Southeast Europe is split over the issues of sanctions on Russia and military aid to Ukraine, with some states firmly in the western camp, some staying neutral and others internally torn.
Top-level political rows are currently raging in Bulgaria and Croatia – both EU and Nato members – over the scale of their support for Ukraine. There are also rifts over the approach to the war in Western Balkan countries such as Bosnia & Herzegovina and Montenegro.
In Bulgaria, President Rumen Radev and Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, until recently united in their aim of rooting out corruption, are now in open conflict. Petkov, who wants to send military aid to Ukraine, faces opposition not only from Radev, but also from the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), a member of the four-party coalition that he leads. However, the BSP backed down on May 4, and voted in favour of allowing military and technical aid to Ukraine.
Many Bulgarians are disappointed in Radev’s apparently pro-Russian position; polls show that Bulgaria’s previously pro-Russian population has turned against Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, since the invasion. Radev, however, argues he is defending Bulgaria’s interests by not allowing the country to become embroiled in the war. He even accused the government of betraying the Bulgarian interest by refusing to pay for Russian gas in rubles, which led to Gazprom’s decision to stop deliveries.
Assen Vassilev, deputy prime minister and co-leader of Change Continues alongside Petkov, called Radev’s position “disgraceful”, adding that it “implicitly includes the understanding that Russia will win this conflict and that it is normal and good for Russia to win this conflict”.
The ongoing row in Croatia pits Russia hawk Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic against President Zoran Milanovic.
The two clashed over Ukraine even before the start of the war, when Milanovic criticised Plenkovic’s visit to Kyiv in late 2021, and went on to inflame the situation when he said on January 25 that Croatian troops would not be involved in a possible escalation of tensions between Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine’s place is not in Nato, the Croatian president added.
Plenkovic was quick to point out that his statement did not represent Croatia’s official position. Ukraine’s foreign ministry responded by summoning the Croatian ambassador to the country to lodge a complaint about Milanovic’s words. A few days later, it emerged that Milanovic has been included in an online list of enemies of Ukraine compiled by the Myrotvorets website.
Since then, the long-time political opponents also argued in March over a decision by Milanovic to ban military flights above the capital Zagreb and other cities, and more recently Plenkovic argued that Milanovic has pro-Russian views. Most recently, Milanovic said he wants to block Nato membership for Sweden and Finland, calling it a “very dangerous adventure”.
Bosnia & Herzegovina
Top politicians in Bosnia & Herzegovina are also divided over the approach to the conflict. While the Bosniak and Croat members of the country’s tripartite presidency back sanctions on Russia, opposition by Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik has thwarted plans to sanction the invading country. The position is not surprising, as Dodik has long boasted about his ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
As well as preventing Bosnia from taking sanctions action, this adds to the internal tensions within Bosnia, already seen at the time of the invasion as being in a dangerous situation with potential for destabilisation. Shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, the EU policing force in Bosnia was almost doubled as a precautionary measure.
Montenegro has a vocal pro-Russian segment of the population, and the county has long been torn between its aspiration to join the EU versus ties with Russia and Serbia. At the time of the invasion the former government of Zdravko Krivokapic was backed by a broad coalition of parties including the pro-Russian Democratic Front. Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, thousands of supporters of the Democratic Front – some of them carrying flags of the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk within Ukraine – blocked roads across Montenegro.
Despite these tensions, Montenegro announced early on that it was imposing sanctions against Russia, though the government only adopted the sanctions on April 8, six weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. They included a ban on Russian state-controlled news outlets Russia Today and Sputnik. Podgorica has also expelled several Russian diplomats. Montenegro’s current leadership, President Milo Djukanovic and the newly elected Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic, who heads a minority government, are firmly pro-western.
Firmly in the western camp
These internally divided nations contrast with the firmly pro-western positions of states like Albania, Kosovo and Romania, where there is broad cross-party support for sanctions on Russia.
