Russia’s Geopolitical Interests in the Balkans


First of all, taking into consideration the particular region of the Balkans in the context of Russia's national interests, we should consult official documents reflecting the wishes and intentions of the government. It is therefore necessary to consider Russia’s foreign policy doctrine. 

Foreign policy strategy

The Russian Federation's previous foreign policy doctrine was made public on July 15th, 2008.

Russian objectives were marked as the following: 

- Impacting global processes in order to establish a just and democratic world order based on collective principles in solving international problems and on the rule of international law, primarily the UN Charter provisions as well as equal and partner relations between states under the central and coordinating role of the UN as the main organization regulating international relations and possessing unique legitimacy;

- Forming good-neighborly relations with countries to promote elimination of existing and prevent the emergence of new hotbeds of tension and conflicts in neighboring regions with Russia and other parts of the world.

In addition, integration processes, particularly in the Euro-Atlantic region, were noted to be often selective. They are usually characterized by attempts to belittle the role of the sovereign state as a fundamental element of international relations and to divide states into categories with different rights and obligations. Such processes carry the risk of undermining the international rule of law, and are fraught with arbitrary interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states.

Another listed provision of Russia’s foreign policy strategy was strengthening Russia’s international position and resolving tasks related to the establishment of equal and mutually-beneficial relations with all countries.

Among the regional priorities in first place have been CIS and Eurasian integration. The Balkan region was not mentioned separately according to the stated interest in strengthening the EU and European institutions such as the Council of Europe. Certain countries as China and India were mentioned.

“Russia is striving to further develop relations with Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, and other leading regional states in bilateral and multilateral formats. Russian foreign policy is aimed at building up the positive dynamics of relations with the countries of Southeast Asia, especially in the development of strategic partnership with Vietnam, as well as multifaceted cooperation with Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore and other countries in the region,”  the document also says. 

The updated doctrine was published in November 2016. This document already took into consideration the changes related to the Ukrainian crisis, the sanctions, as well as new, general, global political dynamics. The point on Eurasian integration (Eurasian Economic Union) was expanded among regional priorities. The importance of the CSTO was especially marked.

In the European part of the document, there is no specific mention of the Balkan countries as members of the EU or non-members. However, in relation to other regions, such countries as Mongolia, Afghanistan, Australia, Iran, and Syria (in different aspects: from economic cooperation to security) were highlighted.

Thus, any special Russian interests in the Balkans states have not been indicated in official documents.

The Economy

There is a common misconception among liberal circles who are confident that the Russian presence in the Balkans is primarily due to the economy. But this is not that case.

It would be erroneous to assume that the Balkans is somehow seriously impactful for the economy of the Russian Federation in terms of exports or imports.

Statistics show that before the imposition of sanctions by the European Union, Russia's exports to these countries constantly declined while imports did not change significantly. This positively reflected on European economies first and foremost.

According to the Federal Service of State Statistics, the exports of the Russian Federation (in billions of dollars) for 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2013 respectively was as follows:

Bulgaria - 4.9; 3.4; 4.3; 2.2

Greece - 4.3; 2.9; 5.9; 6.2

Romania - 4.2; 2.0; 1.9; 1.6

During this time, the largest export performances of the EU countries were:

Germany -33.2; 25.1; 35.6; 37

Italy - 42; 27.4; 32.4; 39.3

Imports to the Russian Federation in the same period had the following characteristics:

Bulgaria - 0.6; 0.5; 0.7; 0.7

Greece - 0.4; 0.4; 0.6; 0.6

Romania - 1.0; 1.3; 1.7; 2.0

For comparison:

Italy - 11; 10; 13.4; 14.6

Germany - 34.1; 26.7; 38.3; 37.9

Thus, the share of the Balkan countries in the EU is quite insignificant.

An exaggerated place in Russia’s structure of foreign trade is occupied by EU countries and principally one group of commodities - oil, gas and metals.

