Balancing between East and West Russia in South East Europe

By Fr. Paul Lansu
Senior Policy Advisor, Pax Christi International

The implosion of violence in the former Federal Republic Yugoslavia during the nineties has not only had a (negative) impact concerning the relations between persons and peoples, but has also initiated a process of disintegration. The multi-ethnic federation got dissolved. Underlying ethnic, religious and cultural differences were magnified and thus gave occasion for armed violence.

Politically, the South East European region changed quickly. Within a few decades, there occurred a “balkanization” of the region (the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in separate republics), as well as there being a desire of belonging to larger unities, like the European Union and the NATO. Meanwhile, Russian foreign policy desires to remain a visible power factor in the region as well.

Peace advancement: from presence to consultation

Mostly during and since the nineties, but after too, both Pax Christi International and various Pax Christi sections have organised projects for peace advancement in South East Europe. Consultations were organised in the region at certain times. Local peace activists as well as key figures from the various countries began a process with Pax Christi sections and Pax Christi board members to prevent conflicts, reduce tensions during conflicts and mostly to reunite people of different religious and/or ethnic backgrounds. Solidarity with the victims of violence always stood at the forefront and means were sought after for recovering justice in society, but also between churches and populations. Representatives of Pax Christi International and mostly of the different sections (among others Germany, Austria, Italy, The Netherlands, Flanders) have taken initiatives during the armed conflicts in the former Yugoslavia by seeking a rapprochement to people in the region (presence/solidarity), by inviting them for consultation and not in the least by (re)uniting people. The policy influencing work by Pax Christi Flanders in and around Kosovo, for example, constitutes a historical standard.

The most recent events of Pax Christi International in the region took place in 2011 in Vukovar, on the Croatian-Serbian border; in Warsaw and Auschwitz/Oswiecim in 2013 in Poland; and in 2014 in Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Up until today, the past wars represent open wounds and are the cause of continuous conflict.

Definition of the region

A preceding question is: which countries are meant when one speaks about South East Europe? There is no conclusive answer. Some speak about the Balkan. According to myself, the best approach would be an inclusive one and thus to speak about the ‘broader’ South East Europe. This would include all countries that were formerly part of Yugoslavia plus Albania, Rumania and Bulgaria. To this list, I would furthermore add Greece, Cyprus and Turkey. All these countries have a shared history (the Ottoman Empire for example) and a geographical continuity. Turkey has a population of nearly 75 million people. Rumania of 20 million. All other countries have relatively smaller populations. Montenegro for example does not even reach a number of 645.000 inhabitants.

Should peace be imposed?

Does something good come out of a war? Even after shooting has ended, the consequences are dramatic. The human dramas and traumas are often indescribable. One never gets used to war. There is enormous insecurity during and after armed conflict. War and violence are never a solution. At best, they will lead to an enforced peace, like the “Pax Dayton” or the “Pax Holbrooke” in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995. Just like the Pax Romana, peace was imposed there, regardless of what the population wanted. The putting down of arms – which constitutes the bare minimum – thus does not mean that there is a sustainable peace. More than ever, the country is divided and remains standing due to (or despite of) a jumble of regional governments and parliaments. The underlying tensions between ethnic and religious entities remain. Here, peace does not signify anything more than the absence of armed violence.

Blood, religion and history

The question I ask myself is not just how the politicians involved, but also how a regional superpower like Russia respond to events in the region. With the necessary pragmatics politicians of the region look to the West (the EU and the NATO in particular), but there remains an underlying bond between Russia and countries like Serbia and Bulgaria and parts of the other republics, such as the Republika Srpska in BiH. Connecting elements can be found mostly in the sphere of identity, religion, language, culture/blood and shared history. Russia’s supply of gas and oil to the region ensures an economic connection (dependency). Russian energy can be regarded as a geostrategic weapon in Europe. It appears that Russia retains enough impact to do business with the states in the South East European region. Boldly, it could be stated that Russia makes use of the instability that exists in some of these republics in Europe’s periphery.

Foreign countries in Russia’s vicinity

Some analysts speak of “Putism” as an ideological alternative to the Western liberalism promoted by, among others, the EU. South East European populations are sensitive to this. President Vladimir Putin serves as a symbol for the cult around a strong leader, with a strong grip on economy and security, with a muzzled media and dissidents that are reduced to silence (“desputism”). The Ukrainian crisis in 2013/14 has brought Russia into action and has made it interfere, both politically and economically. Moreover, it has nourished anti-Western sentiments in the region. A turning point in that direction was the Russian annexation of the Crimea in 2014. Western sanctions have failed and still fail to modify Russian policy concerning Ukraine.

