(Origins and goals of Russian influence in the Balkans, recommendations for its limitation – Speech by Dr Orhan Dragaš at the Rose-Roth seminar of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, 16.11.2021.)
Respected colleagues, dear friends
Thank you for the opportunity to speak at this important gathering today, and I am especially pleased that it was organized on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of Serbia’s accession to the Partnership for Peace Program, which I deeply believe is one of the most important strategic decisions of both Serbia and NATO in the last few decades.
In the next few minutes, I will try to answer the topic, which I gladly accepted from the organizers, considering that I dealt with it a lot in my research, as well as through the activities of the Institute of which I am the founder and director, and that is Russian influence in the Balkans. The shortest answer to the questions – whether this influence exists and what it is in its nature could be – Yes, it has existed for a very long time, it is now negative, and I would add that it has been negative since it existed. I want to go a step further, and make an assessment of whether this impact will exist in the future and what it will be by nature – I am convinced that it will exist for many years to come and that it will be negative all that time. These are, in my opinion, constants that will follow us in the coming years and decades, and we should not expect that this influence will disappear or change its nature. The real question is – how can the Balkans create resistance to that influence, to the extent that it will not disturb its progress and full integration into the European cultural and civilizational zone, to which it truly belongs.
It is most often said that Russian influence in the Balkans manifests itself in three forms – through historical, cultural and identity ties, then through the economy and finally from the aspect of security, that is, geopolitics. It mostly coincides with this, but I will pay a little more attention to the economic, security and geopolitical aspects of Russia’s interest in this region, because I consider them essential and the only one that Moscow has towards this area. As for the first aspect, cultural-historical-identity, I believe that it is fabricated and not authentic, that in itself does not represent any interest for Russia, except as an effective means to reach the remaining two levers of influence in the Balkans.
As for the Balkans, and above all Serbia and Montenegro, that alleged feeling of cultural, identity closeness with Russia, comes from the sphere of myth, and not as a reflection of real historical closeness and a sense of belonging to a common cultural identity. Apart from the legend of the eternal Serbian-Russian brotherhood, none of today’s living generations can provide tangible proof of their personal or collective closeness to Russia. Simply put, people in the Balkans do not have personal contact with anything that is Russian – they did not travel to that country, nor did they welcome guests from Russia. They did not study or work in Russia, they did not go on tourist visits, they never bought any Russian product, they have no friendships, and some business connections date back only about 10 to 15 years. The feeling of closeness with Russia was imposed through the local conservative, pro-Russian policies from the 19th century until today. This feeling is not even pro-Russian. It is essentially anti-Western, in a cultural sense, and its intention is to oppose progress, democracy and all its institutions. That essence of Russian influence has been preserved to this day and will remain present in the future.
I will not elaborate further, but I just want to emphasize that this is a very strong lever of Russian influence, which Moscow uses very skillfully and persistently, and I must admit with great success. This is a field of sentiment, and propaganda and the so-called “soft power” pass through it, and especially the hybrid influence through misinformation, the amount of which is really huge. I will end with a small reminder that all state visits from Russia to Serbia were at the highest level, coming either at the time when the anniversary of the victory in the Second World War was being marked, or on the anniversary of the beginning of the NATO bombing. Check the calendar for the last 15 years or so, and you will see Putin, Medvedev or Lavrov in Belgrade unmistakably on one of these two dates. The message should be – Remember who set you free and who your friend was when it was hardest for you.
Russia’s position in the Balkans has fluctuated greatly in recent years. At this moment, they can be satisfied in Moscow, because the pendulum of influence is shifting to their side. Let’s go back just a few steps – to 2016 or 2017. Russia lost in the Balkans wherever it appeared, and I will concentrate on the then Macedonia and Montenegro. At that time, Russia invested huge political, financial, and even intelligence resources to secure the positions of its ally in Macedonia, the then Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, that is, to prevent Montenegro from crossing the threshold and joining NATO at any cost. It lost on both fronts and it lost convincingly. The extremely pro-European and pro-NATO government of Prime Minister Zaev came to power in Skopje. In Montenegro, political tensions over NATO membership lasted for months, culminating in an attempt to overthrow the government by force on the day of the elections in October 2016.
I very purposefully draw a parallel between these two events, because in them official Moscow did not even try to camouflage what outcome it expected, so it used different qualifications for street demonstrations in Podgorica and Skopje: Western mercenaries marched in Skopje, and authentic representatives of people against the corrupt government in Podgorica. Defeat followed in both places at a great price. Montenegro survived the most serious attack on its sovereignty, soon became a member of NATO, and Russia had to withdraw.
Today, in both countries, Russia has managed to regain its position, first through the victory of its allies in last year’s elections in Montenegro, and recently with the defeat of the coalition around Zoran Zaev in the local elections in Macedonia. In both cases, the huge responsibility for returning Russia to strong positions in this part of the region goes to the European Union, partly NATO and the United States.
