COMMENT: Tensions rise in the Balkans over the Russian-Ukrainian war
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.
The Balkan region of southeastern Europe is at odds over the war in Ukraine. The strong bond between the Serbian and Russian Orthodox Churches remains the key instrument of Russian influence in the region.
Serbia, with almost seven million inhabitants, continues to defend Moscow’s position. President Aleksandar Vucic has ordered the military and police to prepare and continue investing in equipment and weapons, mainly from Russia. He claimed that 85% of Serbs will support Russian policy no matter what.
It is highly unlikely that Serbia will turn against Russia anytime soon. More than half of its oil industry is owned by Russian giants. Sputnik and other local media are funded by Russia. And two other powerful Kremlin allies occupy powerful positions in Serbia: Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin and Ivica Dacic, the speaker of the National Assembly.
New presidential elections in Serbia are scheduled for April 3, and Vucic remains the favorite due to his absolute control over the government and the media.
Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has a population of 3.3 million, will not declare an official position due to the veto power of Milorad Dodik, the Serbian representative in the Bosnian-Croat-Serb tripartite federal presidency of this deeply divided state.
Bosnia and Herzegovina endured a catastrophic three-year civil war in the 1990s and remains more fragile than ever. Republika Srpska, a virtually autonomous half of the state, would like to secede and join neighboring Serbia, and its leader, Milorad Dodik, could use the Russian invasion of Ukraine to achieve this goal.
Dodik could declare the independence of Republika Srpska and its 1.3 million inhabitants, like Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, and then ask for Russian protection. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, during her visit to the region, made it clear that border changes will not be allowed in the Balkans and the EU sent 500 additional troops to its mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Montenegro, which has less than a million inhabitants, is trying to form a new pro-Western government, after the failure of the old pro-Serbian one. Although the country is in NATO, Montenegrin Serbs demonstrated in support of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The pro-Belgrade parties there have not allowed the formation of a new pro-Western government, even though President Milo Dukanovic stands with the West.
Three other Balkan states – Albania, Kosovo and North Macedonia – condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine and join Western sanctions against Moscow. Together, these three nations have a population of seven million. However, North Macedonia’s President Stevo Pendarovski has raised concerns about strong support for Russia among ethnic Macedonians.
Kosovo was wrested from Serbia in a NATO-led war in 1998-99 and declared itself a sovereign country nine years later. Serbia and Russia remain fiercely opposed to its independence and have kept it out of the United Nations. Kosovo condemned the Russian invasion, supported Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and joined in the implementation of sanctions against Russia.
Serbs are the largest minority group in Kosovo, accounting for 7.8% of the total population. They live in compact communities, mostly in the north, adjacent to Serbia.
A 2013 agreement of principles governing the normalization of relations ensured the political integration of the northern regions of Kosovo, with a majority Serb population, into the rest of Kosovo and a measure of recognition by Serbia of Kosovo’s institutions in exchange concessions to his Serbian ethnicity. population.
This included the creation of a separate Association of Serbian Municipalities, made up of 10 Serbian-majority municipalities, with considerable autonomy in areas such as planning, service provision and economic development. But this still needs to be implemented.
Kosovar President Vjosa Osmani has asked for US help in the Balkan nation’s bid for NATO membership. This is already supported by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Croatian President Zoran Milanovic.
Kosovo’s Defense Ministry has requested a permanent US military base in the country. Pristina also hopes to gain EU candidate status this year, with the backing of Croatian President Zoran Milanovic.
A resolution was passed by the Albanian parliament supporting Ukraine and its borders. Albania has delivered military equipment to Ukraine for its combat operations against Russia. As of mid-March, Albania took in 351 Ukrainian refugees, with the government offering to house several thousand more Ukrainians.
The divisions in the Balkans, now as always, run deep. Samuel Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, wouldn’t be surprised.