“Petropolitics”, or geopolitics of pipelines, has been a key element in the European strategy of Russia for the past 20 years.

The Balkan area was a priority selection for the additional gas pipeline, South Stream, in Central and Eastern Europe. Initially, it was assumed that the pipeline would pass under the Black Sea to the Bulgarian coast (Varna port), where the main branch would continue to Serbia, and then to Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, and Austria. Another branch was going to be extended to Italy via Greece. Construction began in December 2012 and was expected to be completed in 2015. However, in April 2014 the European Parliament adopted a resolution which recommended abandoning the project. Thereafter, pressure from Brussels’ put on the government of Bulgaria.

In December 2014, Russia began negotiations with Turkey as the EU’s position was considered to be not constructive. The final agreement with Turkey was signed in October 2016 and ratified by the Turkish side in December 2016. Thus, Turkey became a major Russian partner for gas transit to southern Europe.

In general, the prospects of admission to the EU for some states of the former Yugoslavia, Albania, and Turkey are uncertain. This is further exacerbated by the financial and economic problems of Greece and the Eurozone in general, which creates the prerequisites for a more active Russian policy in the Balkans.

Some cultural and historical aspects

The Balkan front is clearly marked in Russian politics and ideology. To some extent, it has an idealized character because of various historical ties.

First of all, almost all the Balkan states are countries whose populations profess Orthodox Christianity.

Secondly, in the 19th century, the Russian Empire supported national liberation movements in the Balkans and participated in several wars against the Ottoman Empire.

In addition, Russia's entry into the First World War was associated with allied relations with Serbia. After the Second World War and the establishment of a US sphere of influence in Europe according to agreements, Bulgaria and Romania came under the control of the Soviet Union. Yugoslavia had long been an ally of the Soviet Union, and then Josip Broz Tito chose neutrality, thereafter becoming a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement.

However, after the collapse of the USSR and the new Balkan wars in the 1990’s, ties with Yugoslavia were strengthened as Russia supported Slobodan Milosevic's regime and many citizens of Russia fought as volunteers on the side of the Serbs.

In addition, most of the Balkan countries have a Slavic population. Although the doctrine of Pan-Slavism was used by the Russian Empire only in the 19th century, at the household level the Slavic factor continues to play a significant role.

Serbia – Russia relations in the Balkans

Russia’s friendliest relations in the Balkans are with Serbia. There is a visa-free regime and a free trade agreement between them. Large, state-owned Russian monopolies such as Russian Railways, Sberbank, Gazprom, and Lukoil (part of Serbian refineries were destroyed by the NATO bombing in 1999, and Russia took active participation in their recovery) operate on the territory of Serbia.  In addition, in the city of Nis, there is the Russian-Serbian Center for Emergency Situations, on the basis of which a full Russian military presence can be established. 

One fact that is important to note is that Russia has not recognized Kosovo's independence and sovereignty, and the region continues to be considered Serbian territory.

Russia has repeatedly provided humanitarian assistance to Serbia in the aftermath of natural disasters.

The last parliamentary elections in Serbia which took place in March 2016 showed astonishing criteria related to the election campaigns of political parties. In fact, all parties, no matter what spectrum they identified themselves with and how influential they were actually competed with each other for votes demonstrating their attitude to Russia. None of them made any critical statements against Russia, and candidates for parliament bowed to their voters with assurances of their love for Russia.

As for most of the population, regardless of age, social status or political preferences, Serbian citizens feel the need to strengthen the influence and presence of Russia in Serbia and the Balkans. People usually accuse of Aleksandar Vučić’s government for the lack of development in this direction. Vučić’s government is oriented towards the West, but does not want to lose preferences from Russia, and thus is playing a double game.

In addition, at the present time, the Serbian public is ready for a positive perception of the Eurasian Economic Union, the leader of which is Russia. The issue of Eurasian integration is now constantly being discussed in the political circles of Serbia.

