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What is Russian influence, anyway?

A new book on Russia’s role in the Balkans demonstrates not just the extent of Moscow’s influence — but also its limits.

“Kosovo is Serbian; Crimea is Russian”, reads this mural in the Serb-populated district of Kosovska Mitrovica, a town in northern Kosovo. Photo CC-by-NC-ND-2.0: Allan Leonard / Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Russia is back. Hardly a day passes without the international media running stories about Moscow's hand in a plethora of issues ranging from military conflicts to election meddling, from shady financial dealings to the spreading of “fake news”. Over the past years, an impromptu army of western Kremlinologists and social media authorities has become preoccupied with exposing this ubiquitous Russian influence on a daily basis.

Across Europe and the United States, we are told about Russian so-called “active measures” to interfere in local political processes and are warned that Moscow can “weaponise” anything from the refugee crisis to Pokémon Go. The media narrative we are being served informs us that the Kremlin is supposedly out to destroy the West by engaging in a hybrid war masterminded by Vladimir Putin and a close circle of siloviki, friendly oligarchs, and dubious ideologues.

In the fog of this “new Cold War” one is often confused about what exactly is meant by Russian influence

In the fog of this “new Cold War” one is often confused about what exactly is meant by Russian influence. There has been so much hyperbole that most analyses fail to address numerous questions that have arisen. Dimitar Bechev’s new book Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe is the first comprehensive in-depth study of this complex phenomenon in the geopolitically strategic region of the Balkans, broadly taken as stretching from Slovenia to Cyprus and from Romania to Turkey. Among these multiple countries there are EU and non-EU member states, some of which have joined NATO while others are officially neutral.  

The realm of Russian influence

Addressing the what, how and why of the Kremlin’s policies, Bechev identifies three areas in which Russia wields influence in southeast Europe: military capabilities, energy politics and soft power. When it comes to the first, it should be noted that Russia is neither a declining regional power nor the geopolitical threat some commentators make it out to be. While ultimately no match for NATO, Russia's coercive capabilities are increasing. Its intelligence network is present throughout the region as shown by the events in Montenegro (though as Bechev stresses, many questions regarding the alleged coup attempt still remain unanswered). There is enough reason to believe that Russia will seek to strengthen its position in the future.

Moscow has indeed drawn lessons from the wars of the 1990s in the western Balkans, where NATO managed to sideline Russia due to its escalation dominance. At present, in the Black Sea area, Russia wields this kind of escalation dominance in Ukraine, which makes the Kremlin incontournable, an unavoidable key player, in resolving the conflict in Donbas. Moscow can thus use its military power in the region as political leverage and has not hesitated to do so even beyond its traditional sphere of influence as in Syria.

A ship docked in the bay of Kotor, Montenegro. In October 2016, news surfaced of a Russian supported attempt by Montenegrin and Serbian citizens to organise a coup against Montenegro’s then prime minister Milo Đukanović. The country became NATO’s newest member in June 2017. Photo CC BY-NC-ND 2.0: Chris Bentley / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

More than its military capabilities, Bechev explains, it is the politics of Gazprom and Lukoil that gives Moscow its clout in the region. Russia is in fact Russia Inc. Enabled by a culture of corruption, national energy companies in the Balkans serve as cash cows offering lucrative spoils to both Russian and local actors. Co-opting local elites works better than military coercion or subversion. Oil and gas remain key assets at Moscow's disposal as Russia remains the dominant energy player in the region though consecutive EU policies and regulations have provided checks on how Moscow can wield that power.

Another potent asset that Russia can wield is soft power. Public diplomacy, cultural institutions, the Orthodox Church, print and online media, as well as variegated local networks of political actors (ranging from radical fringe groups to moderately pro-Russian mainstream political parties) can wield influence. It is also easier and more cost-effective than bribing governments through energy contracts or resorting to military action. The book does not gauge the actual impact of this array of soft power tools, but it does offer sobering counter-examples such as the much easier penetration by Al Jazeera Balkans (which broadcasts in Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian from Sarajevo since 2011 and is owned by the Qatari government) compared to any attempted Russian television setup.

In the Balkans, sympathies for Russia tend to be high and durable (owing, among other things, to Cold War legacies), though no country has turned decisively to a more pro-Russian position. Bechev points to numerous polls and surveys showing that favourable opinions of Putin or Russia are on the rise, but still western-centric attitudes are more entrenched and western popular culture and lifestyle serve as the main reference point for the overall majority of people in the region.

