While international attention focuses on the United States presidential election, the war in Syria or Brexit, Moscow continues to stir the pot in the Balkans. Illustratively, as Montenegrins prepared to vote in parliamentary elections on October 16, Prime Minister Milo Đukanović warned that Moscow was financially backing pro-Russian opposition parties pushing for a reversal of the country’s European integration course. The opposition Democratic Front, which opposes Montenegro’s impending entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), has denied these allegations (Balkan Insight, Macedonian Information Agency, October 16). In the end, the ruling, pro-Western Democratic Socialists won a solid plurality of the vote, but will likely need to seek a coalition partner to form a new government. As has long been clear, Russia is doing anything it can to reverse Balkan integration with the European Union and NATO. Linked to this, Moscow is acting to undermine the democratization and stabilization of the Balkan region in order to reassert Russian influence there as well as prevent the “finalité” of a Balkan and European settlement.
Even under the tsars, Russia routinely referred to notions of Orthodox or Slavic unity when it came to its dealings with the Balkans, and it is certainly playing that card again today (Balkanist, May 29, 2015; Balkan Insight, March 10, 2016). But in reality Moscow’s attitude is cynical and patronizing, and strongly reflects an attitude of great power chauvinism. Perhaps the most revealing manifestation of this cynicism and condescension was a statement this past September by Pyotr Tolstoy, who ran on the ruling United Russia ticket for a Duma seat. Tolstoy told a Bulgarian national television channel that while he would naturally espouse a “benevolent” policy toward Bulgaria if elected, “We will just buy out the entire Bulgaria. Half of its coastline we have already purchased” (Novinite.com, September 19). But Tolstoy is not the only actor who feels he can simply display Russian arrogance toward Balkan states with impunity. Russia’s ambassador to Serbia, Aleksandr Chepurin, who has a long record of intervening forcefully in Serbian domestic politics, told the local newspaper Vecernije Novosti that if Belgrade imposed anti-Russian sanctions under EU pressure, that “would be disastrous for Serbia” (B92.net, September 17).
Indeed, Serbia and the Bosnian-Serb population of Bosnia-Herzegovina are key targets of Russian machinations. In a recent example, Igor Kim, the owner of Russia’s Expobank, who is reputedly close to President Vladimir Putin, is following in a long line of other Russian businessmen seeking ports of entry into Serbia’s economy. In particular, he is looking to buy Serbia’s Hypobank. Kim’s efforts parallel or converge with the continuing Russian interest in buying up media companies in Serbia, bankrolling pro-Russian parties in Serbia’s Parliament, selling weapons to Serbia, and opening an office to sponsor cooperation with Russia. Together, these form part of the economic arm of Russia’s campaign to enhance its influence in Serbia and in the Balkans more broadly; indeed, similar tactics are on view throughout the region (Blic.rs, September 23). Moscow also applies military pressure on Belgrade to join the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), whose membership includes most Eurasian republics of the former Soviet Union (Blic.rs, September 9).
Russian intervention has been even more overt in Bosnia. Defying the Constitutional Court in Sarajevo, Milorad Dodik, the veteran leader of Bosnia’s Serbs, and a clear client of Putin, organized a referendum on September 25 to restore “Statehood Day” within his federal entity of the Serb Republic (Republika Srpska). Statehood Day is a Serbian Orthodox Christian holiday that falls on January 9 and is the anniversary of the Bosnian Serbs’ secession from Bosnia—an act that in part launched the bloody wars of the 1990s. This referendum is regarded as a dry run for a projected independence vote in 2018, which Dodik is also threatening to hold. A declaration of independence by the Serb Republic would destroy the basis of the Dayton Accords, which created the present-day political order of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and it would create a new pro-Moscow statelet in the heart of the Western Balkans (Carnegie.ru, October 4). As pressure grew to postpone or cancel the Statehood Day referendum, Russia’s ambassador to Bosnia, Pyotr Ivantsov, stated that the question of whether or not to hold the vote was strictly an internal decision of the Bosnia Serbs; he blamed the Bosnian Constitutional Court, which ruled against the referendum’s legality, for the whole problem. Moreover, he claimed that while everyone supports a functional Bosnia-Herzegovina, it cannot be achieved by “having the international community say what should be done” (Glassrpske.rs, September 22; Nezavisnenovine.rs, September 3; Carnegie.ru, October 4).
A couple of days before the September 25 vote, Putin received Dodik in Moscow and allegedly repeated to Dodik that the referendum was an internal matter. Nevertheless, it seems pretty clear that Putin was signaling his support because there was nothing else the two men had any urgent reason to discuss at that point in time (Carnegie.ru, October 4). Later, on September 28, Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova declared her country’s opposition to the “politicization” of the Statehood Day referendum issue. Disingenuously claiming that Moscow fully supports the Dayton Agreement, she then criticized Valentin Inzko, the High Representative to Bosnia-Herzegovina, for his use of extraordinary powers—granted to the position via international agreement in Bonn, in 1997—to try and derail the illegal Serb Statehood Day referendum (Mid.ru, September 28).
Whatever Moscow’s motives might be, it is clear that it intends to continue playing the ethnic-Serb card to derail an independent and unified Bosnia under the Dayton formula. Moreover, Russia is acting to prevent Serbia and any of its Balkan neighbors from Europeanizing their economies, political systems, and defense policies. The leverage Moscow seeks by acquiring Balkan media outlets, buying local banks, pushing for arms sales agreements, inciting ethnic passions, subsidizing political parties and media empires, as well as through displays of force are all, to a greater or lesser degree, designed to halt or reverse the region’s European integration drive. It is thus up to the US and the EU to develop an effective countervailing strategy to this Russian effort, or risk losing the Balkans for the foreseeable future.