Why it’s such a big problem for Putin if the Balkan countries enter the EU

Denis MacShane
The disaggregation of Europe into separate nation states – to be pressurised, picked off one-by-one, or cajoled by sweetheart energy deals so that bilateralism replaces EU multilateralism – is a main object of Russian policy: AFP/Getty

Having more or less seen off the West in Syria, Vladimir Putin is turning his attention to a much bigger prize in his permanent obsession with undermining European geo-political cohesion. As Russia’s chief international ideologue, Sergei Karaganov, proclaimed: “For at least the past decade, the world has been witnessing the endgame of the West’s 500-year hegemony.”

Russia is determined to accelerate that endgame by encouraging any moves that weaken European Union cohesion. Der Spiegel reports that Germany’s intelligence service BND, the equivalent of MI5, has evidence that Russian trolls strongly backed Catalonian secessionist. A break up of Spain, like Brexit, weakens EU unity – a key Kremlin foreign policy goal.

Having crushed the Germans in 1945 and taken control of half of Europe, Russia felt that it was finally the hegemonic power in its European backyard. Britain, under a fiercely anti-communist Labour government headed by patriotic and Moscow-suspicious leaders like Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin, forged an alliance with Washington that unlike 1920, kept the US anchored in Europe. But Nato was not as important as the European economic integration that began in 1950 and gradually incorporated all European states by 1990.

The Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal, rusting tanks, ships and bemedalled generals could not preserve the Russian imperium as communist Europe saw the prosperity and quality of life of European Union citizens and decided that is what they wanted too.

Russia could deal with faraway America on a bilateral basis but resented the idea of a unified Europe which on Crimea, sanctioning Gazprom, or backing Britain over the Salisbury poisonings, spoke with one voice. Putin prefers bilateral relations with individual nations in Europe and resents the idea of 28 nation-states agreeing any kind of common foreign and security policy.

That is why the Kremlin helped anti-EU parties like the Front National in France and sought to manipulate social media during the Brexit campaign. The disaggregation of Europe into separate nation states – to be pressurised, picked off one-by-one, or cajoled by sweetheart energy deals so that bilateralism replaces EU multilateralism – is a main object of Russian policy.

The next battlefield will be the Western Balkans, where the EU has now said that after nearly two decades of being in the waiting room of EU membership, the six countries, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia should look to joining by 2025. Their total population is just 18 million – about the same as Austria and Hungary. Just as Ireland, Portugal and Greece were transformed by joining Europe – and Poland’s GDP, which was at 50 per cent of EU average when it joined Europe in 2004 and is at 75 per cent today – these small south-east European countries can reasonably hope that entering the EU will be transformative.

But the last thing the Kremlin wants is more European integration and a seamless chain of EU member states from the Aegean to the Alps. Already, the Kremlin is using Serbia as its catspaw backing Serb revanchists who refuse to accept Kosovo is not going to return to its previous status as a Serb controlled province ruled from Belgrade. Russia has been playing the Slav and Orthodox card against the majority European Muslim state of Kosovo. The Russian news agency Sputnik is big in Belgrade and Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu has established a humanitarian aid centre in Serbia staffed by uniformed personnel who look suspiciously like soldiers. Serb President Aleksandar Vucic has a Russian lesson every morning and was quick to go to Moscow after Putin’s inauguration earlier this month.

Now Russia has turned its attention to Albania, where the energetic and electorally successful socialist prime minister, Edi Rama, who trained as an artist in France, is hoping to win approval from the EU27 for an early start to EU accession negotiations. A key demand from Brussels is that Albania cleans up its judicial system, replacing judges accused to corruption during the long rule by the right wing Democratic Party whose perpetual leader, Sali Berisha, presided over the collapse of the post-communist Albanian economy when he encouraged a pyramid investment scheme that cost most Albanians their life savings.

The EU’s foreign policy supremo, Frederica Mogherini, was abused by Berisha’s successor, Luilzim Basha, when she insisted on the need to replace dodgy judges who had worked on a crony basis with Democratic Party politicians. Basha accused her of “bulls**t” for daring to insist on the EU demand for a judicial clean up. Instead the Albanian rightist went to America to look for support from the Trump administration.

$875,000 was paid to an American lobbyist to get Basha in for a photo call with President Trump at a fundraiser. The question is, who paid the $875,000? Investigations by Mother Jones, BIRN (Balkan Investigative Reporting Network), and the Herald in Glasgow all point to pro-Putin oligarch money channelled through an Edinburgh shell company to Washington based lobbying firms.

Almost overnight there was nearly a million dollars available for the Albanian Democratic Party’s efforts to ingratiate itself with the US administration in the hope that pro-American Albanian voters would back the party seen as closest to Trump. Had the Democratic Party defeated the ruling socialists in Albania under Edi Rama, there would have been a full-blown confrontation with Brussels with Albania’s hopes of EU entry shattered.

That fits with the Russian efforts to keep the West Balkans as unstable as possible and prevent the EU normalising the region. Today, EU leaders meet with West Balkan leaders in Bulgaria. Brussels wants to avoid offering any accession date until the Western Balkan nations promote “connectivity”, a new euro word for growing up. There are plenty of other factors at play, including the dispute between Athens and Skopje over the name Macedonia, which can stop EU accession for the West Balkans six. But for Russia, keeping this corner of Europe as unstable as possible is now part of its Europapolitik.