Russia’s second front. How the Kremlin’s influence in the Balkans is “diminishing”

On May 9, as Victory Day was celebrated in Russia, something unprecedented happened in front of the Russian embassy in Sofia. A crowd of 5,000 protesters shouted “Murderers” and “Fascists”. Posters with the slogans “No to Racism”, “No to Russian Fascism”, “Glory to Ukraine” were combined with portraits of Hitler and Putin displayed on the facade of the embassy building. The light banners with the words indicating the well-known route to the Russian warship caused special joy to those present.

Russian diplomacy reacted in its favorite “asymmetric” way – opening the speakers with military-patriotic songs in full force. It was a difficult day for the embassy: a few hours earlier, opponents of the war in Ukraine denounced Russian Ambassador Eleonora Mitrofanova at the Red Army monument (according to a Bulgarian observer post, which reached 17,000 euros). A direct clash between Ukrainian supporters and pro-Russian protesters was prevented by police.

Thanks big brother

The war polarized both Bulgarian society and the highest echelons of power. The young Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, a “Harvard boy” who is married to a Canadian and who had just handed over his Canadian passport before being elected to office, has so far managed to surpass his rivals – two generals. They are President Rumen Radev, who opposes military aid to Ukraine, and Defense Minister Stefan Yanev, who shared his position and was fired by Petkov. In early May, Janev announced the formation of a new pro-Russian party, the Bulgarian Rise.

It was clear that what Petkov saw with his own eyes in Bukha hit him to the core. The Prime Minister passed a decision by the People’s Assembly for military-technical assistance to Ukraine in the form of repair of military equipment. Prior to that, it reacted more strongly to Gazprom’s demands for gas in rubles, and on May 11 informed Washington that it had received lower liquefied petroleum gas prices from the United States and that new deliveries would begin. June. Finally, Petkov turned to this element of relations with Moscow, which for many years, despite the incessant deportations of people with Russian diplomatic passports for espionage, Boyko Borisov’s predecessor shyly tried to ignore. There are 114 diplomats at the Russian embassy in Sofia, the prime minister is indignant – what are they doing here? Did they help us adequately resolve the gas crisis? Is not it time to transfer their number to par? (About 10 Bulgarian diplomats work continuously in Moscow.)

The political nature of Russophilia introduces a fundamental division in the state

Petkov’s departure from years of pro-Russian loyalty to both Radev and Borisov will revolutionize bilateral relations, say Bulgarian analysts. As an elder of Bulgarian sociology, 80-year-old professor George Fotef“The political nature of Russophilia introduces a fundamental division in the state”, which is “particularly dangerous in the current extreme situation … After the national liberation, the intellectual and political elite of Bulgaria did not fulfill its duty to educate the people, and the Russophiles invented the myth of the “Russophobes” that does not exist in Bulgaria. Now we have a historic opportunity, says a political analyst Ognyan Minchevtake a stand in favor of Ukraine, carry out a rapid rearmament of the Bulgarian army and abolish Russian hegemony in energy – then we will take the first steps against the neo-colonial system that has been strangling Bulgaria for many years.

Supporters of Russia outside the building of the Bulgarian Parliament, April 6, 2022

An indiscriminate attitude towards the “elder brother” is historically common in Bulgarian society. According to a poll conducted by the British agency YouGov in April, 44% of Bulgarians believe that NATO is more responsible for the war in Ukraine, 13% blame both sides and 20% have no answer. Only 23% are convinced that Russia is responsible for this war – this is the lowest rate in the European Union. Publicist Veselin Stoynev explains it: “The Russians are brothers and liberators, while we know almost nothing about the Ukrainians and who they are. Probably another collective disadvantage prevails – low national self-esteem. A Bulgarian only because of his love for his older brother feels important and protected.

The Bulgarian feels important and protected only thanks to the love for his older brother

The attitude towards security, however, is changing right before our eyes. According to a poll conducted by the ESTAT agency commissioned by the Foundation for Political Initiatives, 54% of Bulgarians say they are “very or somewhat” afraid of a possible Russian occupation and 62% are afraid of rockets and bomb attacks in various objects in their Three out of four fear the use of nuclear weapons by Russia. 50.3% of those polled said they expected NATO help in the event of an attack on Bulgaria, but only 41% supported Bulgaria’s accession to the alliance, while 33% opposed it.

“DNR” + “LNR” = Kosovo

During a meeting with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on April 26, Putin unequivocally stated that the “DPR” and the “LPR” have the same right to determine their sovereignty without the permission of the Ukrainian government, as had been the case. once Kosovo without the permission of the Serbian government. Belgrade newspapers affiliated with the ruling Serbian Progressive Party immediately ran headlines: “Putin stabs Serbia in the back: Kosovo’s exchange for Donbas”, “Pristina, Zagreb and Sejun’s” : Putin defends Russia’s interests without considering Serbia’s position on Kosovo.

