In 2016 Russia made an unexpected return to the Balkan diplomatic front. After the collapse of the Soviet Union it seemed that all former Yugoslav republics would soon find themselves in the Western sphere of influence, but the process was delayed, and the Russians are still trying to restore their influence in the region. That influence has a very unusual shape…
Former Yugoslavia and the Western vector
Slovenia declared its pro-Western course earlier than the others; it was the economic engine of the former Yugoslavia, which was affected by the war less than the others. It almost immediately took the path of the pro-European integration. In 2004 Slovenia joined the EU and NATO.
Croatia also took an active pro-Western stance – perhaps the main geopolitical opponent of the arguably pro-Russian Serbia. Since 2009, the country is a NATO member, and since 2013 – a member of the EU.
Macedonia has been a candidate for the EU since December 2005, but the country’s economy still falls short of the level of even its neighbors in the Balkans. At the Alliance Summit in Bucharest in 2008, an unexpected objection for the Macedonians entrance to NATO came from Greece, which demanded from the Macedonians to change the official name of their country (read more about this old dispute here),
Serbia has been a candidate for the EU membership since 2012, but its entry into NATO will have to wait – after the bombing of Belgrade the country’s anti-NATO sentiment has been too strong.
Montenegro came out of the state union with Serbia only in 2006. Since 2010 it has been a candidate for the EU membership, and in December, 2015 they were officially invited to NATO. The question of a formal entry into the Alliance is a matter of time.
Seemingly, almost all former Yugoslav republics have chosen for the pro-Western path for themselves. Croatia and Slovenia appear to be unreachable to pro-Russian influence, since both countries are already in the EU and NATO and their economies are completely tied to the European Union.
However, Russia is making its last-ditch effort to consolidate its influence in the rest of the countries fleeing to the West.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
On October 5, the Reuters website published a strange note , in which the Bosnia and Herzegovina authorities reminded Russia that they were ready to negotiate the payment of a part of the Yugoslav debt of the USSR. And as early as December 22, the official Russian government website reported about the imminent repayment of debt to Bosnia in the amount of $125 million.
First of all, this is an unfortunate piece of news for the fans of the USSR: after the collapse of the “evil empire” it turned out that it owed money not only to their ideological enemies the Western capitalists, but also to their comrades from the socialist camp. The debts were made in the last years of the USSR, when with low energy prices, the goods supplied by USSR did not cover the cost of goods imported from the satellite countries.
Background information: In 2003 an agreement on the settlement of the debt of the former USSR to Yugoslavia was signed between the Government of the Russian Federation and the countries-successors of the former Yugoslavia (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro, Slovenia and Croatia). As a result, Russia recognized the debt of 1.5 billion clearing dollars, and the former Yugoslav republics recognized the debt to the Soviet Union of 200 million clearing dollars. In the end, after netting Russia recognized the debt in the amount of 1 billion 291.9 million clearing dollars. Clearing dollars was a fictitious currency, which was used in mutual settlements between the USSR and Yugoslavia. One clearing dollar in these calculations according to the contract amounted to 62.5 US cents. The combined debt amount of Russia reached a total of 807 million US dollars.
The debt was divided between the former republics, and the share of Bosnia and Herzegovina accounted for 15.5% of the debt – 200 million clearing dollars, or approximately $125 million.
In 2006, taking advantage of high energy prices, Russia repaid ahead of schedule the debt of the USSR to the Paris Club of creditor countries and it seemed that the issue of the debts of the USSR had been closed. However, some debts remained to the countries outside the Paris Club, where negotiations dragged on. If in the case of Western countries, Russia returned the debt in cash, they tried to push the “Yugoslavs” to accept a part of the debt in goods, and the process was delayed.
It wasn’t until 2010 that Russia returned its debt to Slovenia (129 million dollars) – partly in cash, and partly (35 million dollars) in the form of a Svetlyak-class patrol boat.
