Do you think the war against Ukraine could destabilise the Western Balkans in the long run? And do you think Russia has a real interest in rising tensions in the region?
Russia in recent years has been a spoiler in the Western Balkans and has been trying to prevent EU and NATO expansion in the region, but its ability to provoke conflicts in the region is very limited. Moscow makes use of recurrent tensions, disillusionment with the West and corruption-prone leadership, but its influence in the region is mainly based on fact that local elites perceived Moscow as a valuable partner to counterbalance West influence and as an ally in pushing for and protecting their interests.
I think that Vladimir Putin hoped that the crisis in the Balkans parallel to the war in Ukraine would discourage the West from actively engaging in assistance to the government in Kyiv and will divert attention from what is happening in the east especially as some local leader as Milorad Dodik hoped that after the successful war in Ukraine, Russia would help Republika Srpska to gain independence. However, the military operation has clearly shown Russia’s weakness and lack of modern military capabilities. Due to the strong and unified reaction of the West, Moscow is now isolated in the international community. That significantly reduced Russia’s capabilities to support local partners in political, economic and military spheres. Consequently, local actors are less keen to conduct actions that would destabilise the region in Russia’s interest, at least for the moment. However, the long-term geopolitical consequences of this war for the Western Balkans are still an open issue as its final outcome is still unknown.
Serbia remains one of the few states that did not introduce sanctions against Moscow. After Vucic’s re-election, do you think Belgrade will have to change its course or will the dependency on Russian oil and gas and the historical ties with Russia prevail?
For the Serbian authorities, who for years have consistently stoked pro-Russian sympathies and anti-Western and anti-NATO resentments, a U-turn in foreign policy and retreat from supporting Russia is a very difficult task as the majority of the population is against it.
However, if Russia is permanently internationally isolated, it will cease to be an effective defender of Serbian interests, especially about Kosovo and Bosna and Hercegovina. Once Western restrictions were implemented, the benefits of economic cooperation also decreased significantly and the policy of ensuring energy security and access to cheap fossil fuels by close ties with Russia is a failure. Moreover, Belgrade’s attitude towards Russia’s aggression negatively affects Serbia’s credibility as an EU candidate, and regional leader as its closest partner – Albania and North Macedonia – condemned Russian aggression. The West also started to pay more attention to growing Serbian revisionism in the form of the idea of Srpski Svet (Serbian World), promoted by governing elites. Now, we can observe a change in Russia’s narrative in pro-government tabloids. It could be at first sight that Belgrade will distance from Moscow. However, some parts of governing elites owe considerable economic gains to cooperation with Russia. The condition of gas supplies in the new contract with Gazprom is currently under negotiation and the composition of the new government will give a clearer picture of how Serbia is heading – West or East.
In Bosnia, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik is also blocking BiH sanctions against Russia. At the same time, the Russian embassy is more and more active in undermining the work of the OHR and in supporting the secessionist moves of Banja Luka. Are you concerned about the country’s situation, taking into account the general elections planned this year?
Not only Milorad Dodik tried to take advantage of the lack of West interest in the region to proceed with the secession of Republika Srpska. Also, Dragan Covic – the leader of the Croatian nationalist party HDZ BH, has been pushing for creating a “third entity” by threatening to boycott the elections. Using his position as an EU and NATO member, Zagreb is strongly supporting him in achieving this goal. Both US and the EU seem to be aware of the risks to this fragile country institution of Bosna and Hercegovina since the military present in this country was increased but still has no clear strategy regarding Bosnia’s future. Moreover, the EU mission in BH is also at risk as Russia will most probably block the extension of its mandate at the United Nations this fall. This situation also significantly challenges Dodik ahead of the election. He always won the election by increasing the interethnic tensions to mobilise voters. In the current circumstances, this would likely provoke a sharp reaction from the West, but being afraid of losing power, he can continue pulling Respublika from national institutions, endangering the stability of the country.
French President Macron was re-elected in April. Could we expect an acceleration of the EU integration process in the Balkans during the French presidency of the EU? And how dangerous are new delays on this front?
The region urgently needs to renew the engagement of UE and NATO The credibility of the enlargement policy has to be rebuilt. Unfortunately, despite many declarations of importance of the Western Balkans from UE officials and politicians of the member states these words are not translated into actions. Moreover, there is also high risk that the war on Ukraine will further decrease the EU’s capacity for active engagement in the region.
In past years France was very reluctant toward enlargement blocking not only the opening of negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia but also visa liberalization for Kosovo, which was very detrimental to the credibility of EU policy towards the region. Paris approach to candidate countries is also very transactional – it is visibly less critical towards these, with whom has a very profitable economic cooperation, that is Serbia. France never pays much of attention to genuine democratic transformation in the region. So unfortunately, I don’t expect much from the French presidency. In the absence of active EU engagement, Balkan societies will become more disillusioned and frustrated, the region’s democratic decline will accelerate and state capture will be reinforced. Moreover, the ability of the EU to influence situation in the region will decline further, and Western Balkans societies will become more prone to Russian anti-western propaganda.
The Balkans are still out of the EU. The region is highly dependent on Russian energy, the Chinese influence in the area is growing, and inflation is rising. Could we expect a significant economic and social crisis in the region without more robust EU support? What are the possible consequences?
Contrary to public perception, the economic influence of Russia in the Balkans is relatively small as EU countries are the most important trading partners and major investors. Only Serbia is an exception as Russia accounts for 3,9% of Serbian exports and 5,9% of its imports in 2021. Although Bosnia and Hercegovina, North Macedonia and Serbia are highly dependent on Russian gas, only the latter needs larger amounts of gas.
But the region needs emergency support to the energy sector since all of them are supplied via the Turkish Stream from Bulgaria, and Russia decided to halt the supplies to this country, so the security of gas supply to the region is at risk. Without EU support, investments in energy diversification and infrastructure that reduce the dependencies of the region on Russia and ensure affordable energy will be impossible.
Moreover, there is also a severe risk that spill over effects from the war in Ukraine – higher energy prices and shortages of food would lead to profound economic and social hardship, given negative effects of the pandemic have already weakened the fragile economies of the region. In Albania and Montenegro tourism sector, which generate a large part percentage of GDP, is expected to be a hard hit as the number of Russian and Ukrainian tourists increased significantly over the last few years. This economic crisis may fuel identity politics, exacerbate populism and strength anti-European forces, especially if the region is left without significant EU support. Consequently, the Western Balkans can become more authoritarian, more unstable and far less palatable to the EU and without any opportunities for swift democratisation in the foreseeable future.