(As continued from Part I) https://regionalrapport.com/2017/02/22/deciphering-russian-croatian-rapprochement-part/
Pertaining to the plans which the first part of this article series hinted that Moscow may have in mind, it’s now time to rely on empirical evidence and intuitive reasoning to explain exactly what they might be. It appears as though Russia is interested in pursuing five interrelated and phased objectives which aim to culminate in the reaching of a New Détente with the US in the New Cold War, however limited it may ultimately end up being depending on the success of the aforementioned prerequisite goals. Here’s how the Russian-Croatian rapprochement fits into Moscow’s grand strategy for the Balkans and its relations with the West in general:
1. Breaking The Balkan Firewall
Russia realizes that the Balkan members of the EU and NATO are much more predisposed to pragmatic relations with Moscow than any these blocs’ other associates, as is evidenced by a new poll which proves that the citizens of Slovenia, Bulgaria, and Greece would rather see Russia come to their defense than the US. These countries have also been hit some of the hardest by the EU’s anti-Russian sanctions and Moscow’s countermeasures, so it can reasonably be assumed that they’d be in favor of ending the whole sanctions war if given the chance. Moreover, being much comparatively poorer in all regards than their Western European counterparts, these three Balkan states don’t have much of a sincere interest in contributing to NATO’s aggressive buildup along the Russian border, partaking in these exercises either for money (as is the case with Bulgaria) or out of ‘loyal duty’ to NATO (as in not having much of a sovereign choice in the matter).
Russia understands these structural limitations to their formal anti-Russian policies and therefore sees these three Balkan states as the ‘weak links’ in the entire chain, seeking to nurture positive and pragmatic relations with each of them in order to further weaken the EU and NATO’s hostile policies and hopefully prompt these organizations to rethink the practicality of their actions. By breaking through the Balkan Firewall, Moscow wants to make inroads with Central and Western Europe, realizing that it’s impossible to do so through the Baltics and Eastern Europe (Poland), ergo the necessity of focusing on Balkan diplomacy.
Bulgaria and Greece share very close historical-cultural and civilizational-religious links with Russia which explain their eagerness to reciprocate Moscow’s friendship, while Slovenia is somewhat altogether different due to its separate aforesaid category of factors, and the relationship is driven more by Ljubljana’s prudent geopolitical engagement with Moscow and President Borut Pahor’s personal friendship with Russian President Putin.
It’s the positive example of Russia’s engagement with Slovenia which set the stage for the early phase of its present détente with Croatia, since Zagreb obviously saw how well things were going between Moscow and Ljubljana and didn’t want to be left out in the cold. This is especially the case when one remembers how close Russia is to Serbia, and from Croatia’s perspective, it wouldn’t be too wise for two of its neighbors to be friendly with Moscow while Zagreb remains hostile.
There’s always a lot more that can be accomplished for the greater good if all sides are on positive terms with one another. As an example for how this could play out in their bilateral people-to-people relations, Croatia is getting hit hard by the economic recession and could really use an influx of Russian tourist spending and investment, which the Russian side would be more than happy to provide when one remembers how its nationals are now inclined to avoid traditional holiday-making spots such as Turkey and Egypt due to the threat of terrorism.
Furthermore, it’s not just Serbia and Slovenia that are on excellent standing with Russia, since the neighboring federative Bosnian entity of Republika Srpska and even Croatia’s centennial-old ally/hegemon Hungary are too, which brings the analysis to the second objective that Moscow seeks to attain through its new relationship with Zagreb.
2. Strengthening St. Stephen’s Space
In prognosticating about the future of the EU even before Brexit had ever happened, the author released a piece of research forecasting how the continental bloc might decentralize and perhaps eventually devolve into a collection of regional blocs, one of which was identified as St. Stephen’s Space. This is in reference to one of Hungary’s most famous kings, and the geopolitical concept which is named after him focuses on the contours of a revived Budapest-ruled realm.
Hungary first ‘united’ with Croatia almost a millennium ago in 1102, and it had since spread its influence into what is nowadays the southern part of Slovakia and parts of east-central Romania. The northern Serbian Province of Vojvodina was also under Budapest’s control prior to the dissolution of Austria-Hungary, and one could extrapolate to suggest that the Croatian component of modern-day Bosnia (then under Austrian control in the last years of the Dual Monarchy) would have been indirectly under its influence due to the Croats’ historically friendly relationship with the Hungarians.
