In light of Russia’s recent political and military advances into Ukraine, Georgia’s Abkhazia, Moldova, as well as fears of further provocations in the Baltic States, attention has focused recently on Russia’s influence over the Western Balkans (Albania and the countries of former Yugoslavia). Marred by war and ethnic conflict in the past, the Western Balkans remain fragile and still a long way from developing into solid democracies that one day could qualify for accession to the European Union or (for those seeking it) membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Until now, Croatia and Slovenia have been the only countries that have joined the EU and (with Albania) NATO. This has left behind a number of small Western Balkan states that continue to grapple with corruption, organized crime, ethnic divisions and, in some cases, territorial disputes.
Russian influence over the Balkans has been growing, and this is particularly evident in Russia’s relations with its traditional southern Slavic ally, Serbia. Russia appears intent on reinstating its historical ties with Serbia’s government, which is on a path to join the EU. Russian investments in Serbia have been steadily growing, particularly in the energy sector, with Gazprom owning a large stake in the country’s natural gas suppliers and Lukoil owning almost 80 percent of oil retailer and trader Beopetrol since 2003 (The Voice of Russia, December 18, 2013). Serbia also became an enthusiastic participant in Russia’s South Stream gas pipeline (The Voice of Russia, July 9, 2014), before Russian President Vladimir Putin declared an end to the project on December 1 (TASS, December 1). Over the past year, both countries’ leaders signed a declaration on strategic partnership as well as a military cooperation agreement, which the Serbian President, Tomislav Nikolic, during his visit to Putin’s summer home in Sochi, called the beginning of a “new era” in cooperation between Belgrade and Moscow (B92, May 24, 2013).
Kosovo, remains a pivotal factor in both Serbia’s ties with the EU as well as Russia. The EU played a strong role in normalizing the Western Balkan region’s political climate regarding Kosovo. The EU’s then–foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, for instance, led a series of efforts to broker a deal between Pristina and Belgrade, managing to get the prime ministers of Serbia and Kosovo at the time—Ivica Dacic and Hashim Thaci, respectively—to shake hands and reaffirm their determination to join Europe. This initial gathering, in Brussels, in 2013, then led to an important agreement between the two states, including important points on the rights of the ethnic-Serbian population residing in northern Kosovo (Balkan Insight, April 19, 2013).
This year, however, even though Serbia’s leaders are firmly committed to joining the EU, their rhetoric over Kosovo has signaled Belgrade’s possible withdrawal from further talks with Pristina, while nationalism and swings toward Russia now dominate public discourse. This was particularly evident in the wake of a soccer match held in Belgrade, in October 2014, between Albania and Serbia, which turned into a violent confrontation between Albanian players and a large group of Serbian fans who started chanting “Kosovo is Serbia!” and “Kill all Albanians!” after an Albanian flag was flown over the stadium (Gazeta Dielli, October 16). That same week, Russia’s President Putin received a hero’s welcome in the Serbian capital, including a Soviet-style military parade in his honor and thousands of people welcoming “our President” (Ruptly TV, October 6). A month later, in the wake of the temporary release of alleged Serbian war criminal Vojislav Seselj from the United Nations war crimes tribunal, over 3,000 people gathered in Serbia’s capital carrying photos of Putin, declaring anti-EU slogans and calling for Serbia to “turn completely toward Russia” (YouTube, November 16).
In observing Russia’s advances in Ukraine today, or in Georgia in 2008, one cannot miss the Kremlin’s repeated references to the 1999 NATO campaign against Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo, which ultimately set the stage for Kosovo’s independence in 2008. While addressing the Duma, Putin has often used this argument to legitimize Russia’s annexation of Crimea and to justify Russian military presence in Ukraine (RT, March 18). Many see this comparison as Putin’s revenge for Russia having allegedly been pushed out of geopolitics when the NATO bombings were being determined by Western leaders in 1999. Now, in almost every public meeting held between Serbian and Russian leaders, the issue of Kosovo is one of the primary points on the agenda, with both sides proclaiming that Pristina’s “self-proclaimed independence” goes against international law (B92, May 24, 2013).
According to Serbia’s constitution, Kosovo is officially part of Serbia; and Serbia’s leaders insist that EU integration should not be based on Kosovo’s recognition by Belgrade. “Nobody is asking Serbia to recognize Kosovo,” stated Alexander Vucic, the current Serbian prime minister, during a press conference commenting on the 11 points that Germany delivered to Belgrade to “fulfill” and “to open chapters in the EU membership negotiations” (Gazeta Express, December 10). However, recent responses by Berlin suggest that the negotiating process will be increasingly difficult for Belgrade to balance as the EU pushes for Serbia’s constitution to be aligned with the Brussels agreement, including regarding the issue of Kosovo being an integral part of Serbia (B92, December 11).
To this day, for many Serbian nationalists, “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia” and some have looked to Russia “to liberate Kosovo” (RT, May 10, 2013). Serbia’s longstanding bond with Russia is based on their common Slavic origin, Orthodox Christian faith and the use of Cyrillic script, among other historical ties that unite both nations. Although these ties are not new to European diplomacy, it is important to point out that, amidst geopolitical uncertainties, these renewed ties stand out and add further burdens to Serbia’s ambitions to join Europe versus balancing relations with Moscow. In recent years, Serbia has conceded to EU requirements to deliver former alleged war criminals to the Hague tribunals and to normalize its relations with Kosovo. But in delivering on these requirements, many in Serbia have increasingly felt victimized—seeing Serbia’s traditional geopolitical role in the Balkans being eroded in the same way that Russia has felt pushed out as a world power in light of its perceived domination by the West.