Russia’s Embattled Balkans Draw Closer

Russia’s Embattled Balkans Draw Closer

Foreign Affairs

Nationalistic Balkan states turn to Moscow as an ally, despite their disagreement with the liberal European Union.

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2019. (Yuri Kochetkov/AFP via Getty Images)

There are many disputes over identity and historic birthrights in the Balkans. Innumerable cultural, linguistic and religious differences are reflected in the narrow geographical funnel which forms (almost!) Europe’s crossroads between East and West.

The region has seen a surge in geopolitical tension over recent weeks. North Macedonia and Bulgaria have witnessed mirror protests at their capitals against a deal that would allow the former country to join the E.U. ; the government in Sofia has been dissolved due to disagreements over the issue, as well as an energy dispute with Moscow and the issue of arming Ukraine; and tensions between Kosovo and Serbia are at a level that is perhaps the highest it has been since the ethnic warfare of the late 1990s.

A superficial understanding of these issues will assign the unrest to outdated notions of nation identity–the insignificant, trivial squabbling about arbitrary differences within an economically backwards and culturally stunted region. It is an error. Although concepts of soil and blood may be banned in the West today, they are essential components of society everywhere. This is particularly true for the Balkans. This is a fact that multilateral policies that are based on the globalist centres of Europe fail to recognize. Outside actors, specifically Russia, have the opportunity to exploit these fault lines and grow their relative power.

The geopolitical turmoil and failure of Western policies in the aftermath of the Russo–Ukraine war have created one opportunity. The Balkan Peninsula is the scene of the worst international relations crisis since the Cold War. It was dominated by a supranational apparatus that was ideologically motivated and overbearing. Moscow and Putin are using realpolitik to further undermine the European project’s resolve and cause discord on its anti-Russian front. As usual, the West responds in a tone deafening and ineffective manner.

The cultural affinity between North Macedonia and Serbia and Bulgaria is distinct from Western Europe. This can be attributed to their shared religious and ethnic roots as Slavic Orthodox, as well as their common history of Ottoman subjection. Because of the common connections between the Balkan neighbours, all three are more inclined towards Russia than other European countries. The latter two are all energy-dependent on Moscow. Many other Eastern European nations are also dependent on Russian gas, and often at odds with Brussels in social matters. However, the national narratives of these countries tend to be anti-Russian. In the southeastern Balkans the opposite happens. Russia is venerated in these countries as an Orthodox Slavic brother, who helped liberate the area from Ottoman rule.

One of the more recent iterations of the region’s perpetual back and forth is Bulgaria’s refusal to accept the accession of North Macedonia to the European Union, due to a dispute over ethnic and linguistic roots. As they have done so many times, multilateral European institutions are once more involved in brokering a deal. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission demanded North Macedonia’s Parliament make the necessary concessions to allow the integration process to move ahead. A new agreement was eventually reached that–also as usual–left all parties involved feeling angry and resentful.

The Western elite have gotten away with telling the post-communist Balkan countries to play nice since the 1990s. The carrot of economic development has been held out as an enticing incentive for making the required structural changes to their institutions–politically, economically, and socially. As skepticism grows across the developed world, it is especially evident in the region where the European technocrats’ failing policies are being reacted to.

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Bulgaria consistently ranks at the bottom of the 27 E.U. a positive view of the supranational organisation, while approval is still falling. According to recent poll data from February, a mere 39 percent of Bulgarians believe that the E.U. takes the interests of their country into account when making policy, a 9 percent plummet since spring 2021. They also reported the lowest levels of affirmation of core E.U. values. All member countries must respect the core values of the E.U. This is a drop of 4 percent. Low attitudes toward economic integration and a shared financial future are another reason. Only 37 percent of respondents supported the notion of a European economic and monetary union with one single currency (the euro), while 46 percent were actively against.

The lack of trust is partly due to persistent corruption within their government. This is further exacerbated because there are stark cultural differences. Technocratic bureaucracy is a strong left-leaning influence on policy making in Africa. The ideology of a “one-world” globalist and “one-people” approach to social issues, energy, and immigration has been ingrained in every aspect of society, including migration, energy, and other areas. These views and attitudes are starkly opposed to the majority in post-communist south Balkans.

