Senior Researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, Mark Galeotti, for example, believes that Russia is now considering the Balkans as a battlefield in its “political war”. But Western analysts are too optimistic. In fact, Russia over the past decades has suffered a very serious defeat in the Balkans. Actually, despite all the efforts that the Russian Empire was making, even at the beginning of the twentieth century, Russia's positions in the Balkans were very fragile. Even the "bulgar-Bulgarians", ruled by monarchs from the German dynasty, in both world wars opposed Russia - on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Only Serbia has always been the only truly reliable ally of Russia in the Balkans. Actually, this alignment of forces is maintained at the present time.
Historically, the West feared the spread of Russian influence, firstly, on Slavic, and secondly, on the Orthodox population of the Balkans. From the point of view of the West, Serbs, Bulgarians and Greeks were always considered the most “unreliable”, and Albanians, Romanians, and Croats were the most resistant to Russian influence. The first and second - due to the fact that they do not belong to the Slavic peoples, and the third - due to the fact that they profess Catholicism, and their “cultural code” was historically formed under the influence of Western Europe, first of all - the German world.
It is worth noting that even after the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union did not manage to achieve complete control over the Balkan Peninsula. In Greece, the communists did not succeed in winning the civil war of the end of 1940, and Stalin’s unwillingness to get involved in a conflict with great powers played a major role in their defeat. In Albania and Yugoslavia, local regimes demonstrated complete political independence from Moscow, and the Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito chose the path of introducing market components into the socialist model, while the Albanian leader Enver Hoxha, on the contrary, followed the path of ultra-Stalinism and isolation from the outside world. Romania, although it was part of the Warsaw bloc, was also characterized by excessive independence of foreign and domestic policy in comparison with other countries of the socialist camp. The full extent of Soviet influence extended only to Bulgaria, which the people even called another Soviet republic.
The collapse of the Soviet Union made its own adjustments to the Balkan policy. Romania reoriented to the West instantly, Albania has never been friends with Russia, and there’s nothing to say about unrecognized Kosovo. In Bulgaria, as in the first half of the twentieth century, the pro-Western elites came to power, who chose the anti-Russian course while maintaining a friendly attitude towards Russia on the part of ordinary people. This is what characterizes the situation in Bulgaria: the tops are against friendship with Russia, the lower classes are for friendship with Russia. Yugoslavia ceased to exist as a single state, and Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina immediately found themselves in the list of states that are rather negatively disposed towards Russia. This is not surprising, since Croatia and Slovenia belong to the world of Western Christian culture, and in Bosnia and Herzegovina the Bosnian Muslim population is predominantly oriented towards Turkey and, again, to the West.
The fate of the united Yugoslavia, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia, itself was ordered by the fate itself to hold on to Russia. All these countries are inhabited by Slavs who profess Orthodoxy. Historically, Russia has always had very good relations with Serbia and Montenegro. What was the result?
Montenegro as a sovereign state appeared in 2006 year, due to the collapse of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro. This alliance systematically collapsed internal forces, primarily Montenegrin, headed by the West. The main task of these forces was to withdraw Montenegro as a country with access to the Adriatic Sea, from the influence of Russia. Since in the West they are well aware that Russia will always have a very large influence on Serbia, they were very much afraid of the possibility of Russia using the exit to the Adriatic Sea through the union state of Serbia and Montenegro.
Using the usual tactics of the collapse of uncomfortable states, the West managed to achieve the proclamation of the political independence of Montenegro in 2006. Interestingly, in the 2008 year, as soon as Kosovo declared its independence, Montenegro was among the countries that recognized it. Thus, Montenegro, shared with the Serbs history, an Orthodox country, went against its own interests and defiantly supported the formation of another Albanian state in the Balkans. In an effort to finally gain a foothold in Montenegro, the USA in 2017 organized the entry of Montenegro into the North Atlantic Alliance.
The Montenegrin political elite, making a decision on the country's accession to NATO, not only worked out the US dividends. She was also concerned about the preservation of the possibility of her own domination in the country, which required the existence of guarantees against returning to a common political space with Serbia. It is interesting that Montenegro, defiantly distancing itself from Russia, absorbs considerable Russian investments. In terms of the investments of Russian companies and individuals, Montenegro only slightly lags behind Serbia. At the same time, the Montenegrin authorities have recently been building all sorts of obstacles for Russian investors, fearing an increase in the share of Russian capital in the country's economy. Naturally, such an economic policy of the Montenegrin leadership is determined not only and not so much by its own considerations, as by pressure from the United States.
