Why is the Balkans so unstable

What does Russia want in the Western Balkans?

The gathering in the Bosnian Višegrad was like a provocation: a dozen men came together in the second week of April 2021 in the city where the novel of the century "The Bridge over the Drina" by Ivo Andrić, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is set to commemorate Russian "volunteers", who supported the Serbian associations in the Bosnian War 1992-95 and died in the process. A Russian-Serbian association organized the wreath laying.

In view of the numerous crimes committed by Serbs in Bosnia, survivors spoke of a renewed injury to the victims, 26 years after the end of the war. Instead of celebrating the Russian volunteers, their involvement in war crimes should be investigated, according to a women's victims' association.

The incident is currently by no means the only disturbance in the Balkans with a Russian handwriting: Moscow is making targeted efforts to expand its influence. With a hybrid approach, the unstable societies of the countries in the Western Balkans are exploited to stake out their own terrain and promote actors who deliberately thwart democratization processes.

Russia's Foreign Minister Lavrov (left) with Milorad Dodik (right) in Sarajevo last December

In the region's most fragile country, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia is actively supporting Serbian and Croatian politicians who are doing everything they can to torpedo the current peace order. Milorad Dodik, Serbian representative in the Bosnian State Presidium, regularly threatens secession.

An old dream

A few days ago Dodik came up with a new proposal: There must be a "peaceful dissolution" of Bosnia, he said, and thus took up an idea that, according to media reports, came from the pen of Slovenia's Prime Minister Janez Janša. In a "non-paper" Janša, also with contacts to Russia, is supposed to call for the restructuring of the Balkan states according to ethnic criteria. Since then, there has been an increasing number of voices warning that such advances would provoke new armed conflicts.

Slovenia's Prime Minister Janez Janša in Brussels

There is no doubt that the discussion about drawing new borders in the Western Balkans grist to the mill of all those who want to realize an old dream with the support of Belgrade and Moscow: the unification of the Serbs in a common state. It was precisely these ideologies of ethnically pure territories that led to the bloody wars in the former Yugoslavia of 1991-95.

Support for extremists

With his then colleague Franjo Tudjman, President of the Republic of Croatia, the Serbian ruler Slobodan Milošević agreed on the division of Bosnia in the course of the break-up of Yugoslavia. War crimes, expulsions and mass rapes followed, in order to give birth to a Greater Serbia and a Greater Croatia.

Croatian President Franjo Tudjman (left) and his Serbian counterpart Slobodan Milošević in Dayton / Ohio

The fact that the ideologies of yore are now experiencing a revival - Moscow, with its support for extremists á la Dodik, is anything but innocent of this. While the EU has evidently failed for years to give the region a clear prospect of accession, Moscow is making it unmistakably clear what its mission is: targeted destruction.

The EU's mistakes

In doing so, Russia exploits the strategic mistakes of the EU, which for years has relied on a crude appeasement policy with the corrupt elites of the Western Balkans. In this way "stabilocracies" with authoritarian politicians were promoted. Sustainable democratic reforms, on the other hand, fell by the wayside.

With a few exceptions, the countries in the Western Balkans are more of an Eldorado for radicalization than the scene of a coherent connection to the West. As a result, many democratically-minded actors hardly see Brussels as a strategic partner. Civil activists and human rights activists complain that they are being abandoned by the EU in the fight against the criminal clans - a significant loss of reputation for Brussels, which is exacerbated by the Corona crisis.

Sputnik as a savior in the pandemic

Not least in view of the desolate vaccination policy of the EU, Russia is able to distinguish itself as a potent player in the crisis. Serbia's authoritarian ruler Aleksandar Vučić, Vladimir Putin's most important bridgehead in the region, is using the good relationship to not only supply vaccination tourists from neighboring countries with vaccination doses.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić is vaccinated with the Chinese vaccine Sinopharm in Belgrade

Moscow's Sputnik vaccine is thus gaining geopolitical significance. And China, too, is demonstratively presented by Vučić as a loyal partner in need - with swipes at the defaulting EU.

Elective engineering in Montenegro

While Moscow is deploying troops at the gates of Ukraine, more subtle maneuvers are being used in the Western Balkans. The government of Montenegro recently proposed a change in citizenship law, according to which foreigners who are permanently registered in the country can become Montenegrin citizens more quickly - including Serbs and Russians.

The Montenegrin analyst Zlatko Vujović, here during a discussion about the 2018 elections in the Western Balkans

This would lead to massive changes in the population and political orientation, warns the analyst Zlatko Vujović, and the pro-Western majority of Montenegro would be eliminated in a flash. Anti-Western and pro-Russian forces would have been strengthened "legally". After massive protests against the obvious election engineering, the government in Montenegro's capital Podgorica put the plans on hold for the time being.

Russian defeats

As early as 2016, Moscow had apparently wanted to create facts in Montenegro: With the help of a special command, the country's long-time president, Milo Djukanović, who had campaigned for NATO membership, was to be cleared out of the way. The conspiracy - probably organized with the participation of Serbian and Russian secret service agents - was discovered, however, and Montenegro was accepted as a full member of the military alliance, despite Moscow's interventions.

Nikola Gruevski, Ex-Prime Minister of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia

In neighboring North Macedonia, Russia is already proving to be an explosive force: It is no secret that the party of ex-Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, VMRO-DPME, who fled to Hungary, is closely connected to the Kremlin. The fact that the country was also admitted to NATO in March 2020 represented another defeat for Russia's efforts in the Balkans.

Against civil society and the EU

It is no coincidence that since then, pro-Russian forces have been doing everything in their power to weaken the pro-European government of Social Democratic Prime Minister Zoran Zaev. Media investments are used specifically to spread Russia-friendly and national-chauvinist propaganda. In the Corona crisis, carefully distributed fake news is circulating that is intended to undermine the credibility of the Zaev government.

Goebbels comparison: The Nazi propagandist and NGO activist Deralla on a North Macedonian Internet portal

Meanwhile, civil actors who campaign for democratic reforms are threatened. One of them is Xhabir Deralla from the NGO Civil. Again and again the human rights activist is defamed as a traitor, relevant portals spread Goebbels comparisons.

"These circles are primarily concerned with torpedoing EU integration," said Deralla. The intensity of the attacks on him has recently taken on a new quality, accompanied by massive cyberattacks on the websites of his organization. According to Deralla, technical analyzes have shown that the latest attacks came directly from Russia.

Political scientist and journalist Marion Kraske headed the Heinrich Böll Foundation's office for Bosnia-Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Albania from 2015 to 2021, based in Sarajevo.