For example, the most recent data as reported by Pew Research shows that Bulgaria has the highest percentage of respondents in Europe who believe that homosexuality should not be accepted by society (48 percent), with the second lowest percentage of those who believe it should be accepted (32 percent, behind only Lithuania). Compare that to countries in Western Europe such as the Netherlands (92 percent support), or France and Germany (both 86 percent). On the issue of immigration, only 57 percent of Bulgarians believe that the E.U. should have a common asylum policy and 61 percent support a common migration policy, both about 20 percent lower than most Western European countries.

While Bulgaria has the most straightforward access to statistical data because it is a member state, there is a general disconnection regarding social issues in Western Europe and distrust in central authority.

There are many factors that contribute to this cultural gap. Some of the most prominent include: religious revival following the atheistic suppression of the communist years, as well as proud religious traditions in general; a history of foreign subjection, and a subsequent aversion to mandated policy from a Brussels-based quasi-empire; the region’s position as one of the main entryways into Europe for arrivals from the Middle East, and a generally strained historical relationship with Turkey and its predecessor, the Ottoman Empire; memories of the ethnic wars of the 1990s, overwhelming Western European support for the Muslim Kosovo Liberation Army against Slavic Orthodox Belgrade, and the NATO air campaign; as well as a Christian-Muslim religious divide that is a source of tension in every country of the region.

In the end, however, the benefits of European integration outweigh the inconvenience of Brussels pursuing social problems. The differences in cultural beliefs have been overcome by greater living standards and higher capital flows. Skopje has, along with Sofia, accepted the finger-wagging of elitist figures such as von der Leyen, in the hopes that they will be admitted to the club. The country would then ostensibly be able to reap some of the benefits that their irksome neighbors currently do (according to Salary Explorer, the current average income in North Macedonia is about $762/month, as compared to $1,721 in Bulgaria and $2,479 in Greece).

As with the rest of the globe, however, an economic downturn is being caused by the elitist ideology which is antithetical to the nationalism that rules in the Balkans. The latter would prefer citizens to identify themselves on the basis of their sexuality and not on their ancestral homeland or ethnicity (except if you are a foreign-born person, in which case your identity should be based on ethnicity). Will the population finally protest political leaders who compromise national identity in exchange for GDP or FDI as the economy begins to decline? It’s bad enough to have your culture taken away in exchange for “progress”, but it is worse when you don’t get a rise in living standards. This is what political turmoil is all about.

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An energy plan that calls for a reduction in economic growth under the banner of left-wing green ideology also contributes to growing discontent towards Brussels. Already, Bulgaria reported a lower level of concern for sustainability and climate change than most other countries in Western Europe. The E.U. was also supported by the least percent of the respondents from the bloc. should have a common energy policy (55 percent), which was pretty prescient considering the European reaction to the Russo-Ukraine war. The explicit goal of supranational policies emanating from Brussels or Berlin was to damage the Russian economy, which seemed to be at the cost of members more vulnerable in the south.

While the Bundestag might be allowed to ask its citizens to drastically alter their lifestyles and harm their economy to please Putin (for now), Sofia may have more trouble with this sell. Russia declared a complete halt of natural gas supplies to both Poland and Bulgaria in April. Von der Leyen demanded Sofia hold the line, saying its importers “should not accede to the Russian demands” and apparently take the lead of her own (significantly more developed) Germany.

Bulgaria has traditionally reported getting over 90 percent of its gas supplies from Russia, although that percentage has recently been estimated to have dropped to 79. North Macedonia and Serbia both get 100 percent of their gas from Russia. Germany, which is already beginning to struggle with disruptions in its gas supply resulting from the sanction regime, only gets around 50 percent. Brussels seems to expect that Bulgaria, the least developed member of the E.U., will bear most of the consequences from the E.U.’s energy embargo.

