February 5, 2021

Will Russian Influence in the Balkans Decline?

A worker wearing a face mask works at the construction site of the Balkan Stream gas pipeline near the village of Kamenovo, Bulgaria.
A worker wearing a face mask works at the construction site of the Balkan Stream gas pipeline near the village of Kamenovo, Bulgaria.

Kremlin expected several serious foreign policy disappointments in the Balkan countries at the end of 2020. Russia’s monopoly on the gas market in the Balkans has been shaken, and Belgrade and Pristina move towards normalisation of economic relations.

The past year saw a steady decline in the oil and gas dependence of the states of the Balkan peninsula on Russia which cannot but worry Moscow. In particular, on 1 January the first Croatian terminal on the island of Krk began operations in the importation of liquified natural gas. The terminal has a capacity of 2.6 billion cubic meters and cost 233.6 million Euros. Croatian media notes that the terminal was developed with the goal of the European energy market and increasing the security of gas delivery to European Union countries.

On the same day in Serbia the “Balkan Stream” pipeline was inaugurated being one of the branches of the “Turkish Stream” which had its formal opening on 9 January 2020 in Istanbul. The “Balkan Stream” will connect the Turkish section of the pipeline with the Serbian section and is intended for the export of Russian gas to Bulgaria, Serbia, and eventually Hungary. Russian media don’t hide that it can become an alternative to the unrealized South Stream project.

Reducing Dependence

But it is obvious that Russia’s monopoly on the gas market in the Balkans has been shaken. In particular, the American liquefied gas supplied to the island of Krk is intended not only for the needs of Croatia, but also for use by Hungary and Ukraine, which should reduce Hungary’s dependence on Gazprom. At the same time, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov announced the start of “diversifying the gas market” at the ceremony of opening the Trans-Adriatic Gas Pipeline (TAP), delivering Azerbaijani gas to Europe.

The construction of the pipeline between Greece and Bulgaria began in May 2019 following repeated calls from the EU to Sofia to concern itself with alternatives to Russian gas, and the Atlantic Council of Bulgaria was extremely negative regarding the country’s participation in the construction of the Balkan extension of TurkStream. A particular concern of the Council was that the “Turkish Stream,” based on Bulgaria’s contract with Gazprom, was only in the interest of Russia, and the investment of money of Bulgarian taxpayers invested in it will only begin to pay off around 2040.

It might also be added that last year the largest Turkish oil refinery STAR sharply reduced purchases of Russian oil, switching to imports from Iraq and Norway. Even earlier, Turkey preferred supplies from Azerbaijan to Russian gas, and then discovered new reserves of natural gas in the Black Sea which further reduced the need to import fuel from Russia.  Even before the inauguration of the Croatian terminal experts predicted that the TurkStream could become underutilized.

Yet another problem for Moscow is the “Three Seas Initiative,” which unites the 12 EU states located in Central and Eastern Europe with access to the Adriatic, Baltic, and Black Sea. The head of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva noted that the project will help to reduce the energy and economic dependence on Russia of the countries of the region.

In 2021 leadership of the “Initiative” transferred from Estonia to Bulgaria. Among the priorities within the framework of his work as part of the association, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev named participation in created in February of 2020 regional investment fund that will finance projects in the field of transport, energy and communications.  The United States in turn decided to invest 300 million dollars in 2021 in the “Three Seas Initiative’s” investment fund.

According to Bulgarian expert and lector at the Public Policy Institute, Plamen Ivanov, as concerns security, Bulgaria lags behind in terms of rearmament and compliance with NATO standards but is inclined toward cooperation in the Alliance. In March, new elections are expected in Bulgaria, the result of which, according to the expert, may lead to the end of the tenure of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and his party. “This might lead to the creation of a new, more pro-European majority in Parliament and a government which might pay more attention to security issues and reforms in the fight against corruption in the governmental and judicial systems,” he said.

Plamen Ivanov also expressed the hope that the new government would also diversify Bulgaria’s energy and other needs in compliance with EU diversification priorities and would draw attention to the current government’s deliberate providing routes for Russia’s military shipments to Serbia. However, there is a risk that the Socialist Party may come to power following the elections, which, combined with the rather pro-Russian stance of the current president, may exacerbate existing problems.

Less Room for Manipulation

Together with strengthening the energy independence from Russia of the Balkan countries, the Kremlin expected several serious foreign policy disappointments at the end of last year. In particular, in September an agreement on the normalisation of economic relations between Belgrade and Pristina was signed in Washington. Thus, Russia’s ability to manipulate the “Kosovo issue” in relations with Belgrade has somewhat diminished.

During his December visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met separately with one of the three members of the collective presidency (presidium) of BiH – Serb Milorad Dodik. At his press conference, he disparaged the role of the High Representative for BiH and called for strict observance of the Dayton Agreement, which is perceived by representatives of the Croatian and Muslim parts of the country as an obstacle to rapprochement with the EU. Two other members of the Presidium of the BiH – Zeljko Komšić and Shefik Jaferovic – perceived this as disrespect for the institutions of BiH and refused to meet with Lavrov.

Although Serbian President Aleksandr Vuchic declared on TV Prva that Serbia will not recognize the independence of Kosovo, at least until April 2022, Pro-Russian Serbian social activists were clearly dissatisfied with some normalisation of relations with Kosovo. In their letter to Vladimir Putin, they called to deprive Vucic of the Order of Alexander Nevsky for the fact that he “does not make efforts to protect the territorial integrity of Serbia” and “allowed the United States to directly intervene in many internal issues of the Serbian state.” Russia’s support for Serbian radicals and their attacks on Vucic could further complicate relations between the two countries.

Efficient “Soft Power”

Nevertheless, the experts take note of the fairly effective work of Russian “soft power” in the Balkans. The main ally of Moscow is President of the Serbian Republic Milorad Dodik who most consistently leads pro-Russian activities. According to a Senior Fellow with the Center for Global Policy in Washington D.C., Dr. Hikmet Karčic, “Bosnian Serb nationalists consistently block any progress towards integration with the EU and NATO, cozy up to Putin, and continually attempt to create political havoc in the country.”

There are Russian supporters among Croatian politicians, particularly the leader of the Croatian Democratic Commonwealth (CDU) Party, Dragan Čović, who has spoken out repeatedly on the need for cooperation with Moscow. Nevertheless, these efforts are unable to stop the process of convergence between the Balkan states and the West.


Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).

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