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Geopolıtıcal Tug-Of-War In The Balkans

08 November 2018
Geopolıtıcal Tug-Of-War In The Balkans

Are Turkey, Russia and China alternatives to the USA and the EU in the Balkans? Would Turkey, Russia and China prevent the NATO and EU membership of Balkan countries? These misguided questions have appeared as a result of a geopolitical tug-of-war in the Balkans. The struggle for influence is now clearly seen, intelligence officers of foreign countries can be pointed out in the street, that governments emerge out of the ballot is very dubious and while opposition enjoy direct foreign intelligence support, the government is served evidence of this by other intelligence agencies. For how long will this last? Will these problems be over once all the Balkan countries become members of the EU and NATO? One proposed solution is that western Balkan countries be rapidly admitted to the EU. There is also the question of who is behind the geopolitical tug-of-war. According to much that has been written, the EU and the USA are trying to counter the increasing influence of Turkey, Russia and China in the Balkans. But is the EU running a holistic foreign policy now? Do the interests of Germany et al. In the Balkans, line up with those of France? Does the German policy on Russia line up with US policy? The wars that began after the split up of Yugoslavia in the 90s were actually the manifestations of the political tug-of-war among all the countries mentioned above, as well as the UK. It is generally accepted that the USA and the EU are cooperating to distance Russia from the Balkans, but is debatable to what extent US and German interests are the same. It is no secret that Germany does not want to be guided by the USA and is powerful enough not to be. On the other hand, there is a viewpoint that claims Russia and Germany are trying to distance the USA to the Balkans, especially for purposes of energy security. The truth is, while the Second World War might be over the First World War is not. The peoples of the Balkans care little about what was said above and see the issue only in terms of dominance, security and energy flows. In Turkey, it is a bit different.

Those Responsible for Instability in the Balkans

It is claimed that Russia especially and Turkey to some extent could cause a new process of Balkanisation by destabilising the Balkans. However, given that the owner of this claim is George Soros, the architect of the colourful Revolutions of the 2000s, a man who determines the course of economic crises with his speculations and who has established a wide network in all of the Balkans, especially Albania, Greece and Macedonia through the Open Society Foundation, one needs to pause and think. George Soros and his son Alexander Soros, in their article In the Balkans, a Chance to Stabilize Europe,[1] published in The New York Times, touch on the agreement on the name of Macedonia and call on the USA and the EU to act to break the influence of Turkey, Russia and China in the Balkans. The EU had already began a programme, led by Germany, to revitalise the EU membership prospects of western Balkan countries. That the article was penned in mid-2018, instead of 2016 makes one think that it is against proposals that the USA should stay completely outside the tug-of-war. The article touches on the lowest level of relations in the Trans-Atlantic Alliance since WWII and that national elections in EU countries have been challenging the Union, no doubt in relation to EU-US ties and European integration. The article proposes that all Balkan countries be admitted to the EU as a free trade zone. While this is debatable because it could create “second rate members and citizens” but is positive in that it calls for action over Balkan countries which have been kept waiting for years. What catches the attention is that the article was written as tough calling for a new fight against Turkey, Russia and China. Similar statements, with similar style, were delivered a few times by French President Emmanuel Macron too. Russia is another matter, while China has been undertaking investment that will aid the development of the region. Things are different when it comes to Turkey. Before, Turkey took action at points which the USA could not access in measures taken to shape or bring stability to the Balkans. When did Turkey become one of the “others”? Are the Reza Zarrap case and the outing of the FETO terrorist organisation with all of its connections so determinant? Other questions can be posed: Is Soros speaking through the USA, or is the USA speaking through Soros? Which USA? But it would be better to go back to the Balkans.

