Dimitar Bechev says that Russian decision-makers have proven time and again to be very rational. He talked about Russia, its interests and the Balkan states in an interview with RFE/RL.
Bechev, from Bulgaria, is a senior fellow at the European Institute, London School of Economics, an EPC Academic Fellow, Director of the European Policy Institute in Sofia and Visiting Fellow at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University, where he researches the EU and Russia in South East Europe.
Bechev said that, because of the approach that Russian decision-makers take, “Montenegro and Serbia joining the EU will be good news for Moscow, at the end of the day. The Russians try to benefit from this process of Balkan nations drawing closer to Western institutions rather than try to stop it. A Russian long-term interest is to have as many countries like Cyprus, Greece, Bulgaria and so forth in the EU.”
Here is the interview as edited:
RFE/RL: How would you comment on Montenegrin Prime Minister [Milo] Djukanovic’s accusation that Russia masterminded the opposition protests which have taken place in the final stage of Montenegro’s campaign to join NATO? Djukanovic claimed that Russia has been meddling in Montenegro’s internal affairs in an attempt to scupper its NATO membership bid.
Bechev: I wouldn’t be surprised if there is Russian involvement in Montenegro. As we know, Russia has been pretty opportunistic trying to exploit all the weaknesses of Western policies. However, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that Montenegro is deadlocked in the sense that there is just one party, which monopolizes all political power. There are some legitimate grievances about the rule of law and corruption, which, of course, does not exclude opportunities for Russia to interfere and take advantage of. But, on balance, I think that Montenegro accession to NATO is already decided and it would be very difficult to reverse this decision.
On the other hand, frankly speaking from the Russian perspective, Montenegro’s entrance to NATO won’t be a game changer. It might be a minor setback but nothing serious for Russia. At the end of the day, Moscow knows that the Western Balkans, one way or another, will integrate into Western institutions, i.e. the EU and NATO. The game for Russia is not to reverse or roll back this process, like in Georgia or Ukraine, but to preserve as much as influence in the long term in those countries.
RFE/RL: You mean like in Bulgaria where Russia has wielded clout for years, particularly in energy sector? It is possible to imagine a similar scenario in Serbia once it enters the EU. It may serve as a Russian “Trojan horse” within the EU, like Cyprus.
Bechev: The more “Cyprus” there is in the EU, the better it is for Russia, which means more voices in the Union in favor of accommodating polices towards the Kremlin, taking a softer approach.
RFE/RL: If, for example, Serbia’s trade with the EU accounts almost 70 per cent of Serbia’s foreign trade while Russia accounts for just around 10 per cent, then the question is what leverage Russia has at its disposal aimed at securing its interests in Serbia, Montenegro and other countries.
Bechev: You are absolutely right. We shouldn’t exaggerate Russia’s leverage. Its influence is very present in the energy sector. At the same time, in last few years Russia invests non transparently in civil groups, even political parties, influential opinion makers, then investing in the media to shape and insert itself into the political debate in those countries. It’s a kind of soft power. It happened recently in Macedonia when Moscow took sides in the internal political crisis.
Many people exaggerate the importance of the energy sector. Of course, Russia is a big player in this field, but gas is much less used in the Western Balkans than in countries of the former Soviet Union. Even Serbia which is a relatively big consumer is a case in point. So, the key issue is that Russian power and its economic resources must be able to concentrate on the right spot, to mobilize and make its moves. However, strategically Russia is not so important a player.
Results of public surveys in Serbia are very. Although Russia is not a big investor and donor, based on people’s perception Russia is ranked among the top countries helping Serbia. They neglect to note that the EU, Japan, the US give more money to Serbia. It means that Russia has a very successful PR machine and skillfully exploits all the problems that Balkan and other countries face and … [use them]… to disrupt Western polices. Civil society is another channel for sure.
RFE/RL: Russia definitely tops the list of most-liked nations in Serbia because of their traditional Slav, Orthodox ties while many Serbs harbor grievances against the West, particularly the US, which is pretty disliked in Serbia.
