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23 October, 2012  ▪  Janusz Bugajski

The New Challenge of the Kremlin

Russia is seeking to expand its western “zone of influence” into two main regions: the maturing democracies of Central-Eastern Europe and the struggling democracies of the Western Balkans

During the unfolding presidency of Vladimir Putin, an aggressive integrationist approach toward the post-Soviet states will be mirrored by a more assertive policy toward Central-Eastern Europe (CEE). Buoyed by the European Union’s monetary crisis and by Washington's “East Asia pivot”, Moscow is pursuing a more intrusive policy toward its former satellites. The strategic objective is to neutralize their opposition to the Kremlin’s foreign policy ambitions and to draw them away from an American orbit.


Russia is seeking to expand its western “zone of influence” into two main regions: the maturing democracies of CEE, including the Baltic area, and the struggling democracies of the Western Balkans. Russian officials focus on influencing political decisions in these capitals through a combination of diplomatic pressure, personal and professional contacts, economic enticements, energy inducements, and sometimes through outright blackmail or bribery. Several CEE states also provide opportunities for Russian inroads toward the EU and NATO through economic, political, and intelligence penetration.

Reports regularly surface in Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and other CEE countries that old comrade networks continue to operate, based on financial and friendship connections rather than on any ideological or political convictions. Several post-communist Socialist and Social Democrat parties in the CEE, where many former comrades gravitated, have provided the most beneficial opportunities for Russian infiltration. Slovakia and Bulgaria are clear examples where leftist parties have been more open to Russian business overtures.

However, center-right governments and politicians may also be susceptible to Moscow’s advances, especially through reportedly beneficial energy deals such as involvement in the South Stream gas pipeline project. For instance, in the Czech Republic a Russian consortium is strongly lobbying to win the tender for building new reactors at the Temelin nuclear power plant despite the security concerns expressed by Czech analysts about Moscow’s involvement.

Alternatively, governments criticized as quasi-authoritarian by Brussels, such as that of Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, may look to Russia for balance and support. Moreover, lucrative business contracts, donations to political campaigns, and the purchase of media outlets enable Moscow to exert political influence and convince key politicians to favour Russian business investments and strategic interests.

In Bulgaria, Moscow has attempted to increase its influence by courting Socialist Party leaders, appealing to allegedly close historical bonds between the two countries, and trying to tie Sofia into a number of large-scale energy projects. However, the current Bulgarian government, led by Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, has recently exposed Moscow’s objective to dominate Bulgaria’s energy sector and withdrew from several energy deals initialed by the previous Socialist administration. This led President Putin to cancel a trip to Sofia, scheduled for November. The Kremlin is now demanding massive financial compensation from Bulgaria for the scrapped Belene nuclear power plant that was supposed to be built by Russian companies.


Uncomfortable with full Baltic sovereignty, Russia’s leaders have also sought to marginalize and isolate Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Numerous forms of pressure within Russia’s foreign policy arsenal have been applied against these countries. All three have been at the forefront of campaigns for Ukraine’s and Georgia’s NATO membership and for bringing all ex-Soviet republics into the Western fold, policies that Moscow vehemently opposes.

The unexpected election victory of the Georgian Dream coalition, led by Prime Minister designate Bidzina Ivanishvili, may energize Moscow to try and increase its influence in Georgia. However, the Kremlin is not euphoric over the smooth transfer of power in Tbilisi, as any successful democracy on its doorstep is a threat to Russia’s authoritarian political model. Putin also remains staunchly opposed to President Mikheil Sakaashvili who will remain in office for another year. The Kremlin seeks a government in Tbilisi that abandons its quest for NATO membership and revokes its aim to regain the occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, Ivanishvili has stated that Western integration remains Georgia’s foreign policy priority.

Moscow has tried to benefit from local political, ethnic, religious, and social turbulence in order to keep each Baltic country off balance. It has exploited the Russian minority question to depict the Baltic governments as failing to meet European standards for human rights. As in Ukraine, the Kremlin claims the right to represent and defend the interests not only of Russian ethnics but all “Russian-speakers” in order to raise the number of alleged victims of Baltic repression. In April 2007, Tallinn accused Moscow of promoting riots and cyber attacks against Estonian government websites after the official relocation of a Red Army statue to a military cemetery. The statue was offensive to the majority of Estonians as it symbolized the years of Soviet occupation after the Second World War.

In Latvia's September 2011 elections, the Kremlin supported the ethnic Russian National Harmony Party, calculating that by entering government it could sway Latvia's policies in a pro-Moscow direction. Harmony was left out of the governing coalition because of fears that it could veer Latvia away from its Western orbit. Russian organizations in Latvia also gathered enough signatures to initiate a referendum on making Russian an official second language, but the initiative was defeated in February 2012 by an overwhelming majority of Latvian voters.

In Lithuania, pro-Russian populist parties, including the Labour Party led by millionaire Viktor Uspaskich and Social Democratic Party won the first tour of the October 14 election with 19.8% and 18.3% respectively. Along with the Order and Justice party led by former Lithuania’s President Rolandas Paksas which gained 7.9%, the two winning parties will create a new majority in the parliament and dominate over the right-centrist government of Andrius Kubilius.


Russia also sees clear opportunities to expand its reach in the Western Balkans, given that the EU is beset by economic crisis and political indecision, with uncertain prospects for further enlargement after Croatia’s entry in 2013. Concurrently, NATO’s expansion in the Western Balkans, beyond the absorption of Montenegro, remains on hold. Macedonia is blocked, Serbia is opposed, Bosnia-Herzegovina is disunited, and Kosovo is ineligible. Meanwhile, the U.S. is focused on other regions of the world and its disengagement can weaken NATO’s impact throughout Europe. As a result, Moscow seeks to intensify its political influence, particularly among states with no immediate prospect for Western integration, by employing three key tools: diplomatic assertiveness, conflict prolongation, and economic dependence.

