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Monday 9 March 2020

South East Europe in Russia’s geopolitical objectives

Russian influence on South East Europe is very divisive; some countries offer ample potential for Russian access while the others worry about external interference. On the 4th of March, SEESOX held a seminar examining Russia’s geopolitical objectives in South East Europe. The speakers were Professor Roy Allison (St Antony’s College, Oxford) and Andreja Bogdanovski (University of Buckingham). The seminar was chaired and introduced by Dr Othon Anastasakis (Director of SEESOX).

Dr Anastasakis began the seminar by challenging seven clichés regarding Russia-South East Europe relations.
  1. “The Russian security threat is massive in the region”. This is true to a certain degree. Involvement in the alleged coup attempt in Montenegro in 2016, spreading fake news in North Macedonia during the name dispute discussions and having military partnerships with Serbia are some of the cases. On the other hand, the impact of the Russian involvement is rather short term and questionable. It is indicative that most countries in the region, with the exception of Serbia and Bosnia, are NATO member states despite Russian objections; Montenegro is distancing itself from Russia’s influence; and, the name dispute between Greece and North Macedonia was solved despite Russia’s efforts to disrupt the process.
  2. “Russia has soft power in the Balkans”. This usually refers to the existence of Slavic and religious links, the learning of the Russian language or the use of media presence. Firstly, Russia’s soft power can be contested at a conceptual level as to what constitutes soft power and secondly, Russian soft power does not relate to the many in the region but to a select few and can be quite divisive.
  3. “Russia is a part of a group of external actors, including Turkey, China and the Middle East, all benefiting from the EU’s neglect of the Western Balkans”. Dr Anastasakis believes that this cliché is only true to some extent, because it does not take into consideration the competing interests among the external actors themselves and the different impact that these third parties have on the region. For example, Russian geopolitical interest can be often perceived as negative, threatening and conspiratorial, compared with the more positive narratives coming from other actors. Turkey has more constructive relations with some Balkan states, while China, using its geo-economic power, makes them feel good about their potential, and the Gulf States have prominent investments in the region.
  4. “Russia’s hegemonic influence in the vulnerable Balkan states”. According to Dr Anastasakis, it is not unidirectional from Russia to the Balkans; the latter are also playing their own games. They are pragmatic and practical in their relationship with Russia and use it as a leverage vis a vis the West.
  5. “Russian-Serbian special relationship”. Indeed there is a degree of closeness between Russia and Serbia, and there is a big degree of energy dependency of Serbia on Russia, but the relationship has no historical roots in the Yugoslav times, when relations between Tito and the Soviet Union were disrupted, and is currently based more on a pragmatic and tactical approach, with the issue of Kosovo being central.
  6. “Energy dependency on Russia”. This may be true in many bilateral cases, but as a strategic partner with a long-term regional plan, Russia has failed, as the abrupt cancellation of the South Stream made very clear.
  7. “The Russian illiberal model influences Balkan politics”. The current backsliding in the region has to do more with the weakening of EU conditionality than illiberal influences from abroad.
Professor Allison began by explaining a broader change in Russian strategic thinking after she occupied Crimea in 2014 and increased her influence in the Black Sea. In addition to that, the Russian presence in the East Mediterranean is no longer negligible and constitutes a permanent presence to support operations in Syria. These brought more points of friction with NATO states. Professor Allison agreed with Dr Anastasakis’ views on Russian influence in the Western Balkans. According to him, Russian intervention is viewed very differently today, with Anti-Russian movements, Orthodox Macedonians and Bosnian Muslim population creating a mixed picture which no longer offers a natural relationship as before. Professor Allison continued by reviewing the strategic intentions, objectives and aspirations of Russian intervention to Western Balkans in five points;
  1. The Western Balkans is the first right player in European security affairs. Having some access in Balkans brings debates about the European security defense policy and NATO enlargement. This leads to a division on West Europe as well as debates of EU policy towards Western Balkans. President Macron’s recent veto to EU accession talks of North Macedonia and Albania are examples of this division.
  2. Russia seeks local supporters in the Balkans in order to exert greater influence on the other parts of Europe. Since it is not easy to affect the area economically, Russia chooses to focus on domestic issues, uses local disputes, and support for various groups to create non-transparent processes.
  3. Russia demonstrates to the Western States that it has a presence in its backyard.
  4. Putin’s Russia would like to change a narrative generated by Yeltsin’s limited support to Serbia in 1999.
  5. Effective involvement in regional disputes can lead to an expansion of Russia’s role internationally.
In the light of these objectives, Professor Allison considered that Russia seeks political, social, religious, economic, energy, intelligence ties rather than a broad relationship or a military intervention in the Balkans. On the other hand, Russian geopolitical success is questionable. The South Stream gas pipeline project collapsed after the Ukraine crisis. Russia hopes that TurkStream-2 can become an alternative, but, the capacity of TurkStream-2, 15.75 bcm, is just one quarter of South Stream and Russia’s ability to compete with the Azerbaijani gas through Southern Gas Corridor is questionable. Moreover, the European Gas Directive is another challenge for the pipeline. According to Professor Allison, only limited instruments are left for Russia in the Balkans, such as encouraging nationalist activities, financial relations with politicians, corruption, non-transparent money flows, disinformation campaigns, cultivating conservative Orthodox, and ethnic divisions. On the other hand, financial flow is at a certain level and integration of the EU does not seem to be diminishing. In conclusion, Professor Allison believes that Western Balkans is not a region of primary strategic interest for Russia. Russia has some capacities and sustains its limited intervention for various reasons, such as reducing the ability of western states’ influence on Ukraine and the wider region.

