The Balkans: Feeding Russia’s and Turkey’s Hunger
While Serbia is trying to balance its bilateral relations between Russia and the EU, Kosovo and Macedonia are more transparent in seeking Europeanization.
- The political tension between Kosovo and Serbia is creating a perfect environment for Turkey and Russia.
- Western Balkan states offer low-cost opportunities for Russia to undertake political and economic measures to undermine the EU.
- Kosovars and Serbians would do well to recognize that political squabbling benefits neither country.
- It is only a question of time when Russia’s and Turkey’s interests clash in the Balkans.
The political tension between Kosovo and Serbia is creating a perfect environment for Turkey and Russia. The two countries vie for luring the two Balkan neighbors into their respective spheres of influence.
Meanwhile, high-ranking U.S. and EU envoys are trying to resolve the long-standing dispute. They urge Serbia and Kosovo to normalize relations when these are, in fact, becoming more tense.
Serbia’s refusal to recognize Kosovo’s borders prevent the latter from joining international organizations such as Interpol and UNESCO. In addition, reneging on a 2011 freedom of movement agreement prompted Kosovo to take direct action against Serbia by imposing a 100% tariff on goods from Serbia.
In an effort to take full advantage of the continuing discord between the two countries, Russia’s and Turkey’s propaganda machines went full throttle. They spread false reports that the United States threatened to withdraw its troops from Kosovo if the tax is not suspended.
What makes matters worse is that not only are Serbia and Kosovo generally vulnerable to fake news online, generated by Russia and Turkey. The Balkan countries’ corrupt leaders continue to fall for it.
But those political elites are not just easily manipulated by Russia and Turkey. They also use their own disinformation in order to influence their own publics.
Both Russia and Turkey may well accelerate their disinformation campaign as the 20th anniversary of NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia approaches.
Ultimately, Kosovars and Serbians would do well to recognize that they are paying the price for the political squabbling that seems to benefit neither country. They have become pawns in the feast feeding Russia’s and Turkey’s hunger to control the Balkans.
The discord between the two countries manifests itself through the lives of the citizens of both states. According to Vilson Kacoli, from Kosovo:
When I travel through Serbia, I am forced at the border to remove my car plates and pay a five-euro fee for just crossing through Serbia, and to pay for highway toll, they don’t accept euros from us, just Serbian dinars, while the Serbians entering Kosovo do not face these difficulties!
He, along with most Kosovars, strongly support their prime minister for his refusal to revoke the tax under any circumstances.
Pouring in money
Meanwhile, Putin and Erdogan have been working hard to strengthen their own ties with the Balkans and are continuing to invest in major national projects strategically calculated to have the greatest economic and political impact throughout the region.
Trade between Turkey and the Western Balkans has dramatically increased, from $430 million in 2002 to $3 billion in 2016. Roughly one-third of this trade was with Serbia.
Meanwhile in Kosovo, Turkey is continuously investing in the most important sectors and privatizing Kosovo’s strategic assets. Turkish state development agency TIKA has renovated hundreds of historic monuments in Kosovo, financed local projects and organized large events designed to reinforce bonds with Turkey.
Russia’s geostrategic interests in the Western Balkans
In addition, Serbia’s Energy Agency gave final approval for the construction of a branch of the Turkish Stream pipeline, which will deliver Russian natural gas into Turkey and southern Europe.
Russia has geostrategic interests in the Western Balkans as well as in the Mediterranean countries.
In the Balkan states, Russia’s interest rests on two considerations. First, the Western Balkans region has strategic importance as a transit route for Russia’s gas. Second, Moscow wants to preserve Slavic roots and the Orthodox religion in the region, along with bilateral cultural and traditional values.
This is a promising strategy, particularly as long the relationship between the EU and Russia is tense and not likely to improve any time soon.
Moreover, the Western Balkan states offer low-cost opportunities for Russia to undertake a combination of political and economic measures to undermine the EU’s geostrategic interests.
The NATO dimension
In 2016, for instance, Russia attempted to organize a coup in Montenegro aimed at the overthrow of then-Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic in order to prevent his country from joining NATO.
Last year, Putin tried to block the settlement of the conflict between Greece and Macedonia, knowing that the solution would result in the latter’s membership in NATO.
While Serbia is trying to balance their bilateral relations between Russia and the EU, other countries like Kosovo and Macedonia are more transparent in seeking Europeanization.
Russia has every intent of sowing discord to keep the Balkan states from becoming EU members.
Neither Russia’s nor Turkey’s activities and intentions in the Balkans are hidden. Both countries are taking political steps to distance the Balkans from the West, be that for economic, strategic or hegemonic reasons.
The two countries are relentless and brazen in their efforts and will do everything in their power to entrench themselves into these countries.
By the same token, it is only a question of time when Russia’s and Turkey’s interests clash in the Balkans.
Given the EU’s strategic interests in, and the general orientation of the Balkan states toward the West, the EU should insist on democratic reforms and adherence to human rights, against which it would speed up its efforts to support the socio-economic conditions in these countries and accelerate the membership process.
This will provide the Balkan states the confidence that their prospective membership is real by virtue of the EU’s practical deeds and continuing political engagement, which will give the Balkan states diminishing incentives to accommodate either Turkey’s or Russia’s ambition to lure them into their orbit.
Editor’s Note: This article was co-authored by Arbana Xharra