What is Russia’s role in the Western Balkans? Is Serbia’s neutrality lasting? What does Kosovo’s new army mean for the region’s security, and what does North Macedonia’s membership in the Alliance mean? We interviewed Alexandre PolitiDirector of the NATO Defense College Foundation, to learn more about these issues.
European Western Balkans: The US Department of Defense recently released a report assessing the Western Balkans as the environment most vulnerable to Russian influence. Just a few weeks ago, Serbian public opinion was shocked by a espionage case involving a former Russian diplomat. How do you see Russia’s role in the Balkans?
Alessandro Politi: I haven’t seen the report (it doesn’t appear to be published online), but Russian influence is unfortunately much more insidious and effective in some Western countries than in the Balkans. As similar vast intelligence-gathering operations in other countries have proven, spying on one’s own ally does not seem taboo. No other politically relevant developments followed the publication of the meeting between a Russian officer and an unnamed Serbian officer.
Russia is obviously leading a rearguard action in the region, but with modest strategic results so far, since Montenegro has entered NATO and North Macedonia could soon do so. Spies, diplomats, and propaganda are largely instruments of the Cold War, even though I have believed and warned since 2017 that the new frontier of Russian influence is the gray area between business and politics. Unfortunately, this can be seen very clearly through various political, economic, influence peddling and money laundering scandals.
A few niets Further integration of the region could cause more damage than Moscow could imagine.
ISF: Given all these circumstances, is Serbia’s military neutrality possible? Are Serbia and the region less safe?
AP: Since the 19th century, Serbia has maintained remarkable relations with Russia, but always at a distance, as shown in the secret memorandum of Ilija Garašanin (Nacheranije) and Tito’s subsequent political orientation was manifested very clearly.
Serbia is opportunistically trying to get the best deal possible from both sides, but it knows that only Europe can save its very fragile economy. Unless European leaders make serious mistakes, Serbia will enter the European Union along with other regional partners.
As for the question of neutrality, NATO has several neutral partners and sometimes even countries in a rather Russian orbit, without any problems also at the operational level. In fact, NATO’s official position is that it is up to Belgrade to choose its own status.
ISF: During your career, you have been very involved in Kosovo. Can you tell us about the importance of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue for regional security and how do you see the outcome?
PA: The importance of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue goes well beyond security: it constitutes one of the pillars of a sustainable Western Balkans region. We must be very clear that this is not a fashion of the international community, but a vital interest of the people and governments of the region: no integration, no viable economies , more depopulation and emigration from already demographically fragile countries.
There are elite sectors in both capitals that exploit nationalist slogans to continue business as usual to the detriment of impoverished populations. This will backfire, provided that European leaders seriously pursue the integration process.
I am confident in the result, but I would like to be reassured about the deadlines.
ISF: The Chief of General Staff of the Serbian Armed Forces, General Milan Mojsilović, said during the seventh NATO Week that Serbia was concerned about the initiative to transform the Kosovo Security Force ( KSF) in armed forces and that NATO’s position on the issue was not clear to him. What do you think of this initiative and how does NATO perceive it?
PA: NATO is very clear on this issue: enhanced dialogue is only possible with the Kosovo security forces, because some countries have no political appetite (and for strong reasons) to spark equally divisive debates on their own territory. Some countries don’t care, but risk getting dragged into local quagmires instead of reducing their external commitments.
The political reasons why some Pristina politicians want the creation of an armed force in Kosovo are obvious, but they seem vaguely linked to a credible guarantee of national security. KFOR is the guarantee until both parties close the case. It would be much more productive to continue the recruitment of minorities into the KSF and respond to the political demands of Kosovar Serb citizens in ways that increase Pristina’s soft influence in these municipalities, instead of polarizing public opinion.
ISF: When Montenegro joined the Alliance, there were considerable doubts about the contribution of such a “small” country to the Alliance. We now find ourselves in a situation where the somewhat “bigger” North Macedonia is on the verge of joining the Union. So how does North Macedonia’s membership improve the security of NATO and the Western Balkans region?
PA: Frankly, in an Alliance based on a serious political pact and shared fundamental values, the “size” of a country was and is not an issue. NATO has countries of different “sizes”, but each capital can and wants to make a unique contribution that proves very important in specific situations.
I have seen small countries providing invaluable support with their special forces or with new health facilities, both of which are essential. I have also seen allies take on very heavy political and operational burdens during serious crises, despite their low defense contribution to GDP. When money is an object, trust disappears and everyone is more alone and vulnerable.
Montenegro and North Macedonia are already able to contribute in a very concrete way to KFOR thanks to their distinct experience and knowledge.
ISF: What are your expectations from the NATO leaders’ meeting and what can the Western Balkan countries expect?
PA: Democracies face serious internal political weaknesses that undermine Alliance cohesion far more than any foreign power conspiracy. This translates into the risk of reduced collective credibility and all leaders should meet this challenge through responsible actions and behavior. There is a reasonable chance that a communiqué will facilitate the evolution of a functioning Alliance.