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Russia’s Soft Power in the Balkans

By Milos Rastovic

During his campaign, Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia’s newly elected president, met Russian president Vladimir Putin to discuss Russia’s trade and investment in Serbia. In a press conference after their meeting, Vucic stated that Russia’s support would include donations of armored vehicles, tanks, and planes.  

For centuries, Serbia has been Russia’s main ally in the Balkans. Because of the two countries’ traditionally close historical, cultural, and religious ties—the so-called “Slavic brotherhood”—Moscow has been able to maintain a strong foothold in the region. In the past decade, Russia has augmented its presence through soft power tools like diplomacy, energy deals, and other forms of trade. Moscow’s attempt to fill the gaps and address the inconsistencies in EU policies has had a sobering effect on Western policies in the Balkans.  

Serbia began European Union accession negotiations in 2014, but the length of the arbitration process due to the changing requirements for the Balkan candidates, combined with the EU’s shifting policies regarding Kosovo, ended the talks. The eurozone crisis in 2008 and Brexit in 2016 have also caused Western Balkan countries to reconsider their respective paths to the EU. The migrant crisis and the EU’s quota system for accepting asylum-seekers have caused alarm. The Balkan countries are already struggling to provide for large numbers of migrants at a time when their own citizens face mass unemployment and poverty. The euroskepticism that has arisen among Serbian political and intellectual elites flings the door wide open for Russia to expand its influence in the Balkans.

Russia’s activity in the region has not gone unnoticed—Federica Mogherini, EU foreign affairs commissioner, claimed, “The concern is there and it is significant. Moscow’s presumable goal is to loosen the region’s connection to the EU and present Russia as an alternative to a dissolving union.”

The European Union and the West have already established soft power in Serbia through media and diplomacy. Many Serbian outlets try to emulate their popular Western counterparts by offering reality shows, news stories that focus on Western countries, and more. The West also promotes its views through NGOs and sponsorship of cultural, athletic, and other events. These countries further increase their influence by cooperating with Serbian political and intellectual elites in areas such as EU and transatlantic policy, the NATO Partnership for Peace Program, and a NATO Individual Partnership Action Plan in 2015.

Russia, in direct response to Western activity in Serbia, started expanding its media presence in the country through Russia Today and Sputnik. Russia has tried to infuse its own values and views across the region. This has caused concern for European officials as negative perspectives regarding the EU begin to gain enough traction to shift public opinion and tip the balance of Serbian policy in Russia’s favor.

Moscow also sought to exploit a gap in EU policy with the “South Stream” project, which would create a transit route for gas between the Western Balkans and Western European countries. This project would bring Serbia thousands of new jobs, profits from the gas transit through the country, and greater energy security. The EU, meanwhile, failed to offer any other solutions for issues such as unemployment and an energy deficit. The pipeline would have helped strengthen Russia’s geostrategic position in the Balkan region and increase Balkan countries’ dependence on Russian gas. However, in 2014, Russia suspended the project because of EU requirements that would not allow the Russian supplier Gazprom, which owns a 50 percent stake in the pipeline, to also use it exclusively.

Though signing trade agreements with both the European Union in 2008 and Russia in 2000 has given Serbia a geopolitical advantage, the country’s economy is more closely tied to the European Union than to Russia. In 2011, according to the Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia, 57.6 percent of Serbia’s total exports went to the EU, compared to only 6.7 percent to Russia. Between 2005 and 2013, Russia was Serbia’s eighth-largest investor, making it a significant player but by no means the dominant economic force. On April 21 Johannes Hahn, EU Commissioner for Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, said, “A majority of Serbs still believe that Russia is the biggest investor in their country, when Austria alone invests four times more than Russia.” He argued this misunderstanding did not come from Russia, but arose because the EU does not tell its own story “with enough determination.” The EU and other Western countries have been unable to leverage their investments into political influence. Life has historically been hard in Serbia, making it difficult to coax people to trust money and affluence over culture and tradition. Russia, which has experienced similar hardships to other Slavic countries, has an advantage in connecting with the people of Serbia.

During the Cold War, the former Yugoslavia cooperated with both the East and the West. Today, Serbia has tried to pursue a similar “neutral” policy between Russia and the West. It has pursued European Union membership as well as developed economic and political relationships with both the EU and the United States. But in the meantime, Serbia has also strengthened its ties with Russia and China in order to gain their support in the U.N. Security Council regarding Kosovo’s contested status. Russia has consistently supported Serbia’s policies in the international arena—both countries argue that international law was broken when Yugoslavia was bombed in 1999 and Kosovo was recognized as a separate state in 2008. EU sanctions against Russia have also threatened the neutral stance that Serbia has historically maintained. The EU has tried to convince Serbia to impose sanctions during accession negotiations, but offered Belgrade nothing in return. In addition to the economic damage Serbia would suffer if it changed its policy toward Russia, many in the country remember it was the Soviet Union, not Europe, that came to their defense and rescued them from the horrors of Nazi occupation. Russian soldiers were buried in cemeteries across the former Yugoslavia after World War II, and monuments highlighting their contributions still stand today. Sanctions against Serbia’s former liberators are a tough sell.

The Western Balkans is on the periphery of both Russia and Western powers’ priorities, but it is here that their rivalry clearly emerges. Russia would like to keep Serbia in its zone of influence, or alternatively as a buffer that can advocate for Moscow in the European Union. The European Union and the West need Serbia for similar reasons—to extend their sphere of influence, uphold their regional policies, and create a buffer against Russia. But from Ancient Greece to today, it has always been difficult for one power to control the Balkans. Serbia will likely continue along this path, keeping channels open across its borders to both the East and West.

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Milos Rastovic is a scholar-in-residence at Duquesne University and cultural outreach coordinator at Serb National Federation, Pittsburgh, PA. He is a member of several professional societies in philosophy, political sciences, and Slavic studies.

[Photo courtesy of Vanessa Rastovic]

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