Keeping the Balkans Out of Putin’s Grasp

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- For the Balkan states of the former Yugoslavia, this should be a time of optimism. Montenegro has become the 29th member of NATO. The Republic of Macedonia is working toward ending a years-long dispute with Greece over its official name. Peace talks on the future of Kosovo are moving ahead, albeit fitfully. And Bosnia has held a national election unmarred by the kind of rioting that happened in 2014.

To Vladimir Putin, however, all this is unwelcome news, reflecting as it does a stabilization of the Balkans and a strengthening of its ties with Western Europe. The Russian president considers Western nations’ embrace of the Balkans to be part of an effort to encircle Russia and deprive it of its place as a world power. Thus, Moscow is making every effort to get in the way.

Just days before the Bosnian elections, for instance, Putin held a highly publicized meeting in Russia with Milorad Dodik, a leader of the separatist movement among Bosnian ethnic Serbs who is under U.S. sanctions, helping Dodik win one of three presidential seats.

In Montenegro, the Russian hacking group Fancy Bear (a key player in Moscow’s meddling with the 2016 U.S. presidential election) reportedly attempted a cyberattack against the defense ministry. In Serbia, Russia established a supposed humanitarian-relief center that the U.S. warns is cover for an espionage operation. And in Macedonia’s name referendum, a Russian disinformation campaign helped depress participation, which ended up too low to make the vote binding.

Such actions create problems for Europe as well as the Balkans, because they destabilize the continent’s southeastern flank. Top EU officials worry that there could be a return to the wars of the 1990s.

Yet Europe has inadvertently strengthened Russia’s influence by keeping the Balkan states in limbo over EU membership. Serbia and Montenegro could join as early as 2025, but European leaders seem in no hurry to act. French President Emmanuel Macron recently said that any prospects of EU enlargement should be put off indefinitely until there is “a deepening and better functioning of the European Union.”

Donald Trump only made matters worse earlier this year when he called Montenegrins “very aggressive” people and questioned whether the U.S. would defend the NATO member from invasion.

Europe should instead assure Serbia and Montenegro that their EU applications are back on track, provided they undertake needed reforms against government corruption. Both the EU and NATO should see that Macedonia, too, is put on a path for membership once its dispute with Greece is resolved.

The EU could encourage the peace talks between Serbia and Kosovo by helping resolve disagreement over a controversial new import tax, and perhaps also financially backing a fund for the reconciliation process, as it did for Northern Ireland.

And Europe could invest in efforts to counter Russian propaganda and fight government corruption, as the U.S. did with a $7 million package last year. NATO, in particular, could share with Balkan states its growing anti-hacking expertise, and conduct large-scale military and disaster-relief exercises with not just Montenegro but also non-member nations. 

Finally, it’s hard to overstate the importance of official visits by high-ranking European and U.S. officials. In combating Russian propaganda, every bit of moral support from the West goes a long way. To continue their progress toward peace and stability, the Balkans need assurances that Europe and the U.S. won’t leave them vulnerable to Putin’s manipulations.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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