Balkans: Warning over 'third major global conflict' amid fears Russian influence could create instability in Balkans

A Westminster debate on the situation as held this week

In a central Belgrade park, wooden kiosks line the paths, selling souvenirs such as t-shirts, key rings, coasters and mugs.

Yet, nestled alongside the paintings of Serbian tourist attractions and traditional folk art patterns, some of the items depict the face of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

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"There is definitely [Russian] influence there,” says Dr Alexander Mesarovich, Max Weber fellow at the Florence School of Transnational Governance. “They [Serbia and Russia] certainly talk to each other.”

Dr Alexander Mesarovich, Max Weber Fellow at the Florence School of Transnational Governance.Dr Alexander Mesarovich, Max Weber Fellow at the Florence School of Transnational Governance.
Dr Alexander Mesarovich, Max Weber Fellow at the Florence School of Transnational Governance.

MPs debated the potential for instability in the Western Balkans in Westminster on Thursday, which Alicia Kearns, chair of the foreign affairs committee, warned could become the site of a “third global, major conflict”, alongside Ukraine and Gaza, if preventative international action is not taken.

Some experts have warned Russia could be motivated to create a “small-scale conflict” in the Balkans to distract from its war in Ukraine. The Balkan region is not unfamiliar with conflict, having experienced a series of wars which raged throughout the 1990s. The 1998-99 conflict resulted in the deaths of around 130,000 people – many of them civilians – and displaced more than four million people from their homes.

While Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić has maintained a public stance which straddles all camps, Serbia’s long-held connections with Russia were reinforced when Moscow stepped in in 1999 to oppose Nato’s 78-day air strikes against the regime of Slobodan Milošević, then president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The strikes, which were aimed at halting the killing and forced displacement of Kosovo Albanians, also killed and injured hundreds of Serbian civilians.

"You walk around Belgrade and there are still destroyed buildings,” says Dr Mesarovich. “People remember those times. Serbia has a strong sense of betrayal by the West.”

A man holds a cutout of Russian President Vladimir Putin during the "Immortal Regiment" pro-Russia march in Belgrade, Serbia, last year.A man holds a cutout of Russian President Vladimir Putin during the "Immortal Regiment" pro-Russia march in Belgrade, Serbia, last year.
A man holds a cutout of Russian President Vladimir Putin during the "Immortal Regiment" pro-Russia march in Belgrade, Serbia, last year.

In neighbouring Bosnia, Milorad Dodik, leader of Republika Srpska (RS), an independent territory within Bosnia and Herzegovina formed after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, has held four meetings with Mr Putin since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has awarded the president with the region’s highest medal of honour for “patriotic concern and love” for RS.

Dr Mesarovich, who is delivering a talk on the Western Balkans at the University of Edinburgh on Monday, also recalls the early days of Covid when personal protective equipment (PPE) was provided to Serbia by Russia and China, rather than Europe.

“Covid politics were really bad for the West in Serbia,” he says. “The EU, in the long term, provided much more support, but in those darkest days of March and April of 2020, there was the visibility of Chinese and Russian aircraft, unloading masks and medical supplies for Serbia, while the EU was not doing that. That is still a visceral memory.”

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Chinese president Xi Jinping will next week visit Serbia. China’s embassy was bombed during the 1999 Nato raids on Serbia, creating a bond between the countries against the allied forces.

Dr Mesarovich does not believe the pro-Russian sentiment is strong enough to see Serbia take military action. While President Vučić has refused to join international sanctions against Russia, making his country a safe haven for Russian business, as well as Russians opting to live abroad to avoid being called up to fight in Ukraine, he has also said he is not opposed to his country selling ammunition to intermediaries who ship it to Ukraine.

“I think there's a strong for-Russia contingent in terms of support for Putin and his anti-West activities,” says Dr Mesarovich. “But does that mean that the people in Serbia would be willing to die for Putin? Does that mean that the Serbian army is going to invade Kosovo because it would be vaguely helpful to Russia? That is something I'm sceptical of.”

Kosovo has been a sticking point for Serbia for decades. Although it declared independence from Serbia in 2008, a move that has been recognised by more than 100 countries, Serbia and Russia do not recognise it as such and Belgrade maintains that Kosovo continues to be part of Serbia.

However, the nation is now in talks to join the Council of Europe, signalling a closer relationship with Western countries. Conversely, Serbia’s EU accession has faltered. It applied to join the bloc in 2009 and has been a candidate for membership since 2012, but has seen weakening public opinion in recent years.

Dr Gezim Krasniqi, lecturer in nationalism at the University of Edinburgh, says he believes a fairly minor flashpoint, inflamed by Russia, could trigger a local conflict.

“The problem is that on one hand, Serbia is part of the European integration processes,” he says. “But on the other hand, the government invests heavily in nourishing a sense of support for the Russian Federation and blaming the West for anything that goes against what they think is a Serbian national national interest.”

One controversial issue is a United Nations draft resolution designating July 11 as an annual commemoration of the 1995 Srebrenica Genocide against Bosnian Muslims – when Bosnian Serb forces, led by General Ratko Mladić, massacred 8,372 Bosnian Muslim men and boys.

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Meanwhile, in September last year, Serb militants initiated an attack on Kosovo police as they responded to a situation where vehicles without valid license plates – a long-standing source of rising tensions between Kosovo and Serbia – were blocking a bridge in Banjska.

"The situation is quite complex, so you might need only a small trigger,” says Dr Krasniqi. "There is a sense that the international community hasn't put enough pressure on Serbia to address some of the people responsible [for the attack]. But more worryingly, the people who are behind the attack have close ties with some of the security institutions in Serbia, which in turn have ties with certain elements within the Russian Federation.

"Giving what's going on elsewhere, especially in Ukraine, I think there is a fear Russia might have an interest to start a small-scale conflict in the Balkans that would distract the European Union and the Western powers.”



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