How to Downsize Russia in the Balkans

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As the EU-facilitated talks to normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia enter the final stretch, the West faces a unique opportunity to help resolve two major issues in one go — normalize relations between Serbs and Albanians by res

As the EU-facilitated talks to normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia enter the final stretch, the West faces a unique opportunity to help resolve two major issues in one go — normalize relations between Serbs and Albanians by resolving the Kosovo issue and downsize Russia’s influence in the Balkans. This is a unique opportunity that should not be missed because of rigidity or indecision. Swift action and tact are needed to close the final chapter in the breakup of former Yugoslavia and to allow the region a chance at a new beginning.

While the potential of this process to improve relations between Serbs and Albanians is clear, the simultaneous opportunity to downsize Russia’s influence is often missed due to a fundamental misunderstanding of the history and character of Serb-Russian relations.

For the greater part of the 20th century, the two countries — which at times used to be close allies — were actually at odds with each other. The Serbo–Russian bond that played a critical role in the outbreak of World War I dissolved with the Russian Revolution and the victory of the Reds over the Whites in 1922. The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, which would later morph into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, was staunchly anti-Soviet, not only because of the Karađorđević dynasty’s fear of Communism, but also because of King Aleksandar’s close ties with members of the Russian aristocracy. Initially an instrument of Soviet influence abroad, the Yugoslav Communists grew independent as leaders of an anti-fascist movement in World War II and were finally expelled from the Cominform, a predecessor of Comecon and the Warsaw Pact, in 1948. From that point onward, the by-then Communist Yugoslavia and the Soviet Bloc engaged in a mini-Cold War of their own, with the West backing Yugoslavia as a buffer zone between themselves and the Soviets. This mini-Cold War went through periods of confrontation and rapprochement, with party purges and border standoffs slowly giving way to Soviet attempts at Yugoslav style liberalization. It was not really until the collapse of Communist Yugoslavia in 1991 and the subsequent international isolation of Serbia that Serbia’s contemporary relationship with Russia started to take shape.

This new relationship centered on Serbia’s periodic needs for support vis-à-vis the West, which got involved in the post-Yugoslav space in the 1990s, trying to put an end to all regional conflicts. Initially, Russia could offer Serbia little more than mediation and intelligence sharing, which it would simultaneously provide to the West as well, on whose assistance it then depended for its fiscal stability and deficit spending. Such Russian involvement made a meaningful impact on two occasions. In 1999, it secured Slobodan Milošević’s consent to the Kumanovo Agreement, which facilitated the withdrawal of Serb police and Yugoslav military from Kosovo, after 78 days of NATO airstrikes to end the excessive use of force in the province. The withdrawal allowed for the start of an international peacekeeping operation, which continues to this day under the European Union Rule of Law Mission/EULEX and NATO’s Kosovo Force/KFOR. Russia also helped with a peaceful transition of power in Serbia, convincing Milošević to step down in 2000, after his refusal to concede electoral defeat led to the 5 of October uprising in Belgrade. This last intervention allowed for a complete reset in Serbia’s relations with the West, with every government of Serbia since then making European integration its priority.

Increasingly worried about NATO’s eastward expansion, President Vladimir Putin’s administrations started considering partnership opportunities in the west to slow down this eastward momentum.

Russia’s rapid economic recovery in the early 2000s suddenly expanded the country’s capacity to project power abroad and provide robust support to potential partners and allies. Increasingly worried about NATO’s eastward expansion into the post-Soviet space, President Vladimir Putin’s administrations started considering partnership opportunities in the west with which to slow down this eastward momentum until it could be reversed. The Balkans and Central Europe topped the list of opportunities, but Serbia, at first, showed no interest, despite several traumatic events. These included the assassination of the country’s first freely and fairly elected prime minister, Zoran Đinđic, in 2003 and the peaceful dissolution of federal Yugoslavia, by then the Union of Serbia and Montenegro, in 2006. Throughout these challenges, the partner of choice was always the West. Russia’s opportunity did, however, come in 2006 and 2007, during the UN-facilitated talks on the future status of Kosovo. For these talks, Serbia set itself a very high goal of reabsorbing Kosovo, for which it would not gain support in the West. When the United Nations mediator Martti Ahtissari proposed supervised independence instead, Serbia decided to lean on Russia for support again and leverage its veto at the United Nations Security Council to block Kosovo’s international recognition. Kosovo declared independence on February 17, 2008.

With Russia’s support, Serbia secured diplomatic leverage, but at the price of periodic concessions that steadily increased Russia’s influence in the Balkans, while complicating Serbia’s relations with the West.

