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News 11 Jan 18

US Democrats Accuse Russia of 'Targeting' Balkans

New Congressional report claims Russia is aggressively targeting countries in Central and Eastern Europe that want to join the EU and NATO – and urges the US to re-engage with the region.

Maja Zivanovic

Photo: Flickr/Mike Mozart

A new report produced by US Democrats says Russia is aggressively targeting countries that have taken “tangible steps” to integrate with Western institutions like the EU or NATO in order to impede integration processes.

“Georgia, Ukraine, and Montenegro are the most recent cases in a long history of Russian aggression along the periphery that stretches back generations — and, as they have drawn closer to NATO and the EU, they have been the focus of arguably the most brazen Kremlin efforts to keep them from sliding across the finish line,” the report published on Wednesday said.

According to Gallup International Association's "Global Leaders End of Year" survey, published on Wednesday, the most popular world leader among Serbs is Russian President Vladimir Putin (81 percent). According to the B92 report, Putin is followed by Chinese President Xi Jinping (61 percent), Merkel (38 percent), and Macron and US President Donald Trump (33 percent each).

It added that Russian interference in places like Serbia is less visibly aggressive and focuses more on “cultivating sympathetic elements of society to deter government efforts to integrate with the West”.

“In addition to disinformation and the co-opting of political forces, Russia employs energy resources as a weapon to gain leverage in these countries,” it said.

The Associated Press on Wednesday called the report the first from the US Congress to “comprehensively detail Russian efforts to undermine democracies since the 2016 [US] presidential election”.

AP said the report by Congressional Democrats warns of “deepening Russian interference throughout Europe” – but added that no Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee signed the report.

The document, published on the official website of the Senate, also noted Bulgaria among the “EU members where corruption or vulnerabilities in the rule of law provide openings to erode their bonds to European values and institutions”.

It said most Russian government funding is focused on post-Soviet "swing states" such as Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Armenia, while Kremlin-supported groups also operate in the Balkans, "especially Serbia and Bulgaria".

The part of the report about Montenegro recalls the events from the 2016 election day when authorities claimed to have quashed a pro-Russian coup.

“Russian malign influence in Montenegro has long been present and intensified in 2016 in an effort to derail the country’s NATO bid," it said.

"This renewed focus included propaganda, support for NGOs and political parties, and culminated in an alleged Russian effort to overthrow the government following the 2016 parliamentary election,” it added.

Among the recommendations for Montenegro, the report said the United States should recognize its commitment to enter NATO, and that this case should “serve as a wake-up call for other NATO and EU aspirants, especially in the Balkans”.

“The international community should not rest on its laurels now that Montenegro is a NATO member, but should actively help the government to bolster its defenses against other soft power tools in Russia’s asymmetric arsenal,” it said.

In the case of Serbia, the report warned that Russia's “malign influence” manifests “itself through cultural ties, propaganda, energy, and an expanding defense relationship”.

It added: “Moscow also highlights deep roots between the countries through the Orthodox Church and a shared Slavic culture”.

Despite its close relationship with Moscow, it added, Serbia has made clear that its priority is joining the European Union.

“Serbia’s desire to maintain good relations with both the EU and Russia is reflective of public opinion, but may not be sustainable, as deeper integration may mean adopting EU decisions that run counter to Russian interests,” the report warned, and added that closer ties between Serbia and the EU could result in a surge in Russian influence in the country.

“The government of Serbia has done little to prepare for this eventuality and has taken few discernable actions to defend against Russian malign influence,” it complained.

The report also underlined the energy influence Russia has on Serbia, as it provides 40 per cent of the natural gas consumed in Serbia.

The report urged Serbia to “defend itself against Kremlin interference” and the United States to re-engage with resources and send “a clear message that it is willing to spend the time and effort necessary to support those who want a democratic future in Europe”.

On Bulgaria, report said that the country, “despite pressure, remains resilient”.

“With the dedication of more diplomatic attention and resources—particularly on energy diversification, addressing corruption, and building up the democratic rule of law – the United States will be in a position to help leaders within the Bulgarian government and civil society counter Russia’s asymmetric arsenal,” the report concluded.

US Democrats have accused Donald Trump's election team of colluding with Russia to win the US presidential election and have fiecely opposed Trump's call for the US to establish warmer ties to the Kremlin at last in their joint struggle against Islamist terrorists.

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