Russia in the Balkans
The Balkans at the Epicentre of International Developments
Russia in the Balkans
The Balkans at the Epicentre of International Developments
Without any trouble, every Russian can learn every little detail about the Germans, French, English, Italians, Turks and Americans. It would appear that only strange peoples live abroad. However, far away to the west and south-west from the borders of the Russian state, there are peoples whose speech is understandable to a Russian, whose ancestors were one tribe with the ancestors of Russians, and who, for the most part, are Orthodox like us and pray to God in the same language of the Russians that we do. These peoples are brothers of Russians, and they love Russians like brothers, and they are called Slavs…[1].
Alexander Hilferding, Russian historian and diplomat
This is how the Russian historian and diplomat Alexander Hilferding, who had served as a consul in Bosnia and Macedonia, posed the problem of studying the countries and peoples of the Balkan Peninsula 150 years ago. Being a proponent of the Slavophile branch of Russian public thought, he was, nonetheless, far removed from idealistic and metaphysical constructions, preferring instead to assess the situation in the region from specific and pragmatic positions. Today, Hilferding's musings and assessments would be of much use to the new generation of diplomats and experts interested in Southeast Europe.

In 2016, the new Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation was announced. The absence of such concepts as "the Balkans," "Serbia" and "Southeast Europe" in the text of the Concept clearly reflects Russia's influence and opinions on the subject. The Concept only mentions "Europe" and the "Euro-Atlantic region." Calling the Balkans a part of the Euro-Atlantic region is not entirely correct, since over recent years, the economic, political and ideological influence of other important actors in the region, including new ones, has grown significantly. These actors are primarily China, but also Turkey and several Middle Eastern states.
The presence of many actors with diverging interests in the fragmented post-conflict Balkan space demonstrates that the situation in the region would be more properly assessed not as part of the "Russia–West" or "Russia–West–China" paradigm, but within the paradigm of multilateral competition that, under certain circumstances, might devolve into the "natural condition of mankind" as described by Thomas Hobbes.
These circumstances prompt a detailed consideration of the actors present in this complicated region and their interests. Such an analysis is needed from both the theoretical and practical standpoints, as it will allow us to outline the entire range of contradictions in the region, determine the points where interests coincide and diverge for expert dialogue, and reduce the likelihood of conflicts recurring in the region. From the point of view of Russia's interests, this analysis will help assess Russia's stance in Southeast Europe with greater precision and help develop a strategy for interacting with the countries of the region.

The Balkans are also important for Russia–Europe, Russia–EU and Russia–NATO relations. In the future, this region may hold a significant place in the emerging architecture of relations with two of Russia's neighbours: China and Turkey. The people in this region are culturally close and politically sympathetic to Russia, and are not concentrated in Serbia alone, but in other countries as well [2]. Consequently, this is where Russia's stance can find the greatest understanding and support.

However, Russia does not have as much influence in the Balkans as the Western media would traditionally have us believe pushing its "Russian threat" narrative. Montenegro's accession to NATO in 2017 and the expansion of the Alliance's military infrastructure and logistics into Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina reflect the problems and drawbacks in Russia's foreign policy. If in the 2000s, Russia's task was to "stop NATO's expansion," then the country risks failing in this task now. The inclusion of Serbia – Russia's strategic partner– in these processes additionally complicates the picture and makes Russia an "obstacle" from the point of view of Euro-Atlantic integration. Equally, the increasing presence of Turkey, several Arab countries and China blurs the "historical" presence in the region, making it less significant and more of a "cultural and folkloric" phenomenon, although here too Moscow's influence is not entirely clear [3].

Today, the Russian strategy, which is based on a reactive approach and the singling out of exclusive partners, can only provide limited response to these challenges. This requires an inclusive approach that would be based on a broad vision of regional development and the dynamics of the changes taking place. This paper is dedicated to developing such an approach.
Russia in the Balkans
Southeast Europe Today
"…There are, therefore, seven peoples abroad, whose speech sounds like ours and who call us brothers; we, however, know nothing of them, but we know things about strange peoples, about the French, Germans, Americans and Turks. Why is that so?

