Russia quietly expands influence in Balkans, exacerbating sectarian tension

Milorad Dodik won the Serb seat in Bosnia's three-member presidency last weekend after he appeared in footage alongside President Vladimir Putin. Analysts point to Russia's rising influence among Bosnian Serbs and efforts to undermine Western policies of Balkan integration.

Darko Vojinovic/AP/File
A man rides bicycle pasts a billboards reading (left to right) 'Russia' and 'Serbia,' in Belgrade, Serbia, on Oct. 17, 2014.

A week before a crucial election, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik traveled to Russia for a Formula One race – not because he's a big fan but for yet another meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Footage from the race in Sochi showed Mr. Putin wishing Mr. Dodik "great success" in the Bosnian election and the Serb presenting Putin with a Republika Srpska pin, the Serb-controlled autonomous region in Bosnia.

The video was a blatant display of Russia influence in one of Europe's most sensitive regions – the fragile Balkans – where the West has sought to encourage reconciliation and reform after a brutal ethnic war in the 1990s.

The brief photo opportunity with Putin helped Dodik win the race to fill the Serb seat in Bosnia's three-member presidency on Sunday, deepening the ethnic divisions that have held Bosnia back since its devastating 1992-1995 war.

Dodik openly advocates having Serbs separate from the rest of Bosnia and has been sanctioned by the United States for his policies. But he has proven to be a key ally in Moscow's efforts to undermine the Western policies of Balkan integration.

While Russian influence is the most obvious in the Balkans, an upsurge of populism in Central Europe has also played into Moscow's hands, providing sympathetic political parties and politicians across the continent, including in European Union nations like Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic.

Pro-Russia forces also did well in another corner of Europe. In Latvia, an opposition party favored by the country's large ethnic Russian minority got the most votes Saturday in the Baltic nation's parliamentary election, although the party is expected to run into difficulties in trying to form a coalition government.

Latvia's Russian minority is a major domestic political force, accounting for about 25 percent of its nearly 2 million people, a legacy of nearly 50 years of Soviet occupation that ended in 1991.

Dodik's victory in Bosnia further strengthened Moscow's foothold in the Western Balkans, since he can how block any strategic decision – if Putin says so.

Russia staunchly opposes any more Balkan countries joining NATO. Western officials have expressed fear that Russia has used its historic Slavic and Orthodox Christian ties in the region to undermine Western policies of integration.

Sarajevo-based political analyst Adan Huskic said Moscow's influence was also growing in the parts of Europe that don't have those identity links.

What these countries have in common are "high levels of nepotism, corruption" so bonding more closely with Western democracies is "by nature, very difficult for them," he said.

Russia's strategic aim is not to assert authority over the Balkans but to "harness and magnify existing tensions," the European Council on Foreign Relations said in a report.

"In Russian eyes, the EU's approach toward the Western Balkans is neither serious nor systematic, and so offers Moscow opportunities to create leverage," the report added.

Russian allies in the Balkans have been actively sowing mistrust in Western democracies, presenting Washington and Brussels as enemies who want to strip nations of their identity and national pride by pushing for EU integration.

Dodik is a perfect example. For him, the West and NATO are enemies while Russia is a friend full of respect for the Slavic "brethren."

Absorbed in own problems – the euro debt crisis, immigration, or Britain's impending Brexit departure – the EU for years has neglected the Balkans. Alarmed, some EU officials now fear that Balkans could plunge into renewed conflict unless it's quickly embraced by the 28-nation bloc.

"If such a complex European region gets an impression that we are not serious with the European perspective, we will experience, sooner rather than later, what we saw in the Balkans during the 1990s," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker recently said.

Those fears are not groundless. Tensions between Serbia and its former province of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008, have been on the rise despite efforts by the EU to hammer out a lasting solution between the two former war foes. Belgrade raised the combat readiness of its troops two weeks ago over Kosovo special police presence in its Serb-populated north.

In Macedonia, US and EU hopes for swift passage of a deal between Macedonia and Greece to change Macedonia's name to North Macedonia so it can join NATO suffered a blow when a Sept. 30 referendum on the name saw low turnout. The vote result raised fears of instability in the country that was on the brink of a civil war in 2001.

US Defense Secretary James Mattis saw Russian influence behind some Macedonia and Greek protests against the move. "We do not want to see Russia doing [in Macedonia] what they have tried to do in so many other countries," he said last month.

Russia has denied meddling in any Balkan or Baltic country. But Russia's soft-power strategy has found fertile ground among Serbs, due to NATO's bombings in 1999 that halted a bloody Serb crackdown on Kosovo and forced Serbs to pull out.

In return for Russia's support for Serbia's claim over Kosovo, Serbia has been a faithful ally even though it formally pursues EU integration and uses millions in Western recovery funds.

Two Russian military intelligence operatives operated from Serbia in 2016 when they tried to organize a coup in neighboring Montenegro to stop the former Russian ally from joining NATO.

"We saw that referendum has not succeeded in Macedonia," said Serbian analyst Bosko Jaksic. "We can see it now in Bosnia, where the Republika of Srpska became the bastion of the Russian interest. We saw it before in Montenegro, and we are seeing it in Serbia. This is helping Russians to invest the minimum and get nearly the maximum of their political influence."

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Additional reporting by Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Sabina Niksic in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Jari Tanner in Helsinki. 

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