Russia’s threats against Ukraine have revealed its sympathizers in southeastern Europe. They are numerous.
Croatian President Zoran Milanovic, a NATO head of state, said last week that Ukraine should not be allowed to join the alliance. In his words, Ukraine is one of the most corrupt countries in Europe, and the Dignity Revolution of 2014 was “a coup, anything but a democratic movement”. Milanovic then promised that in the event of an escalation of the armed conflict, he would withdraw “every last soldier” (Croatia does not have troops in Ukraine and the president does not have the executive power to order them anyway anywhere.)
There was a predictable diplomatic flurry, with Ukraine’s foreign ministry declaring the president’s remarks unacceptable and officially requiring a withdrawal. Croatian Prime Minister Andrey Plenkovitch (no friend of the President) then apologized to Ukraine. MilanovicThe words of had been “unreal and offensive”, he said and just to drive the point home added that his statement sounded like “it was said by a Russian official”.
Russian influence has been evident in south-eastern Europe for many years, even as early as Ottoman era. Vladimir Putin’s government has rekindled historic ties with Serbia and that country’s diaspora in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. Russia has been occupied elsewhere; he was accused of seeking to overthrow the government of Montenegro in a 2016 coup and used his vast disinformation machine undermine pro-Western opponents, attack NATO and the European Union (EU), spread vaccine myths and stoke ethnic tensions.
That said, it may be Milanovic, the former leader of the Croatian Social Democrats, is simply playing at the nationalist platform. For the past year or two, he has flirted enormously with Croatian nationalist populists, so much so that even right-wing politicians are distancing themselves, especially Prime Minister Plenkovic. Previously, Milanovic had made numerous hostile statements towards Bosnia and the Sarajevo government. His position on Ukraine is “just icing on the cake”, explained Irvin Pekmez, a journalist with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), in an interview.
Milanovic”officially supports the Serbian nationalists in Bosnia and Herzegovina and pushes for cooperation with the nationalist president of the Serbian Republic Milorad Dodik, who is the most outspoken pro-Russian in the Balkans,” says Montenegrin political analyst Ljubomir Filipović.
Dodik is associated not only with Russian politicians, but also with organizations close to the country’s intelligence service, the SVR, such as the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS), which is reported having had a continuing intelligence function in the Western Balkans. In 2015, Dodik handed over former director of the RISS, SVR Lt-Gen Leonid Reshetnikov, the Order of Njegos (first class.) The citation praised the general”significant personal contribution to the development of scientific and cultural cooperation between Russia and Republika Srpska, which is of great importance for the formation of Republika Srpska.
There is no such trail leading to the president of Croatia, but there are certain reasons why a Croatian politician might take positions pleasing to Putin and his officials. Former Montenegro ambassador to NATO, Professor Vesko Garčević of Boston University, notes the country’s financial ties to Russian oligarchs. For example, Russians with ties to Putin, as well as Russian tycoon Viktor Bekselberg, are actively investing in Croatian tourism development. The country – like many in Europe – also has a significant energy dependence on Russia, while its sunny coastline attracts former Russian politicians and oligarchs luxury real estate, financed by offshore companies.
Russia has close ties with Serbia, but politicians there have largely avoided outright statements in favor of the conflict with Ukraine (the country is after all seeking to join EU.) However, according to the Serbian opposition newspaper danas, Serbian intelligence maintains intimate relations with the Kremlin. The agency recorded conversations among participants in a seminar of Russian city deputies in Belgrade last year, and Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin visited Moscow and handed over the recordings to Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev. Two weeks later, one of the seminar participants, opposition politician Andrey Pivovarov, has been arrested by the Russian FSB. The newspaper also reported that Russia and Serbia have established a joint task force to monitor the opposition and crush any attempted uprisings.
In Montenegro, according to Ljubomir, politicians try to avoid Russian and Ukrainian topics, and a pro-Russian narrative spreads mainly through networks of Serbian nationalists.
“They claim that Ukrainian nationalists provoke Russia and simultaneously point out that Ukraine, like Montenegro, is an artificially created state and that there is no such thing as a Ukrainian or Montenegrin nation. In this way, propagandists achieve two goals at the same time,” he explained.
Despite attempts to derail Montenegro’s NATO membership (see coup attempt above), the country joined 2017. Nevertheless, one of the defendants, Milan Knezhević, is now the head of the Parliament’s Security and Defense Committee, while the government is made up of people with close ties not only to Serbia but also with Russia.
“Dejan Vukšić, who has close business ties with Russia, now leads our National Security Agency (ANB)”, Filipovic noted.
Vukšić’s agency has been praised by Russian media. For example, on March 22, the pro-Kremlin economic newspaper Vzgliad published an article titled “Pro-Russian forces organized a search of Montenegrin special services”. In it, the author said that that in just three months of 2021, Vukšić had “succeeded in partially shaking and partially and completely dispersing the entire Montenegrin intelligence and counterintelligence services. . . clean up ‘supporters of the pro-Western president Milo Đukanovic.
Montenegro’s pro-Serb coalition government is struggling to function and risks being ousted in a parliamentary no-confidence vote as early as this week (4 February). “Popular discontent is growing,” notes Ljubomir Filipović.
But whether in government or outside, Russia’s friends populate the region. They will form a continued opposition to liberal democracy and continued support for the Kremlin’s efforts to spread authoritarianism.
Kseniya Kirillova is an analyst specializing in Russian society, mentality, propaganda and foreign policy. Author of numerous articles for the Jamestown Foundation, she has also written for the Atlantic Council, Stratfor and others.