In the context of relations with the Arab countries, the construction of Belgrade Waterfront project is worth mentioning. This project has received mixed assessment from average Serbs. According to the most popular opinion, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić and President Tomislav Nikolic gained personal preferences from the investors and the initiation of construction was due to numerous irregularities and corruption schemes.

Furthermore, religious identity is an important factor in Serbia. The interaction of Orthodox churches across the world can now be easily seen and traced according to the global geopolitical situation. The Orthodox churches situated in the geopolitical and geostrategic zones of Western influence (EU and NATO) are more prone to post-modernity (ecumenism and syncretism) and are more open to dialogue ecumenism based on the Orthodox world with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. The Russian Orthodox Church holds a more conservative position, and is considered by Serbia as the true carrier of the Byzantine heritage and the most firmly entrenched antipode to the ecumenical and modernist tendencies within Orthodoxy.

The other countries of former Yugoslavia

Slovenia is a kind of Russian point of entry into the EU in the Balkans, as Russia has long owned a number of large companies there. This cannot be said about Croatia, as this state has an unattractive investment climate, the existence of significant administrative barriers,and  complex state and local laws. Moreover, since Croatia joined the EU, the country has to fulfill all the demands of Brussels. Republika Srpska within Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia are prospective partners for Russia, although large Russian capital has been recently lacking in the region. However, both of these subjects are characterized by political instability. Serious attempts at foreign interference in domestic affairs by the EU, US, and NGO’s funded by George Soros are particularly noticeable in Macedonia. 

Montenegro has been considered until recently as friendly, if not at least a neutral state. In Montenegro, Russia was the leader in investments for the last 10 years. In 2010, 32% of enterprises in the country belonged to Russian businessmen.

Although Montenegro has separated from Serbia and has recently demonstrated a policy of rapprochement with the EU and NATO, Russia's influence on the country’s economy is quite significant, because the main income of the state is from the tourist industry. Moscow can exert pressure on Montenegro by recommending companies to stop selling trips to this destination. This technique worked well against Turkey when, after the incident with the downed Russian plane in November 2015, Russia imposed economic sanctions covering the main sectors (agriculture, light industry, and tourism) in which Turkish companies’ incomes comes from business with Russia. 

With regards to the regional presence of Russia, in the summer of 2012 Sberbank bought the Eastern European department of the banking group Volksbank for 600 million euros, which meant acquiring a network in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia.

The factors of loyalty and security

NATO expansion is a sensitive topic for Russia, especially when it concerns countries that are friendly or have a neutral attitude towards Russia.

In the Balkans, the main question till last time was the possible accession of Montenegro. Moreover, Serbia and Macedonia have signed a number of agreements with NATO which are considered as preconditions for closer cooperation and eventually joining the alliance. However, Russia is limited mainly to diplomatic statements and calls for compliance with the agreements and rules of international law. No attempts have been made to create a military-political counterbalance weight in the region. Besides, the Russian leadership has repeatedly stated that Russia is not going to go to war with NATO.

Deliveries of weapons systems to and military exercises with Serbia, rather, should be considered a factor of strengthening political loyalty. In addition, such is a good demonstration of the quality of Russian military equipment, as Russia is on the list of the leaders of manufacturing and selling various weapons.

Given that a number of countries in the region (especially, Macedonia, southern Serbia, including Kosovo and Metohija, as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina) are plagued with the existence of ISIS terrorist cells, Russia is regarded as a desirable partner in counter-terrorism and prevention activities. The bombings and killings in a number of EU countries have shown the incompetence of the security services of these countries. NATO is unable to prevent and eliminate such a threat. The fight against terrorism, including ISIS, has been on the priorities of Russian foreign policy and security strategy.

The West's reaction to Russia's actions in the Balkans

The West uses various methods to deal with Russia's interests in the Balkans. The most practical and effective mechanism for EU countries is to use the political pressure of the European Commission. EU officials are also trying to influence the leaderships of Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and the Republic of Srpska.