The main problem with the article and the perspective it represents is that expressions such as “destabilisation” and “Balkanisation” are used by the Soroses, who practice a method of democracy that it “disrespectful to national sovereignty” [2]. First of all, those who are concerned about new ethic-based divides are late to the show. This was the conscious policy of the USA and Europe during the 1990s. A political structure with no precedent in Europe or the USA was imposed on the Balkans and minorities were placed in positions where they could block the functioning of the state. They were selective about the minorities, for example, in countries with Turkish minority populations, many important rights were withdrawn. This new model of the state is a major factor on today’s instability. When it comes to “instability” much points in the direction of the EU and the USA, such as their attitude during the wars of the 90s, the decisions of the Badinter Commission that determined the conditions of the split-up of Yugoslavia, the immediate recognition of the independence of Croatia and Slovenia while the request for a referendum in Bosnia-Herzegovina, especially the formulation of the 1995 Dayton Peace Treaty and the 2001 Ohri Agreement and the process of creating states within states by creating multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic states through the formula of constructive uncertainty in Macedonia, Kosovo and Bosnia following Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008. The truth is that while 20 years have passed over the genocides committed in the Balkans, and not only has stability not been ensured but peace is still a distant prospect. This is a failure of the EU, as much as it is of the USA. So what happened to bring the geopolitical tug-of-war into plain sight?

Effects of the Agreement on Macedonia’s Name

It was previously written in this space that 2018 would be the year of solution for long ongoing problems in the Balkans and that Macedonia would be at the forefront of this. The agreement Macedonia signed with Bulgaria and the relations it later develop with Albanians had drawn reactions from some circles, but achieving the impossible and signing an agreement over the name of the country with Greece won much wider attention. On July 6th, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats and banned two people from entering the country.[3] Russia condemned this move, said retaliation would come in the form of two Greek diplomats in Moscow being expelled but so far the reaction has been limited to cancelling the visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Greece on July 17th. The Name Agreement was what caused the highest level of tension ever seen between the two countries. Greece claims to have proof that the two diplomats have been offering bribes to the opponents of the Name Agreement between Greece and Macedonia and have been encouraging rallies against the agreement. The main issue has to do with Macedonia joining NATO once the name issue is solved. The Greek government has accused Russian officials of weakening its national security and acquiring and distributing sensitive information. According to Greek government sources, the four diplomats had been warned for a while over their alleged activities. In a statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry said “The reason behind the Greek government’s anti-Russian decisions is Washington.”

Greek daily Kathimerini reported that the Orthodox Palestinian Empire Association, which is an organisation that supports Russian connections of Christians in the Middle East was one of the organisations involved in spreading Russian influence and that the Greek Orthodox monastery community at Mt. Athos was involved with it. High level rep resentatives of the association have denied allegations that Greek Orthodox clergymen had been given brides. However, it seems that the issue has to do with involving the Greek church in the protests over the Name Agreement.

Discomfort at Russia in the Balkans

Speaking at the NATO Summit in Brussels, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said about the issue that he was aware that Russia was behind some of the protests in Macedonia, but his country would not enter into a conflict and added “There is no alternative to NATO membership”.

It is clear that the state mechanism in Macedonia was transformed significantly with the new government of Zoran Zaev. While it cannot be claimed that the course of the country has changed, as previous governments also aimed at NATO and EU membership, but it is certain that Zaev has been implementing this policy far more seriously and is being well directed and supported in all of his initiatives. So far, he has succeeded in all of the steps he took.

