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Western Balkans: Reactions and Implications of the Russian Aggression of Ukraine

11 March, 2022

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  • BiEPAG
Western Balkans: Reactions and Implications of the Russian Aggression of Ukraine

As the rest of the World, Russian aggression towards Ukraine took the Western Balkan countries by surprise. The new geopolitical reality in which Europe woke up on February 24, inevitably has and will continue to create huge political and economic implications for the Western Balkan region that remains stuck in the European Union’s waiting room for already decades.

The inability to progress in their efforts to join the Union due to the state capture performed by domestic authoritarian elites and also due to the fading credibility of EU’s promise to enlarge, have led countries and citizens of the region to look for alternatives, among others to Russia. In a context where Russian aggression towards Ukraine threatens to unravel into a wider conflict between the East and West, it becomes obvious that the Balkans, and particularly countries that have not become part of the NATO such as Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, could potentially become a new crisis area in which super powers would fight for their sphere of influence.

At one hand, countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are under the patronage of the West, while at the other, in Serbia for example almost two thirds of population have an overall positive opinion of the Russian Federation and its President Vladimir Putin. Faced with the new realities, governments of the region had largely pursued the ‘silence policy’ aiming at keeping their neutrality status, yet univocally condemning the Russian aggression. In the meantime, citizens have experienced great deal of re-traumatization due to the 1990s armed conflicts. Depending on the historical narrative, most have condemned the Russian aggression, while in other cases, such as in Serbia, there have even been gatherings in support of Russian and Vladimir Putin’s war path.

As Europe seems more united than before in the first days of Russian aggression of Ukraine, it is important that it does not neglect the Western Balkans. Today more than ever, the region urgently needs a credible and realistic offer for full accession to the EU, instead of the current open-ended process that seems to be a dead end. A transformational process based on the Copenhagen conditionality criteria and merit, rather than the current reality, burdened by stabilitocracy trade-of, bilateral issues and vetoes. As this short analysis illustrates, the region is packed with historic grievances and disputes creating a fertile ground for destabilization. If the EU wants to firmly anchor the Western Balkans 6 on their European path, it must act now.

Albania

Albania, a NATO member and a candidate country for EU membership, clearly condemned the Russian aggression of Ukraine and expressed unreserved support for Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. Albania is a co-pen holder with the US on Ukraine in the UN Security Council and one of the 141 countries that voted in favor of the UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russian military aggression against Ukraine. Albania has fully aligned itself with EU sanctions against Russia while the National Parliament on March 8th unanimously adopted a resolution in support of Ukraine.

Although not in close proximity to the conflict, Albania has provided a modest contribution to help with the humanitarian crisis and provide shelter to Ukrainian refugees. Several citizen and civil society campaigns and gatherings were organized in support of Ukraine over the past few weeks while the Tirana Municipality renamed as “Free Ukraine” (Alb. “Ukraina e Lirë”) a street near the Russian embassy.

Almost all major media outlets (TVs, newspapers, and online media) have provided extensive coverage, especially on the first two weeks of the situation in Ukraine. However, the early local elections in six municipalities (March 6th) shifted public attention to a certain extent. With the heightened economic impact attention is being restored to Russian aggression and its impact.

As Russian aggression against Ukraine is deteriorating as from economic, humanitarian, and other perspectives, Albania has started to feel the impact of war, mostly in the economic sphere but also in other aspects such as through societal and regional security perspectives. One of the first effects of the Russian aggression in the context of Albania’s economy was rising inflation. Prices of several products have increased, with the fuel price hike leading to protests.

The PM of Albania and associations of wheat producers and wheat import companies have attempted to calm public fears over price surges or eventual shortages by assuring the public that the country has enough reserves, and that may also be alternative markets. Another sector which is expected to be hard hit is tourism, given the rising number of Russian and Ukrainian tourists over the last few years. From the perspective of energy security pressure is much less due to the fact that Albania relies heavily on hydropower sources and is less dependent on gas.

From a security perspective, an imminent threat to national security is unlikely. Yet, as a NATO member, Albania has its share of responsibilities and obligations towards the NATO community. The EU High Representative Josep Borrell declared at a press conference on February 27th that the EU is worried that the crisis in Ukraine may spread to the Western Balkans. Regional security is therefore a quite pressing concern for Albania. Article 8 (1) of the Constitution of Albania reiterates the obligation to protect the rights of the Albanian population outside the borders of the country.