Then there was the decision on June 28 by Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov to expel 70 Russian diplomats from the country. According to the E.U., the reason was “espionage” and the working against Bulgarian interests. However, the Bulgarian attitude towards Russia, and Vladimir Putin is by far, the best. (even if they have likely declined since the beginning of the war). Bulgaria is one of the few countries that has seen numerous demonstrations in support of Moscow throughout the entire span of the conflict. The Kremlin probably calculated that Bulgaria, with its pro-Russian attitude and complete energy dependence, was the best country to apply pressure on Moscow by cutting energy supplies. This would then sow discord throughout the E.U.

How has the anti-Russian policy shaped out for the government of Sofia? The Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, a relatively pro-Russian figure already, dissolved the National Assembly on August 1, declaring no confidence in the Petkov regime. This was due to their inability to reach a satisfactory solution for the North Macedonian E.U. The dispute continues over weapons supplies to Ukraine and the North Macedonian-E.U. issue. Undoubtedly, the inability to solve the gas problem by the government was also an important factor in this decision.

Petkov received his undergraduate degree at the University of British Columbia, and his MBA from Harvard. He was also a dual citizen of Canada until late 2021, and was perhaps the strongest force in the Bulgarian government pushing for support of Ukraine. Unsurprisingly, the Europhile has attributed pro-Russia influence as the impetus behind the collapse of his government coalition. He additionally heaped blame on the Russian ambassador to Bulgaria for his failure.

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A technical government was established in order to prevent energy scarcity fears in the winter. The interim government will be favorable to Moscow but the next elections will bring more pro-Russian elements into the coalition. Russia once again has benefited from political events in the region using smart realpolitik and cost benefit analyses. While Western ideology works to convince people that their economies have entered recession and that energy is being restricted because it “democracy demands”, Russia’s cleverness and cost-benefit analysis work to Russia’s advantage.

The ongoing issue of Kosovo and Serbia is additionally exerting pressure on international relations. The partially recognized autonomous region has been a source of conflict between Russia and the West since the 1998 NATO bombing of Belgrade, in which the latter went ahead without UNSC approval (a Russian U.N. The resolution to end the bombing was rejected as well. Barely 50 percent of U.N. member states currently recognize Kosovo as an independent country, including the United States, whereas Russia has consistently defended Belgrade’s position that it is rather a constituent “autonomous province” of Serbia.

The new licensing and registration regulations set by Pristina authorities took effect August 1. This triggered a series of ethnic Serb protests in Northern Kosovo. Understanding that any attempt to make the Serbs in Northern Kosovo recognize Pristina as a sovereign entity independent of Belgrade would be a declaration war is essential. Aleksander Vucic, Serbia’s President, stated that “we have never been in more difficult circumstances.”

Maria Zakharova (Russia’s foreign minister) said that Russia calls on Pristina as well as the United States of America and European Union to “stop provocation.” The support for Ukraine has been explicitly expressed by Kosovo. While Serbia had signed the U.N. General Resolution March 2, condemning Russia’s attack on Ukraine, there have been regular pro-Russian protests in the area, just like Bulgaria.

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The Vucic government will consider the Kremlin its guarantee of stability. Russia has shown that it takes ethnic problems seriously, and will confront Brussels and Berlin in order to protect its interests. This is evident in the Balkans where nationalist elements will continue to seek favor from Moscow, expounding on their cultural ties.

While neither Bulgaria nor North Macedonia are likely to stop their integration drive, neither is Bulgaria. The Kremlin is ready to exploit existing flaws in the European project and has shown time and again its willingness to do so. This is due to its social imperialism. What will it take before national identity and cultural sovereignty are more important than marginal economic benefits?

A burgeoning system of one world government based on common defenses and central technocratic control, isn’t a sure thing. Although the Russo/Ukraine war may have strengthened the resolve of transatlantic alliance in some ways, culturally and socially diverse attitudes won’t disappear so quickly. Western Europe’s centralized institutions are based on the creation of a globalist order which flattens cultural difference–the exact intricacies that matter in the Balkans.

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