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(BSF) Western Balkans will not be a battleground between the West and Russia

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BELGRADE – Managing Russia’s growing assertiveness in recent years, particularly with regard to the Western Balkans, was the main topic discussed at the fourth session of the Belgrade Security Forum 2018. Moderated by Gordana DelicDirector of the Balkan Trust for Democracy, the session titled “Beyond Ideology: West-Russian Relations and Political Pragmatism” was an intersection of the Forum’s regional and global topics.

Russia is, generally speaking, weaker than Western countries. However, NATO and EU members are disunited on many fronts, and Moscow is able to exploit these divisions, stressed Ulrich Kuhnnon-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

According to him, the EU should find a way to overcome its internal problems in order to protect its fundamental interest: a peaceful Europe with strong territorial integrity of all countries. Russia violated this principle when it occupied Crimea, Kühn said.

The West must find a operating mode in its relations with Russia, and this should not be an enmity, he concluded. A step in this direction would be to prevent a possible alliance between Russia and China.

Stefan Lehne, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and lecturer at the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna, focused on Russian activity in the Western Balkans. According to him, the idea that the region could become a future geopolitical battleground between the West and Russia is unfounded.

The Western Balkans are much more firmly anchored in the Western sphere of influence, Lehne said, while calling the EU a “reluctant magnet.” However, the only significant aspect through which the region is connected to Russia is energy.

“In terms of strategic options, Russia has little to offer the region. Attempts to frustrate EU regional policies will continue, however,” Lehne said, explaining that Moscow’s strategy is to use a minimum of means to cause the maximum possible frustration.

“I am more afraid of the EU’s inaction than of Russia’s action,” he concluded.

Also participated in the panel Clarisse Duvigneau, Senior Policy Advisor to NATO’s Strategic Analysis Capabilities Section in Brussels. Asked whether EU enlargement had been replaced by NATO enlargement in the region, she highlighted the difference between the two processes, with the former expected to last longer due to deeper changes in the country.

Duvigneau stressed that even if some countries in the region, such as Serbia, do not wish to join NATO, cooperation with the Alliance brings multiple benefits. Russia and NATO have also developed relatively comprehensive cooperation, even if this has suffered in recent years, she recalled.

Countries must have the right to freely choose the international organizations of which they will be part, without external influence, Duvigenau was adamant.

Reflecting on his statement during his second round, Kühn recalled that Russia considers itself a great power, with a sphere of influence that every great power must have. These two trends, countries choosing freely and some countries having a sphere of influence, must be reconciled. His suggestion was to declare the end of NATO enlargement after Macedonia becomes the 30th member.

Two last speakers, Pavel Louzinefounder of the research startup Under Mad Trends and Niklas Novakyresearcher at the Wilfried Martens Center for European Studies, discussed in more detail the internal organization of Russia and other European states.

Luzin stressed that it would be of utmost importance for the EU and the West for Russia to go through a comprehensive modernization process, moving closer to developed European countries. This is an extremely difficult thing to achieve, he recalled, due to the well-established interests of state structures, which control 70% of GDP.

On the other hand, Nováky highlighted the conditions required to resist Russian pressure and maintain relative neutrality. Drawing on the example of his home country Finland, he cited open communication channels with Moscow as well as internal stability as two main requirements.

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