Moscow is outspoken in support of Serbia, especially in its struggle over Kosovo’s independence by blocking Prishtina's membership in major international institutions such as the United Nations and the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE). Serbia remains the Kremlin’s most reliable political link in the region not because of any Slavic-Orthodox fraternity but as a consequence of cold political calculation. Belgrade has consistently appealed to Russian solidarity whether over preserving Yugoslavia’s integrity, creating a Greater Serbia, or retaining control over Kosovo. Moscow in turn exploits Serbia’s grievances against the U.S. and NATO to demonstrate that Russia remains a major factor in European affairs and in resolving intra-European disputes. Such symbiosis has proved beneficial for both capitals.

The Kremlin perceives Serbia as a useful proxy in the middle of the Balkans and has increased its presence during recent years. The Kremlin wants Serbia to remain outside NATO, to avoid any American presence in the country, and outside the EU in order avoid its strict legal standards in business transparency that would effect the operations of shady Russian companies. Instead, Moscow proposes that Serbia join its planned Eurasian Union, a centerpiece of Putin’s approach toward the former Soviet Union. The Serbian media have reported Moscow’s plans for Eurasian Union (EuU) expansion by 2020 to include states excluded from the EU. The EuU purportedly plans to have four centers: in St. Petersburg, Kyiv, Almaty, and Belgrade.

Second, in terms of conflict prolongation, the limited international recognition of Kosovo has provided Russia with an opportunity to depict itself as the defender of international legality and the promoter of multilateralism, state sovereignty, and territorial integrity. Concurrently, it also promulgates the thesis of a pan-Albanian fundamentalist menace in attempts to forge pan- Orthodox unity under Russian patronage throughout the Western Balkans to include Macedonia, Montenegro, Greece, and even Cyprus – where Kremlin-connected Russian oligarchs have found a safe haven for their unregistered financial transactions.

Moscow has also focused on the struggle over Bosnia-Herzegovina by supporting the leaders of the Serbian entity (Republika Srpska, RS) in their resistance to the central government in Sarajevo. Moscow employs two parallel tracks toward Bosnia: an overt policy that recognizes its state integrity and a covert policy that strengthens relations with the RS. Having recognized the independence of two separatist regions in Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia retains the option of recognizing Bosnia’s RS as an independent state. The Russian government is widely perceived to be supporting RS President Milorad Dodik and encouraging the Serbian entity to maintain the option of independence. By exacerbating the prospect of fracture the Kremlin wants to maintain Bosnia as a frozen or paralyzed state that can generate long-term problems for Washington and Brussels.

Through its vehement opposition to U.S. policy over Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina, Russia’s government contributes to prolonging disputes and uncertainties within the region. The calculation is that Western preoccupation with inter-ethnic reconciliation and state building will dissipate and even terminate the region’s integration into NATO and the EU. This will serve to justify Kremlin contentions that NATO cannot guarantee European security and a new continental security structure is needed in which Russia would play a major role. In sum, conflict provides Moscow with political leverage to advance its state ambitions.


The Kremlin’s third tool is the promotion of economic dependence by deploying energy resources, state loans, and business investments to gain political inroads. Plans to build major energy transportation systems between the Black Sea and the Adriatic Sea and Central Europe place the Balkans at the center of Russia’s south European strategy. Moscow seeks to monopolize flows of gas and oil passing through the region to Western Europe. Supply contracts and investment incentives provide significant inroads in a targeted country’s economy and substantial influence over its foreign policy. The planned South Stream pipeline is calculated to place Serbia and Bulgaria at the center of Russia's ambitions and prevent the construction of a European energy network linking Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and Europe outside of Russia’s control.

Russia’s state company Gazprom owns the major share of Serbia’s NIS oil company and Belgrade is eager to host the southern “hub” of the planned South Stream pipeline through which Moscow seeks to eliminate the West’s Nabucco gas pipeline project. The pipeline is planned to cross from Serbia into Hungary while Russia entices the RS, Croatia, and Slovenia with the prospect of including them in South Stream. Construction of the project is planned to start by the end of 2012 and finish in 2015, although the entire endeavor has been riddled with doubts over routes, costs, and the sources of gas.

The Greek crisis has provided an additional opportunity for Moscow to meddle in the Balkans. If Greece leaves the Eurozone and its living standards fall precipitously this would send a negative signal to all EU candidates in the Western Balkans and accentuate anti-enlargement sentiments within the EU itself. Such developments would leave the entire region even more vulnerable to Russian penetration.

A potential social explosion in Greece can also affect the stability of several neighbours. In the most damaging scenario, expanding impoverishment and ejection from the Eurozone will precipitate the emergence of an authoritarian government in Athens. Under the pretext of restoring order and defending national dignity, a nationalist regime could target minorities and neighbouring states, thus generating conflicts with Turkey, Macedonia, and Albania and opening the door further to Russian inroads. Moscow may also solicit to build its own naval base in the Mediterranean by offering funds and investments to a cash-strapped Greece. Such arrangements would not only further entrap the region in Russia’s net but also test the resolve of the U.S. and NATO in ensuring the security of South East Europe.

Фото: Vladimir Putin’s dreams: “I am convinced that the creation of the Eurasian Union and effective integration is the way that will allow its members to take a proper place in the complicated world of the 21st century. Only together can our countries join the leaders of the global growth and civilization progress, reach success and prosperity.” 

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