"First, because Slavs abroad do not form separate states, but are under the power of other peoples, partially Germans and partially Turks. Germans and Turks dominate the Slavs' lands and rule them, and this is why we only hear about Germans and Turks, and what happens to Slavs under their rule is less noticeable.

"Second, too many people in Russia are used to seeing the Lord's world not as it is, but as foreigners, that is, the French, English and Germans show it to us, as we think to borrow all kinds of clever things from them. Foreigners attempts to speak as little as possible about Slavs in order to hide them as much as possible from our eyes and from the eyes of the whole of humanity. That is precisely their intent, particularly the intent of Germans, and it is very easy to discern that intent… Foreigners are afraid that these eight million Slavs will be our friends, because it would make Russia even stronger. The purpose of the French, and particularly of the English and Germans, is for us to shun Turkish Slavs; they want the Turkish Slavs to stop pinning their hopes on Russia…" [4].
Alexander Hilferding, Russian historian and diplomat
#5aThat was the situation in Southeast Europe in 1860 as seen from imperial St. Petersburg. Centuries pass, empires pass into oblivion… How should we assess the situation in the Balkans today?

In the regional dimension, the key issues are the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina (the problem of centralization and the problem of Republika Srpska) and Macedonia (the problem of changing its name and the problem of its relations with its neighbours). Changes in those republics, as in the situation with bringing Montenegro into NATO in 2015–2017, are implemented under the slogan of combatting the "subversive Russian influence." The Kosovo situation is a special problem, as is that of the Serbian minority in the north of the region, which acquired a new dimension after the Brussels Agreement was signed on April 19, 2013. [5]

In macro-regional terms, the situation in Southeast Europe is defined by a combination of the region's growing transit significance and its peripheral socioeconomic standing.
The regional situation comprises several components:
Developments within the European Union
The economic imbalance of the European Union, the centre-periphery problem and the crisis of the two-party system are the circumstances that have a direct or indirect impact on the state of the political system in the Balkan countries, the economic dynamics and the growth of Euro-scepticism. The 2008 economic crisis laid bare the grave internal problems characterized by growing foreign debt, high unemployment [6], rising utility prices and the peripheral nature of the economic system. In the first half of the 2000s, Eastern and Western Europe was moving towards closing the prosperity gap. That trend has come to an end. As a consequence, the problem of economic migration is exacerbating. The population drain from the southeast periphery into the leading countries of the European Union delivers a particularly grave blow to economically significant agricultural regions of the Balkans [7]. Problems with border control, cross-border crime and illegal migration are getting worse.
Simultaneously with these developments, the region is entering the infrastructure renewal phase
This renewal is stimulated both by the European Union and external actors, such as China (through the acquisition of 51 percent of the shares in the Port of Piraeus), Russia (Russian Railways' projects in Serbia), the United States and Turkey (building a motorway in Kosovo and the Belgrade–Sarajevo highway), the Arab Emirates (the "Belgrade Waterfront" project), etc. Although the renewal process is mostly a game of catch-up and perhaps a half-hearted endeavour, it is a reality and it transpires in all countries connected to the so-called European Corridor X (Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia). Economic investments may be tied to political obligations to the local elites, and not only on the part of the European Union, which ties its economic aid to commitments to carry out political and legal reforms.
On the whole, the Balkans are regaining their transit role
The Balkans are becoming an important area from the point of view of the "Silk Road Economic Belt," China's project for delivering Chinese goods to Europe. Significant progress has been made on the Turkish Stream project. This is why Greece should now be counted as part of the Balkans – as the "point of entry" for China's logistics and for Russia–Turkey and European gas pipelines.
The Balkans are becoming an area in which the interests of global actors and non-state actors intersec
Since the early 1990s, Turkey has been boosting its standing in the region. In the 2000s, Russia bolstered its economic and investment presence in the Balkans. In the 2010s, China increased its regional presence. Middle Eastern countries have made major investments.

