Anatomy of a Complicated Relationship:
The Western Balkans between Russia and the EU
by Mariam Gugulashvili
External actors, such as Russia, the United States (US), China, the European Union (EU) and Turkey have found the Western Balkan area to be an appealing playing ground in the global geopolitical games. On the other hand, the Western Balkans states’ diverse internal issues, make the region more vulnerable to external actors’ influence. Given that the majority of the countries in the Western Balkans are interested in joining the EU, with North Macedonia having received EU membership candidate status in 2005, Montenegro in 2010, Serbia in 2012 and Albania in 2014, Russia has stepped up its foreign policy actions, claiming to be a counterweight to Western dominance in the region.
Since Russia is a traditional external player and a vocal opponent of the Western Balkans’s EU integration, it is employing a variety of tools to expand its sphere of influence in the countries, some of which share the same religion, with backing from the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian-orchestrated media. However, one of the most successful sources of influence is, by far, the dependence on Russian energy resources.
As stabilization of the Western Balkans is critical for European security, given its geographical proximity to the EU and a strategic posture that forms the shortest route between the South-East flank of the EU and its central European core, Russia is striving to destabilize the region by maintaining and raising internal tensions, which are skillfully fueled by its “sharp power” methods. As a result of the delayed EU membership process and the Western Balkans states’ frustration with the long road ahead for the long-sought EU membership, Russia seeks to take advantage of this with the aim of enhancing its influence in the region. In such a background, Moscow seizes every opportunity to cultivate the idea that it is a more trustful ally, more interested in the Western Balkans’s prosperity than the EU.
Considering the above, the paper examines what methods Russia uses to exert influence over the Western Balkans’s EU membership candidate countries and whether it has the actual ability to affect their European paths and aspirations. The paper also addresses these countries’ positions on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on March 24, 2022, and how this may alter Russia’s approach to the Western Balkans.
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The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Institute of International Relations or its members.