The accession of Montenegro and North Macedonia in NATO has increased security in these countries each with a significant number of ethnic Albanians. However, Russian influence over the past decade or so in the region poses a serious threat towards the stability and security of western Balkans in general, and even more so in multiethnic societies.

Although Kosovo is more resistant to Russian influence, its stability and security has become even more fragile with the war in Ukraine which has led to calls for accelerating its accession into NATO. Albania is a strategic partner of Kosovo and in spite of differences over the Open Balkan initiative, the two countries’ security is closely interconnected.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Long before Russia started its war against Ukraine it established a role as a relevant geopolitical actor in the region and in Bosnia and Herzegovina. From the start of Bosnia’s latest “political crisis”, after summer 2021 Russia was most visible in its direct support for Milorad Dodik and his attempts to diminish Western influence in Bosnia.

The showdown in the Security Council over the extension of EUFOR, the firm opposition against the new High Representative, as well as presence of the Russian ambassador at the unconstitutional celebration of the “Day of Republika Srpska” on January 9th confirmed once again that Putin and official Russian policy supports Dodik in his attacks on state institutions and the international community. This support would then be reciprocated by Dodik and his inner circle following Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

Since the war broke out, Bosnian state authorities and the presiding member of the BiH Presidency, Željko Komšić, strongly condemned Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. In contrast, in the first days of the invasion Milorad Dodik appeared at a public event with the Russian ambassador to BiH, endorsing Putin’s move in Ukraine. A State Parliament MP from Dodik’s SNSD party, Dušanka Majkić, threatened a Russian military intervention should Bosnia join NATO.

In close coordination with Russian authorities Dodik unsuccessfully attempted to prevent BiH’s ambassador to the UN from voting in support of the UN resolution condemning Russian aggression. Authorities of Republika Srpska lined up to support Russia and Putin, while the majority of RS opposition parties remain less explicit in their statements and generally try to avoid the topic, mirroring statements of political actors in neighboring Serbia.

The Croat HDZ BiH-leader, Dragan Čović, who previously maintained a strong relationship to Russia and even Putin himself, has been hesitant to directly condemn the invasion. Instead, the HDZ BiH and its supporters from Croatia increased efforts to push for changes to the electoral law based on the principle of ethnic “legitimate representation,” deeming it a more important issue than the war in Ukraine.

In parallel, Željko Komšić sent a letter to the EU Council and EU Commission asking for immediate candidate country status for BiH, despite the failure of its authorities to fulfill the so called “14 points reform agenda.” His reasoning is that this would strengthen the security and sovereignty of the country and would be a clear sign of the EU’s commitment to the Western Balkans.

Recognizing the danger of possible deterioration of the security situation in Bosnia through Russian influence, the West reacted by emphasizing the need to increase its presence. The first step was to increase the EUFOR presence in Bosnia by deploying an additional 500 troops. Increased and publicly visible military presence (incl. military flyovers) are meant to show the determination of the Western commitment to BiH’s security and stability.

Authorities in RS including Milorad Dodik condemned these activities. At the same time, the European Parliament, following its previous resolution on BiH, called again for more determined action in BiH including sanctions against Dodik.

Beyond reactions of political representatives, we also see differences in public opinion towards the war by citizens in the Republika Srpska and Federation of BiH. Speaking in general terms there is very little support for the war in Ukraine among all BiH citizens, both in Republika Srpska and in the Federation of BiH. But while most citizens in the Federation BiH condemned Russian aggression and demonstrated solidarity with Ukraine through public demonstrations, such as in Sarajevo, and also open letters of support, this was not the case in Republika Srpska.

Instead, public gatherings and protests in support of Putin took place in several cities in Republika Srpska, including Banja Luka, Trebinje, and Bratunac (located near Srebrenica). These were partly organized by groups supported by Russia, such as ‘Noćni vukovi,’ and football supporters’ clubs. Even though they were small, they gained significant media attention.

The impact of the news about the war in Ukraine on people across the country is more direct and concerns their everyday life. Against the backdrop of the already strong narrative of new possible conflicts in BiH since summer 2021 there is evidence that the aggression in Ukraine has contributed to secondary trauma and fears of new wars in the region among the population.

