BELGRADE, Serbia — Ljubinka Milinčić, the Serbian editor of the Kremlin-owned Radio Sputnik, is sitting in the crowded café at Hotel Moscow, the run-down luxury hotel in central Belgrade that serves as a daily gathering place for the city's elite. She’s sipping tea and discussing the rising geopolitical conflict over the Balkans as a piano player covers movie themes from The Godfather and Top Gun.
To Milinčić, who has been working at Sputnik’s radio arm since the outlet expanded to Belgrade in early 2015, the recurrent crises across the Balkans are an existential problem born of the original sins of the 1990s, when the international community intervened to stop a series of civil wars that broke out as the former Yugoslavia crumbled.
“The problems in this region have been swept under the rug for too long,” Milinčić said.
There are simmering tensions between ethnic Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia, and many Western European diplomats and experts claim that Russia is interfering in Montenegro’s move toward NATO and the EU. The political solutions imposed by the international community over the last 25 years, while so far effective at preventing further violence, are widely seen as unsustainable half measures that will eventually be replaced.
“Advocating NATO expansion, the American support for radical Muslim extremists in Albania, these are all policies that could change,” Milinčić said, reiterating Kremlin talking points. “But with Trump, people now see that before if you were called a nationalist that meant you were racist, but today you’re just someone who loves their country.”
“The problem with Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia is these aren’t countries. They’re projects, and the projects are failing.”
It’s been a restive six months in the Balkans: There have been claims of an attempted Russian-backed coup in Montenegro, a political crisis pitting Serbs and Albanians against each other in a fight over the future direction of Macedonia, and renewed tensions in both Bosnia and Kosovo.
But any failure of these “projects,” as Milinčić calls them, could be the death rattle for what began 25 years ago as the first major EU-led effort to stabilize the worst violence in Europe since the end of World War II, as the perception grows of the union as a feckless, waning regional power vulnerable to a resurgent Russia’s considerable soft power in a place that’s long looked to both Moscow and the West for political and military aid.
In Belgrade, where a balance between the historical alliance with Russia and the promise of economic development through further integration with the EU remains official policy, fears that the EU is collapsing and uncertainty over the commitment of the new Trump administration have pushed local politicians into more aggressive postures to exploit both the perceived power vacuum and local frustration with the slow pace of economic and political development in the region.
“We keep hearing from political leaders in Belgrade and Pristina about new incidents and the possibility of violence over incidents that are often amusingly mild on the local level,” said Tatjana Lazarevic, a Kosovar Serb who edits an online news portal focusing on Mitrovica, a primarily Serbian city in northern Kosovo.
In recent months, partisans on both sides have accused each other of pushing for a confrontation after a series of incidents: scuffles over a wall that Albanian Kosovars say is really a barrier to keep them out of Serb-dominated northern Kosovo; the appearance of a train emblazoned with ultra-nationalist Serb slogans; and, finally, the deployment of Kosovar special police units to predominantly Serbian areas. Lazarevic sees the furor over these incidents as driven by politicians with geopolitical agendas.
“The result is tensions heating up from both sides as the media in both Belgrade and Pristina freak out over these statements and incidents that are easily handled on the local level,” Lazarevic said. “But once an incident gets reported, you’ll see reports on both sides for days about fighting and tensions when the reality is that things are calm at that location itself.”
“It’s a most dangerous situation because both sides are being used as pawns by their corrupt leaders in Belgrade and Pristina, who require conflict and chaos to hide their lack of economic developments and widespread allegations of corruption,” she said. “These players are using the uncertainty from Russia, Trump, the problems in Brussels to push a conflict that will make them useful. And by framing the problems as things that need to involve Belgrade or Albania, Moscow or Brussels, they’re taking power out of the hands of the people hurt the most by a renewed conflict and putting it into the hands of the people who will be hurt the least and benefit the most.”
Members of the 28 EU member states met in Brussels this week to discuss rising tensions throughout the Balkans. Some officials privately admitted that the international community has failed to offer clear messages about the future of the multiple peacekeeping and nation-building missions that have been put into place in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Macedonia since the wars of the 1990s.
“We talk about the EU solving problems in Syria, Ukraine, and Libya, but we can't even sort out problems in Macedonia, and even agree what the country is called,” said one EU government official, who asked to not be identified criticizing the organization. “It makes us look ridiculous.”
The situation in Macedonia, which is actually called the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia because of Greek concerns that the young state might be eyeing expansion into adjacent Greek lands, turned into an international concern last month when President Gjorge Ivanov refused to empower the winning political coalition — led by pro-Albania parties — in the last election to form a government.
The EU and NATO have both demanded that the formation of the new government proceed with the pro-Albanian coalition in charge — even sending EU foreign relations chief Federica Mogherini to Skopje on March 2 to unsuccessfully push Ivanov on the issue. The following day saw Mogherini heckled by pro-Russian, Serbian nationalist lawmakers in an address to the Serbian parliament.
The political standoff, as well as Mogherini’s visit, drew an immediate rebuke from the Russian foreign ministry, which described the election results as part of an Albanian-backed power play throughout a region that Russian considers a major sphere of influence with hundreds of years of close relationships with Orthodox Slavs in Serbia and Bulgaria. With an ethnic Serbian majority in Macedonia, any political shift favoring ethnic Albanians was bound to draw a response.
