Russia has a long history of destabilization, forcible regime changes, and strong arm influence techniques beyond their sphere of control, reaching into their sphere of influence.
Large, burly men sat in the front rows of the parliament building in Banja Luka last December, their bulging muscles revealing elaborate tattoos under their black T-shirts and hoodies. These were the “little green men” of the Balkans — only they were not little and wore black outfits instead of green camouflage uniforms. They certainly looked intimidating, sitting in the parliament of the Republika Srpska entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Members of a group called “Serbian Honor” (Српска ЧАСТ), they claim to be involved in “humanitarian” work in Republika Srpska and neighboring Serbia.
But according to other reports, they are Russian-trained mercenaries who “are helping to establish a paramilitary unit serving the Serb separatist leader in Bosnia,” Milorad Dodik. In the aftermath of the Kremlin’s attempted coup in Montenegro in October 2016, which was organized by Russian military intelligence operatives using local mercenaries, signs of another Russian intervention in the Western Balkans should be raising alarm bells in the United States and the European Union.
With nationalist-populist forces threatening to reverse decades of European integration across the continent — from Brexit in the United Kingdom to Catalan separatism in Spain to Lombard regionalism in Italy — European and American policymakers can no longer take for granted the security and stability of the Balkans, or Europe for that matter. The Balkans are too often ignored in the West on the naïve assumption that the region has permanently transitioned from a net “consumer” of security assistance to a net “provider.” However, history is not linear, and the region’s security troubles are not permanently behind it. The ghosts of the past — ethno-nationalism, admiration for strongmen, a belief in illiberal democracy — are appearing with greater frequency across Europe, and the Balkans are no exception.
On top of this, Russia is waging a systematic assault on Western democracies. The Kremlin aims to subvert Western democracies internally, spread anti-NATO and anti-European Union sentiment, and undermine the rules-based international order, which since World War II has sought to protect smaller states from the predations of larger powers. The Western Balkans have emerged as a new front in this covert war.
Western officials are only beginning to wake up to this reality. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, head of United States European Command and the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO forces in Europe, told a U.S. congressional committee recently that “Russia is at work in the Balkans and we have kind of taken our eye off the area.” Latent ethnic tensions, weak institutions, endemic corruption, widespread foreign meddling (and not just Russian — Turkey and China are active in the region too), and diminishing confidence in the prospects of Euro-Atlantic integration have left the region highly vulnerable to xenophobic nationalism and populist demagoguery.
Not all is gloom and doom, however. New diplomatic opportunities have also emerged in the Balkans that could lead to the resolution of longstanding interstate disputes, promote regional integration, attract Western investment, and incentivize political and economic reforms. Under the right circumstances, the region could resume its forward march towards European integration; under the wrong ones, conflict could reappear in the heart of Europe. The region’s future — and Europe’s — depend to a great degree on how active Western leaders are in promoting solutions to its key challenges and in pushing back on Russia’s malign influence.
Less Transatlantic Engagement, More Russian Influence
Not so long ago, the European Union and United States worked in tandem to guarantee a Euro-Atlantic future for the Balkans. In 2001, interethnic violence in Macedonia might have turned into a full-scale war were it not for close E.U.-U.S. cooperation to broker a settlement. Previous wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and produced millions of refugees. However, thanks to the Ohrid Framework Agreement, a triumph of U.S.-E.U. collaboration and diplomacy in the Western Balkans, the fighting in Macedonia was stopped after less than seven months.
The Ohrid Agreement reflected a unique moment in the history of the post-Cold War Western Balkans, when U.S. and E.U. cooperation, engagement, and leverage were at their peak, working to push the states of southeast Europe toward NATO and E.U. integration. In the past 17 years, a lot has changed: The United States became distracted by its war on terror and its entanglements in Afghanistan and Iraq, “enlargement fatigue” set in among Europeans, and a global recession shook the world, hitting the Balkans especially hard among European countries. While Slovenia and Croatia managed to enter both NATO and the European Union, and Albania and Montenegro joined NATO, the remaining Yugoslav successor states — Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo — languish in various states of Euro-Atlantic limbo.
Throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, Russian influence in the Balkans was relatively weak. Moscow may have backed Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević in the 1990s, but when push came to shove it was unwilling to go to bat for the embattled dictator, who was ousted in popular protests in 2000 and eventually tried in an international criminal court. Russia opposed the 1999 NATO air war over Serbia and Kosovo, but after initially trying to contest the U.S. military presence in Kosovo during the famed standoff at the Pristina airport, the Russians eventually backed down. In 2003, Russia pulled its “blue helmet” peacekeepers from Bosnia and Kosovo, removing a potential source of leverage. Afterward, Moscow seemed content to limit its Balkan engagement to energy diplomacy, such as pushing for the ill-fated South Stream pipeline.