As much of the population still have vivid memories of the war in the1990’s, there is a growing sense of unease, trepidation, and distrust in the political system of BiH. The failure of Sberbank caused a brief run on all banks, with people frantically queuing to withdraw cash. Food scarcity, monetary insecurity and fuel price hikes are leading many to relive the trauma of 30 years ago. This can have unforeseen consequences as it impacts the already low trust in decisions made by political leaders.

The Kremlin has plans for Bosnia, that much is clear. First, its strategic long-term interest is to stay involved in all decision-making processes regarding Bosnia’s future – from the closure of OHR to constitutional and electoral law changes. It’s preference for breaking-up Bosnia is less clear.

The outcome and resolution of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will have direct impact on his ambitions in BiH and the Western Balkans and the extent to which he will be able to realize his aims. If Russia loses the war in a flagrant way or with a peace agreement that doesn’t allow Putin and Lavrov to save face, Russian opposition to Western influence will diminish significantly. The EU must be ready to seize this opportunity and embrace BiH in more visible and concrete terms.

Kosovo

Putin’s Ukraine-Kosovo analogy started in 2014 with his annexation of Crimea and further continued with Russia’s recognition of the Luhansk and Donetsk as independent republics, in the spirit of his continued interest in being the most influential foreign actor in the Western Balkans. Drawing parallels between NATO’s bombing campaign of Former Yugoslavia and Putin’s occupation of Ukraine have been vastly used in Serbian public discourse, thus making Kosovo a flashpoint of re-drawing borders justification.

The present war in Ukraine has been followed with immense levels of tension in Kosovo. Firstly, because the Russian influence in the region is detrimental, especially in the case of Kosovo – through the ongoing dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, as it served as not only a soft spot of the West but also an arena for clashes between Russia and the West. Secondly, a stronger Russia translates into leverage for Vučić - especially in relation to the EU, which has actively kept an eye on stability and Serbia’s potential as a destabilizer in the region.

The narrowing space for Serbia to exercise its long-term neutrality when it comes to Russia (and NATO membership), has been seen as positive and a unique opportunity for Kosovo to show its clear Western alignment and benefit from being strongly positioned with the West.  In short, the outcome of this war and Russia’s position after military operations stop is likely to have an impact on Serbia’s standing and relations with its Western Balkans neighbors, and consequently on the latent conflict with Kosovo.

Evidently, the war in Ukraine raised many red flags for the potential eruption of violence in the northern part of Kosovo, scenarios which have been in the past triggered by both Kosovo and Serbia. The last escalation of the security situation in the north brought the Russian Ambassador to Serbia along with Vučić to the Raška military base, which lies close to the border with Kosovo - an area supervised by KFOR troops.

Vučić is less likely to instigate violence of some form and destabilize the Northern Kosovo if Russia ends up a big loser in the war against Ukraine and the global power-game. If a peace agreement is brokered in the way that allows Putin to save face, he may up his meddling game in the Western Balkans which would result in a more negative outcome for Kosovo-Serbia dialogue.

In response to the growing fear that the Western Balkans is the next soft spot for Russia to leverage increased aggression Russia, the Government of Kosovo has called for establishment of a permanent NATO base in Kosovo and for the acceleration of the NATO accession process. Furthermore, the idea of EU membership application - as planned by the Kurti Government - looms on the horizon.

While the states that do not currently recognize Kosovo’s independence might be an obstacle to the NATO and EU accession process for Kosovo, the current circumstances are challenging and amending the taboos and established norms, which may turn out to be in Kosovo’s favor.

As tensions keep rising, the ghosts of the past return to haunt Kosovo with the ‘unfinished’ business of the 90s. Kosovars hold their breath and remain alert due to the uncertainty of the effect of the war in Ukraine.

Montenegro

Ever since the Russian agression towards Ukraine started, Podgorica took a firm stance against it. On February 28th, the smallest constituent of the ruling majority, the United Reform Action (URA), and the parliamentary opposition – including those parties that will, together with URA, comprise the axis of the new minority government – signed a proposal that called on the parliament to adopt a resolution on the Ukraine conflict, clearly stating that Montenegro stands with its NATO and EU partners.