All of this is important because of the clear trend of nationalism which is sweeping the world and the consequences that it could realistically have for the EU. Whether or not the concept of St. Stephen’s Space is ever formalized or if it just remains de-facto abstraction, there’s a very real case to be made that Hungary is dedicated to expanding its influence along the civilizational lines of its former empire. It’s doubtful that this will have much of an immediate impact on Serbia, and it remains to be seen how this will transpire in Slovakia and Romania, two countries which are suspicious about their own relatively large Hungarian minorities and the sway which Budapest can exert over them, but more than likely the most ‘natural fit’ for Hungary to pursue in the near term is to revitalize its relations with its centuries-old partner Croatia.
While ties aren’t as good as they used to be ever since the onset of the Immigrant Crisis and the fence-building measures that almost every country along the Balkan Route partook in, the Croatian vector is still the most realistic and easiest way for Hungary to flex its soft power with little risk of any inadvertent blowback or negative consequences. These two countries have such a long history together marked by relatively little drama in comparison to others that it makes sense for both of them to take their relations to a new level in the future if given the opportunity and the right incentive.
Russia acknowledges that this is slated to be a likely development sometime down the line for the reasons that were just explained, and considering the very positive nature of Russian-Hungarian relations, it made sense for some Moscow’s strategists and decision makers to take the initiative in trying to replicate this with Croatia in order to get ahead of the curve and position Russia for a future strategic partnership with St. Stephen’s Space.
3. Balancing The Balkans
St. Stephen’s Space And The Central Balkans:
Russia’s desire to enter into good standing with what it might realistically forecast to be the geopolitical strengthening of St. Stephen’s Space sometime in the coming future speaks to its ambition in balancing the Balkans and becoming the regional kingmaker. One of the author’s previous research reports described a different geopolitical space in the area termed the Central Balkans, which incorporates Serbia, the Republic of Macedonia, Republika Srpska, and potentially even Montenegro (the strategic inclusion of which is doubtful at the moment). It was explained in the text how Russia is working to improve all levels of its relations with each of these important partners, but this doesn’t necessarily have to be at the expense of St. Stephen’s Space or anyone else for that matter.
Belgrade Power Shift:
What Russia wants first and foremost is regional peace so that it can pursue its Balkan/Turkish Stream gas pipeline megaproject and related investments without any risk of them being offset by a destructive conflict, so with this in mind, it makes sense that Moscow would also make related overtures to St. Stephen’s Space in order to placate its decision makers and demonstrate that Russia means no ill intent against them through its Central Balkan diplomatic maneuverings.
The timing of Russia’s recent rapprochement with Croatia also happens to coincide – whether by accident or design – with a new stage of political intrigue in Belgrade, whereby there were murmurings of a possible competition between Prime Minister Vucic and President Nikolic in the upcoming presidential elections, but which were eventually put to rest after much speculation when the incumbent announced that he will step out of the race and support the premier instead.
This means that Vucic will likely become the next President, while it remains to be seen who will replace him as Prime Minister. If recent electoral history is any indication, then the ruling party will probably win in any case, but what’s important to draw attention to is the general observation that Serbia is going through an important power shift at the moment in which its leaders are switching places and certain changes are being made in the country’s top posts. All of this indicates that Serbia is much more preoccupied for the coming months with its own domestic situation and related technical decisions than anything occurring in the region, which provides Russia with an opportune time to pursue its new policies with Croatia. Recalling Russia’s historic balancing role all across Eurasia, then it’s possible that Moscow might be hoping (key word) to leverage its new relationship with Zagreb in such a way that it leads to positive regional dividends for Belgrade and Balkan stability in general.
