Russia’s Role in the Balkans

By Dr Andrew Foxall and David Clark

On the first anniversary of Croatia’s joining the European Union on 1 July 2013, the Russia Studies Centre at The Henry Jackson Society has issued a new report – Russia’s Role in the Balkans: Cause for Concern? – analysing the extent to which Russia has gained influence in the Balkans over recent years.

The report argues the Balkans is directly affected by the aggressive and revisionist turn in Russian foreign policy under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. Surveying the extent of Russia’s influence in energy, economic, political, diplomatic, military, and cultural affairs in the Balkans, the report warns the EU of the danger posed by allowing the authoritarian methods of ‘Putinism’ to be imported into Europe via the back door.

Key findings of the report include:

  • The Balkans is a region in which Russia seeks not only to advance its own interests, but also to halt the spread of Western norms and values. Several aspects of Russian foreign policy in the Balkans provide a serious threat to the progress of Euro-Atlantic integration. Challenges and concerns exist in particular in relation to: open markets; the rule of law; sovereign equality; democracy; and human rights.
  • Russia’s approach to the Balkans emphasises soft power over hard power; without a common border or a significant ethnic-Russian diaspora, the coercive tactics used in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 are not viable in the Balkans.
  • In the Balkans, Russia has focused on initiatives designed to generate goodwill and create economic incentives at an elite level, posing a risk to the stability of the region. The collapse of the government of Bulgaria in June 2014 was, in large part, due to tensions surrounding Russia’s proposed building of the South Stream gas pipeline through Bulgarian territory.
  • The EU needs to adopt a strategy towards the Balkans that reflects the common European interest, paying particular attention to: the standard of governance; the fight against corruption; the development of a competitive energy sector; and the pursuit of peaceful relations between states.

Commenting on the launch of the report, Dr Andrew Foxall, Director of the Russia Studies Centre and co-author of the report, said: “The struggle in the Balkans goes to the fundamental difference between the liberty and freedom of the Western worldview and the authoritarian ‘spoils for the few’ of President Putin.

“We must win this struggle – in order to do so, Europe will have to be far more assertive in its response to Putin’s expansion of his sphere of influence by soft and hard power. Our efforts so far have been sorely lacking.”

David Clark, Chair of the Russia Foundation and co-author of the report, added: “The European Union cannot afford to be indifferent to Russia’s increasing influence in the Balkans following events in Ukraine.

“Although Vladimir Putin is unlikely to resort to the use of force in the same way, he sees the region as a zone of competition with the West and is determined to use the instruments at his disposal to undermine agreed EU objectives. European leaders need a better understanding of Russian goals in the Balkans and more effective policies for countering their negative effects.” 

Russia’s Role in the Balkans – Cause for Concern? is available to download here.


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