As West dithers, Russia ups its game in the Balkans


Tensions are rising between west and east and over the Balkans. Albania, Macedonia, Serbia and other Balkan countries that aspire to EU membership remain a long way from entry because of an expanding list of woes, including occasionally violent ethnic tensions, political instability, weak state administrations, economic fragility, corruption and organised crime, The Financial Times reports:

Few experts on the Balkans think that a repeat of the 1990s wars in former Yugoslavia is likely any time soon. However, Dimitar Bechev, a University of North Carolina fellow, cautions that trouble could lie ahead in “the west’s growing disenchantment in the area, coupled with the region’s stagnation and democratic backsliding”. Such developments, if unchecked, may condemn the Balkan states to a marooned existence outside the EU, prey to Russian influence and tempted into nationalist projects aimed at redrawing borders.

The combination of American negligence and European dithering gives Putin plenty of space to explore new realms of mischief-making, notes Democracy Post’s Christian Caryl, who notes that Russia has been stirring up trouble in the Balkans.

Special attention should be paid to external actors, such as Russia, but Turkey also, the National Endowment for Democracy’s Ivana Cvetković Bajrović* (above, center) told a Freedom House forum on Transformation and Stability in the Western Balkans.

Democratic weakness in the region has “created a fertile ground for external forces. We should take Russia more seriously,” she said, suggesting that illiberal forces could be countered by “straightening democratic institutions and having a strategic approach to push back their influence.”

A newly published survey of belief and identity in central and eastern Europe found that support for liberal democracy was “less consistent” in Orthodox countries than in other parts of the region, The Economist reports:

But there were big variations. In Greece, the land of democracy’s birth, some 77% thought that form of government was preferable to any other, against 15% who thought that “non-democratic government” was sometimes preferable. But in Russia, the latter, anti-democratic view was in the majority (by 41% to 31%). It also prevailed in Moldova and Serbia. Some 28% of Serbs thought non-democratic rule was sometimes better, against 25% who preferred rule by the people and a depressingly high 43% who didn’t care.

Credit: CNA

Russia’s strategy in the Balkans seeks ’weak links’ in Western unity, using them to undermine, divide and question the Western model, notes Jarosław Wiśniewski, Visiting Fellow at LSEE Research on South Eastern Europe, LSE European Institute. In the Balkans, this approach focuses on two key goals. The first one is to undermine all of the Western-sponsored achievements in the region: the current borders, the Dayton agreement and the independence of Kosovo. The second one is arguably more of a priority for the Kremlin; it is to stop any future NATO enlargement into the region, he writes:

In terms of information warfare, Russia aims to achieve its aims by using ‘soft’ instruments: narratives exploiting regional stereotypes, ethnic tensions, and unresolved legacies of conflicts. The hitherto approach of Russia was to focus on the ethnic Serbian (or Slavic) audience in the Balkans. The dominant narrative here was to portray Russia as a ‘bigger brother’ of Serbia, an ethnic, cultural and religious ally on whom Belgrade could always count on, with a nudge to Serbian nationalists and the myth of a Greater Serbia.

*The NED’s Ivana Cvetkovic Bajrovic will testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation at a hearing on “The Balkan Peninsula: Strengthening Democracy and Countering Malign Foreign Influence.” Thursday, May 18, 2:30 p.m. 419 Dirksen Bldg., Capitol Hill.

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