That Russia is increasing its influence in the Balkans is a comment that is often heard in European countries. Russia has been accused of supporting an unsuccessful coup in Montenegro in 2016. Just before the October 16th 2016 elections, 20 people who were accused of trying to assassinate Prime Minister Milo Cukanovic and who were said to be Serbian militia and Russian nationalists had been taken into custody. One of those in custody, named Sincelic, had confessed and said that they had received support from Russia, were given directives in Moscow on September 26th, that they were given 50 automatic weapons and encrypted phones that cannot be tapped for communicating within the group. Based on information provided by the Serbian confessor, two Russian citizens Eduard Shirikov and Vladimir Popov, were taken into custody on October 29th 2016. Montenegrin Prosecutor with Special Powers Milivoje Katnic, who ran the investigation, announced that in order to prevent Montenegro’s membership of NATO, a Serbian nationalist leader had been invited to Moscow by former Russian ataché militaire to Poland Eduard Sismakov, who used the alias Shirikov. Sismakov had been expelled from Montenegro in 2014 on allegations of espionage. The prosecutor had announced that Russia had provided Sismakov with another passport under the name Eduard Shirikov and sent him to Serbia, where he organised the whole thing. As the prosecutor drew up a case involving 25 defendants, the immunity from prosecution of two opposition MPs was dropped. Just as all preparations were complete for Montenegro joining NATO, the opposition Democratic Front Alliance had called for a referendum on the matter. (The involvement of Montenegrin MPs who called for a referendum coming under investigation for the attempted coup is an interesting detail, given that some in Greece have called on for a referendum to ratify the Name Agreement, despite the Greek Constitution requiring no such provision.)

Russia has denied claims that it was planning a coup in Montenegro and tried to have Prime Minister Milo Cukanovic assassinated to prevent the country from joining NATO. There are claims that Russia founded a paramilitary structure called the Balkan Cossack Army in Montenegro’s town of Kotor[4] on September 11th 2016.[5] Make no mistake: the army is real enough, what is only a claim is that it was founded by Russia. The founding ceremony of the Balkan Cossack Army, which is commanded by Serbian Orthodox priest Momchilo Krivokapic was attended by 26 Cossack organisations from Serbia, Bosnia Serbs, Montenegro, Macedonia, Greece and Bulgaria, each representing 50 Cossack “warriors”.[6] The aim of the army was publicised as uniting the Orthodox world. Its connections with Russia cannot be denied. The main Cossack organisation in Serbia, St. Sava Cossack Stanitsa, was established in 2011 by the Central Cossack Army in Russia, the commander of which is appointed directly by Putin. That the Serbian members of the organisation have stated that Western values are “distant and foreign” to Serbs and that “Putin’s Russia is like a ray of light in the darkness surrounding the Balkan peoples” go far towards explaining the mission of the organisation. The aim of the Cossack Army in Serbia is said to be “resisting the historical and destructive anti-Serbian project”. It should be remembered that a group of volunteer Serbian Chetniks, who call themselves “the Wolves” have fought on the same side as the Russians in Crimea.

Those Expanding their Field of Influence

These are the most serious allegations concerning Russia that were reported in the press. Other than these, Russia is often mentioned in connection with directing the perceptions of Serbs in the region and forming the political agenda. However, the same is true of Soros’ foundations. Furthermore, it is no secret that the USA manages Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo directly from its embassies in these countries and issues directives that are reported in the press. The same is true of Germany, which is more discreet in its methods. All of the above have been transferring funds for the development of Balkan countries. However, the EU and the USA have not been investing enough to solve the employment issues in the region. The difference with Chinese investment is that it does not meddle with the domestic affairs of countries by issuing directives and does not make political and economic demands in exchange for investment. Turkey’s investments are spread across the region without distinction by area, religion, ethnic identity or political attitude. This can sometimes be a cause of complaint from Turks and Bosniacs who think that they deserve more than Serbs and in some cases Albanians. Turkey does not interfere with ballots, does not provide intelligence to opposition parties and does not encourage the people to protest. For these reasons, there are those who cannot answer the question what Turkey is after in the Balkans. Trade relations hardly matter in this tug-of-war. Of the total external trade of west Balkan countries, 74 per cent is carried out with the EU, 6 per cent with China, 5 per cent with Russia and 4 per cent with Turkey.

