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Dempsey: A wake-up call for unfinished business in Balkans

U.K. -- Judy Dempsey

Moscow is pushing its influence in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo, increasing its focus on the Western Balkans. Why? Judy Dempsey, a senior associate at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of the blog “Strategic Europe,” explains in a telephone interview with RFE/RL’s Balkan Service.

Here, the author of the book “The Merkel Phenomenon” talks about why Moscow is increasing its focus on a region that is not part of the former Soviet Union. The topic is the subject of her article “The Western Balkans Are Becoming Russia’s New Playground”.

RFE/RL: How long do you think Belgrade can sustain its policy of actively seeking EU membership while at the same time maintaining close ties with Russia?

Dempsey: Well, I don't think [Serbia’s] relationship with Russia is the same as [its] relationship with the EU. The relationships are completely different in terms of policy, so we have to bear this in mind. Yes, it's true that Serbia is doing a very careful balancing act, as we saw in the recent visit by President Vladimir Putin, when he was really given the red carpet treatment. But I think at the end of the day much depends on what kind of strategic relationship Brussels wants with Belgrade, and how far Belgrade is going to push ahead with its reforms… It's not carrot and stick, that's too simplistic… The EU itself, and the member states, have to decide: is Serbia very important, and is it that important that we have to speed up the negotiations with Belgrade? Just one other thing on this -- your question is quite important -- implied in your question is: who has most to offer Belgrade, Russia or Europe.

RFE/RL: RT [Russian funded satellite and cable television programming] is opening a radio station in Belgrade, while Deutsche Welle, BBC and most other western broadcasters have pulled out of the Balkans… What are some possible consequences of this new media landscape?

Dempsey: This is just a no-win situation, not only for the Serbs, but all those who speak Serbian, Croatian or any other language spoken in the region. The resources gone into Russia Today -- and it's happening in Germany [too], by the way -- are enormous, and guess what, the West isn't taking on this enormously sophisticated communications machine launched by the Kremlin. And we're going to pay a high price if we're not going to, not counter the propaganda, but actually get down there, with radio, television, and internet, and explain our side. How we see the world, why we're doing certain things, why Europeans take certain decisions… And RT will have a free ride if we don’t understand that this is also a competition of values, and communication is part of this value system.

RFE/RL: In January 2015, Serbia is due to take over the chairmanship of OSCE. Do you foresee major problems for this organization if the leadership role is in the hands of a country that is openly supporting Putin and rejecting the idea of implementing sanctions against Russia?

Dempsey: The OSCE is actually in an enormous crisis, and we've seen this in its monitoring mission in eastern Ukraine. Its credibility and its legitimacy have been constantly undermined, not only by Russia, but by those other neighborhood countries, Azerbaijan and others, who are members of it. It's in very, very bad shape, actually. Serbia has to decide if it's going to use the OSCE to have a major discussion about its future direction, or allow it to become just a kind of useful tool to be used by Russia. And indeed it is a useful tool if Western countries are going to use it. It's just in a complete crisis, and whoever takes over the OSCE better have some clear idea of what they want from it, and I'm not so sure that Belgrade has.

RFE/RL: Two countries in the region are not making any significant progress -- in fact, they almost seem to be going backward: Kosovo and Bosnia. In both cases local politicians must share some of the blame for their countries’ inability to make progress in political and economic terms. But it is also possible to point the finger at Russia, which is blocking Kosovo’s bid for UN membership, for instance. And it is meddling in Bosnian politics with its support for Dodik and Republika Srpska. Is it possible that Putin sees both countries (Bosnia and Kosovo) as "western projects”, and that he is imagining that in both places -- by slowing them down -- he is "fighting the West"?

