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Western analysts warn of Russian, Chinese influence in Western Balkans

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As Russia and China increasingly align, Western policymakers and analysts are sounding the alarm about their influence in the Western Balkans. While they focus so much on the wars in the Middle East and Ukraine, they warn that the Western Balkans should not be ignored.

U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions told VOA on Wednesday that Russia has been “participating in the destabilization of the Balkans for several years” and has demonstrated that it uses disinformation and military force to achieve its goals.

“The destabilization of the Balkans is something that each of the countries is aware of,” he said. “And they see not only that this is happening, but they see whether this is a deliberate attempt to undermine these nations.”

Sessions said the United States must stand behind these nations and “work within the established parameters, the EU, NATO and other organizations.” … The United States needs to be at the forefront and say, ‘We support this and we will stand by it.’ together.’ This is what these nations need for the United States of America to stand strong alongside them, individually and as a group. »

“Part of Putin’s strategy”

Edward P. Joseph, a Balkans analyst at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, agrees.

“The Balkans are part of Putin’s strategy. He wants to divide Europe from the United States, and he wants to divide Europe within it. And the Balkans are for him a privileged path to achieve this,” he said. -he declared Wednesday to VOA.

Sessions and Joseph participated this week in an annual congressional security forum focused on this issue and held during the National Prayer Breakfast. They were joined by politicians and lawmakers from Europe and the Western Balkans, a region made up of six countries including Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Serbia.

Analysts say Moscow uses political interference and disinformation that it deploys through its historically close ties with Serbia and other friendly actors in the region.

“Russia is conducting active operations in the Balkans at very low cost,” Joseph said. He cited as an example Serbia which hosts Russian media Russia today And Sputnik.

“These are platforms that spread pro-Russian speeches in the region,” he said. “And this is just one of the ways that Serbia is negatively affecting the advancement of the Russian agenda.”

Focus on integration

At the security forum, Naz Durakoglu, assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, said the United States is very concerned about the influence of China and Russia in the region and is working in various ways to strengthen democracy in these countries. These include foreign aid, a focus on fighting corruption and promoting reforms “to help integrate Western Balkan countries into the EU and each other.”

Albania is a member of NATO and works closely with the United States. His former defense minister, Fatmir Mediu, is one of the organizers of the security forum.

“The way forces like Russia and China operate is to first try to start new conflicts,” he told VOA. “The second is to create a kind of status quo regarding certain unresolved situations and problems in order to prevent membership in the European Union and NATO and to expand their geoeconomic and geopolitical influence.”

Belt and Road in China

Durakoglu said that while Russia exerts its influence through gaslighting and disinformation, China pursues its interests primarily through economic and infrastructure investments.

Valbona Zeneli, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, has written extensively on Chinese and Russian influence in the Western Balkans.

“The Western Balkans have seen a significant expansion of Chinese influence over the past decade, in line with Beijing’s geo-economic and diplomatic vision of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and in the strategic context broader picture of China-EU relations,” she wrote in a recent research article. She is also working on a book on the subject.

“The geostrategic position of the Western Balkans is perfect as a bridgehead to EU markets and a key transit corridor for China’s BRI. Chinese interests in the region are strongly linked to infrastructure projects and privatization opportunities, where demand for preferential loans is high. and acquisition prices are low,” she said.

“We hold the cards”

As Russia and China align their positions against the West, experts say they want to distract from major global conflicts, such as Ukraine, the Middle East and China’s increasingly hostile stance. in the South China Sea.

For Albania’s Mediu, it is clear that “Russia, but also China, and perhaps also Iran, are seeking to create problems in the Balkan region, to create another point of conflict and to distract attention from Ukraine.

By countering this influence, the United States supports its allies in the region. The Pentagon confirmed US approval last month of the potential sale of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Kosovo for an estimated $75 million.

“This proposed sale will support the foreign policy and national security objectives of the United States by enhancing the security of a European partner that is an important force for political and economic stability in Europe,” the Pentagon said.

He added that the sale “will improve Kosovo’s long-term defense capability to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity to meet its national defense needs.”

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic expressed his “deep disappointment” with the decision. Russia also “strongly condemned” these plans.

The proposed sale comes amid tensions between Kosovo and Serbia that the EU is seeking to resolve. In its persistent refusal of the independence of its former province, Serbia has benefited from the strong support of Russia and China.

Despite all the concerns about Russia and China’s incursions into the region, Johns Hopkins University’s Joseph said the good news is that the West holds the cards.

“It’s not like Ukraine. Russia is too far away to bring in ground forces. NATO members are encircling the Balkans. All countries in the region except Serbia want to join “NATO. And some are already members of NATO,” he said.

The European Union, he said, “is by far the largest trading partner. So we hold the cards. We have to use them correctly.”

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