This initiative was followed by the Government of Montenegro’s move to join the EU’s sanctions on Russia and its Armed Forces’ decision to donate non-lethal military equipment, such as protective vests and ballistic helmets, to Ukraine. Nevertheless, the government is yet to take concrete actions in implementing sanctions. Few days later, at the behest of the National Security Agency, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared Russian diplomat, Viktor Antipin, a persona non grata, claiming that his activities (as a member of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service) conflicted with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

Namely, Antipin met with Strahinja Bulajić – a senior official from the ruling (pro-Russian) Democratic Front (DF) currently serving as interim speaker of the Parliament of Montenegro – who is now using his power to block the formation of a new (pro-Western) government by refusing to convene a parliamentary session to vote on the proposed cabinet.

The largest coalition in the active ruling majority, the DF, urged Montenegrin authorities to stay neutral in the conflict. When the Ukrainian Embassy in Podgorica issued an appeal on its Facebook page for foreign citizens to help in Kyiv’s fight against invading Russian forces, the DF accused it of making an “obvious attempt to destabilize the country” and for violating the country’s laws that criminalized participation in foreign conflicts. While DF officials are taking a neutral position on the Ukrainian conflict, minor right-wing segments of civil society have mobilized in the streets of Podgorica and Nikšić to demonstrate their support for Russia’s “attempts to protect its people in Ukraine.”

Nevertheless, the majority of civil society actors – ranging from non-governmental organizations, across academia, to independent media – were vocal in their condemnation of Russia’s aggression of Ukraine, some even offering concrete support to displaced Ukrainian citizens. The third constituent of the ruling majority, Democratic Montenegro, has also condemned Russia, albeit in a restrained way.

Podgorica expelling a Russian diplomat for the first time and Kremlin adding Montenegro to its list of “enemy states” represent the culmination of the cooling of Montenegrin–Russian relations. Potential implications of the crisis on Montenegro are threefold.

First, there is an immediate economic impact of inflation, since Montenegro is a small, open, and import-dependent economy and thus prone to external shocks; especially now, since Russia is its largest foreign investor (accounting for 18,3% of all direct foreign investments in 2021). Moreover, for an economy highly dependent on tourism – whose share of the GDP is 25% – Montenegro has just started to recover from the 2020 recession, when the loss of the summer tourism season led to a more than 15% decline in the GDP. Now it is expected that the present crisis will severely affect its 2022 summer season due to Russian and Ukrainian tourists accounting for a high percentage of foreign tourists: in 2021 they comprised 21.3% and in 2019 more than one third of all overnight stays in Montenegro.

Second, the Ukraine crisis has already begun to have negative political implications for Montenegro, as it is deepening and expanding the institutional crisis in which the country found itself at the beginning of 2022. Due to a lack of quorum, the work of the country’s National Security Council has been paralyzed, making the state unable to meet its international obligations. Namely, a planned discussion about whether Montenegro should send army units to join NATO crisis-response missions did not take place due to the DF’s obstruction.

Finally, how and if the Ukraine crisis escalates in Montenegro will solely be dependent on the two powerful actors who can mobilize the pro-Russian masses: the nominally neutral DF and, possibly, the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro which also took a neutral position, but has, nonetheless, emphasized that its prayers are with Metropolitan Onufriy of Kiev who previously called the invasion of Ukraine “a disaster” and “the fratricidal war” and implored Putin to end the war as it “has no excuse”.

North Macedonia

North Macedonia is among the countries from the Western Balkans that have aligned with the EU sanctions imposed on Russia. This has brought the country fully in line with the EU’s CFSP decisions. The government also closed Macedonian airspace for Russian aircrafts and provided military assistance to Ukraine. The Parliament adopted a resolution condemning the Russian aggression against Ukraine, with 100 votes in favour and three votes against (Levica and the Democratic Party of Serbs in Macedonia voted against). There were two public gatherings in Skopje against Putin’s aggression, organised by the Association of Ukrainians in the country.

North Macedonia is 100% dependent on natural gas imports from Russia, but its share of the total energy consumption of the country is only 9%. Trade with Russia is marginal. Hence, while possible Russian retaliatory measures or further sanctions that cover oil and gas would be relatively bearable for the Macedonian economy, popular support of the government’s pro-Western policies is seriously challenged. Probably less due to the lack of effective communication to prepare the public for these decisions, but much more due to widely spread adverse sentiments of betrayal and disappointment with the EU among the citizens.

