Russia’s Balkan plan

Russia’s re-emergence in the Balkans – thanks, in part, to financial loans, energy investments and the provision of emergency relief – could leave Serbia in the middle of a conundrum as the region itself increasingly becomes a point of contestation between the West and Russia.

By Maja Sarkanovic-Volk

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People in the Balkans always seemed prone to conspiracy theories, probably because of all those “historic events” and “global power plays” which in the past centuries played out and marched through that region, leaving nothing but death and misery behind. With my professional and personal inclinations, I was never inclined towards contemplating or discussing anything which I knew would never be proven beyond the point of doubt. I usually stayed avoided such topics, but this one hit me square in the face.

First it was the local media in the Balkans progressively reporting on Russian interest, then an article in The Economist and, after that, Daniel Korski, a friend and senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, posed a question – ‘are the Western Balkans becoming post-Sovjetised rather than Europeanised?”

In the past, Russia has shown a special interest in the Balkans, especially when the federal Yugoslavia violently broke apart and Russia, eager to secure its position as a major player in international diplomacy, sent its policy-makers to intervene. Tensions between Russia and the West grew and peaked in 1999 with the NATO bombing of Serbia. But that was over a decade ago and Russian interest in the region started to slowly subside, practically becoming minimalistic until recent months.

Last October, Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, during a visit to Belgrade, announced that a new joint centre for emergency co-ordination would be created in the Serbian town of Nis. A couple of weeks later, Russia’s emergency situations minister, Sergei Shoigu, inked a deal with Serbia and during the press-conference said the center would be a regional hub for emergency relief in southeastern Europe, and that it will include a mine-clearance center.

The site is a rundown airport, named after Constantine the Great (the Roman emperor who was born there) located in southern Serbia. However, Nis is the key north-south transportation link in southeastern Europe and is home of the Serbian special forces, quite possibly Belgrade’s most effective fighting force in the region.

On the other hand, the Russian emergency ministry’s activities are not solely confined to disaster relief efforts and also include errand-running for Russia’s security services (i.e. an unofficial wing of foreign military intelligence better known as GRU). GRU is the most powerful and shadowy institution in Russia. Shoigu has been in charge of the ministry since 1994, has roots in GRU and is a member of the Russian Security Council. In the past, the ministry was involved in various operations in the Caucasus and is also in charge of the Russian civil defense troops, thus having access to the rest of the Russian military. In addition, it has considerable airlift capability due to Russia’s vast geography and often unfriendly climate.

The theories circulating among bloggers and media about Russian intentions say that Russians are plotting to create a thinly-disguised military base in Serbia, which would make it the first European base since the end of the Warsaw Pact. According to the Economist, “what has most excited the conspiracy theorists is that Nis is close to the point where a controversial planned gas pipeline, South Stream, will cross Serbian territory. The pipeline is a joint venture between Russia’s Gazprom and Italy’s energy company, Eni. The route crosses the Black Sea, enabling Russia to bypass Ukraine, a troublesome country, and deliver gas direct to the Balkans, central Europe and Italy.” If this plan comes to realization it would hamper the EU and the United States plans to expand the continent’s energy supply. It would effectively block the EU-backed Nabucco project, which seeks to transport gas from the Caspian region to Europe via Turkey and the Balkans, bypassing Russia.

But there are some serious obstacles to this Russian effort. Serbia is practically surrounded by either member states of NATO or the EU, or countries on their way to joining one of the two organizations. This means its airspace, could be closed off easily if the need arises. Furthermore, only so much equipment can be moved before it starts to look suspicious and Russia is a land-based force despite the rhetoric about the need to establish expeditionary forces.

However, if one puts this in the context of the recent pledge for a $1.5 billion loan for credit-starved Serbia, one could conclude that Russia is moving into the region with fervour. Belgrade thinks that Russia’s moves in the region would encourage the West to take action over Serbia’s long-delayed, but much-promised, integration into the EU. This strategy did bear immediate fruit. The EU countered Russia’s lending with loans of its own, including a proposal for a $1.5 billion investment over five years. But this is a rather risky strategy for Serbia. It is one thing to play one loan off of against another and quite another to be seen as a potential ally of Moscow. Serbia easily could find itself in the middle of a conundrum, with the potential reopening of the Balkans as a point of contestation between the West and Russia.

On the other hand there is Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country stuck in institutionalized limbo due to the EU’s indecisiveness and lack of planning. The increased visits of Russian diplomats to the Republika Srpska (RS) and their statements imply that Russia no longer views the Dayton agreements as too weak to withstand political attacks. This could make Russia bring into question the political status of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which could help Moscow to no longer be an outsider in the region and to initiate a series of international talks on territorial, political and ethno-cultural problems in the Balkans.

In addition, it appears that RS prime minister, Milorad Dodik, is adapting his position to the changing international circumstances and insisting upon preservation of the status quo, hoping for greater input on the part of Russia in the near future.

Taking into account all of the above, one could conclude that Russia has revised its policy towards Balkans. Russian interests are no longer based upon simple declarations of cultural friendship and Slavic unity and essentially, they want to be let into what in most countries would be seen as critical infrastructure. Could it be that western Balkans are becoming post-Sovjetised? But that indeed would be a conspiracy theory behind conspiracy theory.

Maja Sarkanovic-Volk is an independent consultant to the US Government on media relations and Balkan affairs.



0 Response

  1. Andrey Shakhmetov

    This article is a typical example of outdated “cold war era” thinking! The Balkans are again seen as an arena of ” contestation between the West and Russia”. Economic competition is one thing, while a confrontation of political interests is another. To evaluate an economic project of the South Stream as a threat is paranoid (in my humble opinion). Delivery of gas via it by no means prevents any other ways of gas transportation to Europe including Nabucco. And establishment of an Emergency relief centre in Nis to be a part of a plot is such a stretch (let alone alegged its affiliation to GRU)!

  2. Maja Volk

    In replay to the comment posted ions ago. Just yesterday Russian President Vladimir Putin and Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller have announced not only that the second leg of the Nord Stream pipeline, intended to deliver Russian natural gas to Europe bypassing existing transit countries will be launched in October 2012, but also that
    the construction of the South Stream gas pipeline will begin in December 2012 and should become operational in December 2015. South Stream will transport Russian gas to Southern and Central Europe via Bulgaria and from there the gas would flow in two directions: to Austria crossing Serbia and Hungary and to Italy crossing Greece and the seabed of the Adriatic Sea.

    Both lines, once fully operational, will transport around 1.9 trillion cubic feet of Russian gas each year to European consumers for at least 50 years.

    Just a brief analysis of both pipeline projects makes clear that Russia has political and strategic reasons for building them. Nord stream fits neatly within Russia’s strategy to consolidate its position in the EU and South Stream project is a deliberate attempt of Russia to encircle EU and obstruct EU efforts to build Nabucco pipeline which is to provide opportunities for the EU to import gas from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan (CIS) without Russian interference.

    It is clear that Russia’s burgeoning natural gas exports are underwriting Russian efforts to regain status as a world superpower. The US wishes to prevent return of, ‘once an old’ foe by employing the expansion of non-state actors like EU and NATO, but Russia is striking back with its soft power –using pipelines and energy deals. By using this approach pipeline routes will determine the relative strength and bargaining power of all parties involved in the present and future international energy markets. The pipelines mentioned above are related to European gas supply and have no direct impact on the US. However, US should still be concerned with respect to its own energy security about oil in the Central Asian regions and with what appears to be Russia’s potential to become Eurasian hegemony.

    Kind Regards,


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