The EU is struggling to develop an effective policy in the Western Balkans which would ease tensions and counter Russian influence. In this context, pro-Russian sentiments and Russian influence have grown in the region.
Russia’s efforts to influence the region threaten to further escalate tensions in the context of hostilities between Serbia and partially recognized Kosovo. Therefore, Western nations take steps to ease the situation in the Western Balkans and reduce Russian influence.
New US sanctions aim at reducing Russian influence
The United States targeted 10 persons on November 16 in a new wave of sanctions to limit Russian influence in the Western Balkans, the US Treasury reported.
The Treasury sanctioned 20 companies, including 11 based in Russia, by presidential directives linked to the Western Balkans and Russia.
The sanctions freeze all property and other assets that individuals targeted own or control in the United States, and they typically prevent Americans from doing business with them. Individuals from Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and North Macedonia have been sanctioned.
The list includes Savo Cvjetinović, a prominent official of the political party led by Milorad Dodik, the pro-Russian leader of Republika Srpska, who is already under sanctions for alleged corruption and seeking the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Serb-dominated region.
European integration for the Western Balkans
The European Commission has proposed a plan to accelerate the de facto integration of the Western Balkans with the European Union and make membership benefits tangible even before these nations complete their accession to the EU.
European Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi explained that it is about bridging the economic and social gap between these countries and the EU and de facto integration of the region, which will allow these countries to experience the benefits of EU membership before they complete the accession process.
The issue with Serbia-Kosovo tensions
However, there are obstacles on Serbia’s path to the EU. The Kosovo issue is one of them. Last summer, the EU and the US promised ‘severe consequences’ if tensions did not decrease, and the criticism was directed against both Kosovo authorities and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who has long been considered a patron and supporter of Serbs in Kosovo’s north.
The parties have been discussing a plan for calming escalating tensions with neighboring Serbia and Serb-dominated northern Kosovo. It came after tensions in the north of Kosovo between Kosovo Albanians and ethnic Serbs, who make up a minority of the country’s population but are a majority in the north and are loyal to Belgrade, erupted last spring. It led NATO to send extra peacekeepers to the region.
The clashes in the city of Zveçani in the north of partially recognized Kosovo resulted in injuries to NATO peacekeepers from the KFOR mission and Serbs protesting near the administrative building over the non-recognition of local elections.
The unrest followed disputed elections in Kosovo on April 23, which ethnic Serbs largely boycotted. The mayors, all ethnic Albanians, were elected in April after Serb representatives resigned en masse from Kosovo institutions at the end of 2022.
They abandoned their mandates following Pristina’s decision to enforce a rule that all vehicles in Kosovo should have Kosovo-issued plates. This decision affected Serbs who did not recognize Pristina’s independence from Serbia in 2008 and still have Serbian plates.
The local election was boycotted by Serbs, who represent a majority in the region, following calls from Belgrade. The EU called on Serbia and Kosovo to de-escalate, and Brussels demanded that Kosovo hold new elections in areas where Serbs mostly live.
EU waits for Serbia to adhere to anti-Russian sanctions
EU’s policy of sanctions against Russia, a war aggressor country, and of military aid to Ukraine is another requirement that Serbia needs to fulfil. Serbia’s membership in the EU can only proceed if Belgrad complies with the European sanctions placed on Russia, according to a report on Serbia from the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs.
Serbia’s adherence to the EU’s foreign policy, the continuation of its domestic reforms, and the continuation of the dialogue with Kosovo are crucial for the country’s accession process, according to Vladimir Bilcik, the rapporteur for Serbia in the European Parliament.
Serbia is the only Western Balkans candidate nation that did not comply with the EU Council resolutions on new economic sanctions against Russia related to undermining and threatening Ukraine’s territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence. According to EU lawmakers, the criminal war launched by Russia against Ukraine makes it more critical than ever for candidates and EU member states to adhere to the terms of the EU’s standards in foreign and security policies.
From the moment that Russia began an all-out war against Ukraine in February 2022, the EU has made it clear that it expects all Western Balkan nations that aspire to join the Union to support its international policy, including the sanctions on Russia in response to its assault against a sovereign European state.
Dangerous links between Russian and Serbian far-right
Analysts claim that Putin’s invasion increased the stakes for governments in the Balkans. The situation in Serbia is precarious since Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is trying to balance EU efforts to isolate Moscow and Belgrad’s links to Russia, its energy supplies, and diplomatic support for its stance on Kosovo.
Russia gets more support from the Serbian far-right groups. Serbian nationalists supporting Russia’s war against Ukraine are not just trying to whitewash Putin’s bloody war but are getting help from Moscow to promote its dangerous ideas in Europe.