Zoran Zaev’s government is directly destabilized by the European Union’s reluctance to open accession talks, despite all of Skopje’s efforts to return to the European track after years of lagging behind. On the other hand, the narrow election victory of pro-Russian parties in Montenegro was celebrated as a confirmation of democracy and change of government, and not as an entry into the scene of conservative, anti-Western forces, which seek revision of all previous decisions that reformed Montenegro, brought it to NATO and at the very door of membership in the European Union. Ultimately, the new authorities are pushing for a renunciation of state independence and for Montenegro to return to its former state alliance with Serbia.
As for Serbia, as the largest and most influential country in the region, Russian influence, or at least the effort to achieve that influence, is proportional to the importance that Serbia has in the regional framework. So it is strong, versatile and long term. I will not go far into the past and I will focus on the economic, political and geostrategic aspects, that is, those aspects in which Russia is exclusively interested. An important milestone in establishing Russia’s influence in Serbia occurred in early 2008, with the conclusion of the Energy Agreement, when Serbia gave over its huge natural, technological and economic resources to Russia. That agreement sealed Serbia’s long-term energy dependence, and at the same time opened a big door for other types of influence, primarily corrupt and destabilizing. At that time, NIS, Serbian multinational oil and gas company, was sold for about three times lower price, as shown by two independent studies on the assessment of the value of the company, which were ordered by the government itself.
There is no doubt that this catastrophic business, driven by the then political interest, that Russia, as an influential state, and above all as a permanent member of the Security Council, is tied as an ally on the most difficult political issue for Serbia, and that is Kosovo.
For 13 years now, NIS has been the center of Russian negative influence in Serbia. From its economic strength, a de facto monopolist on the oil market in Serbia, but also a huge player in the region, come the financial levers of Russia’s influence on economic and political flows in the country and the region. NIS is a direct transmission of Moscow’s political, economic and intelligence interests in this area, and it achieves that in the gray zone of sponsoring those activities that fit into Russia’s state strategy in the Balkans.
The range of these activities is very wide, ranging from holding memorials, sponsoring influential media, including the highest-circulation dailies, which in turn pursue highly pro-Russian and anti-Western editorial policies, through a range of anonymous and unregistered online platforms, as a powerful channels for spreading misinformation, and even to fan groups known for violence and illegal business. I will only remind you how Vladimir Putin was welcomed at the Red Star Stadium in 2011, where he briefly appeared in the company of the “Night Wolves” biker club, when thousands of fans enthusiastically shouted, and at the same time insulted the then President of Serbia Tadić. Because of that organized spectacle in his honor, Vladimir Putin did not go to the University of Belgrade, where they prepared an honorary doctorate for him. And yes, it all happened on March 23, the day before the anniversary of the beginning of the NATO bombing of Serbia.
As for the attitude of political factors in Serbia towards Russia and its influence, I will try not to talk about it in black and white tones, as it is usually done and it is usually wrong. There is no doubt that the government in Serbia and President Vučić, as by far the most influential political figure, nurture a very close relationship with Moscow, and in my opinion it is illusory to expect great changes in that sense. There is no particularly rational reason for that. Regardless of the fact that the economy of Serbia, but also of all other countries in the region, is largely tied to the economies of the European Union, trade and especially energy cooperation are huge and currently have no alternative.
At the political level, Russia is a factor seen in Belgrade as the most influential protector of its interests around Kosovo on the world stage. On the other hand, Serbia’s interest in this issue conflicts with Russia’s long-term interests, because unlike Belgrade, which seeks a quick solution, through compromise, Russia seeks to preserve the status quo for as long as possible, and thus a permanent focus of Serbia’s instability and stagnation in European integration. A clear inverse proportion should be seen in this process – the greater the chances of a compromise between Serbs and Albanians, the political and any other influence of Russia will decline. The reason is simple, because with the achievement of a solution for Kosovo, Russia loses an important lever of influence on Serbia, it becomes insignificant in that sense and that opens space for new distancing of Belgrade from Moscow.
When I say that I will try not to look at things in black and white, I want to point out the problem of stereotypes, which prevails in one part of the Western professional and political public, and it says that Aleksandar Vučić’s government is unreservedly turned to Russia, and that his formal pro-European politics is just a facade. According to my deep conviction, and according to the information I have, a completely identical attitude towards the authorities in Serbia exists in Moscow, where the Serbian government and the president are treated as insincere allies, because they are essentially turned to the West.