Capitalizing On The Croatian Pivot:
To once again reference the timing of Russia’s moves towards Croatia, it’s foreseeable that Serbia might find itself in a somewhat different geostrategic environment after its forthcoming elections in the next couple of months than it’s usually accustomed to, namely that Russia might by that point be on reasonably good terms with both Croatia and itself. This would certainly be an unusual – and perhaps even uncomfortable – position for many Serbs to even countenance, yet it can’t be discounted in light of the ongoing Russian-Croatian rapprochement and the pace with which it’s progressing. It’s pertinent at this point to cite the statement from Croatia’s Deputy Foreign Minister following the Lavrov-Kitarovic meeting last week, in which Gordan Bokata declared that:
“We consider Russia to be a significant factor of stability, particularly in southeastern Europe. In this regard, I believe that our NATO and EU membership does not mean we can’t maintain good relations with Russia, and I am glad to note that this fact was emphasized during political consultations between the Croatian and Russian foreign ministries in Zagreb… it is perfectly clear that from the political point of view, we are all members of the European Union and NATO…But apart from pursuing EU’s policy, we also develop it as one of the 28 member states. Of course, as far as the EU membership is concerned, there are some priorities and boundaries set for Croatia’s foreign policy but I would like to stress that it doesn’t mean that our relations with Russia cannot be good. If we want to hear each other and exchange views, we should have a permanent channel of communication between Zagreb and Moscow.”
Thus, it’s a distinct possibility that ties between Russia and Croatia will continue to proceed along the positive trajectory that they’ve recently embarked on and could even result in Moscow entering into an historically unprecedented relationship with Zagreb by the time that the Serbian elections are done and over with in a couple of months. However, it needs to be remembered that this isn’t aimed against Serbia or any other actor, but is designed to improve Russia’s overall standing in the Balkans and allow it to enter into the position of regional kingmaker for everyone’s benefit, including Belgrade’s. This is especially the case when it comes to the role that Russia sees for itself in preemptively resolving regional contradictions which might otherwise explode into flashpoints of conflict if left unaddressed.
Putting Out Potential Fires:
There are three likely flashpoints which threaten to enflame the Balkans if they’re allowed to spiral out of control, and these are the steady unravelling of the fragile Bosnian peace; the Albanians in the NATO-occupied Serbian Province of Kosovo; and the threat of “Greater Albania” swallowing up part of the Macedonia. Former British diplomat and neoconservative “deep state” representative Timothy Less has been lobbying hard over the past couple of months for a radical territorial reorganization of the Balkans in response to these impending crises, proposing extreme ideas which could result in the outright elimination of Bosnia and Macedonia from the map and also suggesting that Serbia and Kosovo swap territories as a prerequisite to a formal peace. It’s clear to see that there are obviously some Western actors which want to totally upend the balance of power in the Balkans, whether through war or ‘diplomacy’, and Russia regrettably only has limited means and political will by which it could respond to these devious designs if they ever unfolded.
What Russia can do, however, is proactively take the initiative in working with the related regional actors in trying to put out these fires in advance via the leading role that it seeks to play in Balkan diplomacy. Looking at the first likely flashpoint in Bosnia, Russia might have in mind a plan to mediate between Banja Luka (Republika Srpska), Sarajevo (Bosnia), Belgrade, and Zagreb in order to allow the creation of a third federal entity for the Bosnian Croats.
As for the second one related to the Albanians in Kosovo, Russia might support a future President Vucic and his hand-picked Prime Minister successor if they attempt to exploit their hoped-for ‘popular mandate’ after the elections to push for the legal recognition of Kosovo as an ‘independent country’ and subsequent modification of the Serbian Constitution to accommodate for this, relying on a potential territorial swap between the two entities (perhaps Northern Kosovo for Presevo Valley) as a precondition for doing this.
As for the last potential Balkan crisis in Macedonia, any Serbian-Kosovo deal facilitated through Russian encouragement or tacit support could theoretically make it easier for the Macedonians and the Albanian minority in the country to reach an agreement (potentially overseen by both the US and Russia) which respects the country’s territorial integrity yet allows for certain concessions to this divisive demographic.
To be explicitly clear, the author isn’t endorsing any of the above, but is analyzing the broader diplomatic-geopolitical implications of Russia’s rapprochement with Croatia in light of the US’ implied desire to pursue the unilateral territorial reorganization of the region. Taken to its logical conclusion, a fully expanded partnership between Moscow and Zagreb would obviously end up result in Russia – as one of the guarantors of the Dayton Agreement – being positively receptive to Croatia’s demands for a separate Croatian federal entity in the country, which in turn might lead to Russia nudging Repulika Srpska towards agreeing to this as well.
