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Regional Security Paradigms in the Western Balkan States

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

International Affairs Analyst

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Among the Western Balkan states striving towards EU integration, Serbia is an outpost of Russian interference. The quest for support over Kosovo, historical revisionism and internal revanchist push are stalling the long Euro-Atlantic integration process and keeping a door open to Russian destabilisation in the Western Balkan region.

Two models collide: long-term ties, institutionalism, Euro-atlantic integration, the responsibility to protect against sectarianism fuelled by the Ruskij Mir and echoing “Greater Serbia” and, by reflection, “Greater Albania” against modern nation-states testing President Vicic’s precarious line between the West and Moscow, President Kurti’s tenure, and nourishing Milorad Dodik’s secessionist attempt in Bosnia Herzegovina.

The EU and NATO are tasked with proceeding with full joint involvement and oppose Moscow’s weaponization of Serbia by institutionally fostering inter-communal cooperation, increasing Euro integration, and sanctioning tools to hit the pro-Moscow forces in Serbia and Bosnia Herzegovina and demand Vucic and Kurdi’s cooperation in Kosovo. Investing in a counter-narrative to Moscow is also required. Finally, the regional partners need to tackle extremism to ensure the validity of their effort at integration.


The plan for a military base in Serbia would be the crown jewel of Moscow’s Balkan policy after the more modest territorial grant for its humanitarian centre, alerting allies. Aside from the Slavic Brotherhood exercise, the military cooperation shows no tangible sign of a organic partnership. However, the question of mercenaries has proven a security breach in Serbia and war-torn Ukraine while exposing the increasing polarisation within Serbian civil society about the war and the role of Wagner mercenary apologists.

Moscow provides energetic opportunities for Serbia via Hungary and itself directly while pivoting from the Milosevic era’s oligarch clique opposing EU integration and strategic diversification. However, the recent deal with Azerbaijan signals how diversification has increasingly become a priority for Moscow-leaning Serbia as the sanction regime forces it to look for less dependence on a declining superpower and expand projects with regional and extra-regional allies. Diversification has become a strategic need for the Balkan nations long before the war on Ukraine and will increase cooperation in the sector with the West, which will benefit the Balkan countries and markets. Shifting priorities may signal geopolitical changes, including peaceful relations between regional foes.

Given Russian informal and sparse objectives, lacking any firm cooperation and investments, ideology is used to promote itself as an ally among nostalgics and hooligans. Russian soft power imbues the Orthodox Church, ethno-religious ties, revisionism, ultranationalists over the question of Serbs in Kosovo and Bosnia Herzegovina. Moscow has historically seen EU integration and NATO expansion in the Balkans as a threat to its secessionist and pan-Slavic policies, hence the utilisation of the radical fringes within each of them.

Non-military means strengthen the Ruskij Mir ideology as an ally to the post-Ottoman Srpski Svet (Serbian world) that still influences local politicians. Close ties with hawks are how Moscow is intent by revisionism and expansionist narratives to present itself as a regional alternative to count on regarding broad territorial issues and the temptation of escalation in sensitive areas patrolled by the EUFOR and KFOR missions. The Moscow-backed Republic of Srpska pushes for the dismemberment of Bosnia and Herzegovina through sectarians aiming at reuniting with Belgrade. This aim takes the form of contagious propaganda, provocations, attempts at subversive alliances with the Croat National Assembly and separatist-prone Milanovic, functioning as its main destabilising instrument, and opaque arms granting rather than fully cooperating with the central authority and abide by the constitution in order not to face personal sanctions. Serbia vowed to extend a friendly hand in case of need, given how weak international standing Moscow enjoys after its aggression on Ukraine. Russophobia is a mainstay confirmed in order to justify itself for not joining in the sanctioning strategy.

Ultranationalism, historical grievances to “Greater Albania'', revisionism, and inter-communal strife stoked the flames of ideological opposition to the recognition of Kosovo and institutionalised hate speech towards neighbours such as former Montenegrin allies in centuries-odd Serbian persecution of the independent Albanian minority by a sense of victimhood. Jargon out of Serbian and Albanian irredentism (Shqipëria Etnike) right after the war of independence against the Ottomans is still being uttered by President Vucic’s ultranationalist supporters through revisionism and expansionist narratives and echoed by Prime Minister Kurti.

Similar tools make President Vucic prone to the rants of the pro-Moscow hawks within his administration and, despite assurances provided, hard to accept as unintentional or simply reactionary to the radicalised elements within Kosovo hooligans. Moscow-linked officials rely on corruption, while gangs threaten the government’s tenure and effort at Europeanization and finally accepting to join NATO instead of bowing to Moscow’s narrative. For instance, the Wagner Cultural Centre shows how pro-Moscow forces intend to counter the Western narrative despite President Vucic’s criticism towards Moscow’s levy of mercenaries and the threat posed by spies within the country.

Polls suggest that the popularity of former dictator Milosevich is still high, signalling how confronting the past is still long to come. Genocide denial has been supported by Moscow at the UNSC, justified by ethnic clashes between civilians, thus representing a stumbling block in the prospects of integration and acceptance of the International Criminal Court of Justice. Practical steps were also allegedly taken to shelter the culprits from justice. Polls also show support for a hypothetical “Greater Albania”.


