IISS Strategic Comments

Balkan rumblings

According to a 25 March headline in the United Kingdom’s Daily Telegraph, war is ‘brewing in the Balkans again’. The headline is typical of a recent slew of articles suggesting rather tritely that the Balkans are once again a powder keg and that, under the West’s radar, the Russians are stealthily taking control of the Slav and Christian Orthodox parts of the region while radical Islamists are usurping the predominantly Muslim parts. But notwithstanding these hyperventilating stories, war is not about to break out, the Russians are smarting from serious setbacks in the region and governments in the Balkans have done a great deal to hunt down and crush Islamist networks. A Balkan leader’s threat of war with neighbours is likely to be an electoral slogan, not meant to be taken seriously. The Western Balkans have changed almost beyond recognition since the end of the wars of the 1990s. Nevertheless, the region has acquired greater strategic resonance recently, mainly as a result of Russia’s intensifying interest in it.

Russia’s aims and tactics

Russian analysts have clearly articulated Russia’s strategic goals in the region, confirmed by Moscow’s ambassador to Macedonia in a leaked document. Russia’s apparent aim is to create a bloc of four neutral or even pro-Russian states. These would include the overwhelmingly Slav and Christian Orthodox Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia. Bosnia-Herzegovina would be the fourth country. Although Serbs only constitute 31% of its population (according to contested 2013 data) they enjoy an effective veto over foreign affairs and defence policy owing to their political clout. These countries, plus Albania and Kosovo, which are overwhelmingly Muslim if secular, make up together what is now known as the Western Balkan Six. These six Balkan countries are surrounded by the European Union and aspire to join it.

In order to further its geopolitical goal, Russia has created networks of organisations aimed at promoting good relations with Russia. In Serbia alone, 109 have been identified. A leaked briefing prepared by Macedonia’s intelligence service indicated that the Russian embassy in Skopje had helped establish 30 Macedonian–Russian ‘friendship associations’ there. Politicians in all four countries make frequent trips to Moscow and many have signed a cooperation agreement with President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. Russian politicians have also voiced clear support for parties and governments that lack Western backing – for example, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation–Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO–DPMNE), Macedonia’s ruling party from 2006 to May 2017, whose support has eroded at home due to corruption and wiretapping scandals. In Montenegro, the large amount of money spent during last October’s election by the Democratic Front (DF), which opposed NATO accession, raised eyebrows. Milo Đukanović, the then-prime minister who is still head of the ruling party, accused DF leaders of receiving illegal funding from Moscow. Russia denied the charge, but much of the funding could have been funnelled through local companies with Russian connections.

Russia’s main tools of influence have been websites promoting Russia and glorifying Putin and Russian military prowess. They also foment regional discord, which aims to benefit Russia by depriving Western countries of stable partners. There are some 15 Serbian-language sites. Their stories echo or recycle the work of Sputnik, the Russian state news agency; the government-funded Russian television network RT; and News Front, a propaganda site based in Crimea. Many stories claim that the West and NATO are trembling before the might of Russia, that the EU is on the brink of collapse or that NATO or some other Western entity is behind an imminent Albanian military drive to start a new war and create a Greater Albania.

This media campaign has had considerable success in Serbia thanks to the mainstream media’s focus on the stories, but has gained somewhat less traction elsewhere. The stories exploit and rejuvenate bitterness about NATO’s 78-day bombing campaign during the Kosovo War in 1999 and stoke it with, for example, allegations that cancer rates in the region have shot up due to depleted uranium used in NATO ammunition. This has bolstered existing prejudices. A Gallup poll published in February asked people whether they associated NATO with the protection of their country or saw it as a threat. The vast majority of Albanians and Kosovars saw it as protective, but only 6% of Serbs and 21% of Montenegrins regarded it as such while 29% of Montenegrins and 64% of Serbs saw it as a threat. An opinion poll in Serbia showed that Serbs believe that Russia was one of the greatest givers of aid to their country when in fact it gives next to nothing; few realised that the EU had given more than US$3 billion.

Mixed results for Russia

Despite Russia’s propaganda efforts, it has recently suffered two major setbacks. Firstly, in Macedonia, on 31 May, the VMRO–DPMNE, which was pro-NATO but incongruously backed by Moscow, finally handed over power to the opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia; unlike the VMRO–DPMNE, it was able to form a government with an ethnic Albanian minority party. Secondly, on 5 June Montenegro joined NATO. The Montenegrin government had accused Russia of trying to overthrow it in a bizarre plot during the election last October. The truth remains unclear. While some Montenegrins believe that the Russians were up to something, others are convinced that the arrests of the alleged plotters were part of a drama staged by the ruling party to scare the apathetic and pro-NATO part of the electorate into voting for it. Western intelligence sources are confident of the involvement of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, and two alleged members of the agency are being tried in absentia. In any case, with the exception of a small strip of Bosnian coast and Monaco, the entire northern shore of the Mediterranean, from Gibraltar to the Syrian border, is now under NATO control, and the Russian navy will be unable to gain coveted access to Montenegrin port facilities.