What a difference a decade makes. By 2015, an assertive Russia, led by an increasingly emboldened Vladimir Putin, feeding off resurgent Balkan nationalism, local victimhood narratives, frustration with stalled E.U. enlargement, and historical ties to Orthodox Slavs in the region, was actively undermining democracy in the region. Moscow’s well-honed propaganda and disinformation campaigns have become a staple in Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, and the Serbian regions of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Drawing from a playbook it has tested in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and the Baltic states, and bolstered by its successes backing Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Moscow has sought to sow mistrust of Western motives and internal divisions among Balkan publics.
Most of the Kremlin’s influence operations in the Western Balkans feed off local corruption, one of the primary conduits through which Russia maintains relationships with friendly elites. Through bribery and shady business deals, Moscow can buy the political acquiescence of Balkan politicians and pursue its economic interests at the same time.
Three Key Challenges
The Western Balkans face three key challenges that demand much greater U.S. and E.U. diplomatic focus and resources: growing secessionist agitation in Bosnia and Herzegovina; the dispute between Greece and Macedonia; and the dispute between Serbia and Kosovo.
In Republika Srpska, the Serb-dominated entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina that emerged from the Dayton Accords, separatist rhetoric threatens to undermine a tenuous stability. Dodik, Republika Srpska’s president, is a leading proponent of such rhetoric and has been emboldened by overt Russian backing. Moscow’s envoy to Bosnia Pyotr Ivantsov, for example, voiced his support for Dodik’s controversial 2016 referendum to establish a new holiday celebrating Republika Srpska’s “statehood,” which many consider a dry run for a referendum on independence. The plebiscite was widely condemned by the international community (the United States even slapped sanctions on Dodik) and deemed illegal by Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Constitutional Court.
Putin has met Dodik no fewer than seven times. In addition to Russia’s alleged training for mercenaries who would serve as a praetorian guard for Republika Srpska’s authorities, Russia has been training and equipping the entity’s regular security forces. Russia has also reportedly funded other groups operating as “NGOs” to advance the separatist agenda. At the end of March, a motorcycle gang known as the “Night Wolves” (or “Putin’s Angels”) embarked on a nine-day tour of the Balkans, with a prominent stop in Banja Luka. Meanwhile, Russian propaganda outlets such as Sputnik agitate for Bosnian Serb separatism and play up the ties that bind Banja Luka and Moscow. Most recently, Russia’s proxy leader in the separatist Georgian region of South Ossetia, Anatoly Bibilov, visited Banja Luka, calling South Ossetia and the Republika Srpska “twins” united by their shared relationship with Russia. Finally, Russian Twitter bots and trolls promoting a separatist and pro-Russian narrative regularly target the public.
In Macedonia, the prospects for Euro-Atlantic integration have looked much better since the formation of a coalition following 2016 parliamentary elections in which the pro-Western Social Democrats (SDSM) eked out a small majority. Greece and Macedonia are talking seriously about the dispute over the latter’s name, which has helped block the small Balkan country’s bids for NATO and E.U. membership since the breakup of Yugoslavia. But the Russian-backed nationalists are ever-present: Last March they broke into the Macedonian parliament, protesting the new government’s extension of additional language rights for the large Albanian minority, and beat up the newly appointed Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev. Leaked files from Macedonian counter-intelligence suggest that Russia has passed cash to Macedonian media outlets to spread disinformation, helped to create Russia-Macedonia “friendship associations” touting a pan-Slavic identity and shared Orthodox faith, and bullied Macedonian officials to back Moscow to enable Russia to “create a strip of militarily neutral countries” in the Balkans. Upon the formation of the SDSM-led government, Moscow accused the West of interference and seeking to construct a “Greater Albania.” Such incitement has the potential to reignite destabilizing conflict between ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians. It is solidly in Moscow’s playbook to sow ethnic discord to keep society and politics in a permanent state of instability, thereby assuring pro-European Union and pro-NATO aspirations are never realized.
