Do the Western Balkans face a coming Russian storm?

“Serbia and the rest of the Balkans are a pawn in a great game of powers between Russia, the EU, and the US.”

– Former Serbian economy minister Saša Radulović.

Early on October 16 2016, the day of the Montenegrin parliamentary election, the Montenegrin police and security services arrested about 20 Serbians and Montenegrins whom they described as attempting a coup and intending to assassinate the prime minister, Milo Djukanović. Those arrested included Bratislav Dikić, former head of the Serbian Gendarmerie. In due course others, including two Russian citizens, would be charged with what the special prosecutor for organised crime and corruption would call “a powerful organisation” of some 500 plotters. Moscow backed the plot, according to the prosecutor, with the intent of forestalling the country from joining Nato.

In response, there were warnings that 2017 would see further meddling by Moscow in the Western Balkans, with Donald Tusk pointing to “unhealthy external influences… destabilising several countries” and US vice-president Mike Pence telling the countries of that region that Russia was trying to destabilise them, undermine their democracies, and divide them from the rest of Europe. That year, however, saw little evidence of a systematic campaign to assert its influence in the region, let alone a successful one. For several reasons, though, 2018 may be rather different. Federica Mogherini has warned that “the Balkans can easily become one of the chessboards where the big power game can be played”, but the 2016 coup attempt suggests that this game has already started.

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Mark Galeotti of the European Council on Foreign Relations

Dr Mark Galeotti is senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague and principal director of the Mayak Intelligence consultancy. He specialises in the murky subjects of modern Russian politics, history and security affairs, and transnational and organised crime. He read history at Robinson College, Cambridge University and then took his doctorate in politics at the London School of Economics, after a brief time working in the City of London. Before moving to NYU, he was head of History at Keele University in the UK. He was a special advisor at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, covering post-Soviet organised crime and Russian security and intelligence services. He has been a visiting professor at Rutgers—Newark, Charles University (Prague), and MGIMO (Moscow). He has published widely, with 14 authored and edited books to his name (his most recent, Spetsnaz: Russia’s special forces, came out in 2015) and numerous articles in the academic, professional and popular press. He is a columnist for the Moscow Times, Business New Europe and War On The Rocks.