The report recognizes the need for more comprehensive knowledge on the growing role of Russia within the post-Soviet space and the Balkans in particular, considering the background of the current Ukrainian crisis. The report outlines four particular periods of development of the Russian foreign policy since the 2000s, covering the declining state of relations with the West, which reached its lowest point with the annexation of Crimea in 2013. In this respect the report points out that the Balkans are becoming a new area of Russian-Western competition.
After this review, the report points out the historical development of Russian interests in the Balkans. The pivotal role in this respect is played by the ideological construct of the Russian ‘civilizational’ mission to the Balkans, based on ethnic and cultural factors, in order to increase the Russian international importance. On a pragmatic level the Russian role in the region is noticeable in its growing economic interests, as well as its diplomatic efforts to isolate the Balkans from the impact of Western ‘soft power’. The report points to the strategic dichotomy of the Russian position on the international integration of the region, where Moscow supports the countries’ EU membership and opposes their NATO accession.
The report outlines six pillars of the Russian strategy in the Balkans. Firstly, the energy sector, facilitated through public Russian projects such as the South Stream gas pipeline, as well through strategic Russian investment in ownership of local energy giants, as it is the case of Serbia, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, as well strong attempts to dominate the Greek energy sector. The second pillar is the economic sector, in which local governmental projects, as in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro, receive significant Russian investment. Currently such involvement is extended also to crisis-ridden Greece. The third pillar is the political area, comprised of close ties between the governing United Russia and Balkan parties of various ideological streams, such as populist and nationalist right-wing ones, as well post-communist left ones.
The fourth pillar is the diplomatic front, where Russia remains very sensitive towards any action from Balkan country, which contradicts Russian interests. The Russian diplomatic efforts are mainly focused on the ‘strategic partnership’ with Serbia and Greece, as well as involvement in Bulgarian affairs and concentration on ‘soft power’ through Russian-funded think tank, situated in Serbia and Bulgaria. The fifth pillar is the military branch with primary focus on the containment of further NATO expansion in the Balkans. Furthermore, Russia maintains proactive defense objectives mainly through military investments in marital and civic protection. The sixth pillar concerns the cultural field of strategic investment in rich cultural programs and centers, Russian-language courses and university programs. Furthermore, the Russian Orthodox Church maintains close ties with the Balkan orthodox top level clergy mainly through the International Foundation for Unity of Orthodox Christian Nations.
The impact of the Russian involvement through those pillars is noticeable. Particular areas, in which Russia tends to have the greatest impact in the region, are energy and regional security, governance, and foreign policy. In this respect the South Stream project poses a threat to Ukraine by isolating this country, extending the Balkan energy dependence by Russia and openly challenging strategic EU goals.
The Russian influence could cause ‘creeping oligarchisation’ of the Balkans, noticeable on the close similarities of legal approaches by Balkan countries and Russia. Also Russian dominance prevents EU’s ability to develop common external policies. Putin’s ambition of Greater Russia could also reignite demands for a Greater Serbia which would destabilize relations within the region. Besides, Russia’s impact in the region prevents political consolidation in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The authors advocate for stricter EU policies toward candidate EU member states. The EU should enhance scrutiny of energy agreements which involve third countries as well as common-interests test for all potential transnational energy projects. Nevertheless, the Copenhagen implementation criteria should be assessed in more rigorous manner and the EU applicant countries should align their foreign policies with the EU’s CFSP.