“The political crisis in Macedonia [was] provoked by the gross external interference in the country’s internal affairs,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
“Attempts, which are actively supported by EU and NATO leaders, are being made to make Macedonians accept the ‘Albanian platform’ designed in Tirana in the prime minister’s office based on the map of the so-called Greater Albania, which illustrates its territorial claims to vast regions in neighbouring Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia, and Greece,” it said.
What’s incredible about the Russian resurgence in the Balkans is how inexpensive and effortless it’s been for Russia to be a player in an area filled with international community projects, according to multiple observers of the Russia-Serbia dynamic. Beyond some specious religious ties (Russia and Serbia occupy related but distinct branches of the Orthodox Church), political support over Kosovo and Macedonia, and the economic entanglements that come when Gazprom “partners” on your energy needs, Russia doesn’t need to take much direct action to convince Serbs of its best interest.
One European intelligence official, who isn’t authorized to speak on the record to reporters, said that in a sense it’s true that the Russians have not overtly manipulated the situation throughout the former Yugoslavia because “they don’t really need to.”
“This is the cheapest and easiest soft power operation the Russians could dream of.”
The Serbs, according to this official, are already sold on Russia as a political ally and historic friend, and they haven’t required much, if any, prodding to accept the Russian positions that want an end to the expansion of NATO and the EU into areas traditionally considered by Russia to be a sphere of influence, if not power.
“This is the cheapest and easiest soft power operation the Russians could dream of,” said the official, who had served on peacekeeping operations in both Bosnia and Kosovo in the past. “The Serbs already like the Russians, distrust the Americans, and hate the Albanians. It’s not a terribly uphill climb to convince them about which side to be on.”
“All the Serbs are with Russia,” said Idriz Seferi, an Albanian television journalist based in Belgrade. “The only difference between the moderates and the radicals is that the moderates want to be with Russia but make money from the EU. The radicals just want Russia.”
When NATO went to war in 1999 to stop ethnic fighting in the then-Serbian province of Kosovo, Russia was just emerging from a decade of centrally weak rule by then-president Boris Yeltsin that President Vladimir Putin has never forgotten.
In repeated statements since he took office in 2001, Putin has condemned the NATO military intervention as well as the subsequent national building effort that led to Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008, a move that Russia has refused to recognize and Putin has used as a justification for his 2014 seizure of Crimea.
But all the Russian claims of brotherhood with their south Slav relatives doesn’t convince everyone in Belgrade the situation isn’t just as much about geopolitics.
“Look, Serbia and the rest of the Balkans are a pawn in a great game of powers between Russia, the EU, and the US,” said Saša Radulović, a former economy minister running for president of Serbia on an anti-corruption, technocratic platform.
But Western intelligence operatives have their eye on Russian influence — and also on the pitfalls of the EU and NATO missions in the Balkans.
“The international community hasn’t exactly proven itself as the way forward on the former Yugoslavia over the last 25 years,” said the Western intelligence official. “Yes, violence was stopped and has so far been averted, but so little has been done beyond that to convince anyone that these mechanisms that were put into place are viable that it’s become true that they aren’t.”
“The regional framework was completely unstable with or without the arrival of Trump.”
Dušan Proroković, chair of the political council of the Democratic Party of Serbia, a conservative, pro-Russian party, parroted that line — and said the arrival of the Trump administration, which has presented itself as even more isolationist than its predecessor, will only build on what already existed.
“The regional framework was completely unstable with or without the arrival of Trump,” Proroković said. “The EU is so nervous about a rise in tensions throughout the region that it’s pressuring Belgrade, Pristina, and Skopje to come to new agreements, but all of these governments want to put a stop to negotiations because they think they can push the situation to their advantage.”
And while Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro all benefit from EU economic aid and development, Proroković says the era of offering EU membership as a carrot to political leaders has ended as the union loses support among Serbs and the EU itself appears more likely to contract than expand in the future.
“In any case, [Serbia] is out of the EU,” he said. “Five years ago most people supported joining, but today we see that the citizens of the EU are against expansion and we assume it will never happen here. Greece is the future of the EU, not Serbia.”
A February poll of Serbian voters found support for EU membership at 47% — reflecting at least in part the almost 3 billion euros in aid received by Serbia annually. But when voters were asked whether Serbian membership in the EU itself is a good thing, concerns about the future of the union push those numbers down to 35% in favor and 31% opposed. It’s not the anti-EU public opinion landslide that Proroković, Milinčić, and other pro-Putin hardliners claim, but Serb political observers remain unanimous that the last two years of EU instability have voters looking elsewhere.
“Our relationship with Western Europe has changed.”
The West, Proroković said, failed to pull Serbia out of Russia’s orbit long ago, between the war over Kosovo and a failure to act while Russia was what he described as a “regional power.”
“It’s too late now,” he said. “The time to act was in 1991. At that point NATO was a solution for Serbia and could have solved the wars of the 1990s, but now that Russia is no longer just a regional power as it was then … the present framework [of EU influence] is unsustainable.”
Milinčić, the Sputnik editor, agreed. “Everyone wanted to be in the EU 10 years ago. … We are a poor country, the West had bombed us, so to us, the EU offered paradise.”
Now, she said: “Our relationship with Western Europe has changed.”
“Russia doesn’t have anything to do with this here. If you look at Le Pen, Brexit, the German elections, the refugees — these are all EU choices that have nothing to do with Russia.”
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Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. A previous version of this article mistakenly said that the event occurred in 2013.