If this difficult diplomatic proposal can be realized, then it follows that a similar sort of negotiated compromise could be reached between Serbia and Kosovo provided that it is initiated by Belgrade, as Moscow would in that case be unable to oppose the will of its historical ally on this sensitive issue of its sovereignty and would obviously rally behind its pivoted policy towards the topic. Should this second diplomatic feat be successfully managed, then it would obviously pave the way for doing something similar in the Republic of Macedonia as well.
In order to avoid any potential misunderstanding, the author is analyzing that Russia will not support Less’ “Balkan Conference” to wipe Bosnia and Macedonia off of the map, but is flexible and pragmatic in its support of regionally led and locally owned demarches which aim to guarantee peace between the Balkan countries. If official representatives from all pertinent sides agree to something, then it’s not Russia’s place to go against it and obstruct their ‘progress’, hence the operative emphasis on regionally led and locally owned ‘solutions’.
What Russia is most interested in is abiding by the regional will of all sides if they reach a consensual (and possibly Russian-facilitated) agreement in putting out any potential fires, which would in that case simultaneously strengthen the Central Balkans and St. Stephen’s Space and create a stable opportunity for Russia’s regional infrastructure and other investments to flourish via its grand strategy of Balkan balancing.
4. Pipeline Politics
Russia is sincerely interested in brokering peace and stability among all parties in the globe if given the opportunity, but it has an additional incentive to do so in the Balkans in order to safeguard the viability of its Balkan/Turkish Stream gas pipeline megaproject and related investments connected with it. In case the reader isn’t too familiar with the geopolitical motivations behind this initiative, Moscow wants to not only provide a stable supply of energy to the EU via the Balkans (and thus avoiding the unreliable chokepoint of Ukraine), but to also break through the Balkan Firewall in injecting the rest of the EU with a strong stream of multipolar influence in parallel with China’s Balkan Silk Road high-speed rail project which could hopefully catalyze Brussels’ pivot towards Moscow and Beijing one day. This strategy was described much more in detail for one of the author’s previous pieces on the topic, but what’s important to understand in this given context is that there are very strong geostrategic underpinnings behind why Russia is so interested in the success of its Balkan energy projects, though Balkan/Turkish Stream is by no means the only option that Moscow has.
Just so that the reader is on the same page as the author, Balkan/Turkish Stream and the Balkan Silk Road are tentatively planned to run through Greece, the Republic of Macedonia, and Serbia, whereby the gas pipeline will enter the Hellenic Republic through Turkey while the Chinese high-speed rail project will begin at the Mediterranean port of Piraeus. Russia wants to put out any potential fires which could jeopardize its projects in Macedonia and Serbia, and seeing as how easy it could be for the latter to get drawn into a continuation war in Bosnia, it’s necessary for Moscow to find a way to keep the peace there as well, hence the analytical forecast (but not endorsement) explained in the previous section.
In the event that Russia is unsuccessful in full or in part and either a hot war (or series thereof) has started or the risk of one is dangerously present, it’s possible that Balkan/Turkish Stream would have to take a different route if it’s to fulfill Moscow’s geostrategic expectations vis-à-vis the EU. It’s technically feasible that Russian resources could be plugged into the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) to Italy, but that still wouldn’t promote the task of strengthening Moscow’s influence in the Balkans.
This is where the possible revival of the failed South Stream project once more comes into play. The original idea prior to Balkan/South Stream was for Russia to build a pipeline under the Black Sea to Bulgaria and thenceforth across the Balkans to Serbia, Hungary, and thus elsewhere in Europe, but this was scrapped due to Sofia capitulating to the West’s intense pressure during one of the high points in the New Cold War. Balkan/Turkish Stream was unveiled one day afterwards as the project’s replacement, but nowadays there’s been a lot of legitimate talk about reviving South Stream so long as it can meet the legal expectations of the EU this time. Should that happen, then the Greek and Macedonian sections might never reach their full expected importance or even be built at all, and South Stream would be resurrected with the only difference being that Turkey, not Bulgaria, ends up becoming the pipeline’s mainland terminal point instead.