The EU has not delivered on its promise of progressing North Macedonia further along the EU accession process. When it comes to the oldest candidate country in the region (since 2005), which came to an agreement with Greece on changing its name, many Macedonians have become disillusioned.  The latest public opinion survey conducted by the Institute for Democracy reveals the EU’s steep decline as North Macedonia’s greatest ally from 43,2% in 2019 to 13,1% in 2021 and as an influential foreign factor from 44,8% in 2019 to 9.5% in 2021. Bulgaria’s nationalistic and revisionists requests are bringing the country towards the brink and pave the way for anti-Western stances with voters leaning more towards populist/radical political forces in North Macedonia.

Serbia

Reactions in Serbia to war in Ukraine are marked by inconclusive statements of major political actors and a lack of unequivocal condemnation of Russia’s aggression. The National Security Council adopted a resolution about the “events at the East of Europe.” It emphasized Serbia’s commitment to respecting the principles of territorial integrity and political independence.

The resolution mentioned that Serbia considers it very wrong to violate the territorial integrity of any country, including Ukraine. Serbia failed to align with EU’s foreign policy regarding introduction of restrictive measures against the Russian Federation. However, Serbia did support UNGA Resolution demanding an end to Russia’s offensive in Ukraine. This was the closest the Serbian Government came to explicit condemnation of Russian aggression towards Ukraine.

The parties of the ruling coalition, led by Serbian Progressive Party (SPP), have publicly stated that they are against imposing of sanctions on Russia, and draw parallels to the NATO bombing in 1999 of the then FR Yugoslavia. The President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić and SPP stated that Serbia will not impose sanctions on Russia as long as it can endure the pressure, following its national interests. Most of the right-wing opposition parties oppose the imposition of sanctions on Russia. A rally in support of Russia was held in Belgrade on March 4th, organized by several right-wing parties and ultra-nationalist movements.

Opposition democratic parties are divided over the reactions to Russian aggression. The Movement of Citizens of Serbia, Moramo, and Ligue of Social Democrats of Vojvodina, have publicly condemned it and stated Serbia should align with EU’s restrictive measures, while other parties have mostly expressed their solidarity with Ukraine, openly labelled it as aggression, but stopping short of clarifying their position regarding possible sanctions on Russia.

The reasons for the ambivalent positioning of Serbian Government are multiple. Russia, as a permanent member of the UNSC, is perceived as a protector and guarantor of Serbia’s interests when it comes to the status of Kosovo. At the same time, in the field of energy, Serbia has in the past years become highly dependent on Russian gas imports and has managed to obtain a privileged status in terms of gas prices.

One of the reasons for the indecision of the Serbian authorities is the traditional division within the society on those who see the Russians as traditional allies and „Slavic brothers“, and those who see Serbia’s future locked in the EU. These sentiments have been significantly strengthened by the influence of the Government-controlled media, which have been feeding nationalist and anti-EU sentiment in the Serbian public for years.

Now the Government feels the consenquences of boomerang effect of its own propaganda. The holding of general, presidential and local elections for Belgrade and several other cities on April 3 further affects the unwillingness of the Serbian authorities to unequivocally decide on Russian aggression and to comply with EU measures. Serbia also remained open for Russia’s Sputnik news outlet activities.

Serbia's current position is not sustainable in the long run without serious political, economic and social consequences. Serbia risks isolating itself from the rest of the region and the EU. However, it is not realistic to expect a significant change in Serbia's position until the upcoming elections are held, unless there is stronger pressure from the EU and the US (or escalation of the conflict due to which Serbia would not be able to remain in its current positions).

The pressure should be accompanied by certain guarantees regarding speeding up of the EU accession process and provision of certain guarantees regarding of supply of energy, as well as EU’s support in mitigating the consequences caused in Serbia by the crisis in Ukraine. Accelerating Serbia's EU accession process with clearly defined benefits and conditions could possibly motivate political actors to unequivocally commit to EU accession.

This reaction from the Balkans towards the Russian aggression of Ukraine is a joint effort of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group Members.

 

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