After Soviet president Gorbachev (with reforms, decentralisation and an option for a pan-European safety network) and mostly the Russian president Yeltsin (with choices for market economy and political pluralism), Russia has again worked its way back to being an influential player on the international scene under Putin and Medvedev. In the security sphere, the Warsaw Pact got rescinded and there came a vacuum, which was to be filled by the NATO. For a while, Russia flirted with the West, among others with a partnership with the NATO and relations with the EU. Many Russians, however, felt a lack of respect from the West and subsequently the country began an assertive foreign policy. Russia wants to be equal to the US again as a superpower. Some speak of a new Cold War between West and East. Multilateralism among the states will, however, prevent this.

In the recent Balkan war, Russia has time and again opted for diplomacy, for the creation of peace zones and has also dedicated itself to peace missions, like in BiH. Less known is that the Russians have also – illegitimately armed – fought alongside Serbs in countries like BiH and elsewhere, the so-called mercenaries.

Keeping Russian influence at bay

The Baltic republics and Poland keep Russian influence at bay as much as they can. They also differ from the other countries in South East Europe in historical, geographical, cultural and religious respect. The visible presence of the Catholic Church in Poland and Protestant churches in the Baltic republics are an example of such differences. Countries like Slovenia and Croatia too lean more towards the West than towards Russia. Polish policy attaches great importance to NATO- and EU membership, but the Atlantic connection with the US especially is a decisive factor. Poland aims to reduce its energy dependency from Russia.

Kosovo as a breaking point between the East and West

The desire for independence among Kosovo’s majority has led to armed conflict. In 1999, the NATO intervened in the conflict on humanitarian grounds. She let aerial bombardments on Serbian targets take place to put pressure on Milosevic’s regime to leave Kosovo. There is/was a large Serbian Orthodox minority in Kosovo. The Serbian Orthodox Church has some of her most significant religious sites in the north of Kosovo. The Albanian Muslim majority’s influence was more than burdensome for the minorities. The NATO intervention was deemed unacceptable by Russia. Russia wanted to co-determine Kosovo’s future and continued opting for diplomacy.

On 17 February 2008, the Kosovar government declared its independence.[1] Until then, it remained a Serbian province under UN mandate. Kosovo was recognised as an independent state by 111 countries. This applied for 23 of the 28 EU-countries too. Significantly, countries like Cyprus, Rumania, Greece, Russia (and naturally Serbia too) did not acknowledge Kosovo as a state. “Kosovo’s status” made Russia and Serbia grow closer again. They fear for a Kosovo within a Greater Albania. Kosovo has quickly focused on a European perspective.

Choosing the West

From 2000 onwards, many countries set in the “return to Europe” and the West in general. For many of these countries this even went so far as them supporting the wars in Afghanistan (2001) and – especially – Iraq (2003). They were called the “New Europe”, whereas most West European countries that were against the American-British war in Iraq were mockingly called the “Old Europe” by US diplomacy.

Slovenia, Bulgaria and Rumania joined the NATO in 2004, Croatia and Albania did so in 2009 and Montenegro in 2017. Most other countries of the region are candidate-members for the EU and the NATO. Slovenia became an EU-member in 2004, Croatia in 2013. Due to the internal political entanglements within the EU, there is a rather small chance that new members will join the EU anytime soon. Serbia and Montenegro are at the bottom of the EU-list.

New Russian dependency

Besides the traditional economic links between Russia and South East Europe, mostly concerning the energy sphere (oil and gas), Russia took on a more assertive attitude towards these same countries in the area of networks, political contacts/parties and media, mostly through solidarity as Slav peoples. The Russian lobby in, among others, Bulgaria is large. Furthermore, Russia does not tolerate interference in countries like Ukraine, Moldovia and Georgia. No Western influence in Russia’s backyard!

The close ties between Russia on the one hand, and countries like Bulgaria and Rumania on the other hand differ in their nature. Already in the time of the Soviet Union, Bulgaria could pass as the 16th SU-republic. Pro-Russian sentiments remain significant in Bulgaria. In the safety sphere, Rumania has always taken a different course: it withdrew from the Warsaw Pact and occasionally flirted with the West. The connection with Russia, however, remains strong through Orthodox culture and other cultural ties. The Cyrillic alphabet is used in both Bulgaria and Russia. Some countries have approved of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, while denouncing the EU-sanctions against Russia. Russia has also dedicated itself to good relations with Greece and Cyprus. They remain the pro-Russian countries within the EU.