Serbia is in many ways the strategic lynchpin of the Western Balkans. The current ruling tandem of Prime Minister Ana Brnabić and President Aleksander Vučić has declared E.U. membership the country’s chief strategic goal. In response, the Kremlin has launched a well-funded influence operation to try to keep Serbia within its sphere of privileged interests by seeking to undermine the narrative that the European Union is good for Serbia’s interests. This has forced Vučić to play a high-wire act, carefully balancing the pursuit of E.U. membership with high-profile trips to Moscow. While a majority of Serbs now favors E.U. membership, many still see NATO as an adversary due to memories of the 1999 bombing campaign, creating fertile ground for Moscow’s influence operations to play up historical animosities. Cultivating a narrative of the NATO bogeyman also serves Moscow’s purpose of keeping the Serbian armed forces dependent on Russia. Moscow helps ensure this dependence by “gifting” Serbia Russian military equipment like MiG fighter jets, which are touted as donations but come with expensive maintenance and sustainment packages. Finally, Russian investments in the energy sector help perpetuate the dependency since 80 percent of Serbia’s gas comes from Russia.
A sustained dispute between Serbia and Kosovo suits the Kremlin’s purpose of keeping Serbia from entering the European Union. The Russian ambassador to Serbia, Alexander Chepurin, never hesitates to criticize Kosovo and portray Russia as the sole guardian of Serbian national interests, messaging that is amplified by local Russian media outlets such as Sputnik, which launched a Serbian-language service in 2014. Moscow has also conveniently established a dual-use “humanitarian center” in the Serbian city of Niš, outfitted with firefighting equipment and other civilian supplies but also capable of supporting military equipment, and constantly presses for diplomatic immunities for its staff. Though many suspect these immunities are intended so that Moscow can use the center as a front for espionage activities in the region, for now the Kremlin uses it as a convenient wedge issue to demand greater “loyalty” from the Serbian government.
If there was a single event that could positively transform the entire Western Balkans in the next decade it would be a resolution of the dispute between Serbia and Kosovo, which would allow both countries to join the European Union. Such a transformational development would remove a major source of friction in Serbian-Albanian relations, bring Serbia and Croatia under the same tent, and help foster closer Macedonian-Albanian relations, in addition to incentivizing faster, deeper E.U. reforms across the region, including in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The E.U.-sponsored dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina that has been taking place since 2011 has already achieved a lot: agreements on justice, freedom of movement, and Serbian minority rights in Kosovo. But a resolution of the underlying bilateral dispute over Kosovo’s independent status still appears a long way off. It is possible that the incremental building of trust will get the two sides over that hump, but it seems much more likely that greater political incentives are required. Spoilers on both sides are eager to scuttle the dialogue. The assassination of the reconciliation-minded politician Oliver Ivanović in North Mitrovica is a tragic reminder that the forces promoting ethnic separatism lurk just beneath the surface.
So how do we get from today’s uneasy modus vivendi towards a lasting agreement that fosters reconciliation? Ultimately, Serbia and Kosovo must draw up their own sets of political conditions to secure lasting public support, and the United States and European Union should then back whatever solution the two sides can agree to and sell to their publics. In the meantime, the West needs to put more on the table. For example, the European Union should be prepared to establish a Reconciliation Fund capitalized at a few billion euros per annum to build economic opportunities and incentivize a solution on both sides, including, crucially, in Kosovo’s ethnic Serb communities and within Serbia’s ethnic Albanian communities. These are key constituencies that need to be convinced to support a normalization agreement; they are also economically marginalized groups who could act as spoilers if their interests are ignored. Such a fund would help support reconciliation-minded NGOs (as a similar fund does in Northern Ireland), but would also — and perhaps more crucially — support small and medium-sized businesses to create new economic opportunities.
Continued Western engagement on the Macedonia name issue, on which Greek and Macedonian officials have made significant headway in the last six months, is another critical area. A final resolution would take the wind out of nationalist sails in both Skopje and Athens, and remove a major stumbling block in Macedonia’s bids for both NATO and E.U. membership. It would also reduce Russian influence campaigns over nationalist forces. The United States and European Union should work in tandem to bring any points of leverage they have over Greece and Macedonia to ensure this deal is struck in 2018, particularly as Greece aligns its foreign policy more closely with the West in reaction to the rapprochement between Turkey, its rival, and Russia.