The conflict in Syria and the emergence of Islamic State raised the problem of refugees and Islamic militarized units seeking a way to Europe via the Balkans. Finally, the influence of criminal groups connected with trafficking in weapons, drugs and other prohibited goods is traditionally high. Given the political instability, these organizations – the structure of which is stable due to its flexibility – could become an important factor determining the regional agenda.
The unstable domestic political situation
Since 2010, virtually, all the countries in the region, from Slovenia and Croatia in the north-west to Bulgaria in the south-east, have faced some form of political crisis [8]. Along with socioeconomic problems, this fact has laid bare the problems in state governance and development, the quality of political elites and institutions, and the level of popular support.

Problems and threats stemming from "Europe's soft underbelly" force Brussels to not hurry with the European integration of the Balkans and to consider options of preserving the situation. The last four years have shown that the policies of Brussels prioritize finding solutions to the problems of the "Yugoslavian legacy" (territorial and border disputes, the Kosovo question, the Macedonian issue) to the detriment of economic development and building civic and legal institutions. As a consequence, qualitative modernization of the region is being delayed. According to the "Juncker Plan" made public in February 2018, admitting new Balkan countries to the European Union (specifically, Serbia and Montenegro) is only possible after 2025.
Ultimately, the current situation can be defined as a combination of two contradictory trends. On the one hand, there is the trend of building transit routes, both logistics routes (One Belt – One Road, Corridor X) and energy routes (the Turkish Stream, the TAP gas pipeline, regional interconnectors). On the other hand, there is the prospect of creating the Balkan buffer zone that protects Europe both from the traditional Balkan problems and from an alternative political influence.
Russia in the Balkans
Interests of the Leading Actors
Today, nine actors have detectable influence in the region, each differing in their significance, capabilities and goals. For the sake of clarity, let us call them "play makers" (those who set the tone), "flanking players" (those who exercise significant, yet non-systemic influence) and "role players" (whose role and tasks are either situational or poorly predictable). Such division appears provisional, but it largely reflects the real balance of powers.

It is clear that the United States, the European Union and China have the greatest capabilities for influencing the situation in Southeast Europe, and it would be proper to call them "leading actors" or "play makers."

Traditionally, the United Kingdom, Turkey and Russia have major influence in the region. Due to their geographical location, as well as their political and economic influence, they would be properly classified as "second-order actors" or "flanking players."

Simultaneously, one can discern the influence of the Visegrád Group with the participation of Austria, as well as the Arab oil countries, which in the future may claim the role of "second-order actors," but today, they are rather "role players."

The so-called "non-state actors" (Islamists, refugees, organized crime groups, semi-systemic and non-systemic political forces) form a separate category. Without having full-fledged agency, they are, nonetheless, an integral part of the region. For that reason, they can be called "wild cards." Due to their specifics, "wild cards" can act both in conjunction with each other and interact with actors of a higher order. The presence of "wild cards" increases the level of unpredictability in the region.
Play makers
1) Boosting its economic presence in Central and Southeast Europe; advancing alternative energy projects; creating its own logistic chains.

2) Establishing new political interaction mechanisms in the region.

3) Expanding its military presence through establishing new military bases in Albania, Greece and other countries of the south-east. Re-grouping NATO's south flank in the future.
European Union
1) Political stability in the region; settling territorial disputes; becoming involved in the integration paradigm but without membership guarantees. Preventing the shaping of a broad Euro-sceptic bloc of the countries of Central and Southeast Europe.

2) Decreasing the "external actors" factor; undermining Russia's influence; stabilizing the influence of China, Turkey and Middle Eastern countries.

3) Creating a new economic paradigm for the regional countries wishing to accede to the European Union. Advancing alternative energy projects. Creating a working logistics route in the Mediterranean region of Turkey (Corridor X).
1) Expanding political and economic presence in the areas where the United States and the European Union have influence.

