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Balkans Without Borders

A political cartoon by Corax showing Russian President Vladimir Putin and Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic.

Any cab driver in Belgrade or Sarajevo will tell you that war is a terrible thing, and that “we” are really nice people. As for the terrible wars that ripped Yugoslavia apart in the 1990s, one often hears that “it was foreigners who made us fight one other!”

Having covered those wars as a reporter, I know this is false, but it is a convenient interpretation of a very complex past.

This made me think about why Russian propaganda is so successful in Serbia, as well as in some neighboring countries. Putin’s Russia offers an equivocal version of reality, one in which no one is guilty and there is no right or wrong, only different and competing points of view. If blame must be assigned for violent conflict in Ukraine today, or in the Balkans then, the fault lies not with those who give the orders, those who carry them out, or those cheerleading from the sidelines in Belgrade or Moscow, the narrative goes. It is far easier to point a finger at shadowy, conveniently elusive "foreign agents" and their Western backers.

Conspiracy theories abound regarding the period from 1991-1995, and they are not confined to taxi drivers. The common theme is that it was the West that destroyed Yugoslavia and opened a Pandora’s Box of horrors. Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian president and indicted war criminal, was “merely their puppet” -- yet another victim of a tragedy plotted in Berlin, Brussels, or Washington. The homegrown demagogues, warlords, and foot soldiers --whose guilt is unquestionable to any rational observer -- are thus absolved of all responsibility.

This popular version of recent history is the starting point for Russian propaganda, which finds in the Balkans a hothouse of denial and oblivion. The narrative of the Balkan present currently being peddled by Moscow is built upon an invented past.

Those who were responsible 20 years ago are also responsible for Serbia’s present troubles. In this vein, the Belgrade-based tabloid Informer uncovers a sensational plot: its reporter had access to a secret document with instructions on how to undermine Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic and destabilize Serbia! Western powers are using local groups, including anarchists, leftists, Marxists, anti-globalists and trade unions. The paper has “solid evidence” of renewed attempts to create chaos in Serbia and topple Vucic.

There has been no reaction in Serbia to this blatant scaremongering. A lone protest was raised by independent journalist Bosko Jaksic, who warned in the Belgrade daily Politika about the dangers of the irresponsible conjectures of what he called the "Disinformer."

It is not hard to figure out where the notions of a Western conspiracy against Serbia are coming from. Sergei Zheleznyak, deputy chairman of the State Duma, Russia's lower parliament house, leveled a thinly veiled accusation:

“It is obvious that the current series of protests in Belgrade under the symbol of a yellow duck, at which representatives of the U.S. State Department were present as ‘observers’ -- along with the protests in Banja Luka (Bosnia) and Macedonia -- bear all the hallmarks of operations carried out by external forces aimed at destabilizing the situation in the Balkans,” he said.

Zheleznyak was referring to the public protest over a rebuilding project in Belgrade that is financed by the United Arab Emirates and supported by the prime minister. Russia has interposed itself in this domestic standoff as the protector of the legitimate government against a potential “color revolution” manufactured by Washington and Brussels. Both the European Commission and the U.S. ambassador to Serbia deny that they have played any role in the street demonstrations.

Speaking at a celebration of St. Vitus day -- a propitious day for nationalist harangues -- Zheleznyak gave instructions on how to deal with “foreign agents.”

“Our country and our party have extensive experience in successfully fighting similar attempts to interfere in our internal affairs. In 2012 in Russia a series of laws was adopted which make it possible to single out those NGOs engaged in political activities, and whose funding comes from abroad,” he said.

According to Zheleznyak, “a consolidation of all healthy social forces is urgently needed, on the basis of ideas and values that unite the nation and distance it from the attempts to impose unacceptable outside solutions.”

“Unacceptable outside solutions” covers all that comes from the West, in this case from the EU and NATO. Zheleznyak’s Kremlin-backed United Russia party last week signed a joint declaration with representatives of parties from Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Macedonia, and Bulgaria. The document advocates “militarily neutral territory in the Balkans” -- in which “neutral” clearly stands for pro-Russian.

If anyone is guilty of undermining regional stability at the moment, it may be Ivica Dacic, foreign minister in Serbia’s caretaker government, and the most steadfastly pro-Russian politician in the country.

Taking advantage of a recent stutter in Serbia’s negotiations with EU, Dacic reaffirmed his euro-skeptic arguments:

“We are being [deliberately] blocked by the EU, because nobody can persuade me that the whole of the EU is not more influential than Croatia [which had opposed the start of Serbia’s accession talks]. Anyway, if Croatia -- a country that committed genocide against Serbs in the Ustasha-fascist NDH (Independent State of Croatia during the Second World War), and where the fascist salute is still used -- is a yardstick for joining the EU, then it is right to ask whether we are going in the right direction,” he said.