Western leaders should also look to greater military engagement to spur lasting reforms. Such engagement does much more than prepare a country for membership in NATO; it can also spur procurement reforms, a meritocratic system of promotions, civilian control of the military, and regional cooperation. For example, the West should support the pooling of resources to maintain and support helicopter fleets, which are often used for non-military activities such as firefighting and responding to natural disasters. Maintaining separate maintenance agreements and pilot training schools within each of the Balkan countries is impractical. Under NATO auspices, resources could be pooled among allies and aspirants to create economies of scale and reinforce habits of cooperation, in addition to weaning the countries off Russian-made military equipment. Western militaries should also engage Serbia, which does not seek membership in NATO, to overcome negative stereotypes and build trust. U.S. support for the Serbian peacekeeping training center in Niš, for example, allows soldiers from both countries to develop sustained professional contacts, building goodwill and relationships that can last a lifetime.
Western efforts to promote energy security in the Western Balkans are another tool for spurring cross-border ties, reducing dependence on Russia, and bringing jobs to the region. The two most strategically important regional energy projects are the construction of a floating liquefied natural gas terminal on the Croatian island of Krk and the completion of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline. The Krk facility, which the European Union has expressed an interest in financing, would connect to pipelines to Slovenia and Hungary in the north, and potentially to Bosnia and Serbia further south. The Trans-Adriatic Pipeline project, which would be part of the southern gas corridor from the Caspian Sea to Western Europe, would bring an alternative supply of energy to Italy via Albania, from which point it could also be piped northwards to other Western Balkan countries. Lastly, interconnector pipelines between Greece and Bulgaria as well as between Bulgaria and Serbia would reduce dependence on Russian gas and give states in the region more options to avoid Russian coercive pressure.
Serious steps toward revising the self-serving and much-loathed Dayton-based political institutions in Bosnia are also needed. The Dayton arrangement includes a tripartite presidency and full cabinets and parliaments at the state level and in the two entities (Republika Srpska and the Federation). The Federation, in turn, is divided into 10 cantons, each with its own government. The political elite that fills these positions not only makes six times the average wage, but also contributes to corruption and eats away at the state’s meager resources. The European Union needs to put membership on the table to gain leverage over Bosnia and push through a new constitution, mustering the will and pressure to overcome the resistance that led to previous failure on constitutional reform. Together, the United States and European Union could help bring together Bosnians around writing a new constitution, which would undoubtedly benefit from broad public support.
A credible promise of E.U. membership, one of the most important potential drivers of domestic reform, has also been missing in recent years. The European Commission’s recently released “Strategy for the Western Balkans” signals a growing awareness in Brussels of the region’s strategic significance and the importance of mapping out a road to full E.U. membership, While the strategy promises full membership for Serbia and Montenegro by 2025, the prospects for Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo remain uncertain. The strategy’s ability to deliver results will depend in large measure on how well synchronized its efforts are with the United States.
Finally, the European Union and United States need to expose and consistently push back against Russian meddling in the Balkans. The United States and Europe could join forces to more aggressively combat disinformation by exposing Russia’s dubious sources, methods, and objectives in the region. The State Department’s new Global Engagement Center is ideally suited for this purpose. Exposing Russia’s modus operandi may at times require publicly shaming politicians and groups that benefit from Russian support and exposing Russian corruption. The European Union should help aspiring members with cybersecurity and get serious about promoting the Western Balkans’ energy security. Ultimately, Russia has little economic pull in the region; the Eurasian Economic Union, for example, has scant appeal. Indeed, Russia’s influence is based primarily on its destructive power: the ability to exploit corruption, energy dependence, and disinformation.
The time to focus on the Western Balkans is now, while the European Union and United States still have the combined resources to incentivize reforms and strengthen rule of law. On the Macedonia name issue and the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue, deft diplomacy and the right incentives can steer these seemingly intractable problems towards lasting resolutions. Containment of separatist threats in Republika Srpska and ultimately reform of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s governing institutions can stem and even reverse a slow slide towards ethnic fragmentation.
As we learned from the Balkan wars of the 1990s and from Russia’s more recent wars against Georgia and Ukraine, it is better for the West to deal with looming issues before they devolve into dangerous security dilemmas and conflicts. Finally, it is important to remember that the overwhelming majority of Western Balkan citizens want to be part of the West. The European Union and United States can harness those aspirations with a credible Euro-Atlantic perspective for the countries of the region, keeping alive the postwar dream of a Europe whole, free, and at peace.
Michael Carpenter is Senior Director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. He served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Eurasia, and the Balkans from 2015-2017. He was previously a foreign policy advisor to Vice President Joe Biden.
Mieczysław P. Boduszyński is Assistant Professor of Politics and International Relations at Pomona College in California. He was previously a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State, with service in Albania, Kosovo, Japan, Egypt, Iraq and Libya. He has published a book on democratization in the Balkans.