The 2023 Athens summit summarised the Balkan region's position over Ukraine, considered like Moscow's weakened influence. Despite not imposing sanctions, Serbia’s support for Ukrainian territorial integrity at the UN represents a blow to Moscow’s diplomacy, signalling the need to distance itself from the isolated ally. The Allies need to catch up with years of unabated Moscow’s propaganda into the public space through soft power tools, nostalgia, and revisionism, which represents a security threat to regional peace, stability, and integration. The energetic diversification strategy with the sanctions imposed undermines Moscow’s influence over the Balkan region. However, the West, in cooperation with pro-western voices and, ideally, with the local political politicians, needs to invest in soft power against disinformation and for pacification against the threat of conflagration, which is the main reservoir of Russian hold over Serbia and Serbs, specifically in Northern Kosovo and in the Republic of Srpska. No ideological or practical support for Serbian secessionist communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina or Kosovo should be given. Countering Moscow’s propaganda, such as the one via local RT or Sputnik, should not be secondary to false flags, provocations, or real extremism among rioters. So far, Serbia’s and Kosovo’s deputed authorities are not effective. The approach should be stick and carrot, not just carrots. This strategy includes sanctioning Russophile business-men and targeting dodgy businesses and individuals.

The West’s trump card is also to work on, through military support and sanctions, Russian defeat in Ukraine to accelerate a domino effect in Serbia, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. From a geopolitical point of view, a neutralised Russia in Ukraine will leave Serbia with the choice of the Euroatlantic family versus an isolated and sanctioned Moscow and undermine Moscow’s friends’ capacity to circumvent them. The question of Serbia within NATO will eventually be the elephant in the room that will require the allies’ attention and Serbian responsiveness to the changed international scenario. Regional security needs to cover every grey area.

Reaching multi-level integration will outsmart the old Russian idea of purposeful regional chaos. Despite the preeminence of territorial integrity over self-determination being the best solution when dealing with inter-communal crises, mass expulsion and documented atrocities in the post-Ottoman and Yugoslav history, cannot be neglected by the International Community, according to the 2005 Responsibility to Protect. The need to separate communities that could not find a compromise and the Yugoslav Serbian authority unable or unwilling to implement a genuine and consistent proportionate representation in the state institutions, and should not be lost on the other regional allies and taken into account by remembering the Irish question and the provisions of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, or the Lebanese civil war and the 1989 Taif Agreement.

Given the sectarian strategy deployed, sanctions targeting Russophiles and provocateurs, with Western military deterrence, will serve the purpose.

Moscow tries to erode international support through the 1995 Peace Implementation Council, urgently requiring NATO’s constant support free from Moscow’s veto power. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s EUFOR and NATO need to join, according to the Berlin Plus Agreement, and increase their presence in the conflict areas to ensure that arousing passions do not escalate into open intercommunal violence, which would break up the fragile institutional and political stability enshrined in the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement. The agreement contains the EUFOR mission. Thus, the UNSC and Moscow, specifically, are involved in the approval. These factors do not bode well and imperil the country’s accession to the EU and NATO, which Moscow has already threatened in terms of retaliation. However, the following point in the same “General Obligations'' envisions the limitless deployment of NATO troops. Given how Jens Stoltenberg expressed the need for inter-communal cooperation and pacification, the request for NATO deployment would be a deterrent. Moreover, Bosnian institutionalism and unity need to be upheld in order to tackle attempts at causing religious clashes and, possibly, foster extremism.

The parties have to abide by the 2013 Brussels Agreement and 2023 Kosovo-Serbia Agreement to avoid sectarianism and enforced by the allies to frustrate Moscow’s historic obstructionism. Serbia should recognise Kosovo’s independence given how the Serbian authority has historically either reduced or suppressed local liberties and led to outright secession, documented in the long history of violence committed against the Albanian minority that sparked its reprisals.

The cooperation of Kosovar authorities means avoiding the use of forceful countermeasures to engage the Serbian counterpart in the North in order not to incur sanctions. Kosovo’s Kurdi’s unilateral and unconstitutional moves, with President Vucic’s antics and lack of implementation of the EU Energy Road Map, should meet a firm response, as they do not help reach a sustainable and comprehensive peace solution according to agreements and fulfil requirements for EU membership and diversification.

The local authorities should pay closer attention to the respective ultranationalists and refrain from conceding to their divisive demands that go against harmony and cohabitation and undermine the role of NATO's KFOR and the broad Western strategy for regional peace. The allies should clearly state that without concrete commitment, there will not be integration but sanctions on the respective elite members and the mastermind behind the riots and extremism. It also requires adequate prosecution by the respective competent authorities at the local and national levels and readiness for local policing to cooperate with the allies by relinquishing any unilateral initiative that would fuel unrest. Enlargement and integration imply the need to avoid a Hungarian and Turkish scenario meaning difficult members that complicate and or slow the internal decision making due to peculiar features within their socio-political structures.


Nostalgics gloss over Moscovite Eastern policy towards the ailing Ottoman Empire. Upon receiving strategic concessions, the minorities would be left to live through communal unrest and the wrath of the increasingly nationalist Turks away from the millet system and policy. The Soviet practice of regional destabilisation compounds the Ruskij Mir, while a coherent plan for statecraft, stability, growth, and multi-level cooperation is missing, as in Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus.

Regional interlocutors should be reminded of the multi-communal melting pot, so eloquently documented by Professor Mark Mazower, the need to cashier irredentism, whether in Serbian or Albanian fashion, embrace modern statehood, and fight endemic corruption to complete integration. A new approach to nationhood and statehood devoid of sectarianism should develop coherently with the historical multiculturalism which is also an antidote to the possible threat represented by islamism in Bosnia and Herzegovina through financing.

Partners should act by the responsibility to protect. The Balkan question cannot keep constituting a threat to the continent’s security. Ukraine makes for a potent narrative against hesitance in the Euro-Atlantic progress, which emboldens Moscow’s search for grey areas. The two linked issues require continuously engaging at the institutional, economic, and political levels with the regional partners and achieving integration while sanctioning Moscow’s allies and nostalgics who oppose it.


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