I think it is important to remind here of a few facts, which are often forgotten, or set aside because they do not fit into the usual black-and-white narrative. I will remind you that Serbia recognizes the sovereignty of Ukraine, including Crimea, from the very beginning, and Aleksandar Vučić said that in an interview with CNN in 2014, which is an unchanged state position until today. Secondly, despite enormous pressure from Russia, Serbia has never given diplomatic or official status to the staff of the Russian-Serbian humanitarian center in Niš. I will also remind you that official Belgrade provided perhaps key intelligence support to the authorities in Montenegro at a critical moment in 2016 and thus helped neutralize the attempt to forcibly overthrow the democratic government in Podgorica. I also remind you of the discovery of, for Russia, a very unpleasant spy affair two years ago, when it was determined that an agent of the Russian military intelligence service paid for sensitive information to a retired Serbian military intelligence officer. I also remind you that Serbia has joined all the decisions of the European Union regarding Belarus, including the suspension of civilian flights with that country.
On the other hand, I think that it is important to say a few words in this context about the positions of the political alternative to the current government in Serbia, because that angle is often forgotten in the black-and-white view of the relations between Serbia and Russia. My deep conviction is that the largest part of the current opposition is extremely averse to Serbia’s European integration, and a large part of it cultivates affection for Russia and its leader. Moreover, some of these parties and movements are undoubtedly financially and in interest tied to support from Russia, especially when it comes to conservative and right-wing groups. I will remind you that the Kremlin, through a seemingly neutral mediator and grandson of former Prime Minister Primakov, offered the Serbian president to form a technical government with the opposition in the spring of 2019, when street protests organized by Vučić’s opponents took place in Belgrade.
Finally, I would like to repeat that the essence of Russian influence in the Balkans is to maintain instability for as long as possible, the status quo in the two largest crisis areas, namely Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and thus a long and possibly lasting hold on the region outside the zone of European, and especially Atlantic integration. The examples of Montenegro a year ago and North Macedonia, while we are talking here, show that things with Russian influence are not over with the entry into NATO. In that sense, I do not expect a particularly positive view of Russia on the project of economic regional connection “Open Balkan”, which was initiated by Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia. On the contrary, I expect that Russia’s ambitions for this initiative not to come to life will be shown very openly, because it directly conflicts with its interests in the Balkans, and these are certainly not integrations of any form and scope. I wonder if there is already a response from the European Union, the United States, and even NATO to this step by Russia, which will most certainly follow.
Second, is there a serious cost-benefit analysis of how much money Western actors have invested so far in the fight against misinformation in the Balkans and what are the effects of that struggle? I haven’t seen anything like that, and I’m afraid neither have you. But both you and I have a strong impression that a huge amount of money has been invested in that effort, and that the effect is zero. At the moment, the European Union supports 14 projects in Serbia alone, the purpose of which is the fight against misinformation, and EU citizens have set aside as much as 6.5 million euros for that. Only a superficial look at the organizations that implement these programs and spend European money says that they are the same partners who receive European grants every year, but the question arises – where is the effect?
One of these partners, which the European Parliament treats in its analysis as one of the three most important initiatives to combat misinformation, has existed for a full 12 years!? Has anyone in Brussels wondered – why have we been paying for this for 12 years, if Russian misinformation factories are getting stronger, and our defense is not even visible? And should we finance the same partners for the thirteenth year, justify the report to our budget committees and not analyze the effects of this action?
The European Parliament was right when it stated in February this year that a detailed research has never been conducted in the Balkans on where the centers from which misinformation, fake news and anti-Western campaigns are broadcasted, as well as the main channels for spreading such content. What prevents the European Union, or NATO, from conducting such research, to measure the intensity and scope of these harmful effects, and on that basis to assess which means to use and through which partners to oppose them? To start from scratch, but with a clear and precise picture of who the opponent is, what his strength is and how to fight. In this way it works in the dark, by feeling and according to long-term routine, throwing millions of euros every year into futile initiatives, so that this fight is over even before it started, if something does not change.
And at the very end, and having in mind the nature of Russian influence in the Balkans and not only in the Balkans, I would like to emphasize the issue of the fight against international corruption, especially the one that is based on human rights violations. My institution and I personally advocate that Serbia and the countries of the region adopt the Magnitsky Act, and thus be in the group of the most democratic countries in which such a law already exists or is in the process. In this regard, I would like to mention that within the Institute I lead, we have prepared a model of the Law on Restrictive Measures for serious human rights violations. On that project, we collaborated with the most eminent domestic legal experts, as well as with Mr. Bill Browder and his foundation, who are credited with passing the first Magnitsky Act first in America and then in many other countries. We plan to present this legal model to the domestic and foreign public and political actors in the coming period, because we sincerely believe that it is a very effective mechanism for removing the core of what is usually called – malignant foreign influence, and that is primarily corruption that spills over into political and economic interest.
Thank you again for inviting me to speak at this exceptional conference and I remain open to any questions and discussion.