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Top U.S. Official Warns Of 'Destructive' Russian Role In Balkans

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Aaron Wess Mitchell (LEFT) and Kosovar President Hashim Thaci in Pristina on March 12.

A senior U.S. official has warned of what he called Moscow’s "increasingly destructive role" in the Balkans, saying that Russia is undermining democracy in the region.

Wess Mitchell, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, made the comments in Pristina on March 12, following talks with Kosovar President Hashim Thaci.

"We do see Russia playing an increasingly destructive role in much of the Balkans in spreading disinformation, undermining democratic institutions," Mitchell said.

"We have been clear in our conversations with the Russians that that is neither in their interest nor in the interest of the people of this region," he added.

Mitchell also called on Kosovo to push forward the process of normalizing relations with Serbia and to resolve the issue of border demarcation with Montenegro as soon as possible.

Mitchell was in Pristina on the first leg of a regional tour that includes stops in EU-candidate countries Macedonia and Serbia on March 13-14.

Last week, the top U.S. military commander in Europe warned that the region was facing increased covert and overt pressure from Russia, and that Washington and NATO need to do more to keep the region from destabilizing.

"The area I am concerned about today is the Balkans actually," Army General Curtis Scaparrotti told a Senate committee on March 8. "Russia is at work in the Balkans and we have kind of taken our eye off the area."

"That is an area we could have problems with in the future," he added.

Russia continues to have strong military and cultural ties to Serbia, and vocally opposed Montenegro's admission into NATO last year.

Montenegrin officials have claimed that an alleged coup attempt in 2016 in which two Russians and several Serbians are suspected was a plot orchestrated by Russian intelligence to destabilize the country ahead of its NATO accession. Russia denies it.

In February, the European Union unveiled its new strategy to integrate the six Balkan countries that remain outside the European Union -- Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia.

The commission considers Serbia and Montenegro as current front-runners toward accession and the new strategy says they could be allowed in by 2025 if they meet all the conditions.

Moscow does not officially oppose Balkan countries' bidding to join the EU, but Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last month accused the West and the EU in particular of attempting to draw them away from Russia.

With reporting by AFP