In Serbia, which is officially committed to military neutrality, the picture is ostensibly better for the Russians. Putin is popular there and the government of President Aleksandar Vučić applauds its good relations with Moscow. On 6 June, 50 Serbian soldiers began exercising with troops from Russia and Belarus in the third annual Slavic Brotherhood exercise. The event invariably receives abundant press coverage, most of which toes the government line and appeases the large pro-Russian portion of the electorate. Likewise, the government and media have celebrated Moscow’s recent promise to donate six old Russian MiG fighter planes to Serbia. By contrast, there are more than 100 annual exercises or engagements between the Serbian military, which has a training agreement with the Ohio National Guard, and NATO and Western countries, and these receive hardly any coverage.

Vučić says he wants good relations with both East and West and, in that sense, he cleaves to the Balkans’ non-aligned Titoist past. He has carefully cultivated China and the Gulf Arab states, all of which have invested in Serbia. But the leader he listens to most is German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Contrary to Moscow’s urgings, she has reportedly told Vučić not to accord diplomatic status to a Russian logistics base in the southern city of Niš used for coordinating and pre-positioning supplies during humanitarian emergencies. She believes that otherwise Russia would use the facility for electronic eavesdropping on a range of targets, including the Jug military base, less than two hours south of Niš by land, where the Serbian military trains with NATO. Another likely target would be NATO’s 4,352-strong Kosovo Force (KFOR), which guarantees Kosovo’s security.

Islamic radicalism

If Russia is currently the main subject of interest for outsiders in the Balkans, the issue of jihadists going to Syria and Iraq and returning to the Balkans has also been a matter of intense scrutiny and concern for several years. A detailed study of the Western Balkan Six done in February 2016 found that some 780 people, including woman and children, had gone to Syria and Iraq since 2012. The biggest numbers were from Kosovo (over 300) and Bosnia (about 200). Since 2012, all six countries have passed laws against fighting in foreign wars, and returnees have been kept under strict surveillance by intelligence services or, in some cases, prosecuted. Few, if any, are now leaving for the Middle East. Many returnees have come home demoralised by the battlefield losses of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and ISIS territory – as well as that controlled by other jihadist groups – is now very hard to access.

While Islamic radicalism is a real problem, domestic and foreign intelligence services are well aware of it and watch it closely. The phenomenon is often exaggerated. Last December, for instance, the UK’s Daily Mail, citing an Italian magazine article that referenced Italian intelligence sources, claimed that Lavdrim Muhaxheri – also known as Abu Abdullah al Kosovo, the leader of a contingent of Albanians fighting with ISIS – had returned to Kosovo ‘with 400 of his trusted soldiers’. The story was untrue, and Kosovo police issued a denial, but not before it had been circulated globally. On 8 June Muhaxheri’s family were reported as saying he had been killed in an airstrike in Syria or Iraq.

More generally, it is often reported that Bosnia and Kosovo have sent more jihadists to Syria and Iraq than any other European states. If, however, the numbers are calculated on a per capita basis specifically with respect to the Muslim population, Finland, the Scandinavian countries, Belgium and Ireland come out on top. A May 2017 study of the figures from Kosovo found that of 316 people known to have left the country for Syria and Iraq, 59 had died, 118 had returned and 139 remained in the Middle East. A terrorism threat certainly does exist. Last November, the Kosovo police foiled synchronised terrorist attacks planned against targets in Kosovo and Israelis at an Israel–Albania World Cup qualifier football match in northern Albania, arresting 19 Kosovo-based suspects and seizing explosives, weapons and ammunition. But the problem is not as serious as it is in France, the UK or Belgium, which unlike the Balkans have experienced major jihadist terrorist attacks.

Democratic deficit

Over the past year or so tensions have waxed and waned between Serbia and Kosovo, Serbia and Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia and within Bosnia. Bosnia continues to be a dysfunctional country. Milorad Dodik – president of the Bosnian Serb half of the country, the Republika Srpska – frequently says he wants a referendum on independence, a move that could spark a new conflict. Bosnians moan justifiably that their politicians are corrupt, services poor and unemployment high, and that many are emigrating because of dim prospects there. Populations in the other Western Balkan Six countries generally share these grievances. Bosnia’s situation is more acute because of its peculiar ethnicity-based political structure – a legacy of the war that ended in 1995 – and the persistent social and ethnic divisions among Bosnians. But unlike in 1992, when the Bosnian war began, Serbia and Croatia are not poised to start a new war.

While war is not about to return to the Western Balkans, democracy there has eroded over the past decade. Despite frequent elections, authoritarian trends have emerged across the region, and the media are weak and often under the control of the ruling party. Anti-corruption drives usually amount to a new government arresting its rivals so as to eliminate political competition and establish an anti-corruption track record to advance EU accession. Judiciaries are highly susceptible to interference from those with power or money. Patronage and nepotism are endemic. New governments often take months to form, not because parties in coalition argue about ministerial posts but rather because they bicker about hundreds of lesser jobs in government and public companies that are distributed to family, friends and party faithful.

Neighbouring EU countries, such as Greece and Bulgaria, have comparable governance problems, but maintaining order and stability has taken on greater urgency in the Western Balkans because it is necessary for EU accession. In turn, critics of Balkan governments have accused Western countries of tolerating Balkan autocrats and kleptocrats in exchange for their maintaining order and stability. In fact, a new word has recently entered the lexicon for describing Western Balkan countries that are not true democracies but nevertheless are progressing towards EU accession – ‘stabilitocracies’

Volume 23, Comment 20 – June 2017


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