In 2011 the debt to Croatia (185 million dollars) was repaid – with cash and equipment for the “Sisak-S” power station.
The debt to Macedonia was repaid only in 2016 by constructing a gas pipeline – the contractor was JSC “Stroytransgaz”, one of the companies of Gennady Timchenko.
But the negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H) stretched on, because the Bosnians wanted to take receive the payment in cash. Then the issue of sharing of payments between the members of the Bosnian Federation got in the way. By the way, it has been observed long ago that the Russian attempt to impose any form of “federalization” on Ukraine is similar to the solution of the Bosnian problem, which in the end resulted only in even greater problems for B&H. In the end, the issue with the Russian payments sharing was settled only in the end of 2016.
What is 125 million dollars for B&H? This is about 1.5% of the country’s annual budget, hence, this money will surely not be spare cash. By the way, Bosnia decided not to supply weapons to Ukraine back in 2015.
All year Serbia and Russia were actively developed their military-technical cooperation. At the end of the year the Russians held several joint military exercises with the Serbs:
- BARS-2016 flight-tactical exercises in Serbia
- “Slavonic brotherhood” military exercises with the participation of Russia, Belarus and Serbia near Belgrade
And if you send your paratroopers for military exercises right under NATO’s very nose, you should not be surprised that even the skeleton world championship will be taken away from you.
Also at the end of the year Serbia received 6 MiG-29 multipurpose fighters, 30 T-72S main battle tanks (MBTs) and 30 BRMD-2 infantry mobility vehicles (IMVs) as a gift from Russia. The press immediately wrote about the logistical assistance to Serbia worth 600 million euros, but in the original that phrase sounded from the lips of the Serbian Prime Minister Vucic as follows:
“The Russian Federation donates as an aid to Serbia six MiG-29 multipurpose fighters, and the first phases of their modernization will cost our state between €180 million and €230 million. If we had those aircraft bought at market prices, we would have needed to find more than €600 million”
30 MBTs for the Serbian army – is it a lot? Today, the primary main battle tank of the Serbian army is M-84 (199 pcs) — the Yugoslav version of T-72. Also, there are T-72 MBTs in service with the Serbian army (13 pcs). The MBTs handed over to the Serbs are T-72S, which is the export version of T-72B. In practice, the 30 donated MBTs increase the tank strength of the Serbian army by 14%.
BRDM-2 is the most common IMV in the Serbian army; there are 46 pieces according to Military Balance 2016. These are now joined by another 30.
But the six upgraded MiG-29s will completely change the look of the Serbian air force, which has been mostly using the old Soviet MiG-21 (20+ pieces of different modifications) and also Soko J-22 Orao (27 aircraft of various modifications), the Yugoslav-Romanian development from the 70s. Of the newer models, Serbian air force had only three combat and one combat-training MiG-29. With the new MiG-29s, the situation in the Balkan sky changes, especially in the light of the possible supply of BUKs for Serbia as soon as 2017. NATO will have to respond appropriately to the changes in the balance of forces in the region. But the most interesting part is that the rearming of Serbia is basically being paid for with Russian money earmarked for the mythical confrontation with NATO.
In any case, Russia has given Serbia a gift worth millions of dollars. The free transfer of weapons is quite a tricky move, because the Serbian army will continue to remain in the sphere of Russian logistical influence. Such gifts – either free, or made against token loans – were in practice back in the Soviet period. After all, if Russia does not gift weapons to Serbia, then NATO will sell it to them.
But in Montenegro the situation almost went out of control. After receiving the invitation to NATO in December 2015, the country’s accession timeframe gradually began to take shape. No matter how Serbian and Russian diplomacy opposed it, but in May 2016 the protocol on the accession of Montenegro to NATO was signed. Now, for the formal admission of the country into the Alliance, it’s just necessary to wait until this decision is ratified by all 28 NATO members. It is expected that in the middle of 2017, Montenegro will become the 29th official member of NATO (the twists and turns of the process over the years can be viewed here).
