Russia's Influence in the Balkans: The Interplay of Religion, Politics, and History

By: Harun Karčić

July 25, 2022

As Russia’s war against Ukraine rages on and President Vladimir Putin continues his renewed campaign for global influence, Moscow is increasingly asserting itself in a region that has been off the radar for some time—the Balkans.

Nested between the Black Sea and the Adriatic, the region’s geostrategic location and its proximity to the Middle East is important to Moscow. The Adriatic Sea would provide Russia with access to warm-water ports—a quest which has been a historic driver of Russian diplomatic and military activity in Southeastern Europe. Back in the 1950s, the USSR had even constructed the Pasha Liman naval base in Albania where attack submarines of the Soviet navy were stationed until Albania’s dictator Enver Hoxha broke off ties with Moscow in 1961.

However, more important for Russia are the region’s significant historical, cultural, and religious connections—narratives of shared ties that are actively propagated by Russian media outlets in the region, as well as public diplomacy officials. More specifically, Moscow plays the shared cultural and religious ties card among the region’s Orthodox Christian population that constitutes significant percentages in Bosnia, in addition to majorities in Serbia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia. Serbia has been perceived as Russia’s kin state in the region, a much smaller and feebler version of the Russia-Belarus relationship, which involves manipulating identity politics, church relations, and economic interests.

As one of the last regions of Europe that has not yet been fully integrated into Euro-Atlantic structures, the Balkans present an obvious target for Russian influence operations. Religious links are usually gate-openers for more consequential deals—including in strategic sectors such as energy, banking, and real estate—and hence gradually lead to political and economic dependence.

Although Russia has had three ruling regimes over the past two centuries—tsarist, Soviet, and post-communist—the same imperialistic mentality has survived empires and remained dominant in the halls of the Kremlin. Since the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, there is no place for doubt as to what extent President Vladimir Putin is willing to go in order to instrumentalize Russian-speaking minorities across Russia’s borders and utilize the Russian Orthodox church in order to advance his irredentist aspirations. This ought to be considered when analyzing the Western Balkans as well.

Russian overt and covert influence operations in the Balkans have been aimed at fostering local, people-to-people connections and creating friendly constituencies and various levers of influence. Russia’s second approach was to exacerbate existing political and social fissures within a country, betting that such moves would inhibit further integration into Western economic, political, or security structures.

But there is also the tit for tat moment: since NATO has been expanding across former Soviet republics that Moscow considers its spheres of influence (i.e., Baltics, Georgia, and Ukraine), Moscow feels entitled to reciprocate in NATO’s inner yard. However, unlike the post-Soviet Central Asian states or the Caucasus, Russia is incapable of physically penetrating the Balkans; hence it relies on local players.

Moscow enjoys a series of local assets including highly placed Serb nationalist politicians such as Milorad Dodik (a member of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s tri-partite presidency) and Aleksandar Vučić (Serbia’s powerful president). There are also biker gangs, friendly paramilitary militias, murky businessmen, pro-Russian media outlets, and above all the transnational Serbian Orthodox Church.

Russian President Vladimir Putin recruited the Orthodox Church from the very onset as a primary soft-power instrument. Over the years, it has grown to play an instrumental role in advancing Russian interests, not only in countries perceived by the Kremlin as its “near abroad” but to all other states where Orthodox Christians live. Because church and religion have always been important societal and political factors in the region, and perhaps the only real division points in terms of identifying ethnicity, the Kremlin sought to spread its influence in predominantly Orthodox Western Balkan countries.

The Russian Orthodox Church’s main interlocutor in the region is the Serbian Orthodox Church, which concomitantly has a close relationship with the Serbian state and often provides religious legitimacy to domestic and foreign state policies. Outside of Serbia, the Serbian Orthodox Church controls parishes in Bosnia’s autonomous Republika Srpska entity, Montenegro, Croatia, and in parts of Kosovo. Hence, Moscow’s political and religious influence trickles down and cascades through Belgrade.

So strong has this influence been that while much of world stood in solidarity with Ukrainians in March 2022, thousands of citizens in Serbia and in the autonomous Republic of Srpska organized mass rallies in support of Russia and President Vladimir Putin. Among those marching were Serb members of the notorious Kremlin-backed bikers’ club Night Wolves, members of pro-Kremlin NGO Sveti Georgije, and also members of the ultra-nationalist Ravna Gora Chetnik Movement. Russian-friendly media outlets in the region eagerly reported on the rallies and lionized the Russian military.

Finally, there are Russian oligarchs with close ties to the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin who can provide Moscow with a useful mask of deniability, should things go wrong. The most prominent example is Konstantin Malofeev, who is strongly linked with Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb member of the presidency.

Looking at Russia’s interests in the Balkans from a broader perspective, it is interesting to note that in the 1990s, Russia was too weak to carve its sphere of influence in the former Yugoslavia, despite its greatest efforts. It was NATO—led by the United States—that dominated for many years. However, as the United States diverted its attention and resources to Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s, development, security, and state building of the Western Balkans was outsourced to the European Union. The lack of a coherent EU strategy towards the region produced no viable steps forward, and eventually the Kremlin saw an opportunity to step in.

Moscow had been sending trial balloons to see what it could get away with before hitting hard when an opportunity appeared—and the lack of any meaningful Western response was interpreted as a sign of weakness.

Over the years, numerous religious, business, and political networks have been knitted—including with the criminal milieu—between Moscow and the Balkans. The consequences of this partnership are likely to have serious implications sooner rather than later. We already see the results of Moscow’s co-option and subversion efforts which have managed to not only stall, but reverse democratic and political gains achieved by Western involvement since the 1990s. Particular attention must be paid to far-right nationalist politicians such as Milorad Dodik and Aleksandar Vučić, whose relationships with Vladimir Putin have exposed them as the most willing subordinates of the Kremlin’s political diktats.

According to the latest International Republican Institute survey, Bosniak Muslims and Kosovar Albanians are the most ardent supporters of NATO and the EU in the Western Balkans. The war in Ukraine has provided a rare window of opportunity for the United States to recalibrate its foreign policy and make a forceful comeback to Europe, particularly to the Balkans.

It is an opportunity that must not be wasted, because any conflict in the Western Balkans has the potential to enflame neighboring NATO member states, and hence destabilize the transatlantic military alliance and western liberal order.

Editor's Note: This article was written as part of the Geopolitics of Religious Soft Power project, a partnership between Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and the Brookings Institution supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the respective authors.

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