BALKAN BLOG: Southeast Europe’s ties to Russia prove hard to sever

BALKAN BLOG: Southeast Europe’s ties to Russia prove hard to sever
/ bne IntelliNews
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow August 10, 2022

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, both EU members and most candidate countries were quick to condemn the invasion and sign up to sanctions packages. Even in previously sympathetic countries like Bulgaria, an overwhelming tide of political and public opinion turned against Moscow. However, as war drags on, it’s clear that the ties that have long bound certain Southeast European counties to Russia —  such as shared culture and religion, or energy dependence — are proving harder to loosen than it initially appeared. 

After Bulgaria’s Western-oriented government was toppled in June, the new caretaker government appears committed to undoing many of the steps taken by Sofia earlier this year to distance the country from Moscow, notably with the news that ministers are considering a new gas deal with Gazprom. Montenegro’s government, also pro-Western, faces a similar fate and it’s uncertain who will take over in Podgorica after the anticipated no-confidence vote. 

That could result in more countries from the region being ranged alongside Serbia, which has refused to join sanctions all along, as well as Bosnia, where the Bosnian Serb leaders have blocked efforts to take tougher action on Russia. 

Turning back to Russia

The reformist government led by Kiril Petkov, appointed after Bulgaria’s third general election of 2021, condemned the invasion and announced sanctions on Russia. Bulgarian public opinion also turned against Russia; pre-war polls put approval for Russian President Vladimir Putin among the Bulgarian population at around 60%, while it collapsed to only 16% in the weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine. Around 80% of Bulgarian disapprove of the war, and they are increasingly critical of politicians including President Rumen Radev, who have taken a more ambiguous stance on relations with Moscow. 

However, with the war adding to existing tensions, the differences between the four parties in Pektov’s coalition eventually led to its collapse. Radev then appointed an interim government headed by caretaker Prime Minister Gulub Donev, seen by many as picked by the president with the task of bringing Bulgaria back into the Russian orbit, including by agreeing to pay for Russian natural gas in rubles in violation of EU sanctions.

Radev was initially seen as a reforming influence, backing anti-corruption protesters in the summer of unrest in 2020, and, as reported by bne IntelliNews, he was also regarded as the informal godfather of Petkov’s cabinet. Yet the war in Ukraine divided the cabinet and president, with the former being openly pro-Western and pro-Ukrainian, while Radev turned into the protector of Russian interests — much to the dismay of many of his former supporters. 

Moscow approves 

The steps already taken since the new cabinet was appointed on August 1 to reverse some of the actions taken by Petkov and his ministers — who took a stand against Russia and continued work to root out corruption —  have clearly pleased Moscow. After the fall of Petkov’s government, the Russian ambassador to Bulgaria Eleonora Mitrofanova said Moscow is no longer considering ending diplomatic relations with Bulgaria, and added that Russia is now hoping for a “more pragmatic” regime that would not adopt an anti-Russian policy. Mitrofanova is a high-profile figure whose controversial comments have several times sparked complaints from Sofia.

During Petov’s time in power he and his ministers revealed several scandals that shed light on the scale of Russian influence within Bulgaria — eventually prompting Sofia to take the unprecedented step of expelling 70 Russian diplomats. 

Russia has been paying money directly to Bulgarian politicians, public figures, famous journalists, analysts and other public figures to shape public opinion in favour of Moscow, Lena Borislavova, head of the political cabinet of outgoing Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, said in an interview for Darik radio on July 2. Borislavova said that the Bulgarian security services have information on monthly payments of BGN4,000 (€2,045) to these public figures.

Maria Simeonova, programme coordinator of the European Council on Foreign Relations' (ECFR) Sofia and wider Europe programme, linked together corruption and Russian influence in Bulgaria in a recent comment. “[Pektov] learned a hard lesson while trying to deliver on his election promise of 'zero tolerance of corruption': the fights against graft and Russian influence in Bulgaria are two sides of the same coin. Engaging in either battle comes at a high political cost, tending to topple anyone who makes the attempt,” Simeonova wrote. 

“The outgoing government might have underestimated both the extent of Russian influence in the country and the power of Bulgarian institutional traditions as legacies of its monarchist, communist, and democratic past … the government was undone by resistance to its attempts to expose the toxic links between corruption and Russian influence, which have caused Bulgaria to lag behind many other EU countries for years,” she added. 

