Milo Djukanovic, a pro-Western candidate, won Montenegro’s presidential election on April 15, pledging to continue the pro-West’s policy defying Russia. Having joined NATO, the next step is EU membership – his coveted dream. The election result is largely viewed as a step to diminish Moscow’s influence in the Balkans. Despite his pro-Western bias, President-elect Djukanovic emphasized during the election campaign his wish to have “normal relations with Russia”. Western media largely ignore the fact that only 46 out of 81 Montenegrin MPs voted a year ago for ratification of NATO membership agreement.
The region is largely viewed as a testing ground in new Cold War with Moscow. The West is engaged in efforts to spread its influence in the Balkans and weaken Russia’s position there. That’s what the EU strategy adopted in February calls for, emphasizing that the western Balkan states are geographically surrounded by the bloc’s members.
The “Albanian factor” is used to advance the West’s course. The activities of Kosovo separatists, including the interethnic violence in Macedonia, and Albanians in Serbia’s Preševo Valley seeking union with Albania and Kosovo are links on the same chain. The idea of creating Great Albania is not dead. And Albania is a NATO member.
The pressure is strong enough to make Serbia make concessions in relations with Kosovo, though only 26 per cent of Serbs now think EU membership would be a good thing. The policy boils down to reforms in exchange for possible membership. From the West’s point of view, good relations with Moscow would be an obstacle but Serbia remains a neutral state, maintaining friendly ties with its historical ally.
80 percent of Serbia’s gas comes from Russia, which is a link to the EAEU’s big market with 180 million consumers. Serbia receives Russia’s military assistance, including a batch of MiG-29 fighters delivered gratuitously. In 2015, Russia prevented Serbia’s conviction of genocide in Srebrenica by the UN Security Council. According to a 2017 public opinion survey conducted by the Serbian Demostat research center, 41 percent of respondents perceive Russia as the greatest friend. The people remember Moscow’s support of Belgrade’s stance on Kosovo. Serbian and Russian leaders meet frequently. Unlike the US, Russia never tried to exert pressure.
Meanwhile, Croatia, Slovenia, Albania and Montenegro have joined NATO. Croatia and Slovenia have joined the EU. Macedonia’s NATO membership bid will be considered at a NATO summit in July, despite the fact that this nation struggles with rampant corruption and ethnic tensions. NATO has actually taken Kosovo away from Serbia. Macedonia may also lose some areas with predominant Albanian population in the north-west of the country. The EU accession is also a goal. Russia is one of its most important trade partners. If Macedonia enters the EU, it will have to join Russia sanctions to deprive its economy of profits.
Bosnia-Herzegovina’s membership is on the agenda but it has an obstacle – the Bosnian Serbs oppose the move. Their opposition is explained by “Russia’s influence” of course, the reason remembered each and every time something goes wrong.
Both countries are a far cry from any “standards” but this principle is somehow forgotten. There is an exemption to any rule but extending membership to anyone for the sake of rolling Russia back is a very wrong idea to make the alliance weaker as an amalgam of nations, which have few things in common and contribute very differently. The alliance will have more free riders making other nations pay more.
Western efforts to reduce the region’s energy “dependence” on Russia are part of the “squeeze Russia out” policy. The completion of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) project and the plan to construct a floating liquefied natural gas terminal on Krk, a Croatian island, are to bolster the political ends. The Krk project is to encompass Slovenia and Hungary, Bosnia and Serbia. The TAP will stretch from the Caspian Sea to Albania and northwards to other Western Balkan countries as well as Italy. Interconnector pipelines between Bulgaria and Serbia also meet the West’s policy goals.
Macedonia will become rich if the Turkish Stream gas project is expanded as planned. The country is the best direction as the Vardar River transportation route links Central Europe and the Aegean Sea. The pipeline will cross Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary to reach Central Europe. Of course, becoming a member of NATO and the EU, it’ll have to forget about these lucrative prospects in favor of paying higher prices for the US shale gas.
Voices have been raised in the US recently calling for paying more attention to the Balkans. The influential Atlantic Council calls for permanent military presence in the region. The think tank wants Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo to be transferred into “the first permanent military base in southeastern Europe”. The plan includes the construction of a runway to operate large aircraft. “Belgrade can and should be a close partner and ally in the region, but it can only become one if it begins to meaningfully distance itself from Russia,” the Atlantic Council’s experts emphasize in the report issued in late 2017. The Heritage Foundation followed suit offering guidelines for American policy to oust Russia from the region to make it dominated by the US.
Congress wants the Defense Department to prepare a report on “cooperation between every single Western Balkan country and the Russian Federation.” Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the top US and NATO commander in Europe, has just told Congress that “Russia is at work in the Balkans and we have kind of taken our eye off the area.” Last month, the general was blasted by Serbia for meddling into its internal affairs in an effort to warn Belgrade against developing cooperation with Moscow. American experts working for European think tanks call for working out joint measures to counter Russia in the Balkans.
Being a battlefield in the geopolitical game will hardly benefit the countries of the region. Lured into the NATO and EU, they risk becoming pawns in big powers’ games.