There’s another much less likely but perhaps even more geopolitically significant detour that could be made either in conjunction with Balkan/Turkish Stream and/or South Stream, or separately on its own. The author isn’t inferring that there’s much of a chance that it will happen, but it should still be mentioned in any case. There are already plans to ship Azeri gas to Europe via a northwards branch of TAP which would see a pipeline be built across Albania, Montenegro, the tiny coastal strip of Bosnia, and Croatia, and this forms the basis of the proposed Ionian-Adriatic Pipeline. While it looks almost impossible that Russia would ever have any role whatsoever in this project, if Moscow’s rapprochement with Zagreb proceeds apace and ‘perfectly’ unfolds according to the previously described scenarios (which have an extraordinarily slim chance of occurring without any ‘hiccups’), then this might be discussed to some extent, even if it never results in Russia shipping gas through the line but simply (but symbolically) assisting with some technical aspects pertaining to it.
5. The Stepping Stone To Ukraine
Overall, it appears as though Russia would ideally like to have as many options available as possible for exporting its gas through the Balkans, whether by means of Balkan/Turkish Stream, South Stream, and/or the Ionian-Adriatic Pipeline, but each of these projects is entirely dependent upon the ‘goodwill’ of the EU. Whether it’s Bulgaria or Greece, there’s no geographic way for Russia to get around an EU-member state, thus meaning that its large ambitions are limited by the same Brussels legislation which spelled the end to South Stream over two years ago. The only way to overcome this formidable obstacle is to reach a New Détente with the West in the New Cold War, of which the first 3 steps of Russia’s Balkan strategy are a part but which must ultimately conclude with a deal being made in Ukraine.
Therefore, it’s fair to say that Breaking the Balkan Firewall, Strengthening St. Stephen’s Space, and Balancing the Balkans are all part and parcel of this larger strategy, which in some ways makes the Balkans a prerequisite stepping stone towards reaching a deal in Ukraine and thus opens up the doors to a more comprehensive détente between the West and Russia. Whatever prospective deal is made, however, will have to result in the West recognizing the reunification of Crimea with Russia, whether de-jure or de-facto (the latter in order to ‘save face’), but nonetheless resulting in the lifting of sanctions and the removal of any potential roadblocks to Russia’s Balkan energy projects. More than likely, then, the points of potential ‘compromise’ for the US and Russia in this case would have to be the Balkans and then Donbas. It’s impossible to reach any sort of deal without both sides conceding on something or another in exchange for reciprocal measures by their counterparts which theoretically work out to everyone’s gain in the end.
It’s impossible to accurately speculate on what the exact nature of American and Russian ‘concessions’ and ‘deal-making’ could be in the Balkans, but it would likely involve factors related to the three Balkan flashpoints of Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia. Concerning Donbas, Russia has already made it abundantly clear on many occasions that it will not recognize Donetsk or Lugansk as independent, nor will it reunify with them like it did with Crimea. Moscow envisions them, as per the Minsk Agreements, becoming autonomous regions within Ukraine, potentially even as quasi-independent federalized units if such a system could eventually be implemented in the country. Russia might, however, ‘concede’ to ‘limiting’ its hopes solely to the application of the Minsk Agreements and nothing further, though expecting that this would be sufficient for eventually reaching peace in Donbas and leading to the lifting of the West’s anti-Russian sanctions.
If the outstanding situations in Donbas and Crimea are resolved, the former through the two republics’ reintegration into Ukraine as autonomous entities as per the Minsk Agreements and the latter through the West’s de-facto or de-jure recognition of the reunification, then Russia expects that the NATO presence in Eastern Europe would be scaled back and that the removal of sanctions would enable it to pursue its Pipeline Politics as explained in the aforementioned fourth phased objective. There’s admittedly a lot of wishful thinking that goes into this interconnected series of scenarios, but the author feels confident that the case has been cohesively and cogently made in explaining why this might be the larger strategy that Russia has in mind nowadays, and how the surprising rapprochement with Croatia is expected to constitute one of the first steps in bringing it about.
(To be continued in Part III) https://regionalrapport.com/2017/02/23/balkan-challenges-new-detente-part-iii/
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for Regional Rapport in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.