The war has brought Russian forces close to its border, and Romania – like Moldova and other frontline states – has received tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees. Nato support for Romania has been stepped up since the outbreak of war as the alliance bolsters its eastern flank. In terms of economic support, Romania is making its Black Sea ports available to Ukrainian grain exporters who can no longer use the ports in their own country.
In Albania, the usually antagonistic government and opposition agree Tirana must back Ukraine – with political debate mainly concerning whether the government is doing enough and how it handles the domestic crisis caused by soaring food and fuel prices.
Its independence having been supported by Nato in the face of Russian opposition, Kosovo has been seeking ways to join Nato and the EU since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Measures taken by the government in Pristina include freezing of assets and a ban on access and operations in the financial market of sanctioned individuals or entities in Kosovo, a ban on the broadcasting of Russian propaganda in Kosovan media and a travel ban for sanctioned individuals.
North Macedonia too is a Nato member and EU candidate country that backs western sanctions against Ukraine, resulting in its inclusion on Russia’s list of ‘enemy countries’. The government’s position has broad cross-party support, with only one parliamentary party – the opposition Levica, the Left – maintaining a pro-Russian position.
Slovenia’s outgoing Prime Minister Janez Jansa has been a staunch and vocal supporter of Ukraine. Slovenian politicians have called for stronger EU sanctions against Russia and for Ukraine’s entry to the EU, while Ljubljana has expelled dozens of Russian diplomats since the start of the war. In March, Jansa joined the prime ministers of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia on a visit to Kyiv to show support for Zelenskiy.
Jansa’s Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) lost the April 24 general election to the green-left Freedom Movement after a campaign during which the war in Ukraine was not a major issue. After losing the election Jansa went on Twitter to accuse Freedom Movement leader Robert Golob, expected to become Slovenia’s next prime minister, of being pro-Russian.
Two states from the region, Moldova and Serbia, have professed their neutrality but for very different reasons.
Moldova has condemned the invasion of Ukraine but still maintains its neutrality. This is despite the president and the government being from the western-oriented Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) that aims to take Moldova closer to the EU. Officials including Foreign Minister Nico Popescu have explained since the outbreak of war that Moldova is simply too vulnerable to take a stronger stance against Russia. The decision to remain neutral was taken back in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, said the deputy prime minister on March 28. Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita confirmed in March that Chisinau will not seek Nato membership.
Indeed the country, sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania and with its eastern territory controlled by Russia-backed separatists, is seen as more likely than any other to get dragged into the war. In the last week there has been a series of unexplained attacks on targets within Transnistria, blamed by the authorities in Tiraspol on Ukraine and by Ukraine on Russia. The Times reported recently, citing Ukrainian sources, that Moscow has already decided to invade Moldova. However, Moldovan officials say they see no signs of an invasion threat.
Serbia is one of Russia’s few remaining friends in Europe. The day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, President Aleksandar Vucic said Serbia would not be joining western sanctions on Russia, citing Moscow’s support on the Kosovo issue and its refusal to join sanctions against Serbia during the wars of the 1990s. Despite not joining the sanctions, Serbia has backed key UN resolutions against Russia. At the emergency session of the UN on March 2, Serbia voted in favour of the resolution condemning the Russian aggression against Ukraine. On April 7, Serbia was among the countries that voted at the UN General Assembly to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council for “gross and systematic violations and abuses of human rights" in Ukraine.
After Vucic and his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) won the April 3 general and presidential elections, there was speculation that with the urgent need to please pro-Russian voters removed, Belgrade might change course and fall into line with other EU candidate countries. However, immediately after polls closed, Vucic made it clear that Serbia will not abandon Russia. Meanwhile, Serbia is pursuing a new long-term gas deal with Russia.
An apparent rift between the two countries emerged in April, when Russian President Vladimir Putin made comments that appeared to indicate Moscow would drop its support for Serbia over Kosovo in exchange for concessions on the Donbas republics. Serbia’s usually pro-Russian tabloids immediately turned on Putin. Later, however, Russia’s ambassador to Serbia, Alexander Bocan Harchenko, told Insajder Television that Moscow has no plans to recognise Kosovo as an independent state.