In the lead up to Kosovo’s declaration of independence, Serbia allowed Russia’s Gasprom Neft to purchase a 51 percent stake in Serbia’s integrated oil and gas company Naftna Industrija Srbije (NIS). Gasprom Neft acquired the stake for €400 million, which was below the market estimate of €600 to €800 million, and €550 million in investment, which was eventually realized as an intercompany loan due back in 2025. The acquisition gave Gasprom Neft control over Serbia’s largest network of filling stations, three refineries — two of oil in Serbia and one of gas in Nigeria — and statutory monopoly of exploration, development, and production of Serbia’s crude oil and gas reserves valued at €7 billion. The energy accord that facilitated this acquisition also added Serbia to the South Stream pipeline project, which was supposed to connect Russia and Central Europe via the Black Sea and Balkans. The next concession came in 2012, when another accord established a joint Russo-Serbian crisis center in the Serbian city of Nis, which sits on the nexus of highway and railway networks connecting Eastern and Southern Balkans with Central Europe. The center would eventually become a major issue in Serbia’s relations with the West, when Russia requested diplomatic status for its staff there in 2017. The answer is still pending, though all indications are that Serbia will reject Russia’s request. The last concession Serbia made took place in 2015, when the Russian international news agency Rossiya Segodnya opened a Belgrade branch of its online broadcaster Sputnik. In a fragmented media space in which payment for relay is possible and Gasprom Neft is a major advertiser, Sputnik quickly achieved market penetration, partially contributing to the fall in public support for European integration from 57 percent to 47 percent and the rise in support for closer ties with Russia from 42 percent to 63 percent over a period of two years.

With the exception of the Vojislav Kostunica government of 2007–2008, which lost its majority when the prime minister showed readiness to abandon European integration in response to Kosovo’s declaration of independence, successive Serbian governments were well aware of the cost of keeping Russia close, but moved at different speeds to resolve the Kosovo issue that necessitated it. The only path forward was through the EU-facilitated talks,[i] which after addressing technical issues would offer an opportunity for compromise on status. President Boris Tadic and the Mirko Cvetkovic government of 2008–2012 decided to engage in these talks at an envoy level, but as issues became more complex, progress slowed and then stalled. President Tomislav Nikolic and the Ivica Dacic government of 2012–2014 recognized their predecessors’ error and agreed to elevate the talks to the prime ministerial level, after which progress picked up pace again. The Aleksandar Vucic government of 2014–2017 maintained high momentum until mass protests in Pristina forced the Isa Mustafa government of Kosovo away from the negotiating table in early 2016. Talks resumed later in the year, despite ongoing volatility, only to be transferred to the presidential level in 2017 and then disrupted again, this time around by the assassination of a moderate Kosovo Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic earlier this year. By then, the talks had already delivered on a whole range of issues, including border management, exchange of civil registries and cadasters, special status for Kosovo Serb municipalities, integration of Kosovo Serb police, judiciary, and prosecution, as well as a small set of issues affecting Kosovo’s ability to integrate into the global system, like having a unique dial-in country code. Both the protests and the assassination highlighted the growing opposition to compromise of extremist groups and organized crime. Each incident came after significant forward momentum or possibility thereof and derailed the entire process for a while.

The recent willingness of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to explore solutions that would allow Serbia to recognize Kosovo and the subsequent launch of a dialogue in Serbia to identify acceptable options have marked a watershed moment in the talks. A compromise solution would not only allow Serbs and Albanians to start healing their relationship, but would also open up opportunities for much needed collaboration between Serbia, Kosovo, and Albania not seen since the late Middle Ages.[ii] The solution would also decrease Serbia’s dependency on Russia and with it, Russia’s leverage, as well as further consolidate Serbia on a trajectory of European integration, if not NATO integration.[iii] That said, this potential also attracts considerable risk. Extremist groups and organized crime stand to lose considerable income and societal positioning from any normalization of relations. Both have considerable resources at their disposal and are willing to deploy violence in pursuit of their objectives. Their interests are also converging with those of foreign actors who would rather see the Balkans politically fragmented. The West would not only need to move quickly, if it wants to capitalize on the opportunity that presents itself, but would also need to display maximum flexibility to allow negotiators to identify a compromise which would work for both sides involved. Fortunately, the European Union’s High Representative Federica Mogherini has displayed the know-how and ability to move the dial forward. By now, she also knows all negotiators well enough to facilitate a breakthrough before the end of her mandate next year.

The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) stands ready to assist this effort with its policy and convening capacity, as well as its support for civil society, which through the Balkan Trust for Democracy, has been investing in regional reconciliation and collaboration for more than 15 years. 

[i] The High Representative of the European Union for Foreign and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, has led the European Union facilitated talks between Serbia and Kosovo ever since they were elevated to the prime ministerial level. She is also a Marshall Memorial Fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States from 2007.

[ii] The medieval empire of Tsar Dushan was a multi-ethnic formation with Tsar Dushan recognizing himself as the ruler of Serbs, Albanians, and Greeks.

[iii] Serbia is currently only pursuing European Union membership, because of its complicated history with NATO, though military cooperation between Serbia and NATO is on the highest level with the Individual Partnership Action Plan.