Dempsey: Well I don't want to get into what Mr. Putin imagines… Let's take Kosovo -- one historical fact: Russia has never forgiven the NATO bombing of Serbian positions, and Russia feels incredibly aggrieved, and hasn't forgotten this, which is very important. As for Bosnia, of course Russia is very close to the political elites, or rather the dysfunctional political elites in Republika Srpska. And it is very interesting that Banja Luka is looking very carefully at the annexation of Crimea, and thinking, "Gosh, is there a possibility that maybe we could be annexed, or so-called annexed, by Serbia…" But there are always opportunities there and where there are power vacuums, when there is corruption, when there is a lack of transparency, and a weak rule of law, then Russia can easily meddle there. And of course its energy monopoly is hugely important. However, as you well know, the EU has spent billions in Kosovo and Bosnia, and the EU has allowed the bickering to continue in Bosnia -- of course the EU is obliged by the Dayton Accords. But frankly the Dayton Accords have outlived their usefulness, and we have to move on from there. In Kosovo, once again, we have the EU judicial police program, and frankly it's been a complete disaster. It's going through yet another restructuring. I mean, we know how corrupt the situation is in Kosovo, but somehow it gets perpetuated, and perpetuated, and perpetuated, and what happens [is that] disillusionment sets in among the younger generation. Look at the unemployment levels in Bosnia and Kosovo, and without any kind of rule of law, transparency, particularly over procurements, who on earth is going to invest there? And the longer it takes to invest, the greater the chance of higher unemployment, and the greater the prospect of populism, or simply instability.

RFE/RL: What is behind the recent intensification of Russian interest in Bosnia?

Dempsey: I think there is a feeling among some of the European capitals, that the present [situation] in Bosnia cannot continue, and [German] Chancellor [Angela] Merkel herself has said this, and the initiative by the German and British foreign ministers over Bosnia concludes that this is just going to deteriorate. So I think that, maybe, though I cannot speculate, Russia feels that the Europeans will get serious about Bosnia, will try to integrate it. And an integrated Bosnia, and indeed an integrated Western Balkans in the EU, is not entirely to Russia's liking at the moment, which is a pity, because a stable, prosperous Western Balkans is in the interest of everybody.

RFE/RL: It seems that the Putin regime has a different strategy for each country. Montenegro is an interesting case. There was a lot of Russian investment in Montenegro although most of it ended in bankruptcy. A large part of the Montenegrin coast is still owned by Russian oligarchs however, while [Prime Minister Milo] Djukanovic’s position is very clear. He wants to see his country become part of EU and NATO.Is Russia likely to try to undermine the ruling party and to install pro-Russian politicians?

Dempsey: Well, the stance Djukanovic has taken is very interesting actually. It's been surprisingly robust, pro-EU, pro-sanctions, and pro-NATO. It's been very impressive, and of course his pro-NATO stance has encouraged the Russian media to try to attack Djukanovic's policies. But it's very interesting how he's done this turn and, whether it's through opportunism or not, he decided where he wants to lead Montenegro, and it's very interesting. It gets back to the very first question you raised in this interview: who has most to offer Montenegro, Russia or the EU?

RFE/RL: Whenever Balkan countries are neglected by Brussels, we should expect trouble. Do you expect to see substantial changes in EU’s approach to Balkan countries in the foreseeable future?

Dempsey: Curiously, yes. I think Germany's role in all of this will be very important. I think over time, once the Commission settles in, I think there will be a renewed interest in the Western Balkans. I hope so. It's my gut feeling that this putting them not even on the back burner, but on a very slow toaster, that's not a policy. It's not a strategy; it's short-termism with serious long-term negative consequences if the EU doesn't wake up to the fact that there is still so much unfinished business in the Balkans.

RFE/RL: Apart from Merkel, who else among current European politicians is do you think is prepared to stand by Ukraine and defend the international order?

Dempsey: This is too complicated -- you have to be really specific in what you mean by "stand by" [Ukraine]. I mean, NATO can't stand by Ukraine, that's clear. The EU? The EU is in for the long-haul. The economic reforms, the political reforms, the social reforms, are all going to cost a ton of money, and the EU will have to be seriously hands-on with Ukraine… I think there is a commitment to it on paper, but whether this is going to happen in practice is another matter. We can't afford to lose Ukraine, and the European countries, [especially] the Poles, the Nordics, the Baltics, the Germans know this. And it's a question of drumming it home, that the EU is in for the long-haul over Ukraine.The bottom line is, the Europeans will not deploy the military option.