Russia poses problems for Balkans' EU journey

By bne IntelliNews May 19, 2014

Phil Cain in Graz, Austria -


The standoff between Russia and the West since Moscow's annexation of Crimea and continued meddling in eastern Ukraine promises to complicate the already painfully slow and rocky process of the Balkans' journey towards the EU.

"Russia has huge potential for creating disturbances [in the region]," says Tobias Flessenkemper of the European Institute CIFE in Nice. "The challenge for the EU is to stick to the enlargement process."

However, that's a process under scrutiny like never before, Flessenkemper points out. European citizens, already disgruntled at the Eurozone crisis, the bailouts, immigration and the admission of new members with dubious records on aspects like corruption, are set to register their disapproval at the polls with a likely eurosceptic swing in May's European elections.

The past few weeks have shown that traditionally Russophile Balkan nations that cling to their European aspirations can expect a tongue-lashing at the very least from Moscow.

Montenegro would be a “legitimate target of Russian missiles” if it joins Nato, blustered nationalist Russian deputy Mikhail Degtyarev in May, according to Montenegrin website IN4S. Montenegro's stubborn refusal to bow to Russian invective may yet be rewarded with Nato entry in September.

Montenegro's crime in Russian eyes was its March decision to go along with imposing EU sanctions on 33 Ukrainian and Russian officials, some close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. A month later Montenegro's perpetual leader Milo Djukanovic visited Washington and called for a "bold start" on the further expansion of the Euro-Atlantic security zone. He pointed to an "interdependence between the crisis in Ukraine and efforts to destabilise the Balkans". The region is “like vacant ground, where pro-Nato and anti-Nato policies are also coming into strong conflict”.

The Russian foreign ministry said it saw Prime Minister Djukanovic’s characterisation of the situation as “hostile” to Russia. Russian daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta, a mouthpiece of the Kremlin, then weighed in, accusing Montenegro of mistreating Russian compatriots and rumbling on about Russian plans to settle the score by ending a visa-free regime and trade preferences. Such threats have so far proved empty. Neighbouring Albania, a Nato member since 2009, which also agreed to impose EU sanctions, has been spared such bombast.

On the surface Montenegro, with a population of just 600,000, seems in no position to stand up to Russia, especially given its heavy dependence on it economically. As many as 7,000 Russians are permanent residents, while 40% of real estate is in Russian hands and 300,000 Russians a year holiday there. Russians are reckoned to own as much as a third of foreign-owned businesses; setting up a business is one of the key steps for gaining residency.

But Russia may not have the whip hand that these figures suggest. "Djukanovic has been around forever. He is a sly fox. He was around during [Serbian strongman Slobodan] Milosevic's time," says Flessenkemper. "When he has a problem he gets rid of them."

Sanctions against Russia may in fact be a blessing in this, helping to impede any Russian bid to withdraw investment form the country. A tussle over the proceeds from the sale of a bankrupt aluminium smelting plant, co-owned by Montenegro's government and Russian tycoon Oleg Deripaska, has already been in full swing for months.

Slavic brothers

Beyond Montenegro, Serbs feel the closest emotional bond with Russia among the people of the five Balkan EU-outsiders. The Serbian government has maintained a studied silence on Crimea's independence, ruling out sanctions. Any pro-western statement would mean trouble for newly-elected EU convert Aleksandar Vucic, particularly among the prime minister's own Serbian Progressive Party, which was formed out of a split from the ultra-nationalists. 

Milorad Dodik, president of the Bosnian Serb Republic (Republika Srpska) has had no such qualms, hailing Crimea's snap referendum split from Ukraine as a triumph of democracy, and threatening to hold a similar one in Republika Srpska to cede from the hate multi-ethnic state of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

But Serbian-Russian ties may not be all they seem. "Russia does not care about Serbia – they just use them," says Flessenkemper, adding that on the flip side "Serbs do not want to join Russia."

Serbia, he argues, hopes to leverage its diplomatic predicament to "increase the price" when dealing with the EU, which is keen to bring Serbia into the European fold. However, this approach carries the risk of Serbia "derailing" the EU course it has just achieved after making a historic breakthrough over Kosovo, he says. Dodik meanwhile, has applauded independence votes for many years irrespective of Russian backing.

Perpetual EU candidate Macedonia, locked out of the EU for the foreseeable future due to a tedious dispute with neighbouring Greece over its name, could be a long time waiting yet. It is debatable whether or not its leaders are even seriously looking to join the bloc anymore. Recently re-elected Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski has held his tongue on Crimea, but appears to be taking Putin's authoritarian, anti-gay model of governing as a template for exercising power outside the EU.

Paper tiger

For all the diplomatic tiptoeing around and Putin-like political overtones growing in European spots like Macedonia, Turkey and Hungary, some doubt Russia can or will carry much sway in the Balkans. "Yes, Russia can occasionally annoy the EU, but only if the EU is not united itself," says Gerald Knaus of the European Stability Initiative, a think-tank focused on Southeast Europe.

In Kosovo, Russian interference is not necessary when five EU members do not even recognise it. And EU divisions over Bosnia's future are also causing enough problems without Russia having to lift a finger. "I do not think Russia has the ability to disrupt EU plans in the long term, but it certainly is able to disrupt," says Florian Bieber, Professor of Southeast European Studies at Graz University in Austria.

A policy study published in May by Bieber's Centre for Southeast European Studies argues the ability of Russia to disrupt Balkan affairs will depend, not only on Russia, but also on the degree to which the EU re-engages in the region.

Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic has called for EU re-engagement, proposing a loosening of the conditions for future EU candidates. Croatia finally joined the EU in July last year, a decade after it applied, principally because of deep concerns over its record on combating corruption.

Unsurprisingly, Pusic's view has found little support among her peers, who are battling growing disillusionment amongst their populations about the whole European project, particularly letting in new members in Southeast Europe like Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia.

That, say some, provides Russia with fertile ground for sowing its seeds of distrust.


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