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Judah: West Is Taking Russian Meddling in the Balkans Seriously

Tim Judah

US Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement, that Balkan countries, among others, are on the firing line in relations between Washington and Moscow, is very significant because the US has been rather absent from the Balkans in the last few years, says Tim Judah, a British pundit and the author of several books on the Balkans.

"This was first said by [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel not so long ago,” Judah told Radio Free Europe.

He continued, “Now, Mr. Kerry is saying it. This means that both the European and American officials are taking seriously what they consider to be a threat of Russian meddling in the Balkans.” The interview is below.

RFE/RL: Is Russia’s room for maneuvering in an attempt to spread its influence to the Balkans now being squeezed, particularly following the Kremlin decision to abandon the construction of the South Stream pipeline, which was scheduled to pass through this region?

Judah: Russia stopped building the pipeline because it was blocked from doing it through Bulgaria [after pressure from the EU].

Insofar as Kerry’s statement went, Judah said, the fact that he said anything about the Balkans was the important aspect. He acknowledged that some might attach more importance to the speech than it warranted, and some might think it was not significant. But just for Kerry to comment indicated that the US was rekindling its interest in the Balkans.

Judah continued: I do think, given what’s happened in Ukraine, it’s natural that Western governments should be worried about the Balkans, which is, after all, surrounded by the EU and NATO.

RFE/RL: I would like to draw your attention to the issue of the South Stream pipeline again. Although it will not be built, some Balkan countries, especially Serbia, remain very dependent on Russian gas. At the same time, Russia's Gazprom holds a majority stake of the Serbian oil refinery (NIS), which opens a space for spreading Moscow’s influence.

Judah: Yes, there are always energy tools because countries like Serbia are very dependent on Russian energy supplies. But, we have also seen in the last year or so the extent of indirect Russian funding for far right parties in parts of Europe. I’m thinking of the National Front in France, for example. On the other side, there are friendly relations with members of the new Greek government with the extreme nationalist circles in Russia. I’m thinking particularly of Alexandar Dugin and his influence. So, I’m thinking of plenty of scope in meddling and trying by Russia to buy off -- not necessarily by money -- friendship and influence in the Balkans, too.

RFE/RL: The Russian pro-governmental television in English, "Russia Today" lashed out at the Serbian government for contracting a former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s consultant company. However, it’s speculated that behind the attack are much deeper reasons, primarily the Kremlin's assessment that the Serbian government is leaning toward the West too much, particularly following frequent recent meetings of the Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic with US Vice President Joseph Biden, who talked about an alternative gas supply for Serbia.

Judah: The types of people you see interviewed on “Russia Today” are, simply, cranks and conspiracy theorists. But the fact that they are used to launch this attack clearly indicates what the Kremlin is thinking and it sounds pretty cross at Mr. Vucic.

RFE/RL: It is quite obvious that Serbia has been trying to strike a balance between Russia, on whose energy it depends as well as for political support over Kosovo, on the one hand, and the European Union whose membership it aspires to, on the other. However, this is a formidable task as the crisis in Ukraine is deteriorating.

Judah: In a way, this is a battle Serbia cannot win. It is like a little boat in a very rough sea. You cannot please everybody. Western countries, of course, would like Serbia to … [endorse] sanctions against Russia. At the same time, naturally, Moscow wants to prevent that. However, let’s not forget that the real injured party here is not Serbia, nor the Balkans, but it is Ukraine. Kiev did not recognize the independence of Kosovo, which is a friendly gesture to Serbia. In Belgrade, for some odd reason, that goes without mention. However, the Ukrainian friendly gesture has been “rewarded” by Serbia seeking to profit from what happened to Ukraine by selling more goods to Russia, which have been banned by Moscow (as a countermeasure to Western sanctions).

Yes, the situation is difficult for Serbia but it is much more difficult for Ukraine, which is also in the middle. I think Ukrainians will long remember what they would consider being stabbed in the back by Serbia.

RFE/RL: Serbia believes that its support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine is a principled position, although it restrains from criticizing the annexation of the Crimea by Russia.

Judah: Don’t forget that Serbian officials did not say it at the beginning. It happened only when Serbia got into trouble. If you remember, where was Serbia at the time of voting on the territorial integrity of Ukraine in the United Nations? Belgrade used as an excuse that it did not have a proper government in place. Only when Serbian leaders got in trouble with western politicians who were appalled, they recognized the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

RFE/RL: The Balkans are no longer as high on the US foreign policy agenda as they were in the 1990s. Does Kerry’s statement signal a renewal of Washington’s interest in this area, at least partly, given the fact that the EU has not been capable of coping with still unsolved problems alone, such as political deadlock in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

Judah: Yes, partly, but not because the EU is necessarily hampered. Maybe it is partly true. The issue is that the Balkans are becoming, as Kerry said, a frontline between the US and Russia. For that reason, Washington needs to reengage in this region. At least, the Kerry statement indicates it, but we should wait for several months to see if it will happen or if these are just words.

RFE/RL: The international position of the Balkans will obviously continue to depend to a great extent on the development in Ukraine.

Judah: The situation in Ukraine will continue to deteriorate. There will be quiet periods, and then it will get bad again. It will make life difficult for countries like Serbia, Bosnia and Macedonia if they haven’t signed up clearly to one side or the other.

RFE/RL: Notwithstanding official support to the Serbian authorities, some Western circles are dissatisfied with them, primarily due to lack of Belgrade’s support for sanctions on Russia. In the meantime, Vucic traded barbs if not harsh words with some EU representatives over the pressure on the domestic media. In addition, the Serbian government and US steel maker Esmark failed to reach a deal over buying the biggest domestic steelmaker in the town of Smederevo. For that reasons, there is a speculation circulating around that the days of honeymoon between Vucic and the West are numbered.

Judah: This is a conspiracy theory. Some politicians in the West may grumble. However, Vucic has been given a quite easy ride. The EU’s and US’s reactions on attacks launched by the Serbian authorities on some media have been pretty mild. I think that both the EU and the US have been very concerned not to pressure the Vucic government too much on domestic affairs. If there is a theory, which I would subscribe to, that would be probably opposite one. Namely, Vucic is not really criticized for anything that happens domestically so long as he doesn’t rock the boat over Kosovo and continues to deliver over the agreement with Pristina. Likewise, you can make the same argument with regard to Kosovo. Its leaders have been given an easy ride and have not been criticized for domestic issues because the West doesn’t want trouble over the Brussels agreement and is [focusing] on what needs to be done in terms of dialogue with Belgrade.