Briefing Paper II:
EXTERNAL INFLUENCE IN THE POLITICAL SPHERE
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The Briefing Paper II: External Influence in the Political Sphere represents the second from a series of six briefing papers presenting the results of the ongoing research.
While the first briefing paper (read the full version or the executive summary) provided the historical and geo-strategic context of the project, the second briefing paper focuses on Russian, Chinese, Turkish, Iranian and Gulf States’ influence and activities in the political arena of the Western Balkan countries.
Politics permeates all other spheres and to a certain extent, all influence activities have a political dimension. Specifically addressing the political, however, the second briefing paper focuses on foreign powers’ activities aiming to achieve political gains – to influence political decision-making and voting in international bodies. It analyses elite capture, links to important political elites and political parties or ‘spoilerism’.
Russian officials often build close links to particular influential political figures and provide support, although often just rhetorical, to pro-Russian or nationalist parties. When looking for allies, they draw on historical, cultural and religious links and often portray themselves as protectors of the Orthodox population, most importantly Serbs, and their interests.
Due to the popularity it enjoys as a ‘mighty alternative’ to the West, Moscow is able to sustain Russia’s image of a superpower and limit its efforts to a few impressive, but low-cost gestures that fit the anti-Western narrative of the local political elites. For instance, it rolls out lavish receptions for Balkan politicians in the Kremlin or hands out some outdated military equipment as a present. These gestures enable Russia to strengthen its position within the region and establish deeper ties with the governing elites.
The Kremlin also capitalises on Russia’s seat in several international bodies, particularly in the UN Security Council. They give it significant leverage especially when disputed territories and inter-ethnic tensions come into question such as in Serbia-Kosovo relations and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Even though Moscow insists that its activities are not aiming at destabilising the Balkans, the Western governments perceive Russia’s interference in the Balkan countries as malicious.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Russia’s presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina has mainly revolved around backing up the anti-Western and pro-Russian narratives and actions of Milorad Dodik, the president of Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska (RS), whose ultimate goal is the secession of RS. Although Russia has been careful about supporting this idea, it enjoys and reciprocates significant political support from and to Dodik. The frequent meetings between Vladimir Putin and Dodik and political gestures towards his Balkan partner are above all means of sustaining the anti-Western narrative. Nonetheless, it has allowed Moscow to deepen its power in the BiH. Read more...
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is currently on a two-day visit of BiH. Read a topical article by our researcher Srećko Latal on how the visit adds to tensions before the upcoming elections in BiH.
Russian influence within and over Kosovo’s political sphere is limited since Russia continues to refuse the recognition of Kosovo’s independence declared in 2008. Nonetheless, what makes Russia’s political leverage possible in Kosovo is a Serbian community in the Northern part of Kosovo, which seeks to establish closer ties to Russia, mirroring Serbia’s efforts. Russia’s steps and stance during the final phase of the political talks surrounding the Kosovo-Serbian dispute will determine more visibly what the future relations will look like. Read more...
Russia’s political aim in Macedonia, as in the other WB countries, is to impede Macedonian efforts to get closer to the West. Recently, Russia has used the Macedonian-Greece name dispute for its gain in order to halt Macedonia’s talks to join NATO and has made considerable donations to the anti-name change and anti-NATO movement. Despite these efforts, the current Macedonian government has been making steps to build closer connection to its Western allies rather than to Russia. Read more...
Read an article on fears of Russia's meddling into the process of Macedonia's name change by our researcher Martin Naunov.
Similarly to Russia’s efforts in Macedonia, the, already fulfilled, NATO membership aspirations of Montenegro have been the key point of Russia’s attention but also of the mutual tensions. Russia has been accused of being directly involved in the assassination attempts of the current President, Milo Đukanović, aimed to prevent the country from joining NATO. Regardless of Russia’s efforts, Montenegro has shown that it stands behind the EU, among other things by agreeing to support Union’s plans on extending sanctions against Russia. Read more...
