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[EWB Interview] Bechev: Russia is playing the “spoiler” in Western Balkans

Dimitar Bechev; Photo: LSEE Reseach on Southeast Europe

Interview with Dimitar Bechev, research fellow at the Center for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Bechev is one of the most renowned experts on Russian and Turkish influence in the Balkans and a member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG). His recent book “Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe”, published by Yale University Press, attracted lot of attention and positive reviews soon after publication.

European Western Balkans: Russia is the word on everyone’s lips when it comes to threats to liberal democracy and Western hegemony on both sides of the Atlantic. There are stories about Russian influence, Russian hacking and Russian propaganda everywhere, but especially in the Western Balkans. Do you think that these fears are overblown?

Dimitar Bechev: They are and they aren’t. On the one hand, Russia is meddling in the region — the alleged coup attempt in Montenegro, however murky the story is, proves the point. Moscow relies on a number of proxies, too: political parties, civic groups, opinion makers, clerics.  On the other hand, Russia is making use of the vulnerabilities in the region – the anti-Western attitude in large swathes of society, the poisoned media environment, corruption and state capture. And, as I argue in my book, it wields influence because Balkan elites make a common cause with it to promote their very own interests, rather than serve the Kremlin.

EWB: Many observers conclude that the main Russian interest in the Western Balkans is preventing EU and especially NATO expansion and creating problems for both by “striking Europe’s soft underbelly” and provoking crises in the region. Would you agree with this assessment? Is Russian influence necessarily a negative phenomenon?

DB: Russia is not provoking crises but rather making use of recurrent tensions. There are many opportunities to embarrass the West in a region where old problems are festering. It is absolutely true that Russia is playing the spoiler, in contrast to not that long ago when it accepted that former Yugoslavia fell in the remit of the EU and NATO. Now the context has changed with the Ukraine crisis making Russia’s relations with the West zero-sum. Russian influence is a negative phenomenon because it is geared towards obstructing the policies of other powers — as opposed to advancing a positive agenda of its own, whether it is economic development or some form of political integration and conflict resolution.

EWB: In your recently published book “Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe”, you single out three vessels of Russian influence in the region: military power, energy and soft power. Which of these three do you consider to be the most important one at this point in time?

DB: Clearly soft power. Russia has no military presence in the region, having withdrawn its peacekeepers in 2003. The grand energy projects of the 2000s are mostly frozen – Moscow is out of cash, outstanding legal disputes with the EU and changing market realities pose an obstacle. What remains is influencing hearts and minds, building alliances with domestic political actors and feeding the media image of resurgent Russia capable of challenging and thwarting the West.

EWB: The Russian efforts appear to failing recently. Montenegro joined NATO in June, Macedonia is firmly on a pro-Western path and Serbia is being increasingly pressured by the West to cut its ties with Russia. Is this assesment correct or are there in fact more “aces” up Russia’s sleeve?

DB: I think it is correct. There are limits to Russian influence — after all the Western Balkans are economically and even politically integrated into the West. I don’t think however that any of those countries, particularly Serbia, will cut ties to Russia. Politicians will go on hedging their bets and pursuing benefits from working with Moscow.

EWB: Do you believe the fear of Russia is what’s pushing the EU to continue with enlargement in the Western Balkans? Could the same perhaps be said about NATO’s recent expansion efforts?

DB: No, EU enlargement has a different set of drivers. I don’t think the fear of Russia would speed up expansion of NATO either, though it certainly helped in Montenegro’s case. Macedonia is trying to exploit the situation, too. However, NATO accession will happen only when the name issue with Greece is resolved. And I don’t think anyone on either side of the Atlantic will pressure Greece very hard to make concessions to Skopje.

EWB: The dominant narrative is that Russia is putting pressure on the EU through influence in the Western Balkans. But, would you agree that the opposite is also possible, that the Western Balkans countries are the ones using the links with Russia to pressure the EU?

DB: Absolutely. As long as the conversation in Serbia, for instance, is about Russia vs. the West Vučić could be safe in the knowledge that no one is to ask him tough questions about domestic politics in Serbia – issues like media freedom and state capture. The same is true of the Montenegrin government which is in position to sideline its internal critics as Russian pawns. Gruevski used Russia as well as certain EU members such as Hungary and Austria to get extra wiggle room during the 2015-7 crisis and deflect Brussels’ criticisms. Dodik played with the independence referendum, with diplomatic cover from the Russians, to get away from corruption scandals involving him and his family. Russia is therefore a useful instrument.

EWB: In “Rival Power”, you claim that the current situation is not a “new Cold War” and that we are not witnessing the comeback of the Great Power struggles of the 19th century. But do you believe that scenario is realistic at some point in the future? What would need to happen for this scenario to unfold?

DB: I don’t think that either scenario is in the cards. The world has changed and so have the Balkans. The Soviet Union was a different animal from today’s Russia, the Tsarist Empire – even more so.  A return to the future scenario will imply Moscow’s willingness to use military force in former Yugoslavia, as it does in Ukraine and Syria, to assert its interests. I don’t think the odds are very high – the risks are prohibitive, the possible payoffs – questionable.  Acting by proxy and waging a political war through soft power channels is much more low-risk strategy and occasionally it delivers. It is also more suitable for this day and age when globalisation and EU integration has blurred borders and made domestic politics and societies much more interconnected.

The publication of this article has been supported by the European Fund for the Balkans

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