowledge of Russian society, domestic politics and culture, as well as the Russian language, is scant. It is hard to find a mainstream politician in the Balkans who would choose Russia over the EU.

Perhaps the only place in the Balkans where Russia plays a strong role is Republika Srpska (RS), the majority Bosnian Serb entity in BiH. The Russian government has a strong relationship with Milorad Dodik, the RS president, who has been a frequent visitor to Moscow, the Russian capital. Interestingly, there is also an emerging link between the Russian government and Dragan Covic, the Croat member of the country's three-person presidency and the head of the Croatian Democratic Union of BiH (HDZ BiH), an offshoot of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), the current governing party in Croatia. However, even in the case of Mr Dodik and the RS, the main influence is Serbia rather than Russia.

Concern about Russia's role in the Balkans, use of fake news and alleged meddling in internal political processes all appear exaggerated. Although Russia may be punching above its weight in terms of influence in the region, it cannot compete with the West in terms of economic, military and cultural power. Furthermore, the Balkans is certainly not part of the "sphere of privileged interests" that Russia claims in the former Soviet Union.

Data provided by: