U.S.-Russia Competition in the Western Balkans
Russian intervention in the Balkans: strategy and tactics
Reports were presented in Washington on the Kremlin’s advancement of its interests in the Balkan countries
“Russia does not just interfere in the affairs of the Balkan countries or has evil intentions towards this region – the Kremlin under Putin considers the Balkans as a strategic asset” – such a statement Janusz Bugayski (Janusz Bugajski), Senior Expert at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), opened on January 22 a discussion of the report “The Kremlin Scenario in Southeast Europe: Economic Impact and Precise Power”, recently published by the Bulgarian Center for the Study of Democracy.
According to Janusz Bugayski, who spoke at the CEPA meeting on January 22, in order to prevent the entry of the Balkan countries into the European Union and NATO, the Kremlin is implementing several strategies: expanding geopolitical influence, increasing disunity between Western countries, obstructing the US presence in the region and supporting its own allies , primarily by economic means.
“Compared to the European Union or China, Russia is not a significant economic player, but its investments and costs are very precisely targeted to achieve the maximum political effect, and it gets this effect without spending too much,” says the CEPA expert.
The authors of the report, Ruslan Stefanov and Martin Vladimirov, who are engaged in economic programs at the Center for the Study of Democracy, spoke in more detail about the report..
Bulgarian experts: Russia has powerful economic levers in the Balkans
According to Ruslana Stefanova, he and his colleagues tried to describe the strategy of Russia in the Balkans, based on the already known methods of the current Russian government: “We describe in our study the mechanism of ‘state capture’ – both within Russia and abroad. Inside Russia – and many in Europe do not understand this – a “showcase democracy” is developed: at first glance there are political parties, civil society, media, but with this “state takeover” practically all of this is controlled by the Kremlin. And abroad, the Kremlin also uses the possibilities of this scheme “.
“We tried to reveal this, and I will give you an example from the media,” the political scientist continued. “For example, the Kremlin is trying to send a certain signal. This information is disseminated by state-owned media such as RT, then it is picked up by those media that receive private funding, for example, through advertising for Gazprom or Lukoil, which are the largest advertisers in the Balkans, then it is transmitted by private Russian media, which have many of their own. publications in the Balkans, and it all takes on the character of a snowball. That is, people seem to receive information from different sources, but in fact it is orchestrated from one center “.
“Capital outflow from Russia since the early 1990s, according to conservative estimates, has been about a trillion US dollars. All this trillion is in the financial system of the West, and most of this money went to the creation of various financial schemes and networks, ”Ruslan Stefanov noted in his analysis of the influence of Russian state interests on the policy of Serbia and Bulgaria. He also recalled the existence of centers of Russian “soft power” in the Balkans, in particular, the “humanitarian center” in the Serbian city of Nis and the resort “Kamchia” in Bulgaria, which is owned by the Moscow Mayor’s Office..
The tensions in relations between the Balkan countries and the European Union are also playing into the hands of the Kremlin, according to researchers, and Moscow’s influence in the Balkans cannot be judged by comparing EU and Russian investments in the region: “People usually say that 60- 70 percent of investments go to the Balkans from the EU, so there is no need to worry about Russia, but the EU is not capable of such an integrated impact on the Balkans, which comes from Russia, when Russian state, private, public players act together “- Ruslan Stefanov said..
Martin Vladimirov supported his colleague that the economic influence of Russia in the Balkans, at a superficial glance, does not seem very serious, but this is not at all the case:
“We studied corporate property networks in the region and how much of the economy in different Balkan countries was controlled by Russia, directly or indirectly. From our data, you can see that this control has been consistently declining over the past 15 years, from an average of 15 percent to about 5 percent now, with plummeting oil and gas prices and post-annexation sanctions against Russia. Crimea. However, Russia maintains a strategic presence in all key industries throughout the region. Sometimes Russia controls the largest companies in the region, especially those related to the energy sector or dependent on this sector, but this list includes real estate, metallurgy, and the financial and banking sector. “.
“In Bulgaria and Serbia, Russian companies control up to 70 percent of the oil and gas market, and chemical companies and steel mills, which depend on low energy prices, also fall under Russian control. The largest Russian banks with state participation – VTB and Sberbank – during the period of rising oil prices in the 2000s, actively penetrated the regional market and diversified their presence in it, buying entire banking networks – for example, the Austrian Volksbank AG (the transaction to purchase this bank Sberbank took place in 2012 – D.G.) “- said Martin Vladimirov.
He gave an example of Moscow’s possible blow to the economy of one of the Balkan countries: “For Montenegro, where a third of the country’s GDP is Russian direct investment in real estate, a potential ban on Russians’ travel to this country, if such were imposed by the Russian authorities, would mean the collapse of the economy within a month “.
Brian Whitmore: Russia Introduces Enclaves Of Its System To The System Of The West
Director of the Russian Studies Program at CEPA Brian Whitmore (Brian Whitmore) said that the changes to the Russian Constitution recently proposed by Vladimir Putin reflect the general problem of Russian statehood, from which a certain style of the Kremlin’s foreign policy stems:
“These constitutional changes that are really reshuffling the system of power in Russia – why are they so dramatic? Russia lacks the most important element of the state – the principle of legitimate succession, and this means that any transit of leadership is fraught with a potential crisis. To overcome this deficiency of the state, it is replaced by the legitimization of power with the help of myth – this can be “Eurasianism”, “Russian world”, and so on, any justification based on the myth of why the current elite should rule indefinitely. And in order for this myth to be attractive, it is necessary to discredit the rather successful model of governance that exists west of the Russian borders. “.
“If you belong to a system where informal and patron-client relationships flourish, kleptocracy is an institution, the law is subject to authority, and the arbiter exercises personal power, and you need to discredit another system based on different values, then you are trying spread the enclaves of your system in this other system “- says Brian Whitmore.
According to him, “Moscow’s malicious activity takes place in a certain ecosystem, and in terms of the breeding ground for this activity, the Balkans, let’s say, this is not Scandinavia: Russian techniques work where there is high corruption, a high level of organized crime, where society is seriously polarized. , and where public confidence in the authorities is extremely low “.
“Russia is using state assets to organize opaque cash flows to create networks of influence. This makes it possible to carry out the same “state seizure” in the countries that are targets for Moscow. And this repeats in many ways the process of consolidation of power that was undertaken by Putin inside Russia. The seizure of the media, the seizure of strategic areas of industry, all this was first in Russia, and now this strategy is being exported abroad, ”says the CEPA program manager.
NED recalls Russia’s actions in North Macedonia
How Russian proxy players and Russian propaganda have acted in another Balkan country, North Macedonia, to sow discord in that republic of the former Yugoslavia, is detailed in the report just released by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Demand for deception “. We are talking, in particular, about the events before the 2018 referendum on the name of the state, which was supposed to end tensions on this issue with Greece and open the way for the country to European structures..
The document describes how Russian network trolls and bots spread on social media “images of German Chancellor Angela Merkel with a Hitler-style mustache and the text“ Boycott the genocide of the Macedonian people! ” the requirement of the European Union “The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”, dictated by “Russophobic European and American officials”.
According to the report, the references to Nazism were intended to resemble propaganda from the Balkan wars of the 1990s, which claimed that NATO “fascists” were mortal enemies of the region’s Orthodox Slavic peoples, including Serbs and Macedonians. At the same time, Russia for a long time contributed to the advancement of this narrative, to the extent that it gave the author, who has repeatedly equated the West with the Nazis, an award for “preserving the historical memory of World War II, the fight against falsification of history and the anti-fascist education of the younger generation.”.
The movement to boycott the referendum in North Macedonia received widespread support from pro-Russian actors such as the Russian-Greek billionaire and former Russian State Duma deputy Ivan Savvidi, however, according to the NED document, the main disinformation came from the Russian state news agency Sputnik: a month before the referendum, it circulated numerous misleading stories aimed at fueling controversy and anxiety in the country. This, however, did not prevent North Macedonia from ultimately approving and adopting its new name..
Reporter for the Russian Service «Voices of America» in Moscow. Collaborates with «Voice of America» since 2012. For a long time he worked as a correspondent and presenter of programs in the Russian service of the BBC and «Radio Liberty». Specialization – international relations, politics and legislation, human rights.
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