Analysis: War With Russia and What It Means For The Western Balkans

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sent shockwaves through the world, particularly through the Western Balkans- a tinderbox of ethnic and political tensions maintained by strong ties with the US and Europe. While most countries in the region side with Ukraine and the West, Russia’s influence is potent, and its biggest local ally, Serbia, has so far remained silent on its stance. Drawing on the EURACTIV, Exit’s partner, network, we took a look at what war in Ukraine means for the Western Balkans and how Serbia’s stance could impact the fragility of regional peace.

Since the late ’50s and early ’60s, Albania has had a somewhat cool relationship with Russia after relations broke down during the communist regime, and the Russian embassy in Tirana limits its activities to education and cultural exchanges.

At the start of February, a letter from Russia’s foreign ministry making a range of security demands caused a stir in parliament when ex-prime minister and president Sali Berisha called Russia “a force of evil” and accused them of trying to destroy NATO. He also said the letter “was a threat to every Albanian,” and it should mark the end of all cooperation with Serbia.

Albania is a candidate country for the EU and is staunchly pro-European in terms of allyship. It has been a NATO member since 2009, recently announced plans to construct a NATO airbase in the south, and that the northern Kukes airport was “NATO certified”.

Before this week, there was little concern that Albania could be dragged into the mess. But accusations from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov changed that when he accused Albania, along with Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, of sending mercenaries to fight in Ukraine.

Exit asked the Russian embassy in Tirana on what basis the claims were made. They responded by pointing to TASS state-owned media that alleged the CIA and MI6 were paying mercenaries $3000 a month to “volunteer”.

The government swiftly denied the claims, and local analysts decried claims Albanians could be ‘sold’. In addition, concerns were raised that Russia appeared to be targeting its disinformation against the only Muslim-majority countries in the region, leading to fears of long-running ethnic tensions being stoked and exploited once again.

Following the invasion, leaders from every side of the political spectrum, including the president, condemned Russia and pledged solidarity with Ukraine, NATO and Europe. Albania is not home to any openly pro-Russian political groups.

For now, the main fear is that as a US, EU, and NATO ally in a strategic position, already caught in the crosshairs of Moscow, Albania could be dragged into a regional or international conflict that it cannot afford to be a part of.

On Thursday evening, Albanian and foreign residents gathered outside the Russian embassy in Tirana to peacefully protest against the Russian invasion.

Kosovo in a precarious position

In Kosovo, tensions are a little higher around what the invasion of Ukraine could mean. The reason for this is its proximity and the decades-long conflict with pro-Russian Serbia.

Serbia does not recognise Kosovo as an independent country and there are concerns that the war in Ukraine could empower Serbia to move in on northern areas of the country, predominantly inhabited by ethnic Serbs.

However, this scenario had the wind taken out of its sails on Monday when Putin declared unilateral recognition of the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Lugansk. Serbia, having long counted on Russia’s support in the region and over the Kosovo issue, finds itself in a very difficult position.

What Russia has done in Ukraine, gives power to Kosovo to continue demanding its recognition. At the same time, Serbia can no longer count on Russia to support its denial of Kosovo’s sovereignty.

If Moscow were even to attempt to support Belgrade in this situation, they would be subject to immense ridicule and would not have a diplomatic leg to stand on.

The problem remains, however, claims that Kosovo has sent mercenaries to Ukraine, which could serve as a pretext for military action from Serbia, or Russia, in a worst-case scenario.

Kosovo remains staunchly pro-Ukraine and has pledged full solidarity with Kyiv. President Vjosa Osmani said she is working with allies to prevent any destabilisation in the region, following a meeting with US Ambassador to Pristina Jeff Hovenier.

Like Albania, Kosovo is staunchly pro-EU, pro-US, and owes a lot to NATO, who saved it from relentless Serbian attack and genocide during the Kosovo-Serbia war.

The only real pro-Russian sentiment comes from ethnic Serb and pro-Serbia parties, who de facto support the Moscow regime. They have little power and will not impact political or security decisions in the country.

NATO’s newest regional member

In Skopje, the government has already announced it is ready to take in Ukrainian refugees if necessary. This announcement was made several days before Russia’s invasion.

Another EU candidate country and a recent member of NATO, Macedonians, are overall on the side of Ukraine. Authorities have been clear that they condemn Russia’s actions and that if NATO decides, they will become involved in military conflict.

The Ministry of Defence also announced that participation in a possible NATO mission is considered. Furthermore, on Thursday, President Stevo Pendarovski strongly condemned Russia’s invasion.

“The invasion of Ukraine by Russia is an attack on the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, a serious violation of the basic principles of international law, a blow to the democratic order and a threat to the stability of Europe”, Pendarovski stated.

What is interesting in Macedonian politics is the problematic position of the opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE and its leader Hristijan Mickoski. The party was previously pro-European and pro-NATO but has shifted towards pro-Russian, pro-Serbian and anti-Western.

Mickoski sees himself as the new prime minister, but this will require him to decide on which side to back. While he may be somewhat anti-NATO, if he is ever prime minister, he still has to show his face at NATO meetings and in Europe, for that matter. Furthermore, on Thursday, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who he is close to, announced that while he backs Ukraine, he does not want to get dragged into the conflict.

Croatia is clear

Even Croatian President Zoran Milanović, who famously offended Ukraine recently, harshly condemned Russian aggression. The government in Zagreb, as expected, is on the Ukrainian side and like in Albania, small protests took place in front of the Russian embassy.

Croatia is not so fond of Russia, amongst other things, because of the closeness of Moscow and Belgrade. But, on the right and radical part of the political spectrum, some groups have praised Putin for being a “tough guy”.

On Thursday, one of the former pro-Orbán and pro-Putin members of Sabor initiated a resolution supporting Ukraine. Like that of many politicians, public opinion, still with fresh memories of Serbian aggression in Croatia, is firmly on the Ukraine side.

BiH waits on Belgrade

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the situation is fascinating. Serbian political forces remain quiet, waiting for guidelines from Belgrade, which has been largely silent so far. Bosniaks are on the side of Ukraine, resulting from the actions of Russian ambassadors in Sarajevo who strongly support Serbs in BiH.

Croats in BiH, particularly Dragan Čović, leader of the HDZ BiH, are yet to react officially. Counting on the support of Serbs in his ideas of electoral law reform, he is waiting for the position of Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the tripartite Presidency. Dodik, in turn is waiting for Serbian President Aleksandar Vučic.

Political crisis in Podgorica

In Podgorica, even technical Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapić called on Russia to return to diplomacy, and he was elected on the list of pro-Serbian party Democratic Front (DF). The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and President Milo Đukanović meanwhile, resolutely condemned Russian aggression.

Montenegro is, however, in the midst of a political crisis, and the situation is far from stable. While pro-EU in many ways, some leaders will be cautious not to rock the boat.

Historically, ties between Russia and Montenegro were strong, and in 1905, Podgorica declared war on Tokyo during the Russia Japan war. During the dissolution of former Yugoslavia, it was revealed that Podgorica never made a peace agreement with Japan. Attempts from Russia to interfere in internal Montenegrin issues and block its NATO accession were somewhat futile and over half of the population are against Russia.

As with BiH, everything hinges on what Belgrade has to say.

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