Putin Has Lost His Influence in the Balkans

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Russia has largely lost its fight for influence in the Balkans: Nine of the area’s 12 countries (plus Kosovo, which is not a United Nations member) are in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and all the Balkan nations are either in the European Union or aspire to be in it. And yet the Kremlin won’t give up, and appears to be waging a not-so-covert war against a deal between Greece and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia that removes one of the last barriers to the region’s European integration.

The deal reached last month between Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Macedonian counterpart Zoran  Zaev resolves a longstanding dispute over Macedonia’s name that has prevented the country from joining NATO and the European Union. Under the compromise, the country will change its official name to North Macedonia; its inhabitants and their language will continue to be be described with the adjective “Macedonian.” Greece’s northern region will still be called Macedonia.  

Strong opposition to the deal in both countries has been encouraged by Russia. Greece said last week that it would expel two Russian diplomats and ban two others for trying to bribe officials. The Russians had allegedly been trying to influence the Macedonia deal by stirring up the clergy and nationalist groups in northern Greece, which has a small but influential community of Russian speakers.

One prominent member of that community, the billionaire Ivan Savvidi (also known as Savvidis), alledgedly has paid at least 300,000 euros ($350,000) to Macedonian opponents of the deal, including the nationalist fans of the Macedonian soccer club Vardar. The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a global network of journalists and news organizations, has seen documentation on the payments and confirmed their veracity with some of the recipients. A police investigation is under way in Macedonia.

Russia has been backing friendly parties and splinter groups across Europe, but most of this activity (except a few high-profile cases, such as the Russian loan to the political party led by the French nationalist Marine Le Pen) has remained below the radar. In addition, diplomatic expulsions and investigations of billionaires such as Savvidi are rare. In Greece and Macedonia, however, the fraught atmosphere and the high stakes of the deal, which has been vetoed twice by Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov and will be put to a referendum in September, is making officials more open to exposing and trying to repel the interference.

The billionaire’s role demonstrates how a seemingly non-state actor can get involved on the Russian government’s side.

In Russia, Savvidi, an ethnic Greek, was a parliament member for the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, but he failed to get re-elected in 2011. The following year, he bought the PAOK soccer club in Thessaloniki and moved to Greece. In early 2018, he sold his Russian tobacco business, Donskoy Tabak, for $1.6 billion. Like some other rich Russians, he seems to have tried to distance himself from the original source of his wealth, even if he hasn’t shed some of the habits he acquired during his rise in the tough city of Rostov. In March, he ran onto the soccer field with his hand on a holstered gun to threaten the referee in a PAOK game.

The OCCRP report shows that Savvidi still has plenty of links to Russia and its policy goals. Permission to remove assets from Russia, never mind to acquire them in the first place, doesn’t come free in President Vladimir Putin’s system, which holds wealthy company owners hostage and uses them to advance government policies. 

Russia denies any interference in Macedonia, despite its stated position that NATO membership is not in the Balkan country’s interest. What’s puzzling is why the Kremlin keeps waging this losing battle for influence. “Ties to Russia are looser, more transactional, and often more fleeting than many observers assume,” Besir Ceka wrote in a recent paper on Macedonia’s pro-Western shift. 

There’s no way Russia can realistically prevent the eventual EU accession of former Yugoslav states, including the future North Macedonia. Among them, only Serbia is unlikely to join NATO. But Russia is spending money, risking scandals and undermining relations with relatively friendly European states such as Greece to stir up fringe groups without any hope of a decisive victory.

Dimitar Bechev, an expert on the region, provided a possible explanation in his 2017 book “Rival Power: Russia In Southeast Europe.” Russia, he wrote, doesn’t really have a strategy in the Balkans but is playing an opportunistic game, trying to keep its Western adversaries off balance and preserving its influence if not on governments, then on segments of the population.  

That resembles Russia’s game in the U.S. and in EU countries. Trouble for trouble’s sake is worth something to Putin even if he cannot hope for a major victory. That’s something for his adversaries to keep in mind: For the Kremlin, stoking internal divisions is a goal in itself.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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