President of Serbia Alexander Vuτςiτς issued a special speech to the nation on May 6th, where he was forced to announce that “due to the reaction of the western world to Vladimir Putin’s arguments, Serbia’s position has deteriorated”. Vuτςiτς spoke of “the mistake of the Serbian authorities at the time: instead of asking the International Court of Justice for an opinion on whether the decision of the interim authorities in Pristina to declare independence is contrary to international law, one should ask whether Kosovo was based on the unilateral decision of the self-proclaimed institutions of an independent state “. “All European leaders have told me that President Putin, in his negotiations with them, insisted on the case of Kosovo. This means that we will be under enormous pressure. Now the West will demand that Serbia recognize Kosovo in time, since only in this “How can they get Putin out of the hands of his argument?” the Serbian president acknowledged.

Indeed, taking advantage of the moment, German diplomacy, which is now actively fighting to sever Kosovo’s ties, arranged a meeting between Vuτςiτς in Berlin and his fierce rival, Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti. They were accepted in Germany at the highest level. Chancellor Olaf Solts He spoke of “citizens of both countries” living and working in Germany and acting as a “bridge between their homeland and Germany”. Vucic vowed not to “disturb” peace and stability in the Western Balkans.

Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti, EU Special Representative Miroslav Lajcak and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (left to right)

Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti, EU Special Representative Miroslav Lajcak and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (left to right)

Serbia is maneuvering desperately. On the one hand, it remained the only candidate country that did not impose sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. On the other hand, he voted three times in the UN for resolutions condemning Russia for aggression and supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity. However, Belgrade is at risk of losing EU financial and financial assistance ($ 1.6 billion in 2014-2021), which is very valuable to it and there will be nothing to compensate for it. At the same time, by the end of May, Serbs will have to agree on new prices for Russian gas: the low $ 270 per 1,000 cubic meters that Putin personally granted at the end of last year will, of course, not hold him back. , but how much the price will rise is a serious question, since Serbia’s dependence on gas from Russia, as the Serbian president occasionally repeats, is 100%.

I see the fact that there was no live broadcast in Serbia as a signal to the West that Vuτςiτς will gradually impose sanctions on Russia

Meanwhile, on May 9th, Serbian television channels for the first time in many years did not broadcast live from Red Square. Vucic’s political opponents saw this as a special sign. “This is the year that Russia is fighting against neo-Nazism in Ukraine,” said the leader of the Liberation Movement. Mladian Djordjevic, – it was important to show the Victory Parade in Serbia. However, since Alexander Vuτςiτς returned from an official visit to Germany, anti-Russian propaganda in Serbia has only intensified. “The fact that there was no live broadcast in Serbia is part of this campaign and a message to the West that Vuτςiτς needs time and that he will gradually impose sanctions on Russia.”

Beneficial Crisis Management

The course of the war in Ukraine is forcing the Kremlin to find new strongholds to put pressure on the Balkan countries. Thus, since the beginning of the invasion, Russia has become more aggressive in its propaganda in Bosnia and Herzegovina, said the dean of the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Sarajevo. Sead Turkalo“Previously expressed dissatisfaction with NATO membership has now widened to include Bosnia’s European integration.” Indeed, the Russian ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Igor Kalabukhov, has already threatened Moscow’s response to BiH’s possible accession to NATO and the EU. Russian institutions, Turkalo continues, have become more likely to share their messages. in Telegram, where content verification is not as strict as on Facebook. In less than two months, they published about seventy messages in the languages ​​used in Bosnia. The purpose of disseminating misinformation about war crimes in Ukraine is to prevent the whole of Bosnia from joining the group of countries that support Kyiv.

Even the most optimistic observer in the West will be forced to admit it, writes a researcher at the German Institute for International Affairs and Security (SWP) Margit Wunsch Gaarmanthat Russia is capable of provoking conflict and significantly destabilizing the Balkans. By rekindling territorial disputes, supporting separatist politicians and undermining democratic institutions, the region could potentially be plunged into chaos without the Kremlin deploying any of its tanks, the analyst said. It is therefore imperative that the EU follow the famous advice Winston Churchill “Never let a good crisis get in the way.” The EU should use its new dynamics after the Russian invasion of Ukraine to formulate a clear strategy for the Balkans. Gaarman believes that by offering the six Western Balkan countries a viable path to EU membership after eighteen years of stagnation, Brussels will be able to counter Moscow’s efforts to bring the region back into its sphere of influence.

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