Immediately after Russia invaded Ukraine, the EU stepped up its policing presence in Bosnia & Herzegovina as the deteriorating international security situation raised fears that the Western Balkans was at risk of destabilisation. Deep-seated ethnic conflicts and a small but vocal pro-Russian far-right movement make the Western Balkans, on top of a threat to living standards from fast-rising inflation, combine to make the region particularly vulnerable to Russian influence.
This goes beyond the two most dangerous situations in the region: the secessionist efforts by Bosnian Serb politicians and the tensions between Serbia and Kosovo, whose independence is not recognised by Belgrade. The region has long been the subject of a struggle for influence between Russia and the West — with China also an important player. The West has been largely in the ascendancy recently as all the countries want to join the EU, and most are either Nato members or aspiring members. Still, Russia retains significant influence in the region, especially in Serbia and Bosnia’s Republika Srpska.
Even before the current crisis, the decision by MPs in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska to withdraw the entity from the Bosnian army and other state-level institutions was a worrying step towards the breakup of the country and a potential new conflict. The security situation in northern Kosovo, which is mainly populated by ethnic Serbs, meanwhile, deteriorated to the worst level in a decade in September amid a dispute over car number plates.
Moscow’s view of the region as still part of its sphere of influence was bluntly reinforced by the Russian ambassador to Bosnia, who warned in mid-March of Russia’s right to “respond” should Bosnia join Nato, and warned Bosnian politicians to look at the example of Ukraine. Within Serbia, protests were already anticipated around the general and presidential elections on April 3, but the potential for unrest has risen sharply as the government is torn between its quest for EU accession and historic ties with Russia. Far-right groups have already staged protests in support of the Russian invasion in both Serbia and Montenegro.
The Balkans will be a “battlefield for ideas” as Russia steps up propaganda and “systematic lies” in the region, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned during a visit to the Albanian capital Tirana on March 15. While the situation is calmer in Albania and North Macedonia, both Nato members, Borrell warned that the entire region is vulnerable to Russian disinformation. “Certainly, the Russian influence in the Western Balkans is nothing new, nothing new. But Russian disinformation – which is the word that we use today to talk about propaganda – and systematic lies, it is increasing,” Borrell said at a press conference in Tirana.
“[W]e will have to face Russian influence in the Balkans, wherever it takes place, in some countries more than in others. We are very much aware that the Balkans will be a battlefield for ideas, a battlefield for the prospects, a battlefield for the path that the Balkan countries will follow in the future,” he added.
On a more positive note, leaders across the Western Balkans have stressed the importance of regional co-operation, as seen at an EBRD event at the end of February.
Days before the Russia invasion, Borrell warned that Bosnia, along with Ukraine, is one of two hotspots in Europe. Members of the Republika Srpska parliament voted at the end of 2021 to quit the Bosnian army and other state-level institutions, which was seen by the international community as a step towards the breakup of the country.
The Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, Milorad Dodik – who has publicly spoken of the support he receives from Russia – has repeatedly called for a referendum on Republika Srpska’s secession from Bosnia over the years. He was revealed to have tried to prevent Bosnia’s ambassador to the UN from voting in favour of a resolution condemning the invasion.
The day Russia forces entered Ukraine, the European Union Force Bosnia and Herzegovina (EUFOR) announced it was boosting its presence in Bosnia as a precautionary measure. “The deterioration of the security situation internationally has the potential to spread instability to Bosnia & Herzegovina,” said EUFOR in a statement.
On March 16, Russia’s ambassador to Bosnia, Igor Kalabukhov, threatened to the country, making it clear that Moscow won’t tolerate Bosnia joining Nato. Speaking to FTV, Kalabukhov said the example of Ukraine “shows what we expect”.
Along with Bosnia, northern Kosovo, which is mainly populated by Serbs, is seen as the other main flashpoint in the Western Balkans. Accordingly, the EU rule of law mission (EULEX) in Kosovo said on March 14 it will strengthen its presence in the country by temporarily deploying a reserve unit of 92 members of the European Gendarmerie Force (EUROGENDFOR). A spokesperson for EULEX said, as quoted by Reuters, that the Russian invasion of Ukraine "puts everything in a different light".
