Ivan Krastev is the Chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and permanent fellow at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna (IWM). In a recent article published by a number of European media, Krastev argued that the Balkans are the soft underbelly of Europe. His book on Russian politics is due to be published soon. Krastev was talking to RFE/RL Balkan service director, Gordana Knezevic, over the phone from Vienna.
RFE: Some of the former Soviet republics feel threatened by Putin’s desire to revive Russian power in its former sphere of influence, but it seems that Putin is also looking beyond what used to be known as the Iron Curtain?
Krastev: It is very difficult to figure out what Mr. Putin’s grand strategy is, but the thing that we learned in the last year is that at the heart of his strategy is to be unpredictable. To try basically to surprise the West. So, from this point of view, now everybody is focused on the Baltics, and some people are still talking about the parts of the former Soviet Union (as a possible target). I do believe it does make quite a lot of sense to look at the Balkans as a possible playground for future Russian foreign policy activities, for several reasons. When I talk about it (the Balkans) as a future playground, I do not mean, of course, military intervention – there are not going to be little green men in the Balkans – but in his attempt to disunite Europe, I do believe that Mr. Putin can very well instrumentalize the lack of political stability and economic prosperity in the Balkans at the moment, and, also, Russian foreign policy has traditionally sought influence in this region.
RFE: If Putin's intention is to destabilize the Balkans, then Bosnia is his most obvious target?
Krastev: Yes, it is. However, it should be noted that the current instability in Bosnia is not the result of Russian policy. Bosnia has been destabilized for many reasons – economic, political, constitutional – but the truth is that at this present moment Bosnia is at a very critical juncture, and I do believe that Moscow’s influence on the Republic of Srpska is very real, and this is well known – many have already pointed out that Moscow’s influence in Banja Luka is much stronger than, for example, Belgrade’s influence over Banja Luka. This can create a major problem because Russia’s support for secessionist policy in Republic of Srpska is going to profoundly destabilize Bosnia. And in this sense we’ve already had a signal from the Russian side – that they are ready to show they have this power to disrupt if they choose to do so – when, for the first time since the war in Bosnia, in the UN vote on prolonging the term of the European military presence in Bosnia, Russia chose to abstain. And this is a very new development, because until recently the Balkans was one of the very few areas where cooperation between Russia and the West was quite clear, quite productive, even if you also compare Russia’s policy toward Serbia and Russia’s policy toward Ukraine, you can see that Russia never really tried to bet on the pro-Russian candidate when in presidential elections in Serbia, for instance – something they did in Ukraine in 2004. So, until yesterday, Russia was prepared to recognize that basically joining the European Union is the most natural thing that the countries from the region should do. In this new situation of crisis, I do believe that they can see the Balkans also as a place where they can use their power to disrupt.
RFE: Russia Today started broadcasting its program in Serbian in January 2015. It comes after joint military exercises with Serbia, and some obscure business deals which left most of the Serbian energy sector dependent on Russia. Why do you think Serbia is important for Russia?
Krastev: The most important thing at this very moment (is to recognize that) the success or the failure of Russian policy in Ukraine is very much dependent on the extent to which the European Union can maintain a united position. And maintaining a united position is not easy for the European Union. It is not easy because of its trade relations with Russia, but also because of the fact that the European north and the European south have very different types of security concerns. If you look at countries like Italy or France, for them the major problem is, of course, radical Islam and Islamic terrorism. So as a result they prefer to see Russia as an ally, and not as an enemy. On the other side, for countries like the Baltics and Poland, which basically stand on the Russian border, they are very much worried about what happens in Ukraine, and of course their major preoccupation is Russia. So, from this point of view I do believe that what Russia can achieve in the Balkans is to create one more center of instability, and thus one more obstacle for the European Union in its striving to maintain a united position on the Ukrainian crisis.
RFE: Putin has frequently drawn a parallel between Kosovo and Crimea.
Krastev: It is a misleading comparison. And it is misleading because, first of all, the West made a lot of effort to try to deal with the Kosovo issue through international institutions. And even after the war in Yugoslavia, it took ten years for the international community to begin to accept the the idea of Kosovo’s independence, which is still not recognized by everyone. If you compare this to Crimea, the problem of Crimean independence was decided in three days. So from this point of view, where he is wrong, and of course there are many issues and of course you can make different parallels, but the main point is that the international community did their best to find a solution to the Kosovo based on United Nations’ principles, and only when it became clear that this issue cannot be solved at this level, independence became an option. This was not the case in Crimea. And what is also important is that in the case of Crimea, there could be no question of persecution or genocide (as a justification for intervention, as it had been in Kosovo). In a certain way, what the Russians did, and the way they justified it – they basically said we are doing this because it used to be a part of Russia. But it is precisely this argument that scares everybody, because most parts of the world were parts of other countries. If you use this argument, you justify redrawing of borders and you set a very, very dangerous precedent, so from this point of view I can imagine why Mr. Putin is using this. He is using this because the Russian public has been following the Kosovo story with interest since 1999, and as you know there is very strong Russian public opposition to the recognition of Kosovo, so he knows that he is speaking to an audience that shares his views. But if you look beyond the domestic sphere, I do not believe that his argument is a valid one.