Bearing in mind that Kosovo’s independence represents a central issue of Serbian politics, political leaders consider it important to foster good relations with Russia and other countries that do not recognise Kosovo as an independent state. The issue of Kosovo’s status thus gives the Russians direct power to influence a political situation in Serbia. Russia’s biggest asset is its ability to develop clientelistic networks with highest-level Serbian politicians, including the current country’s President, Aleksandar Vučić. Read more...
Read more details about Russia's attempts to meddle into internal affairs and about its links to key political figures in individual Western Balkan countries in the full BRIEFING PAPER – it is easy to navigate to the section of your interest.
As elsewhere, China’s activities in the Balkans often obscure the political with the economic. As non-members of the EU, the five former Yugoslav republics in Western Balkans are not bound by its regulatory framework. This makes it easier than in the other 16+1 countries for the PRC to pursue its opaque business practices. China’s state-driven “economic diplomacy” typically supports (and conceals) its “political warfare” objectives; given the overall lack of transparency in the region, combined with the general opacity of China’s business deals, the political aspects of its economic statecraft usually remain below the radar in local public discourse.
Compared with other regions, in Europe and elsewhere, we can see the same signature approaches to political interference, namely elite capture, including high-level corruption, and discourse management through the captured elites and various Belt and Road “think tanks” and friendship organizations.
This could perhaps best be demonstrated in Serbia, where China’s political influence permeates both the governing and opposition parties. In the other non-EU West Balkans countries, Chinese political influence is less pronounced.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
China is still a relatively new "player" in BiH, and so far there has been no evidence that Chinese officials have established - or were trying to establish - any specific political activities, preferences or links on the overcrowded local political scene. Read more...
China’s political influence remains low is Kosovo, officially not recognised by the PRC. As one of five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, China does not recognise Kosovo and represents as an obstacle in case Kosovo seeks membership of this important organisation. Despite the lack of diplomatic recognition, there is nevertheless The Office of People’s Republic of China in Priština. Read more...
An interesting case emerged in Macedonia where the former PM and transportation minister are accused of receiving large kickbacks from Sinohydro, a Chinese company contracted to build a highway. With the high perception of corruption in the country, the incident is mostly viewed as an example of the downsides of economic relations with China. Local media do not seem to dwell on the implications of corrupting the PM for the integrity of the whole political system. Sinohydro remains active in other West Balkan countries. Read more...
The Chinese policy in the country, at least for the time being, has been mostly placed on pursuing economic interests, and not so much on interfering in the internal affairs or foreign policy. Critics worry, however, that China could use “debt-trap diplomacy” in Montenegro, as it does in several other places around the world. Read more...
Apart from the close relationship with the incumbent President Vučić, leader of the governing Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), China also supports through several nominally private companies one of his main critics, the former FM and leader of the newly founded People’s Party Vuk Jeremić and his think tank called Center for International Cooperation and Sustainable Development (CIRSD).
In May 2017 Serbia established a rather unique institution, the National Council for the Coordination of Cooperation with Russia and China. Run by the former President Tomislav Nikolić, the Council does not appear to coordinate any specific policies, but is no doubt a useful networking platform. It is also the first official body in all of CEE combining a Russian and Chinese agenda. Read more...
Read more about China’s rising involvement in the WB in the full BRIEFING PAPER.
After several centuries of the Ottoman rule over the large parts of the Western Balkans, Turkey perceives the region as its natural sphere of influence. Close cultural, historical and religious ties make Turkey a natural partner for Western Balkan countries with a sizeable Muslim population, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Albania, and Kosovo.
More surprising has recently been a blossoming trade and political relationship with Serbia, where anti-Turkish sentiment was widespread not long ago. The common denominators of Turkish political presence in the region are close personal links of leading Western Balkan politicians and their Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The weakening of the US and EU presence in the Balkans and parallel strengthening of Russian and Turkish influence in the region combined with their rapprochement, have opened a space for Russia and Turkey to affect the situation on the ground in much greater extent than it is the case today - be it in positive or negative direction. However, just as the EU and US, Putin and Erdogan at the moment do not seem to keep the Balkans on the top of their agenda.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Besides all Turkish infrastructure, business, cultural and religious activities in BiH, Erdogan's influence in the country has always relied mostly on its close personal links with Bosniak leaders, first with the late founder of the SDA party, Alija Izetbegović, and subsequently with his son and current Bosniak leader, Bakir Izetbegović. However, ever since the failed coup in Turkey in 2016 and subsequent repressions there has been growing criticism against Erdogan's politics in Bosnia, especially among independent media and experts. Also relations between Izetbegovic and Erdogan seemed to grow somewhat colder on occasions. Read more...