Bechev: Well, I think after the experiences of the 1990s, both Russia and Serbia felt victims of American unilateralism. Russia was marginalized, was weakened, during the [Russian President Boris] Yeltsin years. Serbia was on the other side of the military conflict particularly with the NATO bombing. But when the people in Serbia speak generally about history they tend to forget the most immediate part, i.e. the Cold War. At that time Yugoslavia was not part of the Soviet sphere of influence and social ties between them were not so strong. For example, you don’t see many Serbs – intellectuals, policy makers, - speaking the Russian language. Even Brussels officials speak Russian more frequently than those in Belgrade. For example, Miroslav Lajcak [Slovak diplomat now Minister of Foreign Affairs of Slovakia] or Stefan Fuele [Czech diplomat, until 2014 European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy], who both were schooled in Moscow.
As I said, the former Soviet Union was not so influential in many ways in Yugoslav society and this is often forgotten by all kinds of commentators.
RFE/RL: You mentioned that Montenegro’s membership in NATO won’t be a big deal for Russia. What if Serbia decides to opt for NATO, abandoning its current position of military neutrality? For the moment, it tries to strike a middle ground – seeking EU membership but declining to join the Western sanctions against Russia. For how long would it be possible for Serbia to sit “between two chairs?”
Bechev: It will continue for quite some time because the Western powers haven’t been so keen to push Serbia on ties with Russia. Vucic is delivering on issues-- mostly Kosovo-- that matter to EU capitals. At the same time, Russians are pragmatic because they cannot get Serbia back into their camp. For that reason, they are happy with the status quo. But this equilibrium might prove unsustainable in the long term.
The question for Vucic is beyond symbolism just to show close ties with Russia, i.e. what he delivers in terms of economic benefits, because Russia is marketed in the Balkans, particularly in Serbia, as a source of investments. However, it is a big question because Russia itself is in recession. …And not all Russian businesses are politically driven. Therefore, they seek to see some concrete benefits rather than splashing out their money just for political reasons.
This was proved recently with Greece, when its Prime Minister [Alexis] Tsipras went to Moscow with a long list of requests for economic aid. However, the Russians were much more pragmatically oriented; they had their own “shopping list”.
RFE/RL: [About]...Russian influence in Bosnia, specifically in the Serb entity whose leader, Milorad Dodik, has frequently visited Moscow: to what extent does Russia use Bosnia as a platform to project its interests?
Bechev: It is a very good platform for Russia. Since the Dayton Agreement, its representative sits in the UN Council for the implementation of peace in Bosnia. That means that it has leverage in the Security Council because Bosnia is not just a matter for the EU. The United Nations still has an important role to play in Bosnia unlike in Kosovo, which transitioned in 2010 from the UN to Brussels. So Russia has lots of leverage in Bosnia. Dodik is an important ally of Moscow.
The Russian potential of disrupting Western policies in Bosnia is quite extensive in the case of Dodik’s planning a referendum [on whether his entity enjoys immunity from the national court]… It doesn’t mean that Russia has a positive agenda. It pursues policies to create problems for the EU, and NATO especially.
The Russian logic is: “if you want to meddle in Ukraine, Georgia, in our backyard, we can also meddle in your backyard. We have our own instruments of influence to disrupt your policies”.
RFE/RL: Russia has been now focusing on Syria. For that reason the Balkans is probably almost below of its international radar.
Bechev: I think so. It was the case even before, when Ukraine was on the top of the list. Those [Syria and Ukraine issues]… are more important for the West, as well. Therefore, these are spots where Russia can get much more leverage.
Moscow has managed to build up its influence on the ground in Syria in cooperation with Bashar al Assad. That can then be a bargaining chip in a great bargain with the West. This is Putin’s idea to get relief from Western sanctions in exchange for cooperation on Syria.
As for the Balkans, they are not high on Moscow’s agenda. Mostly, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his apparatus deal with the Balkans. The Kremlin, i.e. Putin, is less visible, which means that this region is a second- rate issue. It is not the core of Russian foreign policy, where Putin is involved.