BOOK REVIEW: Russia plays a weak hand strongly in Southeast Europe

BOOK REVIEW: Russia plays a weak hand strongly in Southeast Europe
Serbian President Aleksander Vucic is a frequent visitor to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
By Clare Nuttall in Belgrade December 5, 2017

At a time when scrutiny of Russia’s overseas influence is growing worldwide — from the investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 US election to Moscow’s military intervention in Syria — Dimitar Bechev's exploration of Russia’s relationship with its near neighbours in Southeast Europe is highly relevant.

In “Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe”, Bechev examines Russian relations with the countries of the Balkan peninsular and Turkey since the fall of communism, looking at Moscow’s strategic goals in the region and how it has used the resources at its disposal to achieve them, and conversely the motives behind the states in the region in their dealings with the East European major power.

One of the key messages from “Rival Power” is the pragmatism and lack of idealism on both sides, which goes against alternative theories of engagement based on historic solidarity and pan-Slavism. This also contrasts with the ideologically-driven Russian foreign policy in both Tsarist and Communist times.

Instead, “what transpires … is often crude opportunism”, writes Bechev, a research fellow at the Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies at the University of North Carolina and non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He adds that “as long as there is a scope for the deal, the price is right, and the opposite party can deliver on commitments, Moscow is open for business”.

Similarly, the engagement of governments in regions such as the Western Balkans with Russia is motivated to a large extent by political gain and economic profit, and their leaders are “far from passive objects of Russian policies, much less Moscow’s pliant instruments”.

Bechev devotes sections of the book to the various countries in the region: the Western Balkans, EU and Nato members Romania and Bulgaria, Greece and Cyprus as “the core of the pro-Russia camp in the EU, and — perhaps most interestingly — Turkey.

Winning over Ankara, says Bechev, is one of Russia’s most significant achievements in Southeast Europe, as he charts the “highly complex and ambivalent relationship” between the region’s two major economies that has combined rivalry within the post-communist space (a race early on and decisively won by Russia) and the Middle East, with “growing levels of economic interdependence, a partial overlap of strategic interests, and a shared love-hate relationship with Europe and the West”.

Under the two strongman presidents, Vladimir Putin in Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, this relationship blossomed and while it was tested by their opposing views on Syria and Turkey’s downing of a Russian bomber, the recent rapprochement has proved the bond’s resilience.

One of the critical points made in “Rival Power” is that Russia has been in a relatively weak position in Southeast Europe vis a vis the Western powers, especially the EU. Governments across the region, even close allies such as Bulgaria and Serbia, have made no secret of the fact that they value their membership in or future accession to the EU above their relations with Russia.

Still, Russia has managed to claw its way back from its weak position after the end of the Cold War, and the scars left by the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s, to make firm friends across Southeast Europe even in countries that are firmly in the Western camp.

To achieve this, the country that historically had an “unflinching belief in hard power” used a combination of tools ranging from the military buildup in the Black Sea, to less conventional levers such as using its position as the major gas supplier to the region and the use of soft power instruments to sway local populations in its favour. “The essence of [Moscow’s] policy is playing a weak hand the best possible way,” Bechev says.

“Russia is not in a position to challenge and roll back the EU, draw red lines for the United States, or control the foreign policy of other states, but it can manipulate and rally public opinion in its favour,” he writes. While this doesn't mean Moscow can achieve goals such as keeping countries from the region out of Euro-Atlantic organisations — witness the failed campaign to prevent Montenegro from joining Nato — Russia’s actions are “just enough to muddy the waters and put Europe and, to a lesser degree, the United States, under constant pressure”.

Looking at Russia’s position in the region over the last two and a half decades, Bechev argues that its influence reached its zenith with the planned South Stream project, a time when “the whole of Southeast Europe appeared to be Russia’s stomping ground”.

Not only would this have cemented its position as the gas supplier for the region, it would also have embedded Russia more deeply with local elites. “What works in Russia’s favour is not the development of strategic infrastructure but rather the pervasive state capture in the energy sector across Southeast Europe,” he writes.

After South Stream was scrapped, Russian influence started to wane, a situation that is likely to continue as more countries in the region edge towards membership of the EU. Yet Moscow’s influence in the region remains “real and easily observed”.

In the last two years, the West has also been weakened, creating new opportunities for Russia to assert itself, especially in the Western Balkans, thanks to both the fragility of democratic regimes in a region that has seen a slide towards authoritarianism in some quarters, and the “weakening pull of the West in the age of Brexit and Trump”.

Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe, by Dimitar Bechev, was published in 2017 by Yale University Press.