2) Implementing the "One Belt – One Road" concept; implementing related infrastructure, modernization and investment projects.

3) Increasing the region's transit significance.
Flanking players
United Kingdom
1) Advancing its own mechanisms for interacting with the European Union and NATO via the EU's Berlin Process, the Kosovo Force (KFOR) and European Union Force (EUFOR) missions and the High Representative's Executive Office in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

2) Undermining the influence of Russia and "external actors."

3) Promoting U.S. plans; expanding opportunities for exercising the United Kingdom's own economic and political influence.
1) Expanding its political influence in the Balkans: creating room for manoeuvre in its relations with the United States, the European Union, China and Russia.

2) Expanding its cultural and economic influence, "Ottomanizing" the region.

3) Promoting the Turkish Stream project, becoming involved in trans-national logistics projects, creating its own logistics system.
1) Preserving its economic presence in the region. Connecting to regional transit projects in order to increase its role in the global economy.

2) Preserving its historically conditioned political and cultural influence.

3) Moving away from the confrontation paradigm, searching for models of non-conflict interaction with the European Union and NATO.
Role players
The Visegrád Group
1) Becoming involved in integration processes and speeding up the membership of the Balkans countries in the European Union; in the future, creating a Euro-sceptic opposition within the European Union.

2) Implementing Central European economic and political initiatives (the Three Seas Initiative, the Western Balkans Fund).

3) Increasing the level of protection against terrorist and humanitarian threats.
Arab Oil Countries
1) Establishing their own mechanisms for selling hydrocarbons in Southern, Central and Southeast Europe (including via the Turkish Stream).

2) Expanding their economic presence in Europe; becoming involved in trans-continental and logistics projects.

3) Expanding their humanitarian and cultural presence.
Wild cards
Non-State Actors
1) Using regional transit routes, establishing trans-national criminal groups.

2) Expanding the demographic and material base for terrorist movements; promoting radical and populist ideas.

3) Advancing the interests of external actors using "indirect methods" [9].
Thus, the region has three groups of actors ("leading" actors, "second-order actors," "entrants" and "wild cards"). The presence of a certain "hierarchical" element entails actors of different levels interacting in order to advance their interests.

Although this configuration has structural elements (the expansion of the European Union and NATO), one cannot fail to notice that the interests of leading actors (primarily of the United States and the European Union) are not fully identical. Thus, the interests of the United States are more pragmatic and selfish and they affect the military and political sphere, while the European Union is forced to deal with issues of economic development and political settlement. In economics and energy, the United States is more of a "spoiler" in relation to the European Union, while Russia and Turkey could claim the role of a "constructive partner." These circumstances untie China's hands, which is left to implement its own action plan in the region.

