October 3, 2018

The Balkan Peninsula in Moscow's Geopolitical Plans

The Reasons for and Possible Consequences of the Deterioration of the Situation in the Region

Ivan Sichen

In late September 2018 a number of new problem factors emerged in the development of the situation in the Balkans, which can significantly complicate the situation there. First of all, we mean another aggravation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo due to Serbia's targeted provocations and Kosovo authorities' thoughtless actions in response. For example, August 25, 2018, Presidents of Serbia A. Vucic and of Kosovo H. Thaci made a joint statement on a possible change of the border (exchange of border areas mostly populated by ethnic Serbs and Albanians) in order to “achieve a historic peaceful settlement”.

Meeting of the Presidents of Serbia A. Vucic and of Kosovo H. Thaci, August 25, 2018
Meeting of the Presidents of Serbia A. Vucic and of Kosovo H. Thaci, August 25, 2018

To such plans immediately responded Kosovo's opponents of any compromises with Serbia, led by the radical left-wing nationalist party “Self-Determination”, which initiated mass protests in Pristina — the capital of Kosovo. In addition, September 29, 2018, H. Thaci, escorted by a Kosovo special forces unit, visited northern regions of the province in order to find out how the local Serb population perceived the idea of exchanging territories. At this, he visited the sensitive for Serbia zone of the mountain reservoir Gazivoda, which is located on the territory of Kosovo and is part of the Serbian water supply system.

On September 29, 2018, President of Kosovo H. Thaci visited area of the mountain reservoir Gazivoda
On September 29, 2018, President of Kosovo H. Thaci visited the mountain reservoir Gazivoda

Serbia immediately used this as a pretext for creating a conflict situation around Kosovo. Thus, Serbian President A. Vucic presented this visit of H. Thaci, along with his guards to the north of Kosovo, as a “Kosovo security forces' gang attack on the Serbian population of the region”, during which surrounding roads were cleared, some local citizens were arrested at no ground, and the power plant facilities together with the Gazivoda reservoir were taken under control.

Referring to such allegations, A. Vucic accused H. Thaci of deliberate provocation and violation of the UN Security Council's Resolution 1244, which allows Kosovo’s security forces to remain in the northern regions of the province only with the permission of NATO and the full consent of the local Serb community. Therefore, he ordered to enhance the combat readiness of the armed forces of Serbia. In turn, on instructions from Belgrade, the Serbian population of the border areas of Kosovo and Serbia started protest actions and blocking of transport communications.

By such actions, Belgrade created the ground for having reason to turn to Russia for help. This issue was discussed at A. Vucic's urgent meeting with Russian President V. Putin on October 2, 2018, in Moscow, where according to an official report, they discussed prospects for the development of Russian-Serbian relations, as well as topical issues of international politics and peculiarities of the situation in the Balkans, first of all — in Kosovo. At this, V. Putin expressed willingness to continue to provide full support to Serbia, including in ensuring its security.

Meeting of the President of Serbia A. Vucic with Russian President V. Putin in Moscow, October 2, 2018
Meeting of the President of Serbia A. Vucic with Russian President V. Putin in Moscow, October 2, 2018

Another negative factor in the development of the situation in the Balkans was the failure of the referendum (30 September, 2018) on the change of the name of Macedonia, organized to remove Greece’s objection to the country's accession to the EU and NATO (since the collapse of the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, Greece categorically has not been accepting the name of such a country as Macedonia, since it sounds like the name of one of the Greek provinces). 39.6 % of the country's population took part in the voting, 91.5 % of whom were in favor of changing the name “Macedonia” to “Northern Macedonia”. But the referendum was declared invalid, since under Macedonian law, voter turnout should have been at least 50 %.

Results of the referendum on the change of the name of Macedonia
Results of the referendum on the change
of the name of Macedonia

From the point of view of law, the referendum was purely advisory in nature, but the fact that it was declared invalid — is a serious political problem. Thus, within the framework of the voting, the citizens of Macedonia were simply to agree with the European and Euro-Atlantic choice of the country, which did not happen. Now the Macedonian Parliament must decide on this issue. But, for this the ruling parliamentary coalition (the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, the Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Renewal of Macedonia) does not have enough votes. And if the required number of mandates is not reached, the ruling coalition will in fact be forced to announce early parliamentary elections, which could change the alignment of political forces in the country.

By the way, blocking Macedonia’s membership in NATO intensifies the ethnic tension in the country. The reason for this is the position of ethnic Albanians, who (constituting not less than 30 % of the Macedonian population) consider Macedonia's joining NATO one of the main guarantees of their security. Given this, the suspension of the country's Euro-Atlantic integration causes a negative reaction of the Albanians and can lead to inter-ethnic clashes.

