Russia's Attempts to Regain the Balkans Are Futile


The Balkans has always been a matter of special interest to Russia. Russia tried to influence the Balkan nations and to create a positive image in this region at various times through different methods. In some parts of the region, Russia is still considered to be an "older brother", but this myth is slowly disappearing, as it has become clear to everyone that Russia does not shy away from interfering in the internal affairs of its "friend" countries.

Russia uses several tools to maintain its influence in the Balkans. In the Slavic countries of the region (Bulgaria, Serbia, North Macedonia, Montenegro), Russia develops the idea of Panslavism - the great Slavic world (which is also actively used in the Slavic countries of Eastern Europe). One can say that the Kremlin views these countries as part of the Russian world.

The second important line of implementing the Kremlin’s interests is in religion. The idea of the Orthodox world is an important tool the Kremlin uses, especially since in the Balkan countries, where the majority of the population is not Orthodox Christian (Croatia, Albania), Russian influence is weak.

To actualize these two ideas, the Kremlin uses the machine of misinformation and state propaganda. Pro-Russian television channels, news agencies and outlets function in most of the Balkan countries. Russia spends huge financial resources in this regard. Russia's "spy games" have also become especially noticeable of late.

In this regard, Bulgaria was put in the limelight when it expelled two Russian diplomats from the country at the end of January 2020 on charges of espionage. Bulgaria accused Dmitry Yaroshenko and Alexander Khvatov of being agents of Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). A similar decision was made by Sofia in October 2019, when Vladimir Rusayev was expelled from the country on charges of being an agent of the Russian military intelligence (GRU). Shortly before this, a former Bulgarian lawmaker and head of a pro-Russian NGO, Nikolai Malinov, was arrested for spying for Russia. It is noteworthy that Bulgaria has long refrained from active actions against Russia and its agents, but the Kremlin's recent interference in domestic affairs forced the country's authorities to take steps.

In 2018, Bulgaria refused to expel Russian diplomats from the country despite the poisoning of Sergei and Iulia Skripal. However, after the poisoning an incident was exposed that took place in April 2015 when Bulgarian gun-maker Emilian Gebrev was poisoned with an unknown substance. He was in a coma for several years and in 2018, it was speculated that he had been poisoned with Novichok, just like the Skripals. The Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office launched an investigation into the case, but it was soon suspended due to "lack of evidence". No-one was surprised- the then Attorney General Sotir Tsatsarov had never concealed his close relationship with his Russian counterpart Yuri Chaika.

Bulgaria is not the only Balkan state against which Russia is waging a spy war. Russian security services worked hard to thwart the agreement between Greece and Northern Macedonia aimed at defining the official name of the latter. Over the years, this issue was a subject of dispute between the two states, and the only obstacle on the way to Macedonia's accession to NATO. Eventually, Russia failed to achieve its goal. The agreement between Athens and Skopje was signed on June 17, 2018, and Northern Macedonia will become the 30th member of the Alliance. Interestingly, within weeks of reaching the agreement, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats from the country for having tried to prevent it. A few months prior, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras had refrained from making a similar decision during the Skripal scandal.

In 2016, Russia tried to interfere in Montenegro's elections with the help of Serbian ultranationalists and with the aim of overthrowing the country's government, including liquidating the prime minister. After the plan failed, it became known that the operation was carried out by Russian citizens - GRU agents Eduard Shirokov and Vladimir Popov (real name Vladimir Moiseev). A Montenegrin court tried both of them in absentia. It is also noteworthy that Popov carried out activities in Bulgaria in 2014. There is speculation that he planned to poison Emilian Gebrev.

Russia is also waging a spy war against its biggest and traditional ally in the Balkans, Serbia. In November 2019, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic openly attacked a former employee of the Russian embassy who sought to bribe a retired Serbian officer in order to obtain classified information. Serbia, as a traditional ally of Russia, usually avoids any demarche against Moscow. Moscow's support for Kosovo also plays an important role in this, but Belgrade fell into disrepute on this issue, as the record of the meeting between the Russian diplomat and Serbian officer was posted on YouTube and caused serious anger among the Serbian community.

The Balkan countries are no exception when Russia interferes in the domestic affairs of sovereign states around the world using spies. As we can see, Russia does not shy away from using such methods against allied nations either. Naturally, the Kremlin will continue to use this tactic in the future, but it is also expected that the Balkan states will step up their efforts to protect themselves from the Kremlin’s malign influence.

By David Bragvadze, GISP

13 February 2020 17:10