In the absence of a clear E.U. integration perspective, Albania, Serbia, and North Macedonia have decided to take matters into their own hands and initiate their version of regional cooperation known as “mini Schengen.” Two other Balkan countries, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina, have stated their reservations, while Kosovo has rejected the idea altogether.
Kosovo based its refusal to participate primarily on its relationship with Serbia and Belgrade’s lack of recognition of Kosovo as an independent state. In addition, Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Ramush Haradinaj, said that the “mini Schengen” initiative would pave the way for more Russian influence in the region.
However, amid political statements, the evidence says otherwise. Russia does not have the capability nor the propensity to meddle in the Balkans. While there is an opportunity, the reality is that Moscow has little to offer.
Furthermore, the Western Balkans is surrounded by E.U. and NATO members and is over a thousand miles away from Russia, leaving Moscow without direct access to the region. Finally, Russia’s economy is largely based on the energy sector, and in this respect, the country has little to offer to the developing nations of the Balkans.
Russia relinquished its security mechanisms to NATO when the last peacekeepers left Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2003. Since then, Moscow’s regional interests have been focused mainly on preventing the remaining Balkan countries from joining NATO.
To this end, Russia attempted to stage a coup in Montenegro in 2016 and tried to prevent the name agreement between Greece and North Macedonia to jeopardize their chances of joining NATO. Yet so far, Russia’s disruption strategy has proved unsuccessful. Montenegro is NATO’s newest member, while North Macedonia is expected to join this year.
— NATO (@NATO) June 5, 2017
Consequently, Russia’s influence is limited to “near abroad” countries, referring to the independent republics that emerged after the 1991 Soviet Union dissolution. Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia – countries that traditionally had close ties to Russia – is a strong indicator that Russian foreign policy priorities focus predominantly on neighbors rather than the Balkans.
Limited Soft Power
Russia’s inability to project influence in the Balkans further stems from the fact that its persuasion methods are focused on historical symbolism such as Christian Orthodoxy and Pan-Slavism, factors that are losing significance in the Balkan region.
While Russian disinformation remains potent, leaders in the Balkans are cautious and do not seem to trust Moscow’s intentions. The country’s effectiveness is limited to disinformation and attempting to disrupt E.U. reforms by halting the region’s democratic advancement and aspirations to join the E.U. and NATO.
Serbia remains Russia’s sole friend in the region and the only country that regularly participates in Russian military drills. Serbia shows enormous support for “big brother” Russia, and it is the only Balkan country that refuses to join sanctions against Moscow for the annexation of Crimea.
However, Serbia’s close ties to Russia have not stopped the country from pursuing E.U. membership and quietly cozying up to NATO. While Belgrade constantly professes its determination to never join the alliance, cooperation between Serbia and NATO is on the rise. In 2019, Serbia conducted 17 military exercises with other countries, 13 of which were with NATO members and only four with Russia.
— Reuters (@Reuters) October 24, 2019
And while Russia handed over five MiG-29 fighter jets to Serbia in 2017, these were second-hand aircraft and to fully operationalize them, Serbia has to spend around 200 million euros.
Lack of Economic Incentives
Russia’s main economic interest lies within the energy sector, but it has started to lose that battle too. In 2007, Russia initiated its most ambitious plan in the region, the South Stream gas pipeline, which was to stretch from the Black Sea into the Balkans. The initiative failed because it was not economically viable.
In terms of trade, Russian exports to each Western Balkan country do not exceed 2 percent, except for Serbia which is around 5 percent.
More recently, China has emerged as a serious actor in the region. It is now among the top five markets for imports in most of the region’s countries, while Russia enjoys that status only in Serbia.
In the last few years, the Western Balkans have been witnessing a massive increase in Chinese investments (millions in infrastructure and telecommunications projects), something that Russia cannot offer.
China has been spending money to gain influence rapidly, taking advantage of the poor investment climate by providing loans and consequently ensuring long-term dependency. In this respect, China faces little resistance from the small and developing Balkan states.
Russian influence in the Balkans is exaggerated. Its method of persuasion through religious and ethnic symbolism is outdated and Moscow cannot compete with other actors to provide effective economic and technological advancement in the region.
As Russian influence slowly starts to fade away, Europe and the West should be more concerned with the growing Chinese influence in the Balkans and how this will affect its relationship with the region.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.