Beyond Bulgaria 

Russian agents in Bulgaria are also believed to have contributed to the deterioration in the country’s relations with North Macedonia. Sofia blocked the start of EU membership talks with North Macedonia during the previous government, led by Boyko Borissov, stalling the progress towards EU accession of both North Macedonia and Albania, which are coupled in the process. In March, Petkov said a network of Russian spies had been working to hinder the EU membership of the Western Balkan countries and was behind the worsened relations between Bulgaria and North Macedonia. 

“The Russian interest has been focused on preventing a European future for the Western Balkans. Someone is trying to replace the Bulgarian interest,” Petkov said as quoted by Dnevnik news outlet.

North Macedonia finally secured its launch of accession talks in July. However, the story of the dispute with Bulgaria is not over. Skopje had to make further concessions, as set out in the so-called ‘French proposal’ to end the deadlock. That left the county poised to start the long-awaited talks but it is also internally divided and racked by protests

Confidence vote looms in Montenegro 

Montenegro’s government is also poised to fall, with a confidence vote in Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic's government imminent. Ironically, it was a party of Western-oriented politicians, President Milo Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), that precipitated the situation when they withdrew their support for the government in protest against the signing of an agreement with the Serbian Orthodox Church in the country. 

This could, however, pave the way for the rightwing pro-Russian Democratic Front to return to power as part of a new coalition. The Democratic Front is currently saying it plans a comeback, proposing a restoration of the ruling coalition that was formed after the August 2020 general election.

The party has a controversial history. Leaders of the Democratic Front were convicted for taking part in the October 2016 coup plot, in which a group of Montenegrins, Russians and Serbians planned to seize control of the country and arrest or assassinate Djukanovic. Their sentences were later overturned following the change of government in 2020. Immediately after the invasion of Ukraine in February, the Democratic Front organised protests and road blockades across Montenegro, with protesters waving the flag of the People’s Republic of Donetsk. 

Adding to the tensions n the tiny county of just over 620,000 people, there have been multiple reports of death threats against politicians, including Abazovic. Also targeted were the leader of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), Defence Minister Rasko Konjevic, and fellow SDP MP Draginja Vuksanovic Stankovic. The two, who had opposed the deal with the Serbian Orthodox Church, were the targets of threats on social media to “smash heads” by the Night Wolves — a biker gang linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Years of soft power 

Meanwhile, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has consistently made it clear that he will continue with the increasingly difficult job of balancing relations between Russia and the West

Vucic’s multi-vector foreign policy, under which Serbia seeks good relations with the EU, the US, Russia and China, served it well until 2022, allowing it to pursue the goal of EU accession while at the same time benefitting from Chinese infrastructure and industry investment, as well as from Russian political support in keeping Kosovo out of the UN and other international organisations. 

Indeed it is Russia’s support over the Kosovo issue, and the overwhelming public sentiment this creates in favour of Russia, that is the prime factor in keeping Serbia locked into Moscow’s orbit. 

The often tense situation in northern Kosovo, populated mainly by ethnic Serbs, escalated at the end of July, parking fears of a potential renewal of the conflict, though the crisis has now been averted with the leaders of the two countries agreeing to meet later this month. Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti said in an interview with Italian daily La Repubblica published on August 7 that following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the risk of a new conflict between Kosovo and Serbia is high. 

Bosnia, meanwhile, remains unable to take a stand against the invasion of Ukraine as long as the staunchly pro-Putin Bosnian Serb leader, Miload Dodik, continues to veto any attempt to do so. 

The persistent pull towards the Russian sphere of influence is unsurprising given the years of pro-Russian propaganda and Moscow’s exercise of soft power in the region.

Capucine May, Europe analyst at risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft, said in a note emailed to bne IntelliNews that while the situation between Kosovo and Serbia is “unlikely to tip into all-out war”, “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is adding fuel to the fire of tensions in the Balkans.  Moscow’s propaganda disseminated throughout the Balkans by Russian media and disinformation proxies are fanning the flames” . Warnings about Russian propaganda and disinformation in the region have also been repeatedly made by EU officials, among others. 

On top of that, there is a high level of energy dependency on Russia across many countries in the region, which is also home to some of the poorest countries in Europe. Before Gazprom’s supplies were cut off, Bulgaria had long stalled on completing infrastructure to enable alternative imports from Azerbaijan, and under Petkov was scrambling to complete it in time; the new government may take the option of asking Gazprom to renew its supplies. Serbia recently signed a new long-term contract with Gazprom. Bosnia & Herzegovina, Moldova and North Macedonia are also highly dependent on Russian gas.

As the weeks of war in Ukraine turn into months, it has become apparent that after the initial unity among the EU members and most candidate countries, the long-running internal debates in many states over how to position themselves vis-a-vis Russia and the West are now reasserting themselves.