Russia appears to be increasingly active in weakening or even destabilising countries in the Balkans, which could be seen as part of a larger retaliation plan against Western sanctions and military aid provided by European countries to Ukraine. However, European Union member states and the United States are prepared to react to the challenge. The ‘weak’ links that Russia targeted first are: Bosnia and Herzegovina, still deeply divided along ethnic lines and in the middle of a severe political crisis since 2021, and Bulgaria, almost completely dependent on Russian gas and oil.
At the end of April, Moscow announced that Russian energy giant Gazprom was cutting gas deliveries both to EU and NATO members Poland and Bulgaria, in a move that was read like an open “blackmail” to European capitals and Brussels. Russia justified the move as an answer to Poland and Bulgaria’s alleged unfriendly steps in the “economic sphere” and their refusal to pay in roubles. “Starting on April 1, payments for gas need to be made using new bank details, about which the counterparts were informed promptly,” Gazprom said. Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said that the Russian move was “a gross violation” of its contract with Russian energy giant Gazprom.
Bulgaria and almost the entire Balkan region could be severely affected by a disruption in the supply of gas and oil from Russia, the World Bank warned this month. According to official data, the region receives 67% of its natural gas imports from Russia, with Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Serbia completely reliant on Russia, via Bulgaria, for their natural gas supply.
However, the EU reacted quickly after Moscow stopped gas delivery to Sofia. The interruption of gas supplies to Bulgaria and Poland is “another provocation from the Kremlin,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said. “Both Poland and Bulgaria are now receiving gas from their EU neighbours,” von der Leyen added, noting that “the era of Russian fossil fuels in Europe will end,” together with Moscow’s capabilities to blackmail or pressure European countries through fossil fuels dependency.
On a separate note, Moscow continued to exert its influence in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). It did so after the High Representative of the international community (OHR) in BiH, Christian Schmidt, suspended a law seen widely as an attempt by Republika Srpska (RS), the Bosnian Serb entity, to allow the RS to take over property owned by the central government in its territory. “State Property may be disposed of only by the State of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as its titleholder, in accordance with the provisions of this Law,” the OHR decided, enraging the pro-Kremlin Bosnian Serb leadership. Schmidt’s Office is tasked with overseeing the respect of the Dayton peace agreements.
“The best sons of the Republika Srpska did not die” in the war in the 1990s “so that the unelected German Christian Schmidt would spend what they gave the most for,” their life, Bosnian Serb nationalist leader Milorad Dodik said. Since last summer, Dodik has stepped up threats to secede from Bosnia. As a direct retaliation, Moscow, an ally to Bosnian Serbs, is allegedly working on stopping financing the OHR, local media reported. Previously, Russia said through its embassy in Sarajevo that the West’s attitudes in Bosnia could cause “destabilisation”, raising fears of a spill over from the Ukraine conflict in the Balkan country.
Undermining the role of OHR could lead Bosnia to a more profound and more dangerous crisis. However, if Russia suspends its part of the financing to the OHR, “we are engaged with a variety of stakeholders in this on contingency planning,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said. “Some kind of international force with an adequate mandate is essential to maintaining a safe and secure environment in Bosnia and Herzegovina”, Blinken anticipated.
Russia also reasserted its influence and pressure on Serbia after Belgrade voted in favour of two UN resolutions condemning the Russian aggression against Ukraine. “We record the statements of Serbian politicians regarding the pressure that is being exerted on them; we also record the statements of the Serbian side that Russia is their friend. Maybe we have different views on friendship”, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said.
Journalist based in the Balkans since 2005, he covers Central- and Eastern Europe for a wide range of media outlets, including the Italian national news agency ANSA, and the dailies La Stampa and Il Piccolo.