US Comeback and Counter-measures in the Balkans

Recent political maneuvers in the Balkans indicate that the US has decided to more effectively counter growing Russian assertiveness in the Balkans. Russia has become a serious factor of destabilization in the region as the West has forsaken the region. Now the US has decided to play its card.

After the crisis over Ukraine and Crimea back in 2014, the Kremlin has taken a dangerous yet from its perspective a necessary premise in the foreign policy. Russia is actively trying to undermine the Western influence wherever it can in the world, by widening the cracks that have appeared in the Western-built international system. This new strategy implies integrated network of activities from supporting various ultra-nationalist elements across the Western world that are undermining multilateralism, financing neo-Nazi groups to well-planned cyber-attacks, spreading fake news, social media propaganda through ‘bots’, or even meddling in the elections, like in the case of the last US elections, where Russia played its card in favor of Trump’s victory. Throughout last few years Russia is conducting the same strategy in the Balkans, the most flammable region in Europe. How deep and coordinated Russian infiltration goes was seen in Montenegro where it almost ended in a coup against the government in country’s accession to NATO. The operation was conducted by the various pro-Russian groups and series of cyber-attacks against the state institutions. Luckily operation was stopped at the last moment with the US help.

A man takes pictures of a mural of Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump in Belgrade in December. REUTERS

Russia’s aspirations for presence, even domination, in the region stretch to as early as the 17th and 18th century. Russia never abandoned its hegemonic approach in the region, except for the short period of internal weakness that came with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. After a decade of passive policy in the Balkans, with the rise of Putin’s power, the Kremlin once again started building a position in the region. In the first period this reposition went chiefly economically, through gas export, but after the 2014 Ukraine crisis, Russia even started investing in its own ideological proxies. The split with the West has radicalized Kremlin’s approach to the region. Russia is now more aggressive than ever and openly backing the anti-Western elements in the region. The most evident example of this is Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, whose nationalist and secessionist stances are threatening to escalate new wars in the region. The recent developments are demonstrating how Russian support doesn’t end with backing only pro-Russian or anti-Western political leaders, but it is directly financing smaller nationalist factions like Srpska čast or Serbian honor in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Serbian honor is a group of nationalist activists who formed a ‘paramilitary formation’ that promotes the radical Serbian nationalism. Many analysts put the blame on Bosnian Serb leader Dodik for forming its own paramilitary formations, but what is more worrying is the fact the Russians might be backing fanatic groups like this one. Serbian honor is not an isolated case.

A few days ago Washington Post wrote an article how Russia is financing and training dozens of radical nationalist groups across Europe. It is even confirmed that 60 groups of this kind exist in Germany only. They are mainly organized around martial arts and sports clubs that are financed by Russia. Kremlin’s ‘deep state’ activism also includes backing of various social media profiles, YouTube channels that act as a propaganda machinery for the sake of undermining the status quo in the region, or in other words weakening the Western position. Another tool in the hands of Kremlin is a mass production of the fake news, whose harmful consequences were best seen during the US presidential elections. Probably the largest ‘fake news factory’ was identified to be in the region, in Macedonia particularly.

All in all, it appears that Kremlin doesn’t care about the consequences of supporting politicians like Dodik or nationalistic groups like Serbian honor might cause. For Russia as a hegemonic power to an extent, it is understandable to ignore the risks, but the question should be directed to those who paved the way for Russia to act in an irresponsible manner in the region. After all, they will be those who would bleed if the regional war happens, not Russia.

A wide range of coordinated activities shows that Russian involvement in the region is becoming more and more sophisticated which in turn has provoked Washington to react.

The first serious sign of US and NATO counter effort to suppress Russia’s involvement was accepting Montenegro to NATO alliance in June last year. Another hot topic is Macedonia’s name dispute with Greece. At the moment Washington is pressuring Athens to reach a deal with Skopje over the issue. Many believe the deal could be reached this year. The first step in that direction was The Friendship and Neighborhood Agreement that was ratified between Athens and Skopje on January 15. This move was welcomed by the Western diplomats. It is not hard to guess the US is behind the initiative. After the pro-Western government took over the power in Macedonia, Washington recognized that this might be the last chance to speed up Macedonia’s integration into the Alliance. That things are going in direction of Macedonia’s acceptance to the NATO alliance is confirmed by the country’s pro-Western Prime Minister Zoran Zaev who said, that the name issue is the only obstacle for his country to become a NATO member, and how he expects for Macedonia to receive an invitation to the alliance even this year. That Macedonia is at the focus of the at the moment is seen in the fact that Hoyt Brian Yee, US Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs and maybe the chief US diplomat in the Balkans, will probably become US ambassador either in Skopje or Sarajevo.

On the other hand, Montenegro’s accession to the EU is speeding up. The smallest country in the region is advancing fast in direction of becoming 29th member state as it successfully managed to open the majority of negotiation chapters. Some analysts think that new chapter could be opened this year even with Serbia, the most troubling country in the region when it comes to relations with Russia.

Another development to come where the whole region will carefully follow is Bosnian presidential elections planned for this year. What is worrying everyone is that Milorad Dodik might be a candidate for Serbian position at the presidency. This might represent a disastrous scenario for the country. On the other hand, interesting development was the announcement of the candidacy yet an unusual figure for the position of Bosniak representative at the presidency. Mirsad Hadžikadić, a Bosniak-American University professor and the director of Complex Studies Institute in Charlotte, NC will run as a candidate in the upcoming elections. Even though chances for him being a president are slim it is not hard to guess who will be US favorite in the elections. It is not the first time that Washington has a favorite candidate in the Bosnian elections, but it was never this openly. Another indication the US wants to be seen as still being present as a guarantor of stability in the region. For Hadžikadić it is not a secret that he enjoys close relations to Democratic Party, particularly Joe Biden.

On the other the position of the Croats would be critical in these elections, especially having in mind that Bosnian Croat political leader Dragan Čović is showing a soft stance when it comes to Russian meddling in the region. Čović is in unofficial alliance with Dodik, and despite Croatia being an EU and NATO member country’s president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović has displayed on few occasions that she can exceed the limits of the allowed in relations with Kremlin. US might consider making a pressure on another NATO ally here if it wants to see the benefits of the latest regional engagement.

All in all, recent moves by Washington signals the US has recognized that further delay in resolving regional lockdowns has a potential to push fragile regional countries into Russian hands. Recent developments are encouraging, but far from being sufficient to limit harmful trends, as Kremlin has upgraded its strategy.

Jahja Muhasilovic

Jahja Muhasilovic is a Ph.D. candidate at The Atatürk Institute for Modern Turkish History based at Boğaziçi University. The Institute has a multidiscipline approach to the modern history of Turkey and the neighboring region. The subject of the Ph.D. thesis is ’Turkey’s Soft Power and Public Diplomacy in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Sandzak Region’. He defended a Master Thesis on the subject of the ‘Image of the Ottomans and Turks in Bosnian History Textbooks’ and a BA Thesis on ’The Formation of Turkish Nation-State’. His area of expertise is Turkish foreign policy in the Balkans from historical, cultural, economic, political, diplomatic, sociological, as well as other aspects, about which he has numerous publications.

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