A strange way to endear oneself to an entity that one aspires to join, and one’s future EU partners.

Dacic added that EU’s decision to delay talks was “unacceptable to Serbia” and that he would suggest Vucic hold urgent consultations on the direction of the country’s foreign policy.

Dacic’s strident rhetoric is partly explained by the fact that he is still unsure of whether he will be part of the new government. His hope is that Moscow’s influence might be brought to bear on his behalf, having restated his credentials as the most reliable Putinist in Serbia.

His anxiety will only grow after Monday’s announcement from the Western Balkans Summit in Paris, about the opening of chapters 23 and 24 in Serbia’s accession talks with the EU.

Meanwhile, speculation about the United States destabilizing Serbia was described as ridiculous by former U.S. Ambassador to Serbia, Cameron Munter. Speaking to the Serbian news agency Tanjug, Munter said that he “strongly supports Serbia’s EU integration.”

The ravings of Infomer, and Dacic’s inflammatory rhetoric, may not be able to deflect Serbia away from its path toward EU membership. But Putin’s anti-Western designs for the Balkans will not be foiled so easily, and greater vigilance is required to stem the flow of disinformation and propaganda that continues to find a receptive audience in the region.

A formal invitation for Montenegro to join NATO was issued on December 2.

Moscow has issued its strongest warning yet over the prospect of Montenegro becoming a full member of NATO. The Russian State Duma addressed a statement to the parliamentary assemblies of NATO and OSCE countries, as well as to the national parliaments of the Balkan states, warning of the possibility of "a new Cold War."

Duma deputies are “seriously concerned about the policy of Montenegro’s integration into NATO,” which, they reportedly argue, threatens to rend Montenegrin society and ratchet up social and political tensions.

The Russian parliamentarians' statement can be seen as a direct response to an open letter published on June 20 by senior U.S. officials and military leaders. They urged the White House and Congress to formally approve Montenegro's accession to NATO by 2017, saying the Balkan country's membership would promote "stability and security in Southeastern Europe." The signatories of that letter include former U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and two former NATO supreme commanders in Europe -- U.S. General Philip Breedlove and U.S. Admiral James Stavridis. They said that Montenegro has “built a small but capable military and reformed its security services to meet NATO standards” and “made significant progress” on rule of law, corruption, and organized crime.

Moscow's most recent denunciation of Montenegro's pending NATO membership comes after a series of threats and protests organized in Podgorica by a small but vocal Russian-sponsored opposition party. Speaking at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, Russian President Vladimir Putin said: "The Soviet Union has collapsed, and the Warsaw Pact no longer exists, but NATO is still approaching our borders. It is hard to understand why Montenegro would want to join the alliance. Where is the threat coming from? There is an absolute disregard for our position [on this matter]."

Commenting on the Russian campaign against Montenegro's NATO membership, Montenegrin lawmaker Nikola Gegaj told RFE/RL in Podgorica that he was surprised at the blunt tone of the criticism from Moscow.

"I think this reaction is not expected from such a large and powerful country -- a country with a great tradition and culture," Gegaj said. "It is hard to understand, especially if we keep in mind that the criticism is directed at the smallest country in the region."

On a recent visit to Montenegro, I spoke to Zarko Radulovic, the manager of the luxury Hotel Splendid in the coastal town of Budva. He said of anti-NATO demonstrations organized by pro-Russian groups in Podgorica: "Russia does not understand the Balkans. [Russians] have chosen the wrong players. They have aligned themselves with people without substance or local influence. Otherwise, we would have reasons to be concerned."

Explaining why he believes he can be trusted on the issue, Radulovic pointed to his background: "My own father was imprisoned for supporting Stalin. He was a Russophile and he was accused of being a traitor to his own people. My first wife was Russian. My second wife is Russian. And yet I support Montenegro's NATO membership with all my heart."

I asked him what Montenegro might expect to get from joining NATO.

"For the first time in our history, we would be in the company of the most civilized nations," he answered.

In the opinion of this successful Montenegro entrepreneur, smaller is better. He is not concerned that Montenegro has a population of just 600,000.

On the contrary: "It is an advantage," he said. "We only need strong and sincere partners. In a small country, whatever problem you have can be fixed in a week."

Around one-third of Montenegro's inhabitants are ethnic Serbs and most of them oppose NATO membership.

A formal invitation was issued by the alliance on December 2. Final accession talks were concluded in May, allowing Montenegro to assume "observer" status pending ratification by the governments of the other members, as well as by Montenegro's own parliament. Ratification by each member state is expected to be completed by spring 2017.

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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