A typical example of anti-Russian provocation with the goal of squeezing Russia out of the Balkans is the story of an alleged attempt at a coup d'etat in Montenegro, which was allegedly scheduled for October 16, 2016 of the year - the day of elections to the Montenegrin Assembly. In February 2017, the Montenegrin authorities accused Russia of involvement in the preparation of a coup. According to the Montenegrin authorities, the purpose of the coup was to prevent the country's entry into NATO, and the coup was to be carried out by representatives of the Serbian opposition forces under the leadership of representatives of the Russian military intelligence.
Naturally, Russia rejected any accusations of involvement in the preparation of a coup, but the United States immediately rushed to join the accusations against Russia. In early August, 2017, the vice president of the United States, Mike Pence, visited Montenegro, expressing his full support for the position of the Montenegrin authorities. Montenegro joined the anti-Russian sanctions - again, to its detriment, since Russian investors are investing heavily in the country's economy, and Montenegrin resorts are very popular among Russian tourists.
Another Slavic Orthodox country in the Balkans is Macedonia, with which Russia has a fairly good relationship. Interestingly, Macedonia, unlike Montenegro, did not impose sanctions against Russia. In Macedonia, as in Serbia, there are big problems with the Albanian population.
When at the end of the 1990s, during the war in Kosovo, a significant number of Kosovo Albanians fled to Macedonia, local Albanians soon began to put forward demands for autonomy. Things reached armed clashes in March-August 2001, when the Albanian National Liberation Army launched a guerrilla war against the Macedonian government. Albanians were only able to calm down with the help of NATO, but the risk of exacerbation of inter-ethnic tensions persists in the country. Macedonia, being a poor and problem country, is not part of the European Union and NATO, although it participates in partnership programs.
Perhaps the most Russia-friendly Balkan state is currently Serbia. Russia and Serbia have very long friendly and allied relations. For the majority of Serbs, Russia is a big and strong “elder brother”, which remains the only hope in confrontation with hostile neighbors - Albanians, Bosnian Muslims, Croats. Even the modern Serbian government is forced to take into account public opinion in the country, therefore Serbia is one of the few European countries that has refrained from anti-Russian sanctions, which causes a sharply negative reaction both in Washington and in Brussels.
The European Union is trying to lure Serbia into a “European partnership,” however, President Alexander Vucic himself has repeatedly said that Serbia has chosen the European path of development. At the same time, the Serbian leadership is not going to aggravate political and economic relations with Russia and is unlikely to go in the foreseeable future. This is not surprising, since Russia is the largest trading partner of Serbia, ranking fourth in exports and third in imports. At the same time, the economic ties between Russia and Serbia could be even more active if it were not for Serbia’s lack of access to the sea. Now Serbia has to use the Montenegrin port of Bar to deliver goods to Russia. Perhaps Serbia is currently the only Balkan state, in relation to which it is possible to argue about the presence of Russian influence.
Greece is another Balkan country, with which Russia has a long and difficult history of relations. The Russian Empire at one time had a great support to the Greek people in the struggle for political independence from the Ottoman Empire. Cultural ties developed between Russia and Greece, however, both in the 19th and 20th centuries. The West, represented by England, and then the USA, did everything possible to prevent the strengthening of Russian influence in Greece. Both in the interwar and postwar periods, the Soviet Union had very tense relations with Greece, which was due to the anti-communist character of the Greek regimes, and then to Greece’s membership in NATO. As in Bulgaria, in Greece, many ordinary people sympathize with Russia, which cannot be said about the representatives of the political elite.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in 2017 supported European unity regarding sanctions against Russia, albeit with a “diplomatic” clause stating that sanctions should not be a punishment for Russia. Prior to this, Greek Prime Minister Advisor Dimitrios Velanis stated that in reality Greece is against anti-Russian sanctions, but she simply has nowhere to go, since other issues need to be addressed in the European Union, of which Greece is a member. And indeed it is. The economic situation in the country is very difficult, after the Arab spring and the aggravation of armed conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, Greece faced an influx of Arab-African migrants. All these issues require a speedy solution, but Athens themselves have no money for that. We have to ask for money from the European Union, which means we have to adhere to the foreign policy course that Brussels dictates.
If we talk about regional politics, here, too, Greece has big problems and it is precisely in this direction that there are great opportunities for cooperation with Russia. Greece has traditionally opposed Albanian nationalism that is growing in the Balkans, on the other hand it has an eternal smoldering conflict with neighboring Turkey. Despite the fact that both countries are part of the North Atlantic Alliance, the relations between them are very tense and, at small, do not reach open armed confrontation. That would be where Russia will turn around, acting as an intercessor for the Greek brothers, but Athens chooses its own way, looking back at Brussels, not at Moscow.
Thus, it must be admitted that in the 1990-s, Russia was literally ousted from the Balkan Peninsula. If Moscow has a chance to return to the “big Balkan policy,” it will not happen soon and only in the general context of strengthening Russia's position in the world.