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Interview: “Russia and the Western Balkans: Global Rivalries Localized?”
Oct 31, 2018

Interview: “Russia and the Western Balkans: Global Rivalries Localized?”

Emina Muzaferija, a MA student at the Department, interviewed prof. dr. Miroslav Mareš on the role of Russia in the Western Balkans and how a great power rivalry is affecting the Western Balkans, with an emphasis on Russian interests in the region and the acceptance of Russian influence in the region by the region's population.

According to prof. Mareš, there are three sources of Russian interest in the region: traditional Russian geopolitical thinking, great power rivalry with the West, and historical ties with the Slavic population in the region. Out of different, yet equally important, reasons, the Western Balkans is important for the West, namely the European Union and the United States. This percipitates a competition between the two sides for influence in the region. Although the West currently has an advantage in that competition, prof. Mareš believes that persistent popular dissatisfaction with ideas, values, and policies associated with the West, combined with personal frustration, leads many to embrace and prefer Russia as an alternative to the West. For more details and a more fully developed argument, read the entire interview below:


1. How important is the Western Balkans region, in any and all ways, to the West and to Russia?

We can see a strategy toward the Western Balkans because it is a geographically interconnected region between the Mediterranean, Central Europe, and Eastern Europe. This can also be seen historically: in the First World War, the Second World War, and the Cold War, strategy was centered around the Balkans and especially around today’s Western Balkans.

It is an especially important region for Russia because, for example, they can get access to the Mediterranean through it. It is also important for Russia due to historical reasons, namely their common Slavic and, to a lesser extent, Orthodox heritage, which was entrenched through the support Russian provided to certain peoples in the Balkans in their fight against the Ottomans several centuries ago. Economic importance also plays a role because the Western Balkans is an important export area for Russia. In particular, pipelines are important because there are possible pipeline routes that may go through the Balkans.

The Western Balkans, of course, has geopolitical importance to the West due to its geostrategic location on the Mediterranean and as a possible bridge toward the Middle East. The Balkans, unfortunately, have been traditionally considered a source of instability in Europe. If you look at the start of World War I, the happenings in World War II, and the 1990s, it is hard to argue against that. From the point of the West, it’s important to keep the West in the Western Balkans in order to maintain stability. Related to that, the Western Balkans is important due to the possible migration, as well as the centrality of the Western Balkans as a transit route for migrants from the Middle East.


2. What is the nature of Russian interests, as defined by Russian leadership, in the Western Balkans region?

Generally, Russian geopolitical interests include creating a sort of an interest zone or a buffer zone around the center of Russia since Russian strategic thinking is focused on securing land due to a fear of a perceived enemy close to their borders. So, the solution is to move their borders further away from the heartland of the Russian territory so that the potential front in a potential war is further away. Thus, the Balkans become an important area where Russia can promote its interests: if they can ‘keep’ the Balkans, they can push the West, a perceived enemy, further away from Russia.

The Balkans are also important to Russia due to traditions of pan-Slavism and connections among those states and Russia, especially in relation to Serbs. There is also a religious aspect. With a short exception during the period of Tito in the late 1940s and early 1950s, we can see a strong link between Serbia, even as a part of Yugoslavia, and Russia which tended to proximate Yugoslavia and Russia. And now, Russians are seeing many Balkans countries entering NATO and in other countries a divided political scene in relation to NATO membership, especially in Macedonia and they are trying to use those tensions to advance their interests. That interference is indicative of the existence of Russian interests, although we cannot ascertain what exactly those interests are at the moment. 


3. Russian ties in the Western Balkans are especially pronounced, at least domestically, with Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro's Democratic Front using their preference for Russia as opposed to other actors and their special ties with Russia for domestic purposes. Is Russia complicit in this and to what extent? If so, why?

Generally, Russia isn’t an irresponsible actor that will start a new war but they will be use opportunities to strengthen their position, in Serbia especially. I can imagine them supporting the idea of greater Serbia because it will strengthen Russia’s position within Serbia. We shouldn’t forget the strong influence Russia exerts on militants, some of which fought with the Bosnian Serbs in the Bosnian War and some of which are now fighting in the Donbass. Russian foreign fighters during the Bosnian War and in the Donbass had and have a direct relationship with Russian domestic politics.

Also, the strong emotional ties between some Russians and Serbs, both in Serbia and in Bosnia, shouldn’t be discounted: there is an element of emotionality, irrationality in Russian politics and if they feel or see their friends threatened, they will support them.


4. Are Russian actions in the Western Balkans planned and do they follow a predetermined strategy or are they more reactionary and opportunistic? In this context, how true is the conception of Vladimir Putin as a strategic genius?

I think Russia’s and Putin’s strategy in the Western Balkans is one of deterrence against the West. They use this for weakening Western power in general and in the Western Balkans in specific. If Russia is more powerful in the Western Balkans, it means that the West is weaker in general. I think that this is a mixture: partially, it is opportunistic because if they do seize opportunities, but these ad hoc opportunities are part of their general strategy to maintain their strategic interests in the Western Balkans.


5. What are the key elements of Russian influence in the region - gas supplies, economics, strategic interests, values, media, public opinion, etc.? How does Russia leverage those elements, as well as others, to gain influence in the region?

Although all of those are important, Russia’s main source of influence in the region is the dissatisfaction of some people, nations, or ethnic groups. The supply of energy is also very important because those countries depend on Russian gas. There is also a historical and emotional connection, as well as a religious one, particularly towards Serbs. Russia, however, primarily manipulates the dissatisfaction with and disappointment in Western values. The West promotes some leftist or neo-Marxist values very strongly in some Western Balkans countries and some people are very opposed to that. Even though they are not pro-Russian, they turn from the West to Russia due to excess or unwanted cultural pressure and because, really, they have no one else to turn toward.


6. To what can the success and popularity of Russia in the Western Balkans region be attributed? Is Russia responsible, is a Western failure of types, or something else in question?

Many observers point to various economic arguments to illustrate that the European Union and the West are more important to the Western Balkans than is Russia, but I again point to the difference between rationality and irrationality. Most people are irrational and do not subscribe to those economic, rational arguments so emphasizing them won’t do much to sway public opinion. Many people have feelings of personal frustration and they turn this frustration against the pro-EU politics and idealize the picture of Putin. That may have no connection with reality, but that is the irrational, emotional side of politics. People simply accept this simplified narrative published by pro-Russian media, which they prefer over Western values because they are unsatisfied with the situation 20 years after the war. You can present many economic and rational arguments about investment, exports, etc. but many, if not most, people will disregard them due to emotional reasons. It’s a matter of mass psychology.



Citing the Interview: if you use any information from the interview above, which you are encouraged to do, please cite appropriately and avoid plaigerism - Mareš, M. (2018, October 29). Personal Interview.

About Emina Muzaferija: Emina Muzaferija hold a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and European Studies from International Burch University and is currently working toward a Master’s degree in Conflict and Security Studies. Her primary research interests include ethnicity, ethnic conflicts, and the securitization discourse, as well as affec theory while her secondary research interests include great power politics and multilateralism.

About Miroslav Mareš: Miroslav Mareš holds a Ph.D. in political science from the Masaryk University, where he also lectures. His primary research interests include militantism, terrorism, and violent extremism, especially in Central and East Europe. He focuses on lower levels of analysis, as opposed to the state as the level of analysis. Prof. Mareš is also an expert in Russian and Central and East European studies.