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Review 27 Jul 17

Busting Myths About Russia’s Balkan Designs

A new book takes a searching look at what Russia is up to – and what it is not – in Southeast Europe.

Marcus Tanner
BIRN
London
Russian President Vladimir Puti. Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev/AP

Talk of Russia being “back” in the Balkans has become a commonplace in diplomacy and journalism – however disputable it is whether Russia ever went away.

But even if Russia’s resurgence in the region is a given, the big question is: what form is it taking and with what aim? Is Russia “back” as imperial overlord and as “spoiler” to the West – or as friendly ally and necessary counterweight to an overbearing EU?

The distinction is all-important. If it is the former, the Balkans can expect trouble as the big powers jostle and confront one another in the region. If it is the latter, the Balkan states stand to benefit by selling their favours to the highest bidder.

With Russia on so many lips, Bulgarian scholar Dimitar Bechev’s thoroughly researched exploration of the many facets to Russia’s revived presence – economic, military and diplomatic – is timely. It is also judicious.

Never one to dramatise, in his book ‘Rival Power, Russia in Southeast Europe’ Bechev disentangles lurid myths from plain facts to draw a balanced portrait of a restless ex-superpower that is busy realising some – but not all – of its strategic goals in Europe’s soft, southeastern underbelly.

As Bechev notes, Russia has serious cards to play in the Balkans. Where else can it win such warm applause with so little effort – just for being there?

“It is hard to deny that Russia and Putin command a tremendous amount of support across countries with Eastern Orthodox majorities (Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Republika Srpska in Bosnia and the Greek part of Cyprus),” he writes.

“From Banja Luka to Nicosia, party leaders and opinion makers make the case for cooperation or even full alignment with the Kremlin.”

However, while conceding that pan-Orthodox and/or pan-Slavic sentiment is a bankable asset for the Kremlin, Bechev insists that is less important and more skin deep than many believe.

Russia’s lavish praise for its Serbian “brothers” rarely translates into economic favours, he notes, citing the fate of Serbia’s gas and oil champion, NIS, as a warning.

Hugely undersold by Serbia to Russia in exchange for Serbia’s inclusion in South Stream pipeline project, Russia coolly scrapped the pipeline project practically without warning in 2014, leaving Serbia on the wrong side of the bargain.

Greece got the same bruising treatment, he adds. Greek society is another instinctively pro-Russian society, he notes, and the far-left Syriza party was ardently pro-Kremlin in opposition, lambasting “Fascist” Ukraine and even hailing the Russian takeover of Crimea.

But when Greece’s new leader, Alex Tsipras, dramatically showed up in Moscow with his begging bowl, hoping Russia would stump up the cash to enable Greece to defy the West’s harsh bailout terms, Putin turned away, unwilling to shoulder the burden.

Tsipras was forced into humiliating retreat, thrust right back into the hands of the dreaded Europeans under whose economic tutelage Greece has remained since.

Russia is not the only partner playing a complex game in the Balkans, he notes. Serbia parades filial devotion to Russia, he recalls, but that has not stopped Serbia from pragmatically pursuing EU membership, or from quietly cozying up to NATO. While constantly protesting its determination never to join the alliance, it cooperates discretely with NATO in a host of ways.

The Eastern Balkans, Romania and Bulgaria, are another area where appearances are deceptive, Bechev writes. In journalistic legend, he writes, Romania was always the West’s “Latin sister”, defying Russia even when it was part of the Soviet bloc. Bulgaria, by contrast, is always pictured as a Russian doormat – “the 16th Soviet republic” in Communist times – and not much different now.

The Russians certainly hoped that was the case with Bulgaria, Bechev writes, recalling how the Kremlin was delighted when Bulgaria joined the EU, seeing Sofia as Russia’s very own “Trojan Horse” in Brussels.

But Romania has often been a good deal more interested in Russian trade than it lets on, he adds, while Bulgaria, just as often, has been a more awkward ally than Moscow expected.

Indeed, Bulgaria turns out to like one of those friends who are always flattering and obsequious when you meet them in the street – but who go mysteriously AWOL when you ask an actual favour.

Bechev ends this absorbing book, which takes in Greece, Cyprus and Turkey as well, by insisting that what we are not seeing in the Balkans is a return to an old-style Russian empire.

Russia, he says, is bent on interfering with Western plans with the region, rather than with recreating satellite states there as some form of revenge for the loss of the old Soviet bloc.

For all its significant leverage over energy, it lacks the economic muscle to draw any of these states fully into its orbit, nor does it have any kind of state “model” to export beyond vague appeals to national conservatism.

The author closes by dismissing the notion that Moscow is somehow responsible for the region’s undoubted problems.

“From Belgrade to Ankara,” he writes “dysfunctional democracies, state capture and the backslide to authoritarian politics are, on the whole, homegrown ills, not an outcome of a sinister Muscovite plot.”

‘Rival Power, Russia in Southeast Europe’ is published by Yale University Press.

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