By Michael Curtis
The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming. Every night, you’ll hear a Russian lullaby. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif), the ranking member of the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, has been engaged for over a year in an unrelenting, dogged, unholy quest to discover evidence of collusion between unnamed Russians and named members and associates of the Trump administration. He is correct that there is a Russian conspiracy that affects governmental behavior, but sadly, he, and like-minded investigators, are singing the wrong melody and pointing at the wrong target. Their attention should be switched from Washington, D.C. to Eastern Europe, where the Russians are increasingly active.
In his famous speech on September 19, 1946 in Zurich, Winston Churchill spoke of the need to “build a kind of United States of Europe.” Though Churchill may not have regarded it as his prototype, the European Union came into existence as a result of political and organizational additions to the 1957 Treaty of Rome. Now an organization of 28 states, including Britain, containing 510 million people , the E.U.’s main achievements have been an internal single market through a standardized system of laws; free movement of people, goods, services, and capital; and common policies on certain issues such as trade, agriculture, and fisheries.
From its origins, the European community consisted essentially of Western European countries. For many years, the E.U. has taken little interest in Eastern Europe. Recently, however, the E.U. leadership has spoken of the Eastern area of Europe as having the same history, the same geography, the same cultural heritage as the rest of Europe.
On February 6, 2018, the E.U. announced that it is exploring the possibility of admitting six Balkan nations, which it usually refers to as Western Balkans, into membership of the E.U. The countries – Serbia (7 mil), Kosovo (3.8 mil), Bosnia (3.5 mil), Albania (2.9 mil), Macedonia (2.1 mil), and Montenegro (0.4 mil) – many of which emerged from the end of Yugoslavia, have a combined population of 18 million. They are poor countries, and none has a fully functioning market economy.
The countries may be admitted into the E.U. if they make reforms: free press, fundamental rights, independent courts, ending corruption, breaking up crime rings, public administration reform, solving border disputes, and definitive peaceful relations with neighbors.
The E.U. has declared a Western Balkans strategy to enlarge its membership, which is part of its larger objective to strengthen its own union. It will deal with the various countries at different speeds and on their own merits, depending on when they meet the stated criteria. The E.U. has not forgotten that in 2007, it rushed membership of Romania and Bulgaria, as well as poorly mismanaging migration from East Europe to the West.
This is an ambitious undertaking. Since the E.U. was formed, the Balkans have been the scene of a series of wars and war crimes. It is a region where 140,000 died in the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The area of Kosovo is still the subject of dispute between the Republic of Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in February 2008, and the Republic of Serbia. Incidentally, Spain has not recognized Kosovo for fear that the country would be a role model for Catalan separatists.
Bosnia is divided between rival governments, one in the mainly Muslim area where Saudi Arabia is building both mosques and luxury resorts and another in the northeast under Orthodox Christian Serbs. Macedonia is eager to join the E.U. but is likely to be blocked by Greece, which opposes the name the country took when it declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, even if Macedonia did build a fence to block migrants.
The question is why the E.U. is interested in the Western Balkans. Economically, the E.U. is the most important trading partner of the W.B., but this is only about 1.3% of total E.U. trade. Politically, the E.U. is confronting the difficult problem of Brexit and is troubled that two members, Hungary and Poland, now have illiberal governments. The answer, one in which the Trump administration and perhaps Rep. Schiff should be interested, is E.U. concern about two increasing factors: Russian assertiveness and growing influence and increasing Chinese involvement and investment in the area.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has many motives for acting in Eastern Europe. Among them is the Russian need to bypass Ukraine as the pipeline of natural gas to Europe, as it tried to do, 2012-2014, with the ill fated and abandoned South Stream project, to transport natural gas from Russia through the Black Sea and the Balkans to Western Europe. Another is the memory of Russia being humilated by not being consulted over NATO bombing in 1999 of Serbia, which it regarded as being part of Moscow’s sphere of influence.
Russia in the past and recently has long been interested in Belgrade. On a personal level, Serbian politician President Tomaslav Nikolic is said to have a close relationship with Putin. Nikolic asserts that Serbia wants to become a member of the E.U., to which it applied 17 years ago, but also that it has a close relationship, historical, religious, and linguistic, with the Russians.
In 2013, the two sides signed a strategic partnership and a military cooperation agreement. A year later, Putin was given Serbia’s highest award. Russia has been involved in both military and economic issues. It has provided Serbia with Mig-29 fighter jets, T-72 tanks, and other hardware and is discussing sending S-300 surface-to-air missiles. This is puzzling, since not only does Serbia have a relationship with the U.S. and NATO, but its armed forces have conducted joint activities with NATO.
The state-run Russian Railways is working on a 220-mile stretch of track in Serbia. Its state-owned energy company, Gazprom, has a majority share in Serbia’s natural gas-supplier. Not surprisingly, Serbia refused to join in the Western sanctions imposed in 2014 over the Russian annexation of Crimea. A controversial group is the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center, started in 2012, which some, such as Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), regard as a Russian intelligence outpost.
Russia is also active in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country of clashes among ethnic Serbs (Orthodox), ethnic Croats (Catholic), and Bosnian Muslims (46% of the population). Memories are still vivid of the massacre in Srebrenica in July 1995, when 8,000 Muslim Bosnians were murdered by the army of Srpska.
Russia is supporting the Republic of Srpska, one of Bosnia’s two legal entities, each with its own government, and its president, Milorad Dodik, the hard-line nationalist Serb politician, who is regarded as Putin’s man in the area. One sign of the collaboration is that Russian-trained mercenaries are helping establish a paramilitary unit for Dodik. To strengthen its position, Russia is also linked to the head of the Croat party. Noticeably, Russia in November 2014 abstained on the U.N. Security Council Resolution to authorize a E.U.-led multinational stabilization force in Bosnia.
In Montenegro, the Russian security services have been accused, together with Serbians, of being involved in and even in planning the failed coup, in October 2016, to kill the then-prime minister and overthrow the government. The Russian objective was to prevent Montenegro from becoming a member of NATO.
China has been increasing relations in the Western Balkans, especially with its BRI ($1-trillion belt and road initiative) infrastructure drive, first proposed by Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2013. China is investing in Serbia, as an opportunity to export to the European market as a whole. It is therefore investing in Serbia’s railroad and highway systems, bridges, and roads, and in a long high-speed rail link between Budapest and Belgrade, for which China is providing about 85% of the total cost of 2.4 billion euros. The Chinese Export-Import Bank is also funding $1 billion for a highway in Montenegro. Politically and contrary to U.S. policy, China sides with Serbia in not recognizing the legitimacy of Kosovo.
China started the 16+1 framework, consisting of China and 11 E.U. countries and 5 Balkans to intensify and expand cooperation between them in issues of investment, transport, finance, science, education, and culture. Meetings have been talking place at regular intervals.
The Russian lullaby, and its Chinese counterpoint, are not ended. Washington politicians should be aware of the political dissonance of those sounds in the Western Balkans.