While there is a threat perception of Russia, it is not true that it has been increasing its influence. Russian influence over the Balkans goes back more than a century and the area it influenced then and it influences now is almost the same. Serbia is the country where Russian influence is the most effective. The split-up of Montenegro from Serbia on May 21st 2006 does not change the fact that the two countries share   

a joint past. In Montenegro, as well as in Serbia, there are those who are for developing relations with the West and there are those who see no friends but Russia. In NATO and EU member Bulgaria, there are still people who view Russia as the main partner. Greece has always enjoyed close ties with Russia and in this state policy has been directed by popular sentiment. It should be remembered that in Kosovo, 21,000 Serbs applied for Russian citizenship in 2011. Separatist Serbs in Bosnia are said to receive the most support not from Serbia but from Russia. Their supporters in Serbia come from the pro-Russian wing. Russia’s relationship with the regions mentioned go back to historical ties. It would not be wrong to describe this as the Orthodox Line, as religion is one of the most effective factors in “them and us”. Religion is a means the functionality of which is clear. Those groups from Greece who went to fight for Serbia in the Bosnian War are a good example. In Macedonia, those who see themselves as Slavs are under the influence of Russia over Serbia. From all this it is difficult to say that Russia has widened its sphere of influence. If anything it has become somewhat narrower.

The truth is that it is the EU, or more properly speaking Germany, that is increasing its influence in the region. Germany has had historically strong ties with former Yugoslavian countries Croatia and Slovenia, but its open influence on Kosovo, to some extent on Albania and increasingly on Bosnia-Herzegovina are clear. In the last three countries, Germany has replaced the USA. Germany’s map of influence may be drawn using the events of WWII. A part of the conflict between Macedonians and Albanians stems from the sides they fought on in WWII. It would not be wrong to say that Macedonia has been added to German field of influence afterwards. The Kumonova operation on May 9th 2015 was an important turning point. At the time, the leader of the opposition had provided the press with records of government corruption and bribery which he could not have acquired by his own means and the government had changed hands. However, Germany’s growing field of influence is to a great extent connected with the west Balkans being involved in the EU enlargement programme. The EU-West Balkans Summit that was initiated with the Berlin Process in 2014 and the fifth of which was held in London on July 10th 2018 was attended, other than Balkan leaders waiting at the EU door, by Germany, Austria, Croatia, Greece and Slovakia, making it clear that it is a project run by Germany and its team.

As we said at the beginning, what we should have said at the end, let us end by checking for the truth of the solution formula. Do Soros, Macron or others who are allied over the issue truly believe that should Serbia become a member of the EU and NATO – and most Serbs are opposed to the latter – it will sever ties with Russia? Despite having seen that the disentanglements achieved through Orange Revolutions have not borne fruit? Do they think that insisting on social engineering despite local sensibilities will bring about regional harmony? Do they want to repeat the mistake they made in Ukraine and have they debated the negative outcomes of forcing a choice between the West and Russia? Do they believe that this way lies stability?



[1] h t t p s : / / w w w . n y t i m e s . com/2018/06/18/opinion/northern-macedonia-rename-greece. Html

[2] From this it is meant that governments are made to be formed not by popular vote but by politicians who are “more democratic” or more pro-Western. In the Balkans elections usually do not have clear winners and the formation of government is subject to open or secret pressure and directives. In addition to Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania, this is the case in Greece too.

[3] The Greek press was notified of the issue on July 11th to allow diplomats time to leave.

[4] It is claimed that the town of Kotor was chosen specifically because it was the home of the Russian Consulate under the empire. Meanwhile, the pro-Russian media in the Balkans created the impression that the town would become a NATO base after Montenegro completes its membership process.

[5] https://www.rferl.org/a/ balkans-russias-friends-form-new-cossack-army/28061110.html

[6] Cossacks were a militarised community who were self-governing and played an important policing and defence role in the sparsely populated border regions of the Russian Empire between the 16th and the 20th centuries. There is little historical connection between the Cossacks and the Balkans. Following the 1917 Revolution in Russia, around 5,000 Cossacks travelled to the Balkans, but most of them went on to Western Europe.


This article was published previously in The Diplomatic Observer August 2018