Bears around us:
People of importance for the security impact of the Russian Federation in the Western Balkans
June 27, 2019
The security impact of the Russian Federation in the Western Balkan countries is obvious and omnipresent. This particularly applies to countries such as Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Northern Macedonia. Although it is the highest-ranked individuals such as Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev or Sergei Lavrov whose names are mostly associated with this issue, people who actually exercise or support this influence “on the spot” remain in the background.
However, it is impossible to ignore the fact that certain influential individuals from Russia are here, “on the spot”, but do not make headlines nor appear in articles. These individuals will be introduced below.
Nikolai Platonovich Patrushev is one of the highest security intelligence officers in Russia. A native of St. Petersburg, this man has been Secretary of the Security Council of Russia for the past 11 years. Prior to that (from 1999 to 2008), Patrushev served as Director of the main Russian intelligence service, the Federal Security Service, a successor organization to the Committee for State Security (KGB). With some interruptions, Patrushev has spent about 30 years in the security intelligence service, broadening his professional experience in the fight against corruption and smuggling.
It was not before the collapse of the Soviet Union that his career really began to take off in the “new land”. He first served as Minister of Security in the Government of the Republic of Karelia, one of the federal subjects of Russia, before returning to the Service, occupying the most senior positions since 1995. With the generous support of his friend, security service colleague and fellow native of St. Petersburg Vladimir Putin, Patrushev managed to maintain high positions and become part of the ruling class in Russia. One illustrative case was the death of former Russian security officer, Alexander Valterovich Litvinenko, who testified about the secret killings performed by the Service during the last decade of the 20th century. Patrushev is suspected of having played a major role in the murder of this “whistle-blower”. In connection with the war in Ukraine, Patrushev, along with other high-ranked Kremlin officials, was added to the EU sanction list.
But what makes this man so important for the Balkans? Since entering the office of Secretary of the Russian Security Council, Patrushev has been credited with plotting a failed coup in Montenegro in 2016 during the election to the National Assembly. In addition, Patrushev emphasized his active commitment to maintaining the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center in Niš. The center is suspected to be a pretext for conducting military intelligence in the territory of Serbia and surrounding countries. It is also suspected that Patrushev is the man behind the presence of Russian spies in the territory of Northern Macedonia. In an article of 21 April 2017, the Politico magazine mentions him as the Kremlin’s point man in charge of Russian influence in the Balkan countries. According to Mark Galeotti, professor at the London University College, the most important decisions related to the Balkans rely on Patrushev, although officially he does not have any authority over foreign policy.
In other words, Patrushev represents a high-ranked Russian official who does not shy away from using the most ruthless methods. This makes him one of the leading “hawks” of the Kremlin’s foreign policy.
Patrushev, however, relies on the opinions of experts who deal with the Balkans in order to make decisions with actual influence in the area. One of his closest associates in the Security Council is Leonid Petrovich Reshetnikov.
Like Patrushev, Reshetnikov too is a former employee of the Russian security services, whatever they have been called throughout their history. He has been with the Service for more than 30 years. Until two years ago, he had been head of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, practically the main advisory body of the President when it comes to foreign policy. While heading the Institute, he was suspected of working out the strategy by which the Kremlin allegedly influenced the outcome of the United States presidential election in 2016.
Although officially retired, Reshetnikov, due to his previous experience, continues to work as an advisor to the country’s highest political actors, within the Scientific Council of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Especially when it comes to politics towards countries located on the Balkan Peninsula. In addition to Russian, Reshetnikov is fluent in Serbian and Bulgarian and also speaks Greek. That way, he can perfectly understand current events. He also brought loud accusations against the “Western powers”, but also against “disobedient” countries in the Balkans. In 2016, he said the United States caused the Second World War and called Ukraine an “artificial country”, and in 2015, he strongly criticized the Prime Minister of Montenegro, Milo Đukanović, referring to him as “traitor”. A year later, just days before the failed coup attempt in Montenegro, Reshetnikov said it was “high time for Russia to return to the Balkans”.
In addition to the countries of the Western Balkans, Reshetnikov is also present in Bulgaria. It is believed that he had secret meetings with the then-candidate of the Socialist Party and the acting President of Bulgaria, Rumen Radev. This, together with the elections in the United States, shows that Reshetnikov has had enviable success when it comes to influencing electoral processes in countries of importance to Moscow.
Although the return in the form of an attempted coup did not end well for the Kremlin, Russia is undeniably present in this region. And it is Reshetnikov who should be credited for providing the main ideological background of this return.
Apart from individuals from Russia, the fertile ground for expanding Russian influence is also provided by officials from the Western Balkan countries. One of them is Nenad Popović, Minister without portfolio in the Government of the Republic of Serbia, currently in charge of innovation and technological development, who advocates the granting of diplomatic status to the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center in Niš. In addition to the attitude towards the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center in Niš, he also supports the inclusion of Russia in the negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina.
Popović is a man with strong ties to Russia. He made his career and acquired his possessions during the last decade of the 20th-century trading metallurgical products in independent Russia. Since 2006, he has been active in Serbian politics holding various positions in legislative and executive bodies. His political party, the Serbian People’s Party, opposes the country’s membership in the European Union and advocates close relations with Moscow. But it does not prevent this political party from forming part of the ruling coalition that pursues the policy of Serbia’s accession to the European Union.
The biggest portion of Russia’s influence over the Balkans, however, is extended by Patrushev and Reshetnikov and people around them, namely senior officials (former and current) of the security and intelligence system. This also includes Russian President, Putin.
In a 2000 interview, Patrushev suggested that at that time, a new group of leaders was being formed, made up of senior officials of the Service. According to him, this group of people “don’t do their work for the money”, but rather serve the people. He then called them “new nobility”. Made a year after Putin took over the country’s administration, this statement has fully materialized by now. The influence of this “new nobility”, as a kind of “new class”, is already here. “Bears” are around us.