In the 19th and early 20th centuries, as the Ottoman Empire weakened and European powers faced the so-called "Eastern Question" of managing the empire's demise, the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires worked to increase their foothold in the Balkans. The Russian Empire repeatedly fought the Ottoman Empire over influence and control of the Black Sea region and parts of the Balkans. It also intervened militarily in the region to support nationalist movements of populations sharing linguistic and religious ties with Russia.
Following World War II, Yugoslavia — initially created after World War I as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes — formed a communist government under the leadership of Josip Tito, briefly becoming a Soviet ally before the 1948 split between Tito and then-Soviet leader Josef Stalin. Although relations between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union did improve somewhat in later decades, under Tito's leadership the country pursued a largely independent foreign policy, becoming one of the main forces behind the Non-Aligned Movement.
By the end of the 1990s, wars had torn the former Yugoslavia apart, leading the European Union to take a central role in providing monetary aid to the new and transitioning Balkan states to administrate programs for structural reforms. Most Balkan countries have cooperated closely with the European Union and worked toward building strong relationships with Western partners, with ambitions to ultimately apply for European Union membership. For these countries, the prospect of joining the European Union means both political and financial support from the West and a way to normalize their relations with Western partners after decades of relative isolation.
Russia's Role in Serbia
Nevertheless, as in earlier eras, Russia continues to play a role in Balkan politics, mainly by using energy and financial support to compete with the European Union for influence in the region. In recent months, Russia has offered the Serbian government new loans and pressured Serbian decision-makers to continue cooperating with Russia on the construction of the South Stream pipeline. Despite the European Union's ongoing concerns over the pipeline's compatibility with EU competition regulations, construction is set to begin in October.
For Serbia, the construction of South Stream would bring new jobs and revenue and would provide a transport network for Russian natural gas that is more reliable than the current route through Ukraine and Hungary. In addition, Russia has supported Serbia's rejection of Kosovo's sovereignty after it declared independence in 2008.
Despite these links with Russia, Belgrade aspires to integrate with Western institutions and seek EU membership as a way to attract more opportunities for economic growth and development. Thus, Serbia will have to continue balancing its energy and political ties to Russia against its ties to the European Union.
The Competition in Bosnia-Herzegovina
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, political paralysis has given the competition between Russia and the European Union a different form. Since the Dayton Accords were signed in 1995, Bosnia-Herzegovina has been split into two constituent entities: the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Republika Srpska. While the two entities are in theory part of one state, the decentralized nature of the arrangement has prevented any meaningful reforms and paralyzed decision-making for the past decade. Dodik has worked to keep the central government weak and allow Republika Srpska to remain largely autonomous. As a result, unlike Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina's progress toward EU candidacy has stalled. While it does receive financial assistance from the European Union, the lack of political reforms and effective decision-making prevents Bosnia-Herzegovina from making significant steps toward integration with Western institutions.
Russia has cultivated relations with the ethnic Serb-dominated Republika Srpska. On Sept. 15, the Serbian entity announced that it reached an agreement with Russian energy giant Gazprom to buy Russian natural gas directly from the company — a move which the entity's leadership has said will lead to lower prices. Moreover, on Sept. 19 Dodik announced that Russia would soon approve a loan of between $643 million and $900 million for Republika Srpska.
Politically, Republika Srpska has developed close relations with Moscow. Dodik supported Crimea's referendum on joining Russia, and in March he received an award from the Russian Orthodox Church's Patriarch Kirill for his work in the "consolidation of the unity of Orthodox nations." By supporting the Republika Srpska and nurturing close ties with its leadership, the Kremlin is ensuring that it has influence over the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the dynamics of the Balkan region. Putin met with Dodik on the day of Scotland's independence referendum, signaling to the West both Russia's continued interest in the Balkans and its ability to use nationalist movements to create instability.
Unlike countries such as Ukraine, the Balkan states are not among the Kremlin's top geopolitical imperatives. Nevertheless, the Balkans remain an important geopolitical crossroads where Russia and European powers compete for influence. While the Kremlin will use energy and finance to improve its ties with Serbia and make progress on the South Stream project, it will use its relationship with Republika Srpska to hamper Western integration and shape future political dynamics in the region.