From the military point of view, the admission of Montenegro may not make much sense, because the army does not exceed 2000 troops, but strategically NATO continues its march on the Balkans. Even the admission of Serbia into NATO is a matter of time. And Russia’s withdrawal from the Balkans is also a matter of time.
The withdrawal from Montenegro will be particularly unpleasant, because seemingly everything has already been settled down here. The Russians have invested 1.4 billion dollars in the local economy. Nationwide, 50,000 real estate properties belong to them. Russian oligarchs (Oleg Deripaska) bought the few local assets (the aluminum plant Kombinat Aluminijuma Podgorica and the bauxite plant Niksic Bauxite Mine). But gradually the country chose the path of Euro-Atlantic integration and even supported the sanctions against Russia.
It is possible that the Russian leadership has decided to go for broke and somehow derail NATO enlargement. On October 16, Montenegro held parliamentary elections, in which the main struggle was between the current Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic (presumably a pro-European and pro-NATO politician) and the opposition “Democratic front” (arguably a pro-Russian vector).
According to the first media reports that came on the voting day, Montenegrin security forces announced the arrest of 20 citizens of Serbia, who were preparing a series of terrorist attacks – they were supposed to shoot an opposition rally and provoke it to seize power by force. They also monitored the movement of Djukanovic.
It would seem that, since it involved Serbian citizens, then this was the handiwork of Serbia, but the Serbian representatives immediately began to openly help and comment on the coup. Serbian Prime Minister Vucic immediately began to actively comment on the incident, and those former security officials, who were involved in the coup in the neighboring country, were detained or declared wanted.
From the very beginning of this story the Russian trace was noticeable. Among the suspects, whose names were leaked to the press, were at least two Russians – Eduard Shirokov and Vladimir Popov, who were declared wanted.
A quick visit to Belgrade of the Russian Security Council Secretary Sergei Patrushev added fuel to the fire, when, according to an article in The Guardian, he apologized for a failed coup attempt, but later this version was strongly denied.
By the way, one of the participants of the coup, Nemanja Ristic, was identified in the video made during the official visit of Sergey Lavrov to Belgrade in December. Coincidence?..
Another fact that adds fuel to the fire is that Djukanovic, after he won the elections, suddenly decided to resign and hand over the post to his fellow party member Dusko Markovic.
If everything was organized by Russia, then why was it so clumsy and primitive? If Serbia was involved in it, then what for? If it was an internal Montenegrin conflict, then why, as the follow-up of it, did Djukanovic resign?
In any case, soon the country will become a member of NATO and the abandonment of even a hypothetical pro-Russian vector is inevitable. By the way, it seems that the divorce with this Balkan country is happening on all fronts — recently Deripaska decided to sue Montenegro for nationalized assets. Yes, they just up and took back the previously sold plant.
As we can see, the situation in the Balkans, as usual, is complex and uneven. The more countries and participants – the more interesting it is to watch it from the outside. Russia is still trying to influence the situation in the region, but with every passing year it gets worse and more expensive.
The European Union, although it took an active part in the development of the Balkan countries, nevertheless, lately became more concerned with its internal problems. In fact, Croatia was lucky to get in the last wave of EU enlargement. When the next one will be and whether it will be – is a big question.
Although the EU has recognized Kosovo, economically this part of the Balkans is still a long way from even its poorer neighbors. The issue of the European integration of Macedonia or Bosnia and Herzegovina is basically on hold, at least until the end of the current EU crisis.
Against this background, Russia could try and create another hot spot for its “western partners” (you never know!) and have electoral influence on all local elections, as well as change the military situation in the region, increasing the counterweight to NATO.
Ukraine in this case should watch with interest the efforts of the former Russian Empire — the more money will be “invested” in the next geopolitical thriller in the Balkans, the less money will remain for Donbas military gambles.
(CC BY) Information specially prepared for website InformNapalm.org, an active link to the authors and our project is obligatory for any reprint or further use of the material.