In any discussion of problems in Russia and the EU’s shared neighborhood, Ukraine is among the first subjects to come up. Once that topic is broached, any further dialogue between Russians and Europeans is pointless: the chasm between the positions of the two sides is too deep, even if they are genuinely brimming with good will. 

For this reason, the EU-Russia Expert Network (EUREN), which includes representatives of leading European and Russian think tanks, decided not to confine itself to formal geography, but rather to look for other countries where, even if the interests of Russia and the EU clash, they at least don’t clash as harshly as in Ukraine, leaving more room for mutual understanding. One of the most promising regions from this viewpoint is the Western Balkans, which the working group discussed in late November in Vienna. 

Representatives of the EU and Russia exhibited exceptional unanimity in assessing the situation in the region, agreeing that the attraction of Western Balkan states as partners is questionable. The advantages of cooperation are not apparent, whereas the region’s numerous problems immediately stand out: a serious demographic crisis, the mass exodus of the population to Europe, an archaic economic structure, and a subordinate position in the international division of labor, with cheap labor being virtually the only competitive advantage of the Balkans.

These problems are substantial in and of themselves. In addition, the Balkans also have significant ethnic tension, unsettled conflicts, poor-quality state institutions, and local elites with a penchant for manipulating their stronger partners.

The Western Balkans desperately need external assistance, and they are already so deeply integrated into Europe that only the EU can help them. EU states are far ahead in areas such as foreign trade, investment, migration flows, and financial subsidies. The Balkans’ other foreign partners, including Russia, understand this perfectly and aren’t raring to radically change the balance of power in the region.

Representatives of the EU and Russia agree to a large extent that their quest for influence in the Balkans, which has become exacerbated in recent years, is based more on international posturing than authentic interest. If Brussels and Moscow do compete in the Balkans, it’s not so much with each other as it is with their own self-perceptions. Russia wants to see itself not just as a regional power, but as a true global power whose interests reach far beyond the post-Soviet space. The EU, meanwhile, seeks any opportunity to reiterate its progressiveness, attractiveness, and ability to propagate political stability and economic prosperity around its borders.   

The Western Balkans offer a good opportunity to unite the aspirations of both sides. Russia’s desire to position itself as a champion of the rights of Serbs and Orthodox Christians fits with the EU’s agenda of defending the rights of minorities. Russia’s energy projects in the region go hand in hand with the EU’s ambition to improve the troubled ecological situation in the Balkans, and the local economy’s transition from coal to the more environmentally friendly natural gas. Finally, both Moscow and Brussels are concerned with the proliferation of radical Islam, drug trafficking, and transborder crime in the region.

Cooperation is still lacking, however, because the differences between Russia and the EU are more ideological than practical. For this reason, the two sides are still slinging the same go-to mutual accusations, just slightly adapted for local conditions.    

The Europeans can’t understand how Moscow can criticize every EU initiative without offering any alternatives. This seems to them to be cynical and destructive behavior. They don’t understand why Russia is willing to jeopardize the stability of the already fragile Balkan countries purely out of spite for perceived threats to its own interests.  

In addition, Brussels is outraged that Moscow has no scruples about openly supporting populist and radical politicians in the Balkans and impeding the final settlement of Balkan conflicts because Russia believes that these unsettled conflicts help it retain political influence in the region. 

The EU is willing to offer the Western Balkans a comprehensive and well-thought-out development strategy, which will ultimately also benefit Russian companies operating in the region. Russia, however, responds with indignation, using any excuse to criticize the EU in order to hide the fact that it has nothing to offer the Balkans.    

Russia’s response to such accusations is equally predictable: they are too hypocritical to be taken seriously. Yes, the politicians Russia supports aren’t that virtuous. However, the EU is also willing to put up with corrupt autocrats whose regimes have nothing in common with democracy and rule of law, provided they remain pro-Western. 

Russia is reproached for stoking tensions in the region. Yet the EU also does this, for example, when it tries to pull Montenegro or Bosnia into NATO, despite resistance from the Serbs. If entrance into NATO is not a necessary condition for EU membership, as Europeans informally insist, then why doesn’t Brussels announce that openly? If that is really the case, why not explain, at least to the Balkan elites, that joining the alliance won’t increase a country’s chances of getting subsidies from the European budget? 

What the EU claims is Russia “behaving destructively” in the region is actually Russia simply trying to prevent developments that will negatively impact its interests. 

Russia has nothing against European integration in principle. In the Balkans, however, European integration would have consequences that are very specific and clearly unfavorable for Moscow. It would become more difficult for Russian companies to operate in the region in line with EU standards. The EU’s overall foreign trade policy would force Balkan countries to give up their free trade agreements with Russia. Russians would need visas to travel to the Western Balkans. Finally, if Balkan countries join the EU, this would increase the number of states that have imposed sanctions on Russia.

So why would Moscow support a “European path” for the Western Balkans, or help the EU settle Balkan conflicts that the West helped provoke when it clumsily interfered in the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s?

Mutual accusations by Russia and the EU in the Balkans are virtually indistinguishable from their dialogue on any other subject. Even the Western Balkans, where there are ostensibly no grounds for geopolitical rivalry and where the sides complement each other well, are turning into a source of apprehension, miscommunication, and irritation simply due to the overall atmosphere of distrust and the differences in basic approaches to international relations.

Russia and the EU do not have any particular differences in the Balkans. Russia is not opposed to EU membership for Western Balkan countries, and the EU is not opposed to Russians continuing to do business and invest in the region. It’s more that Moscow doesn’t really believe that the EU is capable of acting in the Balkans autonomously from Russia’s main geopolitical opponent—the United States—and the profound ideological disagreements between the two sides turn any region in which Russian and European interests intersect in any way into a source of additional tension in their relations.

  • Maxim Samorukov