The Kremlin acts as a spoiler, but it has so far not been able to prevent any country in the Balkans from joining the EU or NATO

It is worth noting that there are currently in-depth research projects underway such as the Human and Social Studies Foundation's study of anti-democratic and pro-Russian propaganda in Bulgaria in the local media. But Bechev's book drives an important point home regarding Russia's soft power. While Moscow can shape discourse, it cannot directly impact political events through its soft power. The Kremlin acts as a spoiler, but it has so far not been able to prevent any country in the region from joining the EU or NATO let alone leave them.

What the Balkans teach us

What stands out is that “Russian influence” in the Balkans, a region both geographically and historically relatively close to Russia, is characterised by a non-ideological, interests-first approach. Often the historical or stereotypical characterisations in the media are off the mark. The book ventures into historical contexts and provides perhaps surprising conclusions. In doing so, it debunks certain myths: Serbian Russophiles have little real knowledge of Russia; Bulgaria is in fact a failed “Trojan Horse”; Greece's sympathy for Russia is based on not more than abstract emotions; and Russian-Turkish relations have always been complicated but seem not to lead to outright confrontation — a “marriage of convenience” only recently taken to new heights.

Bulgaria is often considered Russia’s “backdoor into the EU” — but is that giving the Kremlin too much credit? Bulgarian presidential guard march through Sofia, 2016. Photo CC BY-NC-ND 2.0: Ava Babili / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Most significantly, as Bechev demonstrates, Balkan leaders use Russia as much as Russia uses them. Serbia's leaders over the years tried rapprochement with Russia in a quest to gain support to resolve the Kosovo conundrum, but Russia accepted Kosovo's independence by instrumentalising it as a precedent concerning Transnistria, Abkhazia and Ossetia instead. Russia's dealings in the Balkans often end with mutual disappointments. The South Stream pipeline debacle left all sides involved with a headache.

Most significantly, Balkan leaders use Russia as much as Russia uses them

Nevertheless, the Balkans represent an area of Russian influence through which the Kremlin can play its cards skilfully to counter the West in a game of geopolitical rivalry. At times, authoritarian Balkan politicians have exploited this causing anxiety among EU and NATO officials who then legitimated the former by countering Russia. Since Moscow perceives the West as interfering in its backyard in the post-Soviet space, in the Balkans it can readily show that it too can interfere in the West's backyard.

Between domestic politics and geopolitics

Bechev addresses questions relating to Russian policies from today's point of view and frames them within a medium-range historical perspective mainly covering the period from the break-up of the Soviet Union. While history matters, the book sheds light on how 'Russian influence' is not just the result of the Kremlin's policy aims based on strategic interests, but in fact stems from a dynamic of reciprocity between local actors and Moscow.

Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, the Serb autonomous entity in Bosnia, meets Russian Orthodox patriarch Kirill in Moscow, 2013. Photo (c): Sergey Pyatakov / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

It really does take two to tango. However, opportunistic considerations are never far away. Today's pro-Russian Balkan politicians like Milorad Dodik in Republika Srpska, Nikola Gruevski in Macedonia or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey were regarded as pro-western in the not-so-distant past. The outcome of this dance of shadows in the Balkans generally leaves both sides dissatisfied.

Bechev’s book illustrates what Russian influence is about but also what it is not about. It crucially underlines what most of the media discourse doesn't. Despite some of its soft power rhetoric which even appeals to conservatives in the West, Russia is not out to destroy the West and replace it with a new political order or “empire” in the Balkans. Russia preys on weaknesses like pervasive corruption to serve its interests. While the Kremlin aims to undercut institutions and undermine the rules set by the West, this is not a new Cold War.

Today's pro-Russian Balkan politicians were regarded as pro-western in a not-so-distant past

By understanding what Russian influence in the countries of southeast Europe entails, we can also draw lessons for countries in neighbouring regions like central Europe, southern Europe, the Caucasus and the Middle East. More so, the three spheres in which Russia wields influence are relevant on a much broader plain. Moscow's military capabilities are a challenge to NATO as such, Russian energy interests stretch over broad parts of Europe and Asia, and Russian soft power is now seemingly felt on both sides of the Atlantic. And among it all, Balkans allow us to observe not only how far Russian influence can stretch — but also its limits.

Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe by Dimitar Bechev is published by Yale University Press


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