At this, facts are given that show Russia's involvement in the failure of the referendum. Thus, the main political force opposing Macedonia’s membership in NATO is the fans of the “Vadar” football club, owned by Russian oligarch S. Samsonenko. It was on their initiative that, on the eve and during the referendum, mass youth protests were held with calls to vote against changing the name of the country, against its membership in NATO and the EU. They even came out with slogans to support Russia and Putin. The Macedonian Orthodox Church also indirectly is against NATO and the EU. The visits to Macedonia of the “Russian world”'s ideologists, in particular A. Dugin, are also very indicative in nature.

Protests in Macedonia against changing the name of the country Agitation in Macedonia against changing the name of the country
Protests and agitation in Macedonia against changing the name of the country


Despite the allegedly different reasons and the content of such events, they are united by a single factor, namely, Russia's interests. In particular, at the present stage Russia seeks:

  • firstly, to disperse the efforts of NATO and the EU, as well as to divert their attention from the Ukrainian issue, provoking tensions in other regions, including in the Balkans. At this, Russia, aggravating the situation, may provoke an armed conflict, which will allow it to deploy its troops in the Balkan Peninsula under the pretext of helping Serbia to support its security;
  • secondly, to resume cooperation with the West, as well as to obtain powerful levers of pressure on it on the basis of joint actions to stabilize the situation in the Balkans. In this regard, Russia relies on the critical nature of this issue for Europe, since the emergence of a new armed conflict in the Balkan Peninsula would be a much greater problem for Europe than the armed confrontation in Syria;
  • thirdly, to create obstacles to the Western Balkan countries' joining NATO and the EU. In particular, in October 2016, Russia, with the assistance of Serbia, already tried to make a military coup in Montenegro in order to block its accession to the Alliance. In such actions against Macedonia, Russia also uses Greece (as well as Hungary against Ukraine).


Meeting of the RF Foreign Minister S. Lavrov with regional leaders of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo, August 21, 2018
Meeting of the RF Foreign Minister S. Lavrov with regional leaders of Bosnia and Herzegovina
in Sarajevo, August 21, 2018

Today, all these issues are of particular importance for the Putin regime, because of the USA's using qualitatively new, critical sanctions against Russia. Such sanctions have been imposed by the United States since April 2018 within the framework of the “Counteracting America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act”. Besides, on the 27th August 2018, the United States introduced a new package of sanctions against Russia over the so-called the Skripal case. In the form of an ultimatum they promised Moscow to expand them substantially, if Russia refuses to provide guarantees that it would not use chemical weapons in the future and does not agree to the UN's “local inspections”.

Russia started implementing its plan to destabilize the situation in the Balkans when the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly began. That is why the events in the region have received a great public reaction. Thus, August 21, 2018, RF Foreign Minister S. Lavrov made a working visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), where he met with regional leaders and their representatives. In fact, it was precisely after this that the supporters of Russia in the Balkans began to take active steps to provoke the aforementioned problems in the Peninsula.


Besides, soon may arise another conflict situation in the Balkans, namely in the Republika Srpska (RS) in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Its sign was the RS President M. Dodik's visit to Russia on September 30, 2018, during which Russian President V. Putin met with him in Sochi. In particular, the possibility of their discussing a scenario of exacerbation of the situation also in Bosnia and Herzegovina due to M. Dodik's raising the question about the Republika Srpska's exit from BiH and its joining Serbia is not excluded. In 2017, M. Dodik did voice similar intentions.

Meeting of the President of Republika Srpska M. Dodik with Russian President V. Putin in Sochi, September 30, 2018
Meeting of the President of Republika Srpska M. Dodik with Russian President V. Putin in Sochi, September 30, 2018

As always, Russia accompanies its measures to provoke tension in the Balkans with another demonstration of force. For example, on the 1st of October 2018, in the territory of Serbia, joint Russian-Serbian tactical flight exercises “BARS-2018” began. With the participation of MiG-29 planes and Mi-8 helicopters, they are mastering intercepting air targets, attacking ground targets and airborne troops landing. Incidentally, similar exercises “BARS-2016” took place against the background of attempts to organize a military coup in Montenegro.


In general, all this shows that the Balkans take pride of space in Russia's confrontation with the West. The success of its strategy on the Balkan direction can create significant problems both for Europe and for the USA, and it will also have negative consequences for Ukraine. Taking this into account, current events in the Balkan Peninsula should be given special attention in order to prevent threats against our country in time.