The far-right group People’s Patrol and its leader, Damnjan Knežević, organized several other pro-Russian rallies in Belgrad. Damjan Knezevic was given a private tour of an infamous Russian paramilitary group (accused of war crimes on three continents), Wagner’s new headquarters in St. Petersburg, the hometown of Russian dictator Putin.
However, many Serbian nationalists were outraged by Putin’s use of Kosovo’s bid for independence to support the annexation referendums in Donbas and Crimea since they believed it validated Kosovo’s claims for independence.
Russia’s goals in the Western Balkans
Moscow tried to counterbalance the West’s influence in the Balkans by backing its Serbian allies. Since the Russian Empire formed political and religious ties with the Balkans, it has been a long-standing goal for Moscow. Russia positioned itself as a friend of the Orthodox Christian Slavs, particularly in Serbia, as the region was contested between the Catholic Western powers and the Islamic Ottoman Empire.
Under Putin’s rule, Russia tried to restore its position as a significant regional player. Maintaining tight ties with the Balkan nations has been seen in Moscow as a strategy to prevent their membership in NATO and the EU and a way to project its naval strength in the Mediterranean. Before it joined the alliance in 2017, Montenegro, for instance, controlled the final non-NATO ports on the Adriatic Sea.
How does Russia spread its influence?
The main goal of Russia’s strategy is to develop asymmetrical ways to restrain the Balkans’ integration into Western institutions while strengthening ties with Serbia. Mainly, Moscow aims to capitalize on regional divisions and escalate hostilities between ethnic and religious groups.
The Russian government uses state-controlled businesses, like the oil giant Gazprom and the state bank Sberbank, to invest in the region that it believes would increase its political influence.
To enhance its influence, Moscow frequently directs its support through proxies and various non-governmental channels, including support for organizations like clubs, sports teams, religious institutions, media outlets, and veteran organizations. Developing this soft power provides the Kremlin with plausible deniability.
By preventing the UN from recognizing Kosovo’s independence, Moscow presents itself as a supporter of the territorial integrity of Serbia. As a result, Russia gets popular with the Serbs. So, the Serbian government is under pressure to keep good ties with Moscow.
“Putin’s special operation” has a broad scope
For the Kremlin, undermining the Balkans is a low-cost operation. Moscow provides Belgrade and Banja Luka with diplomatic and financial support, along with weapons, propaganda, disinformation, provocateurs, and armed gangs.
For example, in 2022, Serbia’s Hi-Tech Crime Prosecutor’s Office opened a case related to messages on the Telegram channel Z-Orlovi. Its administrators supported the Russian war against Ukraine and threatened anti-war activists.
Russia’s methods of undermining and subjugating its neighbors are also valuable examples for Serbia to follow in its three main strategies of division, escalation and dominance. All three provoke a reaction from Serbia’s opponents that can spiral out of control into outright violence.
The strategy of division is evident in the attempts to mobilize the Serbian minority in Kosovo, incite fear, breed ethnic hatred, and prove that states in the Balkans can not be multi-ethnic.
Ignoring the danger of relations between the Serbian far-right and Russia would be a mistake. Human rights organizations have warned that right-wing extremism is just rising in Serbia.
Serbia needs to make a strategic choice
Belgrade has always maintained a prudent balance between its centuries-old ethnic and religious ties to Russia and its ambitions to join the EU and pursue an alliance with NATO.
Brussels has criticized Serbia for not imposing sanctions against Moscow even though Serbia’s president has frequently denounced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the UN and other international forums.
Serbian President Vucic’s balancing policy might soon end as the early elections will be held in December. If pro-European forces win, then Serbia will turn more to the West; if Vucic stays in power, he will be under higher pressure and will no longer be able to continue balancing. If not, the pro-EU opposition will win and change Serbia’s stance on foreign policy.
The pro-government coalition will likely lose Belgrade, where the pro-EU opposition is gaining power. To tackle this, Vucic has taken a high risk he had previously avoided: his SPS party will participate in municipal elections alongside the far-right Serbian Radical Party, led by war criminal Vojislav Šešelj.
In the current geopolitical context, joining the West will be a much better choice for Belgrad than maintaining a relationship with Moscow, which has become toxic since it has been severely condemned on the international stage for its war in Ukraine and got isolated and weaker under international sanctions.
Serbian authorities must remember that relations with Moscow and allowing Russian presence in the region means cooperating in the war against Ukraine, giving Moscow a Balkan card in its fight against the West.
On the other hand, the EU and the US leaders need to develop and implement a more effective regional strategy, combining diplomatic, military and economic techniques, to convince Serbia that the Western path is a better choice for the country’s future.