Balancing with Turkey

Between Russia and Turkey, there exists a love-hate relationship. The countries confer with each other about the Syrian war, even if they deploy different strategies. During the war in BiH, Turkey sided with the Bosniaks (Muslims), while Russia took the side of the Serbs (Orthodox).

Turkey is dependent on Russia for its energy and has an increasing exchange of tourists with the country. Religiously, the countries remain largely at opposite sides: Orthodox Christianity versus the Islam. Presidents Putin and Erdogan have emerged as authoritarian leaders with corresponding regimes. Some call them the “Tsar” and the “Sultan”. The two presidents have strongly personalised their relationship: they stand side by side in their aversion from the Western liberal model of a constitutional state, free media and a pluralistic civilian society.

Like Russia, Turkey lies largely in Asia. It is a NATO-member since 1952 and has tactical American nuclear weaponry on its territory. Possible EU-membership for Turkey remains a matter in dispute; negotiations about this were put on hold. Concerning Turkey, the EU hammers away at certain political criteria, like free and correct elections, the separation of powers, an independent judicial system, freedom of speech, a free civilian society, minority rights and the absence of capital punishment. It may be deemed inevitable that Russia and Turkey would agree with each other on migration. Turkey receives approximately 3 million Syrian refugees in exchange for 3 billion euros[2] from the EU. Despite the many differences, Turkey and Russia remain good friends: they have learned to live with their differences.

Military relations

Russian military presence has increased in the Black Sea-region, partly because of the annexation of the Crimea, where the Russians have a fleet in Sebastopol. The direct involvement in the Syrian war too has boosted Russia’s military significance. In 2015, Russia spend more than 4% of its GNP on weaponry.

Justifiably, the country continues to protest further expansion of the NATO and has therefore strengthened its ties with Serbia. Russia has “security antennae” in most South-East European countries.

Russia remains superior when it comes to “information warfare” – “armament of information”. It carries out cyber-attacks against critical infrastructure. This is accompanied by a policy of disinformation. Meanwhile, working with double agents and infiltration in foreign security forces remains a familiar tactic.

Ideas and culture as a weapon

Russia under Putin has a strong appeal among Eastern Orthodox minorities (Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Republika Srpska in BiH, Macedonia and the Greek part of Cyprus). Two thirds of these countries’ populations regard Russia as a strong friend and good neighbour. Ranging from Banja Luka in BiH until Nicosia on Greek Cyprus, politicians and opinion makers plead in favour of a strong relationship with Russia. These countries are not completely aware that through this they are also influenced by “soft pressure” from the Russian leaders. Russia has demonstrated itself capable of “arming” ideas, culture and information and of controlling all (or at least much) of it.

What goes on among the Russian population? Memories about great victimisation during the Second World War are being brought back. The aversion to Nazism, anti-Americanism and the fear of the Islam continue to be part of the political leaders’ and the population’s thoughts.

Russia continues to dedicate itself to symbolic ties to South East Europe: shared history, religious connections, cultural and linguistic affinity with the Southern Slavs, sharing in human contacts, emotions and fears.

In a broader European context, but not in the least in Central Europe and South East Europe, there is growing populism, which reveals itself in sentiment for traditions, nationalism, the dismissal of diversity, a fear for differences and in some cases xenophobia and antisemitism.

The impact of the Russian Orthodox Church is increasing

With the collapse of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet-Union, the impact of the Russian Orthodox Church has increased in Russia and nearby countries. The Russian Orthodox Church’s leadership collaborates closely with the state diplomacy and state institutions. Among others, the ties to the sister churches in Bulgaria and Serbia have been strengthened. Orthodox Church leaders and politicians from countries like Bulgaria adulate each other as protectors of the nationalism, in which church and state go together closely. Patriarch Kirill, a man not unknown to Pax Christi International[3], reasons that religion (in this case the Russian Orthodox Church) can deepen the relations with the state. Politics and church leaders stand side by side in their fight against Western influences, mostly in the sphere of sexual norms and values. They also stand side by side concerning the Russian presidential elections in 2018.

Need for new consultation

In Central Europe, Russia and South East Europe, there is a vast need for a new consultation and discussion between Pax Christi International and representatives of the civilian populations in those countries. Member organisations of Pax Christi International are located there. Probably in 2019, Pax Christi International will proceed to organise a new regional consultation there.




[3] Since 1974, Pax Christi International regularly had conversations with the Russian Orthodox Church’s leadership. The last of which were guided by metropolitan Kirill, the later patriarch.

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