Since Russia is a second-order actor in the emerging structure of interactions, its most apparent role is that of a partner of one of the "higher" actors (the United States, China and the European Union). Still, hypothetically, alternative configurations are also possible.
1. Hilferding A. F. Slavic Peoples in Austria and Turkey. St. Petersburg, 1860 // Alexander Hilferding. Russia and Slavdom. Moscow, 2009, pp. 33–34.
2. The results of a sociological survey conducted by the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (Beogradski centar za bezbednosnu politiku) in March 2017 show that 36 percent of respondents consider Russia's influence on Serbia's foreign policy unequivocally positive (compared to 9 percent for Germany, 7 percent for the European Union and 2 percent for the United States). In addition, 23 percent of respondents support a political union between Russia and Serbia political union, while 32 percent are prepared to vote in favour of joining the Eurasian Union. See Stavovi građana o spoljnoj politici Srbije. 08.03.2017, pp. 15–25.
3. The problem of the autocephaly of the Ukrainian church visibly demonstrates the trend towards the fragmentation and complication of the Eastern Christian space. This issue may be placed in the context of the problem of Montenegro's autocephalous Orthodox Church and the Macedonian Orthodox Church, which are not recognized by the Serbian Orthodox Church. Author's note.
4. Hilferding A. F. Slavic Peoples in Austria and Turkey. St. Petersburg, 1860 // Alexander Hilferding. Russia and Slavdom. Moscow, 2009, pp. 33–34.
5. The Brussels Agreement or the Agreement on the Normalization of Relations between Belgrade and Pristina contains 15 items that entail creating a single centralized judicial system and security bodies with moderate autonomy in Kosovo (the Association of Serb Municipalities) and guaranteeing certain presence in governmental agencies to Serbs living mostly in the north of Kosovo. Individual articles of the agreement pertain to settling energy and telecommunications issues. Article 14 states that neither signatory shall block or encourage others to block the other party's progress to the European Union.
6. For instance, the unemployment rate in prosperous Slovenia was 11.6 percent in 2015, with 13.5 percent of the population living below poverty line. The unemployment rate in Serbia is 18.9 percent, and 19.5 percent of the Croatian population live below poverty line. See: CIA. The World Factbook.
7. For Croatia, Slavonia (East Croatia) is such a region. In 2011–2018, the population of East Croatia shrank from 806,000 to 755,000. The principal reason is economic migration to Western European countries. Croatian demographic analysts estimate that, by 2030, the population of Slavonia will have shrunk to 656,000, and the share of the population over 65 will be double that of the share of the population under 14, which restricts the manufacturing capacities in agriculture and industry. See Može i gore: do 2030. Slavonija će izgubiti još sto tisuća stanovnika. Večernji List. 22.01.2018.
8. The debt crisis in Greece struck in 2010. In February–March 2013, an energy crisis erupted in Bulgaria as a result of an increase in electricity prices (due to the decision made in March 2012 to freeze the construction of the Belene NPP). The crisis resulted in large-scale social protests and the resignation of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov on March 12, 2013, although he was soon re-elected to office. Against this background, the changes that took place in Slovenia passed unnoticed and without much consternation: in 2014, the old parties lost the elections and an entirely new middle-of-the-road party of Prime Minister Miroslav Cerar came into power, announcing that Slovenia needed "new political culture" and that the two-party system had outlived itself. In 2014 and 2016, mass protests took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The 2014 protests, dubbed the "Bosnian Spring" (February 3–10, 2014), affected the Muslim part of Bosnia. On May 14, 2016, the capital of Republika Srpska, Banja Luka, became a centre of protest activities. Two parallel rallies took place in the country, for and against President of Republika Srpska Milorad Dodik. On September 27, 2015, protests started in Montenegro. At the same time, a government crisis was developing in Croatia, where the parliamentary elections in November 2015 and September 2016 (early elections) were accompanied with certain difficulties in forming coalitions. In essence, over that period, Croatia had no working government. Soon after a government had been formed, another problem appeared – the bankruptcy of Agrokor, the country's largest state-owned company, which, according to estimates, was worth 15 percent of Croatia's GDP. In the first half of 2016, four major rallies took place in Serbia for different reasons: the signing of the NATO Support and Procurement Organisation (NSPO) Agreement; the dubious results of the parliamentary elections; and protests against the Belgrade Waterfront construction project. In 2017, the day after Aleksandar Vučić won the presidential elections on April 2 (55 percent), protests started and lasted for 58 days (April 3–May 31, 2017).
9. As seen by the English historian B. Liddell Garth. See, for instance, B. Liddell Hart. The Strategy of Indirect Action. Approach, 1999. pp. 403–410.
Team leaders
Ekaterina Entina
PhD in Political Institutes, Deputy Dean, Associate Professor, Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs, Higher School of Economics, Senior Research Associate, Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences, RIAC Expert
Alexander Pivovarenko
PhD in History, Senior Research Associate, Institute of Slavonic Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, RIAC Expert
Authors: Students at the Higher School of Economics
Ivan Borisov. Regina Mustafina, Marina Maksimenko, Masrur Rizaev, Anna Smirnova, Yulia Tyushkevich, Alena Fedorenko, Klavdia Chernilevskaya.