The Great Game in the Balkans

Background

The Balkan Peninsula is often regarded to be a strategically critical area between Western Europe, Russia, and the Middle East. It should be noted that the First World War was sparked in the Balkans in 1914, causing war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia and, through existing alliances, plunging Europe and the rest of the world into war. It is a region where three major religions, namely Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Islam meet and which have been used to justify numerous wars. Samuel Huntington characterizes the region’s purpose as being a staging ground where the West, Russia and the Islamic World have converged to vie for control of the peninsula through their respective proxy countries, a fact many scholars used to explain the bloody wars waged in the wake of Yugoslavia’s collapse. Against the backdrop of tensions rising between Russia and the West in recent months, the alliances of old are still very much alive. 

 

Old Alliances Die Hard

During the turbulent 1990s traditional allegiances resurfaced in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia. It was widely believed that Croatia was backed by Germany and, to a lesser extent, the United States, Bosnia and Herzegovina by Turkey and Islamic countries, whereas Serbia received support from Russia. Discourse waned after the wars ended, but in the context of the Ukraine crisis, which severely strained Russia’s relations with the West, traditional allies have renewed their interests in the Balkans. Russia has been left isolated after the West imposed stringent economic and political sanctions in an attempt to castigate Putin over supporting an insurgency in eastern Ukraine and annexing the Crimean Peninsula. Russia in turn is eager to forge new alliances; to this end, Serbia seems to be the natural choice not only because both countries share an Eastern Orthodox culture, but also because Serbs traditionally view Russia as their protector.

In recent months analysts have noted that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is taking on President Vladimir Putin in a play for influence in Southeast Europe. It appears that the German Chancellor’s concerns about Russian encroachment in the Western Balkans are warranted. Serbia is the focal point of this power struggle, but the wider region is at stake. In late 2014 Russia refrained from voting in favor of extending the EUFOR mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the UN Security Council, citing that the resolution contained references the country’s prospective EU membership. Politicians in Croatia and Bosnia are worried that Russia is taking advantage of the federal system created by the 1995 Dayton Accords by providing political and financial backing to Republika Srpska, the ethnic Serb entity within Bosnia and Herzegovina, in a bid to increase its clout.

When it comes to Serbia, Russia has recently strengthened its presence, even prior to the crisis in Ukraine. In 2008 Gazprom acquired majority ownership of NIS, the Serbian oil and gas company, thereby gaining control of Serbia’s energy infrastructure. Russia then opened a base for emergency relief operations in the southern city of Nis. Throughout 2013 Serbia took a number of steps aimed at closer military, economic, and political cooperation with Russia. It became a permanent observer in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russia-led defense alliance, and the two countries signed a bilateral agreement on military cooperation. At the same time, Serbia’s President Tomislav Nikolic and Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic both stated that their country was not interested in joining NATO, even though the likelihood of Serbia’s NATO membership is rather distant considering the territorial dispute between Serbia and Kosovo. Even though Serbia is a candidate for EU membership it has managed to negotiate trade liberalization with the Customs Union.

 

Germany Steps Up Its Game

In October 2014 the Russian President visited Serbia to attend a military parade in Belgrade marking 70 years since the Red Army liberated the city from Nazi occupation. He was welcomed by rapturous crowds and backed Serbia’s position on Kosovo, whereas Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic hailed Russia as a major ally. Just a few weeks later the two countries held joint military exercises near the border with neighboring Croatia. Zagreb has long looked at Moscow suspiciously because of its ties to Belgrade and closely monitored these exercises. Bosnia and Herzegovina similarly scrutinized the maneuvers, where there are fears that Russia’s rapprochement with Serbia and Republika Srpska may jeopardize Bosnian stability and in the wider region.

But apart from Serbia’s neighbors, other countries have been keeping a close eye on Russian attempts to boost its influence in the region. The unfolding of events in particular alarms Germany and the German Chancellor has publicly voiced her concerns about Moscow extending its influence in Western Balkans. Several well-known German newspapers have quoted German officials saying, “Berlin has observed a broad new approach by the Kremlin in the Balkans.” The endeavor has been far-reaching and extending beyond military and energy cooperation, with Russia setting upon a “charm offensive” with a pan-Slavic component. The conclusion is that the tactic has for the most part been a success.

Germany has been at the forefront of attempts to thwart Russian efforts by diplomatic means. High-ranking German officials have made visits to the region, including Agricultural Minister Christian Schmidt in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Angela Merkel’s visit to Croatia in July 2014 to attend a regional summit. Merkel used the occasion to stress outstanding relations between Germany and the newest EU member state. Her visit came against the backdrop of Serbia’s refusal to impose sanctions against Russia and soaring concerns in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina regarding Russia’s intentions in the region. She expressed her hope for “new dynamic” in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has been entangled in a constitutional deadlock and ethnic tension, and also sent a message that the region’s future lies in the EU.

In November 2014 Germany and Britain proposed a joint plan to revive Bosnia’s stalled bid to join the EU that has long been hampered by the ethnic power-sharing system in place since 1995. The involvement of two major European powers, the like of which has not been seen since the Dayton Accord efforts, may be interpreted as an active attempt to curb Russian influence.

Croatia has also been monitoring events in its neighboring countries in the context of tense relations between Croatia and Serbia following the temporary release of Vojislav Seselj, a notorious figure during the wars in former Yugoslavia, by the ICTY. As a member of the European Union, Zagreb imposed sanctions against Russia in line with other member states and raised the domestic debate on Russian investments in Croatia, particularly in the energy sector. Having previously served as the Croatian ambassador to the US and Assistant Secretary General of NATO and therefore seen as a staunch Euro-Atlanticist, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, President-elect of Croatia, vowed in her victory speech to renew the strategic partnership with “our old friend Germany.” 

 

Moving Forward

The Balkans region has great strategic value for both Russia and the European Union. In the context of the on-going crisis in Ukraine, Russia has been keen to revive previously strong relations and intensify its activities in the Balkans. Over the past year, Brussels has accelerated Serbia’s path to the EU in recognition of Belgrade’s positive steps toward forging a politically difficult settlement with Kosovo. In response, Moscow is working to outmaneuver the EU and plays up its historic ties with Serbia. The EU led by Germany is launching its own diplomatic and economic efforts to foil Moscow’s strategy.

Serbia is at a point where it will have to decide whether it will maintain its historic alliance with Russia or renounce Kosovo to join the EU; both Moscow and Brussels will continue to seek Belgrade’s allegiance to their respective blocs. In the process, the main goal should be not to flare up old ethnic tensions, which have already resulted in thousands of dead and severely disrupted the region’s economy during the tumultuous 1990’s. This is ever more important to underline as the competition between great powers in the Balkans caused the First World War and, believed by many, again proved to be dangerous as competing interests provided an impetus for the break-up of Yugoslavia and the ensuing violence.