Russia’s headway in the Balkans

Moldovan President-elect Igor Dodon
Pro-Russian candidate Igor Dodon won Moldova’s presidential elections, mainly due to large corruption scandals involving the government (source: dpa)

While the world was preoccupied with the presidential election in the United States, two others took place in Southeastern Europe. In both countries – Bulgaria and Moldova – pro-Russian candidates won. The victories play into Moscow’s hands. For some 200 years, Russia’s strategy has been to gain access to the Mediterranean through a system of alliances in the Balkans. The leadership in the Kremlin continues this strategy today.

Traditionally, the region is where the interests of Russia, Turkey and Europe (before World War I the Habsburg Empire) met – and clashed. Today Southeastern Europe is still somewhat unstable, meaning outside powers can still have an influence.

Moldova, a former Soviet republic, became a member of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership. The country’s government and prime minister are pro-EU, but its candidate lost the presidential elections to pro-Russian candidate Igor Dodon, mainly due to gigantic corruption scandals. Other reasons include the importance of remittances from Moldovans working in Russia and the damage caused by the sanctions against Moscow.

Major General Rumen Radev, a big critic of the West’s sanctions against Russia, won the presidential election in Bulgaria, the EU’s poorest member. Factors behind his victory might also include corruption and the damage to Bulgaria’s economy inflicted by the sanctions. However, another major factor was also the abandonment of the South Stream pipeline project due to EU regulations, which cost Bulgaria dearly. After the election, the country’s pro-European government resigned. New parliamentary elections will take place early next year.

Moscow’s growing influence

These events do not mean that Moldova will quit the Eastern Partnership or Bulgaria will leave the European Union. They can facilitate Russian influence, however.

If we look at the whole region, we see fertile ground for Moscow to gain sway. Many nations there do not harbor the distrust of Russia that is found in Poland or the Baltics. Some countries in Southeastern Europe – with the clear exception of the Albanians – have even considered Russia a protective power.

Russia is now likely to complete its sphere of influence in the region

Transnistria, a separatist part of Moldova, sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine, considers itself a member of the Russian Federation (it formally asked to join in 2014). Serbia, a reluctant EU accession candidate, is open to Russian partnership. The Serbian Orthodox Church has close ties to the Russian Orthodox Church and holds significant influence in both Serbian and Macedonian politics. There is a risk of violent conflict in Macedonia, which is ethnically split between Macedonians and Albanians. Greece’s insistence on blocking it from joining the EU could drive Macedonia into the arms of Serbia, and finally Russia. Greece itself is shaky both politically and economically, and has made its own overtures toward Russia.

Russia is now likely to complete its sphere of influence in the region, from the Adriatic Sea and the Balkans down to the Eastern Mediterranean, where Moscow already has a strong foothold through its involvement in Syria and the presence of its only aircraft carrier. Turkey, a pillar of NATO, is now prioritizing its own interests, which do not always align anymore with those of the U.S. or Europe. All of this is also likely to strengthen Russia's position in the Black Sea.

The result is a new situation in the Balkans, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Black Sea region and the Middle East. It is a clear case of how events can have a ripple effect throughout an entire region.

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