RFE: Serbia, for the time being, is trying to balance its commitments to the EU with its friendship with Moscow. Do you think that Belgrade will have to put its act together?
Krastev: I do believe that, of course, Belgrade is in a much more difficult position than any of the other Balkan states. Because of on the level of (pro-Russian) sentiment, a lot of things (in relations to Russia) happened during the last twenty years. Of course, Russia was perceived as (Serbia’s) main “protector”, and supporter in the UN when it came to Kosovo. So from this point of view, it is not easy for Belgrade – I do believe that not only the energy sector but also part of the military, have been very much cooperating with Russia, and this type of network is very important. But on the other hand, in basic economic terms, Serbia is totally dependent on European markets – it is Germany, not Russia, that can really move Serbia forward. So if they look at the future strategically, I do believe that Serbian politicians, and Mr. Vucic is realizing this, (will see) that Russia has nothing to offer. And I do believe that what some Serbian politicians are trying to do these days are two things. There is a group that still remembers President Tito’s favored position of ‘in between’ – I do not believe that this type of position ‘in between’ is going to work for Serbia this time at all. On the other hand, people like Mr. Vucic are trying basically to use Russian pressure to put pressure in turn on the European Union, saying ‘you see, we have an alternative, we are under pressure, and if you are not going to help us now, then blame yourself for your ‘loss of Serbia’. So this is how I see the game, but of course, there are many other things – their sentiments, their economic interests, their corrupt connections – do not forget that most of the Serbian oligarchs, when they have a problem with the police, they are not running to Berlin, they are running to Moscow.
RFE: Having in mind the level of corruption in the Balkans, Putin's way of doing business is more likely to be popular than strengthening the rule of law as required by the EU. Is it is possible for the EU to establish a taskforce to fight corruption in the Balkan countries?
Krastev: Listen, the easiest (thing) is to establish a taskforce. Corruption is a very complex anomaly because it is not simply the money that had been stolen, but corruption creates these secret relationships which are very important in politics because someone knows something about you that you do not want them to know. On the other hand, I do believe that many of the Balkan oligarchs are ready to work with corrupt Russian officials, but at the same time they fear being part of these corrupt Russian businesses because it is a very competitive environment. And you do not want to face, basically, some of your Russian counterparts on their own terms. I do believe this was also a part of the problem in Ukraine. As a result, even the Serbian oligarchs, I do believe, are going to play a much more complex game. Of course they are ready to get money from Russia. But, by the way, there is less money in Russia these days than there was before. The economic crisis has very much restricted Russia’s ability to inject money into the Balkan countries. The end of the South Stream (gas pipeline project) also showed that when you are betting on Russia against Europe you can end up on the losing side in more than one sense – you are not getting gas, but at the same time you are earning a very bad image in Brussels. So from this point of view I believe that, although that Russia has the power to destabilize the region, Russia’s possibilities are also quite limited because they have nothing really to offer, even to the corrupt elites in the countries. Because the problem with corruption is that everybody wants to be the monopolist of corruption. Everybody wants to be the only corrupt one. When everybody becomes corrupt, then corruption is not this nice game you want to play.
RFE: In the most recent development, Moscow has been complaining about Bosnian exports of ammunition to Kiev. How do you interpret this?
Krastev: Listen, I believe it is a general position, and of course (in this case) Russia is also trying to use the general sentiment in Europe that arming Ukraine is not going to solve the crisis. From the Bosnian point of view, of course, it is a much simpler explanation – basically they are looking for markets and they try to sell anywhere they can. I do not believe this is going to be the major issue in the relationship. I do believe the major issue is going to be the strategic decision on the Russian side how they want to see their relations with the EU in the next five or ten years. Because what is also quite important is that from Moscow’s point of view, the conflict in Ukraine is not so much a clash between Russia and the West, as between Russia and the United States. Many Russians believe that the major objective of Russian foreign policy should be decoupling the United States from the European Union. The biggest obstacle to this is, of course, the position of Germany, because contrary to some expectations in Moscow at the beginning of the crisis, Chancellor Merkel and Minister Steinmeier now represent the hardline of the European policy towards Russia. So, to a certain extent, the pressure on countries like Serbia or Bosnia is very much also pressure on Berlin because it is Germany now that it is taking a leading role in dealings with the Balkans, and now Moscow is trying to send a message to Berlin that Moscow may be bad at solving problems, but they can be quite effective in creating them.