Turkey and Kosovo have developed solid relations at the political level. When Kosovo declared its independence in 2008, Turkey was among the first to recognise the new state. Kosovo President, Hashim Thaci, who has been in power since 2007, has a close relationship with Turkish President Erdogan. The main concern for the relations between the two countries happened in April 2018 when the six Turkish citizens residing in Kosovo were deported to Turkey in a quite suspicious manner – find out more about the affair in an interesting article written by our researcher Nektar Zogjani. Read more...
Turkey has been exercising clear influence over Macedonian politics, which is not particularly odd, having in mind both its history under the Ottoman Empire and the fact that around 4 % of the population identifies as ethnic Turks. There are three active Turkish political parties in Macedonia and there have been two recent attempts for dramatically scaling up Turkish influence in Macedonian politics, but both seem to have failed. Read more...
Montenegro’s President Milo Đukanović keeps very friendly relationships with high Turkish officials mainly because of Turkish business-people and companies that have started investing in the country. In addition, Montenegro’s Muslim community and the Bosniak party, as well as other minority parties, such as ethnically Albanian ones, are also on good terms with their Turkish counterparts. Read more...
As for the Turkish political relations with Serbia, economic interests have led both countries to overcome historical animosities. Erdogan has in recent years established very close links with the Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, whom he occasionally invites to various events. Serbia gets something much more than potential trade benefits, and that is a strong partnership between rulers in breaking down and abusing all democratic standards. Read more...
Read more about pro-Turkish parties and intensive Erdogan's relations with many of Western Balkan leaders in the full BRIEFING PAPER.
The Gulf States and Iran
Historically, Iran and the Gulf States have not been politically involved in the Western Balkan countries in any significant manner. The only exception was Bosnia and Herzegovina during and after the war in the 1990s when Muslim countries were providing financial and political support to the Bosnian government led by Alija Izetbegovic.
Involvement of Islamic countries decreased significantly following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on New York and the subsequent global war on terrorism which saw many Islamic NGOs being shut down or reducing their activities in BiH. Presence of Islamic countries started increasing again in recent years, especially in BiH and Serbia, as a result of the weakening of EU and US presence in the Balkans. Yet, it never amounted to any significant political involvement or influence and remained limited to personal and business links with key Bosniak and Serbian officials.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
The Presence of Islamic countries in the country started increasing again in recent years, however, the influence remains limited mostly to personal and business links with key Bosniak officials, usually with the Izetbegović family. Read more...
Kosovo has a Muslim majority population, but this fact has had no impact in gaining recognition of its independence by a big number of Muslim countries, including Iran and Iraq, the main reason being political ties with Russia via Serbia or the U.S.'s direct support to Kosovo's breaking away from Serbia. Kosovo Government officials have, however, admitted that Gulf money advocating Wahabi brand of Islam permeated Kosovo in the recent past. Read more...
There are no clear signs of influence by the Gulf states and Iran in Macedonian politics.
The Gulf States and Iran are neither largely politically or economically involved in Montenegro.
Despite UAE’s strong support to Kosovo’s independence, its investments ensured a privileged position to UAE as one of the most important investors in Serbia. All business with the UAE is based on the agreement on cooperation between the Government of Serbia and the Government of UAE and personal ties between former Serbian President Vučić and Prince Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. The exclusive and secret nature of agreements with high-level Serbian politicians enabled Arab companies to buy below the price the attractive agricultural and urbanistic land. Read more...
Read a more detailed account of Islamic countries’ involvement in the regional affairs in the full BRIEFING PAPER.