There were already periodic flare-ups in tensions, as Serbia has refused to recognise Kosovo as independent, and its position is backed by Russia. Just six months ago, in September 2021, the situation between Serbia and Kosovo reached what politicians said was its most dangerous point in 10 years amid a dispute between the two sides over car licence plates.
Since the invasion, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti has pressed his country's case for EU and Nato membership. Kurti told AFP that Russian President Vladimir Putin is unpredictable and "will use the factors and actors he controls also in the Western Balkans”. Speaking to The Independent, Kurti argued that the Western Balkans is in “even greater danger than the Baltic countries and Moldova”.
Kosovo has already established a security fund to raise money for the Kosovan army amid the new reality following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Kurti announced on March 3.
Even before the invasion, there were warnings that Serbia’s April 3 election day – when both President Aleksandar Vucic and his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) are seeking re-election – will be a turbulent one.
After years in power, the party is deeply entrenched in Serbia and has been criticised for eroding democracy. Mass protests over environmental issues in the autumn of 2020 were followed by threats to disrupt the election if the government doesn’t entirely ban lithium mining in the country. In recent years, elections have been followed by protests, some of them turning violent, as opposition supporters no longer see a way of achieving a change of government via the ballot boxes.
Things have changed radically since the invasion, which put Vucic, who has sought to balance Serbia’s quest for EU accession with good relations with fellow big powers Russia, China and the US, in an impossible position. Now he has condemned the invasion but declined to join sanctions on Russia – an attempt at a solution that didn't please either EU leaders, who say he should commit to sanctions, or the large pro-Russian segment of the population.
While the Serbian government has sought to maintain its balanced position, many media outlets in Serbia take a strongly pro-Russian line, which has coloured popular sentiment on the war and the government’s response. On March 4, several thousand people joined a far-right, pro-Russian march in Belgrade.
Parliament speaker Strahinja Bulajic, a member of the pro-Russia Democratic front, has blocked the formation of a new government by refusing to call a parliamentary session to vote on the proposed cabinet. His comments to local media outlets indicate he plans to keep the country in political limbo for months by continually postponing the session. Bulajic has been linked to a Russian diplomat that the foreign ministry recent declared persona non grata.
Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, thousands of supporters of the Democratic Front blocked 17 key roads across Montenegro. The blockades were in protest over a domestic issue: the planned formation of a minority government that would have excluded the party from power. However, some protesters carried flags of the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk within Ukraine, recognised by Russia as independent, and hailed the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
As well as the mass blockades organised by the Democratic Front, on February 28 dozens of Montenegrins gathered in the town of Niksic to demonstrate in support of the Russian invasion of Ukraine February 28. The gathering was not officially supported by any political party.
Some of the Democratic Front’s leaders were sentenced for plotting a coup back in 2016, along with Russian intelligence officers and Serbians, aimed at ousting President Milo Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) from power after the October 2016 general election. After the change of government in Montenegro in 2020, the court’s ruling was overturned and a review was ordered, and all those sentenced were released.
There has been a series of protests and road blockades in Albania over rising food and fuel prices, as rapid inflation in autumn 2021 was exacerbated by the spikes in international commodity prices since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Although the numbers are not huge, there are signs of discontent across the country, and among a variety of different groups, from students to farmers.
Prime Minister Edi Rama has slammed the protests as “shameful” and pointed out that Albania is the only Nato country where people are protesting over pice rises. He has also called them an attempt to destabilise the country. Nonetheless, he was quick to step in to offer a package of support for pensioners and other low-income households, followed by additional measures for farmers. Government officials, who usually have their car fuel expenses paid, will receive only 50% of the cost during the crisis, Rama announced.
His critics put the high prices down to corruption as well as the international factors cited by Rama, and say the government should have tackled the fuel market before the current crisis; they also criticise the heavy-handed policing at the protests, which included arrests of journalists.