Andreja Bogdanovski focused on the relations between the Orthodox Churches, and the Russian Orthodox Church’s involvement in South East Europe. He started from the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church which is perceived as having a huge impact on the region. Ukrainians achieved their independent Church after the efforts by President Poroshenko, creating shock waves across the World of Orthodoxy and in South East Europe. Because it was so controversial and geopolitically important, we now see 2-3 blocs among the Orthodox Churches today. On one side are supporters of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, who all fully support Ukrainian autocephaly. On the other side, a number of Churches, such as Serbian, Polish, Slovakian, support the Russian Orthodox Church. The third bloc, consisting of the Bulgarian, Romanian, Albanian and Cypriot Churches, are positioned between these first two. This separation is affecting the efforts of the Montenegro and North Macedonia Orthodox Churches to gain recognition, as well as Russia’s influence on South East Europe and especially the Western Balkans. Bogdanovski believes that the autocephaly of the Ukraine Orthodox Church has dramatically impacted the Russian Orthodox Church worldwide. The failure of the efforts of the Russian Orthodox Church to sabotage, or postpone the autocephaly of the Ukraine Orthodox Church ended with the recognition of the Ukraine Orthodox Church by some other churches, thus weakening the position of the Russian Orthodox Church. In response, the Russian Orthodox Church has severed communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate and with the supporters of Ukrainian autocephaly in the Greek Orthodox Church. On the other hand, Bogdanovski believes that the reason for the Serbian Orthodox Church unequivocal support to the Russian Orthodox Church when it comes to the Ukrainian autocephaly is primarily due to the problems it is facing with Montenegro’s and North Macedonia’s strive for church independence. He believes that the Russian Orthodox Church would stand on its side when these two cases flare up. According to Bogdanovski, the Russian Orthodox Church is using the situation in the Western Balkans to advance its own narratives and agenda around Ukrainian autocephaly, with the Russian Orthodox Church’s narrative being based on 3 pillars;
  1. Interference of politicians in Church affairs in Montenegro and North Macedonia should be prevented,
  2. Similarly to the Ukraine case, the Ecumenical Patriarch’s view is again wrong in North Macedonia case,
  3. Washington is behind all these and is helping other churches.
The presentations led to a lively Q/A session and an expansion of the topics. Questions revolved around energy, the Russia-Turkey relationship and recent disputes in Syria, the Serbia-Kosova dispute, the position of NATO and EU, Russia’s interest in Montenegro, the power of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine, relationships between Orthodox Churches and the geopolitics of religion. Professor Allison mentioned the importance of the Shah Deniz and Kashagan gas fields, the Trans Caspian pipeline project, and the pricing of natural gas in competitor pipeline projects. He believes that recent Turkey-Russia disputes will not undercut significantly the relations between countries, particularly on energy, trade and tourism. Bogdanovski believes that the power of the Russian Orthodox Church still exists at a certain level. Dr Anastasakis concluded the seminar by suggesting that perhaps the biggest success of Russian foreign policy is that it is not easy to understand; it is to use Churchill’s words “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”.

Okan Yardimci (Academic Visitor, St Antony's College, Oxford)

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