EU,Russia Vie for Influence in Balkans 02/24 10:43
BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) -- For years, Russia has worked to gain influence in
Southeast Europe, using Serbia as a foothold to establish a friendly pocket on
a hostile continent.
The European Union finally is pushing back. European Commission President
Jean-Claude Juncker is embarking on a seven-nation Balkans tour Sunday to
promote the EU's new eastward expansion strategy.
Russia mainly wants to discourage the Western Balkan countries --- Albania,
Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Serbia --- from joining NATO. But
Moscow also is trying to deter them from joining the EU.
The EU sees the prospect of membership as an incentive for reform in the
volatile Balkans region, which was torn apart by war in the 1990s. Its
expansion strategy puts Serbia and Montenegro in position to join should the
bloc open its doors to more members, tentatively by 2025.
Serbia is a major target of Moscow's anti-Western activities in Europe
because the two Slavic and predominantly Eastern Orthodox Christian nations
share deep cultural and historical ties. Their bonds also have experienced lows
and highs, especially since the former Yugoslavia refused to join the Soviet
bloc in 1948.
The Kremlin is so concerned about losing its ally that Russian Foreign
Minister Sergey Lavrov repeatedly argued while in Serbia last week that EU
membership isn't all it's cut out to be.
Lavrov also gave a warning; the EU's repeated calls for Serbia to align its
foreign policies with the bloc as a precursor to membership and to impose
sanctions on Russia, he said, are the same "mistake" the West made by
pressuring war-torn Ukraine to choose between it and Russia.
Lavrov told Russia's Rossiya 1 TV on Saturday that both Serbia and Russia
are "the object of the West's overt pressure" to turn Serbia against Russia.
"We love our countries, and the Serbs love Russia, and the Russians love
Serbia," he said.
Serbian political analyst Bosko Jaksic thinks the "Russians are getting
increasingly nervous as they lose allies one by one in the Balkans."
"It's not clear how far they are willing to go to preserve their interests
here, but judging from what they did in Ukraine, they are willing to go far,"
Jaksic said, referring to Russia's annexation of Crimea and support for
pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Lavrov also said that "Europe is facing an unhealthy situation" because of
NATO's eastward expansion. Montenegro joined the Western military organization
last year despite Moscow's strong opposition. He praised Belgrade for
maintaining military neutrality and refusing to join NATO.
"We are convinced that this status is one of the main factors ensuring
stability in the Balkans and the European continent in general," Lavrov said.
There have been mounting fears in the West that Russia is using Serbia to
foment tensions in the Balkans by arming its ally with warplanes and tanks
while working to destabilize neighboring Bosnia, Montenegro and Macedonia.
The European Union's foreign and security policies grew out of Europe's
failure to respond to the wars in the Balkans that accompanied the breakup of
Yugoslavia. The bloc remains wary that some of the ethnic cleavages that
sparked the conflicts of the 1990s persist.
Three countries have become EU members: Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, and
Croatia in 2013. The rest either are candidates for membership of potential
Although Serbia formally has declared its interest in joining the EU, the
right-leaning leadership now running the country repeatedly has expressed
"Investing in the stability and prosperity of the Western Balkans means
investing in the security and future of our Union," Juncker said ahead of the
Juncker's tour of the Balkans, which starts in Macedonia on Sunday and ends
with an EU summit in Bulgaria on March 1, is seen as the EU's belated attempt
to counter Russia's reach.
"Paradoxically, the Russians and their policies in the Balkans have
triggered alarm bells that woke up the European Union into action," Jaksic, the