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Russia in the Balkans: Pan-Slavism revived?

Written by Mladen Pupavac and Vanessa Pupavac.

Serve for the faith, for humanity, for our brothers … Mother Moscow blesses you for a great deed.

At the end of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the tormented Count Vronsky joins volunteers going to the Balkans to defend the Serbs and Montenegrins against the Ottoman Empire.

The slaughter of the co-religionists and brother Slavs awakened sympathy for the sufferers and indignation against the oppressors. And the heroism of the Serbs and Montenegrins, fighting for a great cause, generated in the whole nation a desire to help their brothers, not in word now but in deed.

This November, a trilateral military exercise named Slavic Brotherhood 2016 is taking place between Russia, Serbia and Belarus. Are we seeing a resurgent Pan-Slavism today in the Balkans and a Russian foreign policy developing closer relations between the Russians and Serbs, Montenegrins and other nations? This question arises against talk of a new Cold War, and a battle for hearts and minds internationally.

‘Montenegro in election tug-of-war between Russia and the West’, ‘Prime minister: It’s Russia vs. the West in Montenegro vote’, ‘Western Europe’s ally or Russian colony – Montenegro decides’, newspaper headlines proclaimed in October. Montenegro has found itself drawn into great power rivalry and the rising tensions between the West and Russia. The Montenegro elections have been overshadowed by the question of NATO membership. The narrow win for the ruling governing party amid accusations of Russian interference was greeted with relief in western policy circles as securing Montenegro’s membership of NATO. The country has been polarised over NATO membership. Many Montenegrins seek closer ties with the west, but many also identify with the Serbs and opposed NATO in the Kosovo War against Serbia. Tolstoy wrote of Russians going to fight in the Balkans; instead Russians have been flocking to Montenegro’s beaches over the last decade, and now own second homes and significant investment in the country’s economy.

Montenegro’s election results followed a recent referendum in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska, which spotlighted the growing Russian influence in the Balkans. Western policy-makers fear that Russian diplomatic activity has been galvanising popular opposition to NATO, and could disturb ethnic relations in Bosnia. International efforts to overcome what the journalist Christopher Bennett has called Bosnia’s Paralysed Peace have stalled. The political atmosphere in Bosnia has been described as perhaps its most volatile since the war ended two decades ago.

September’s referendum concerned whether Republika Srpska should continue to mark its official National Day on 9 January – the date of its 1992 parliamentary declaration of independence, marking its determination to remain in Yugoslavia against Bosnia’s secession. The Bosniacs and Western policy-makers see the referendum as directly challenging the state of Bosnia drawn up under the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, and a move towards a future referendum to secede from Bosnia. Accordingly the referendum has been condemned by the United States and the European Union as unconstitutional and stirring up wartime ethnic hatreds. Conversely Russia has endorsed the right of Republika Srpska to hold the referendum. Three days before the referendum Russian President Vladimir Putin met its President Milorad Dodik in Moscow to reiterate Russian support.

17429227632_52b5266085_kAmid the alarming Western reports, how significant is Russia’s Balkan policy and the spread of Russian interest? Certainly we have a Russian leadership whose foreign policy thinking has been shaped by the Bosnian conflict, and NATO’s military campaign against Serbia in the 1999 Kosovo War. President Putin and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and Permanent Representative at the UN Vitaly Churkin, all developed their political careers against the backdrop of the Yugoslav wars of dissolution in the 1990s. Russia has sought to present itself as defender of traditional cultural values against decadent Western liberalism, and defender of the 1945 UN Charter upholding national sovereignty against foreign intervention. Nevertheless it has also been ready to invoke an international ‘responsibility to protect’ to justify certain of its own military interventions such as in Crimea against Ukraine.

The alignment of Russian and Serbian interests reflects shared opposition to a unipolar world in which Serbs found themselves internationally isolated. Serbian politicians turned to Russia as a potential ally on the UN Security Council, who might defend Serbs diplomatically, if not militarily, whether Serbian opposition to the international recognition of Kosovo or Bosnian Serb defence of the status of Republika Srpska. A recent poll conducted by the Institute for European Affairs in Belgrade found that Russia was considered Serbia’s best ally. More strikingly still the poll found that the younger generation of Serbs is less attracted to the European Union than the older generation – two-thirds of older respondents favoured integration, while fifty-one percent of under 30 year olds opposed EU membership.

Analysts at the Belgrade-based Centre for Euro-Atlantic Studies speak of the ‘Russification’ or ‘Putinization’ of Serbia. Nevertheless no definitive Russo-Serbian political alignment appears to be evident in Serbian foreign or military policies. Strikingly since 2000 Serbia has been involved in over one hundred exercises with NATO, including peace operations overseas. Conversely there have been very few joint military exercises with Russia. In 2015 Serbia participated in twenty-four exercises with other countries, of which only two were with Russia. NATO membership though is politically unacceptable to the Serbian public, because of the Kosovo War and NATO’s bombing of Serbia. Against this background, the US Ambassador in Serbia has stated said the US will not insist that Serbia has to choose between Russia and NATO.

So far only the Bosnian Serbs politicians are determinably opting to align themselves with Mother Moscow. Serbia itself is busy pursuing closer diplomatic relations with both Russia and the West. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev plans to visit Belgrade again this Autumn. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic also has had recent talks in Paris and New York, following up a series of visits to the United States and Western capitals in recent years. Furthermore Vucic has also been cooperating with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the European Union over the refugee and migrant crisis, more smoothly in fact than some member states. Such is the concern to maintain warm relations with the West that the Serbian government has distanced itself from the controversial referendum in Republika Srpska.

Rather than Pan-Slavism, Serbia has been drawing on postwar Yugoslavia’s Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) diplomacy, which sought to carve out a third way between the Cold War superpowers. Yugoslavia’s distinct socialist self-management vision was neither a Soviet command economy nor a Western capitalist economy, but a socialist model mixing (and rejecting) elements of both. The Serbian government, although dropping Yugoslav socialism, is pragmatically following earlier Yugoslav foreign policy in looking diplomatically both eastwards and westwards, cultivating political and economic links, with all the UN Security Council members, and other old NAM links. Non-alignment has emerged as Serbia’s preferred diplomatic position, but is also attractive for many in Macedonia and Montenegro, who are also disappointed by the EU ascension processes.

Russia is gaining a significant foothold in the Balkans because of the discontents of Western transition policies. Western statebuilding has created weak political institutions requiring perpetual external supervision to maintain them in the absence of popular local ownership. Political paralysis has been accompanied by economic and social malaise. The international economic reconstruction models prescribed for the post-Yugoslav states have marginalised industrial policies, and fostered high unemployment and declining living standards. The collapse of industry is significant politically for populations where workers previously enjoyed a constitutional status as the working class in socialist Yugoslavia, but now find themselves scratching out a living in the periphery economies of corporate peace. This economic insecurity and industrial alienation matters in understanding Russia’s political gains in the Balkans.

The Orthodox ties have encouraged historical sympathies between Russia and Serbia, but even Croatia as an EU member has seen voices calling for a non-aligned position and opposition to taking sanctions against Russia or sending troops to the EU borders with Russia. These voices have been fuelled by disquiet over western military interventions and the impact of neo-liberal economic policies, and the refugee and migrant crisis. A video of the recently elected Ivan Pernar from the Living Wall party giving a speech in the Croatian parliament, denouncing the European Union and NATO, received over a million views across the region.

Aside from reluctance to being drawn into East-West tensions, a primary source of Russian’s importance as regional player in the Balkans is as the leading oil and gas energy supplier in the region. Russia’s high profile role in the energy sector is gaining it wider political influence although its total foreign investment may lag behind Western investment. Consumer energy prices are politically sensitive. Dependence on Russian energy supplies makes cultivating relations with Russia pragmatically sensible. If the price of petrol in non-EU Montenegro or Republika Srpska is much cheaper than EU member Croatia, it is easy to see how people might want Russian trade, and be reluctant to endorse sanctions against Russia, even if they culturally aspire to Western European life styles.

Hostile relations between Russia and the West complicate negotiating any third international way. Pessimistically worsening international relations could rekindle ethnic hostilities in the Balkans. Optimistically rival foreign overtures could engender more international investment and economic activity against the chronic unemployment and industrial decline. But here the West and Russia only offer varieties of low wage economies, rather any comprehensive programmes for economic prosperity on the ambitions of the competing Cold War modernisation projects.

Tolstoy’s novel does not follow Count Vronsky’s fate as a soldier in the Balkans. Instead Anna Karenina concludes on Levin’s spiritual and pacifist ideals, rejecting the Pan-Slavism enthusing his fellow Russians. Little of Levin or Tolstoy’s pacifism is evident in the Balkans today. Nor is Pan-Slavism. Instead Russia is benefitting from the political, social and economic dislocation in the Balkans, and disillusion with a quarter of a century of Western transition and intervention.

Vanessa Pupavac is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Nottingham. She has previously worked for the UN Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia. Mladen Pupavac is a Research Associate at the School of Politics and International Relations. Image credit: markovucicevic/Flickr.

Published inBalkansConflict & SecurityEuropean PoliticsEuropean security

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