by Helena Ivanov
Tuesday, 8
March 2022
Dispatch
13:30

The Ukraine crisis is dividing the Balkans

Serbia is struggling to maintain a balancing act between East and West
by Helena Ivanov
Vladimir Putin (L) and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić (R)

Earlier this month, 141 states voted in favour of the resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Among those voting for the resolution were Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia – the states comprising the Western Balkans. Given the unstable relations between these states, this was a highly unusual display of unity.

But beneath the surface, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has the potential to exacerbate longstanding tensions in the region. Within many of these states, both politicians and citizens expressed dissatisfaction with the adoption of the UN resolution, and even the very act of condemnation has caused serious internal disputes, for two primary reasons.

First, some of the countries, Serbia most notably, finds it costly to break ties with Russia. For nearly two decades, Moscow and Belgrade have maintained deep diplomatic and economic ties, with total exports to Russia worth over $1billion in 2019. While Serbia adopted the resolution and offered humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, it nevertheless decided against imposing sanctions on Russia.

Secondly, many ethnic Serbs feel closer to Russia than the West. In Serbia, around two-thirds of Serbs have a positive view of Putin and believe that Russia should be Serbia’s key ally when it comes to national security. This pro-Russia sentiment also exists in countries with a substantial Serbian minority (like Bosnia and Montenegro). Thus, cutting ties with Russia could damage the popularity of governing parties.

This goes some way to explaining why Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb leader and a member of Bosnia’s Federal Presidency, actively opposed the resolution and attempted to obstruct its adoption by the Bosnian government in cooperation with Russian diplomats. Mr Dodik sent a letter to the Russian representative in the UN, where he argued that the decision to adopt the resolution was a ‘personal’ not political decision, as it was not unanimously approved by the Bosnian Presidency.

Similarly in Kosovo, which lacks a UN vote, Serbian representatives walked out of the parliamentary session during which the MPs debated condemning the Russian invasion.

But even in ostensibly pro-West nations, internal differences have been bubbling to the surface. For example, Montenegro, a NATO member state which quickly moved to oust a Russian diplomat from the country, was divided over the resolution, with the recently elected Right-wing populist party, The Democratic Front, trying to push the country towards Russia. While this government recently lost the vote of confidence, 37 (of 81) members of the Montenegrin parliament voted against condemning Russia.

These internal disputes over condemning Russia highlight the difficult position that the Western Balkans finds itself in. Given that all of these countries have multiple ethnicities with competing loyalties, the invasion is likely to deepen the gulf between pro-western and pro-Russia states. As fighting progresses, it will become increasingly difficult to maintain a balancing act between the two.

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Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
8 months ago

……..but surely multiculturalism is the ‘perfect’ paradise, everyone living in peas and harmony, isn’t’ that what we’ve been told ? Surely everyone will rally around the flag (diversity flag, obviously) and no one will ever look to foreign shores for allegiance and inspiration. Maybe that’s the future, the Balkanisation of the whole of Europe, rather than just the fractious bit down the bottom East.

Charles Lewis
Charles Lewis
8 months ago
  1. However much some Serbians, and others, value cultural and economic ties with Russia, that does not one whit make Putin less of a muderer and war criminal. They should recognise this, for the sake of their own mortal standing.
  2. PS I meant to write ‘moral’ but, actually, the typo that I did write instead of that will do just as well!
Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
8 months ago

Same chip on shoulder worldview going back to Battle of Kosovo 1389 though, ssshhh, many Serbian nobles became Turkish allies after the battle. A sadly poignant historical novel that explores this cultural fracturing is The Bridge on the Driina by Andric. Brutality and inhumanity all round.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
8 months ago

Ach I think it’s a good time, while Putin plays the monster, to get Serbians onside with the west by bringing it into the EU.

Last edited 8 months ago by Ian Stewart
Kiat Huang
Kiat Huang
8 months ago

The title of the piece somewhat absolves Russia. How about “The Russian invasion of Ukraine divides the Balkans”, “Russian aggression divides the Balkans” or “Putin makes the Balkans pick a side”?

We generally accept that Putin is intelligent. He knows very well that Western economic sanctions and UN resolutions would be consequences of his “liberation” of Ukraine. The process intrinsic to these consequences force countries to make up their minds, about what actions they need to take. In effect, they must, at some level, pick a side . Even the act of doing nothing when all about you are doing something, e.g. abstaining, broadcasts a clear message: we do not agree that what Russia is doing is bad enough to warrant what is on the table.

Having said that, the Balkan countries have always had unstable relations – nothing new there. Like Europe, over the past millennia, there have been plenty of wars and upheaval – but they never emerged from them with a peaceful economic and political alliance, like the EU.

What was stopping them just forming some mutually beneficial agreements and grow them onto a meaningful bloc, like the EU? Nothing at all, but themselves.

Add in the mix completely normal pro-Russian sentiment amongst significantly large segments of the populations and it is routine there will be some push back. The terrifying crisis faced by Ukraine due to Russian aggression did not materially change allegiances, it merely exposed them.

Last edited 8 months ago by Kiat Huang
Sean Penley
Sean Penley
8 months ago

Sounds like the Balkans are in danger of becoming balkanized.