Economic competition is also an element of Russian deterrence in various forms. But European business has long been present in the Balkans and transnational companies monopolize the most strategic sectors. The engagement of Balkan (as well as other Eastern European) countries is done through the Eastern Partnership. However, this project has significantly reduced its activity over the past two years, possibly due to differences within the EU and the pan-European, multi-level crisis.

Military and political opposition is primarily conducted through NATO, since the Balkan countries, whether taken individually or together, are incapable of resisting Russian power.

In recent years, NATO, under the supremacy of U.S. influence, has carried out anti-Russian initiatives in two ways.

The first way is related to the method of hard power. It is seen in the escalation of its military presence, the regrouping of troops, and the deployment of new types of offensive weapons and mobile units. This policy takes place under the auspices of the NATO operation Atlantic Resolve, which was launched in 2014 and has no deadline for implementation. In the framework of this operation, special conditions for certain states which are part of the North-South axis of Eastern Europe (Baltic States, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria) are obviously being created.

This division recalls the concept of the “cordon sanitaire” proposed by British geopolitician Halford Mackinder during the First World War as a separation zone including the newly-formed states between Russia and Germany.

The second area relates to soft power in the framework of the NATO military structures of the alliance members. This line is done through the utilization of strategic communication tools.

Strategic communications are understood as "...the coordinated and appropriate use of NATO communications activities and capabilities – Public Diplomacy [PD], Public Affairs (PA), Military Public Affairs [MPA], Information Operations (lnfo Ops), and Psychological Operations (PSYOPS), as appropriate – in support of Alliance policies, operations and activities, and in order to advance NATO’s aims."

Such operations may include “the coup attempt” like organized in Montenegro with the subsequent accusation of Russia's involvement. Milo Djukanovic and Aleksandar Vučić are well-known to be long-time business partners (often in illegal deals). The OCCRP (Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project) included Djukanovic on the list of the most corrupt politicians in the world at the end of 2012.

All previous coups or coup attempts in the Balkans have been noticeably conducted on the initiative of the West with the support of the Soros Foundation. Russia traditionally does not use similar tools for political risk reasons and due to the different approach to international relations which is associated with Russian strategic culture.

However, a large number of publications and research show that Europe is concerned about the possible influence of Russia on the political situation in the Balkans (especially after the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis and the conflict in 2014). Meanwhile, many unresolved issues in the Balkans are linked to the previous collective decisions of the EU. For example, «The Thessaloniki declaration of 2003 is still not implemented. The Western Balkans for more than 10 years did not turn into a prospering and safe region. On the contrary – the situation in many countries of the region worsened. And the cause is: a direct short-sighted policy of the EU.»

In addition, Russia is often shown in the form of a “frightening” caricature. For example, in 2016 senior officials of NATO and a number of Western media warned that Russia was going to occupy the Baltic states and possibly Finland. Of course, such statements have no basis, and once again demonstrate the irresponsibility of a number of EU officials.

Taking into consideration the previous actions of the EU and NATO, a variety of provocations are going to be carried out against Russia in the Balkans in the near future. However, the situation could change in 2017 because of elections in a number of countries such as Germany, France, and the Netherlands, who make up the core of the EU. The patent crisis of liberal policy is supporting the growth of Eurosceptics and populists who take friendly positions towards Russia. This fact could change the balance of power not only in the Balkans, but in the EU in general. 

In conclusion, China should be noted as starting to play an important role in the Balkan region. In addition to investments in various industrial and agricultural facilities, China is the main donor of infrastructure projects as part of the new Silk Road, which implies the creation of new transport routes and logistical nodes. Such a role of the Asian giant for Russia is rather a favorable factor, as both countries are members of the SCO and share the position of building a multipolar world order. Russia is unable to use financial assets on the same scale as China, which does not put forward any political demands. This fact opens up the possibility of a choice for countries in the region on with whom to cooperate in economic terms and whom to give preferences in cultural relations.