Does Russia Want a Toehold in the Balkans?

By Matthew Czekaj
Just days after Serbia received a recommendation for EU Candidate status, and less than a month since Belgrade announcedits upcoming involvement in the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) missions in Africa, Belgrade’s security priorities swung back in Moscow’s direction. On October 17, Russia and Serbia jointly declaredthe opening of a Russian base in Niš, Southern Serbia, just 100 km from the border with Kosovo. Both Belgrade and Moscow officials denied that the Russian base had a military character, calling the installation a “humanitarian” center. The center would be used to respond to catastrophes, natural disasters and crises in the Balkans and throughout Europe.
To underscore the benign nature of the base, Russia flew in 35 tons of humanitarian supplies by plane belonging to the Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations (EurActiv, October 18). The emergency response equipment included tents, blankets and power generators. Yet, some analysts were skeptical of Russia’s real intended use for the facility in Serbia. For instance, suggestions arose that Russia planned to use the base to spy on the US military facility being set up in Romania, which will be part of NATO’s missile defense shield. Moscow vociferously deniedsuch allegations. During the opening ceremony for the Niš center, Russia’s minister for emergency situations, Sergey Shoigu, invited all countries mistrustful of Moscow’s intentions in Serbia to join the humanitarian center’s de-mining teams, which will be tasked with removing unexploded cluster ordinances dropped on the Niš area by NATO in 1999. At the same time, Serbian Interior Minister Ivica Dacic rebuked all questions critical of the Russian base by declaring Serbia’s sovereign right to host foreign military installations on its territory even though the Niš center will only be for humanitarian purposes. “Shoigu and I are not doing anything secret,” Minister Dacic said defensively. “This humanitarian center is a part of the European mechanism to deal with emergency situations.”
It is the timing of the Niš base’s announcement, however, which is most curious. News of plansto build such a facility was first revealed in October of 2009 during Russian President Dmitri Medvedev’s state visit to Belgrade. Yet, since then, neither the Russian nor Serbian side made any further moves until this past October – within days of the European Union’s recommendation to give candidate status to Serbia. The EU declaration sounded bittersweet in Belgrade, however, since it failed to name a date to begin accession talks and linked further progress to a Serbian-Kosovar political rapprochement. Achieving any true solution to the Serbia-Kosovo conflict will be difficult, especially considering the turmoiland violencethat has gripped Kosovo’s ethnic Serb-majority northern border areas since summer. Moscow’s unwavering political support of Belgrade over the status of Kosovo underscores the Niš base as a sour jab at Europe over its unsatisfying candidacy declaration for Serbia (EurActiv, October 18).
At the same time, Serbia has also clearly acquiesced to the presence of the Russian base on its territory out of economic considerations. During the Niš center announcement ceremony, Serbian Interior Minister Dacic solicited Russian help to restore Serbia’s post-war economy, still recovering after 1999 – a none-too-subtle dig at NATO. Despite these political overtones, in the midst of an EU financial crisis with no end in sight, Serbia’s overture for Russian investment actually reflects Western advice. None other than the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) suggested recently that Serbia – as well as other emerging European economies – should look eastwardfor closer trade and economic ties to prevent being dragged down by financial troubles in the EU.
Nevertheless, Russia’s true intentions for its Niš emergency and crisis response center – located on the doorstep of ethnically-unstable Kosovo – encourage open speculation. As Jamestown Senior Fellow Vladimir Socor wrote in Eurasia Daily Monitor in 2009, “It seems hard to imagine a European country agreeing to host Russian militarized fire-fighting, flood-response, or chemical-protection units on its national territory in anticipation of some catastrophes. Serbia’s bizarre agreement with Russia is the first of its kind.” Socor further noted the importance Moscow placed on politically supporting Belgrade’s stance on Kosovo, concluding,
Moscow’s tactics are designed to prolong an ambiguous situation in Kosovo, set Belgrade at odds with the US and EU on that issue […], and encourage Serbian past-oriented nationalism as a means for Russia – alongside its economic means – to compete against the West in the Balkans (Eurasia Daily Monitor, October 27, 2009).
Meanwhile, Russian military thinking has recently focused again on the pre-emptive use of force. The October 23 issue of the Russian military journal, Voyennaya Mysl (Military Thought), openly explores legal justifications for military pre-emption in an article titled, “On the Question of the Right of States to Preemptive Use of Military Force,” written by Colonel of Justice (Reserve) Viktor Kirilenko and Captain 2nd Rank (Reserve) Stanislav Korostelev, both military academy educators (Voyennaya Mysl, October 23). Moreover, according to an RFE/RL article from November 17, some ethnic-Serbs living in northern Kosovo have openly requested Russian passports from Moscow. Notably, the “Medvedev Doctrine,” articulated after Russia’s August 2008 invasion of Georgia, includes Moscow’s “responsibility” to protect Russian passport holder abroad. Thus, it suddenly becomes easy to imagine a future spark on the Serb-Kosovo border leading to a Georgia-like scenario in the heart of the Southeastern Europe with Russia’s military involvement.
Of course, Russia has no tanks, regular brigades, bombers or attack helicopters currently stationed in Niš. Nonetheless, to ensure the above-mentioned scenario of a fresh frozen conflict in Europe does not come to pass, the West will need to actively prevent any future unilateral militarization of Russia’s new toehold in the Balkans. Serbia has every sovereign right to host Russian emergency response teams on its territory, so open Western protests would be futile. Instead, the West should do all in its power to “Europeanize” the Niš center and truly weave its capabilities into a lower-level European security fabric.
In particular, European countries should call Moscow’s bluff and request to station their own natural disaster and catastrophic accident response teams at Niš, actively and regularly train with their Russian counterparts there, and even propose the opening of a similar center in Russia. Western presence at Niš would allow European countries to keep a closer eye on the facility and prevent Russia from gradually upgrading the base’s military capabilities. Multilateral authority over the Niš center would also be preferable to sole Russian military control. Therefore, the West should insist on moving the operational control of the Russian emergency response center to the OSCE or the NATO-Russia Council – or even inside an EU CSDP framework. Finally, Brussels, Washington and the North Atlantic Alliance have to significantly step up their diplomatic efforts at resolving the inter-ethnic conflict in northern Kosovo, and work toward a workable and lasting rapprochement between Belgrade and Pristina. Removing this source of instability in the Balkans would diminish the possibility of the Niš center becoming a Russian base for regional military operations.

As last year’s catastrophic floodingin Macedonia and the destructive “red sludge” chemical accident in Hungary has shown, there is indeed a real need for a quick emergency response and disaster relief capability in Europe, which until now has not been filled at a European-wide level. The Niš center could certainly fill such a niche, but only on fully European terms, not purely on Russia’s. If Moscow agrees, then Western involvement will keep Russian intentions in Niš honest; if not, then at least Europe will not be able to say that it was blindsided by a Russian toehold in the Balkans.