How deep rooted is Western Balkan’s condemnation of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine?6 min read
For the first time since the break-up of Yugoslavia, the countries in the Western Balkans have expressed a similar, if not united, opinion on a matter of foreign affairs. Previously, the legacy of the Yugoslav wars and ongoing disputes over territorial integrity, in addition to the ongoing radicalization of some parts of their populations, have generated sharp divisions in their approach to diplomatic relations. Leaders like populist president of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, and the far-right leader of federal unit Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik maintain their official stance as strong allies to Russia, while the rest of the Balkan leaders prefer to present themselves as Euro-Atlantic partners.
On 24 March 2022, one month after the war in Ukraine had begun, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia all voted in favour of the second resolution on the war in Ukraine adopted by the UN’s General Assembly. The resolution demanded the full protection of civilians and humanitarian personnel, as well as safe unhindered passage for anyone fleeing and demanding humanitarian aid. Though not a UN member state, Kosovo also condemned Russian aggression and expressed its support for Ukraine. Despite the unanimous agreement to condemn the war, the extent of actual support has differed largely in each county depending on their relationship with Russia and the rest of Europe.
Accessionist aspirations within diplomacy
North Macedonia and Albania have openly sided with Ukraine and Western leadership primarily due to their aspiration to join the EU. Albania, which is the oldest NATO member in the region, joined in 1992 and stated its readiness to join any future mission in Ukraine. Albanian Foreign Minister Olta Xhacka announced their full support for the EU´s reaction towards Russia, while Prime Minister Edi Rama offered to contribute to the EU’s emergency response plan.
The assets of 654 individuals including Vladimir Putin were frozen in Albania, and restrictions in the fields of finance, energy, technology and transportation have been imposed. North Macedonia joined all versions of the EU sanctions against Russia, while Macedonian Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani affirmed openly their full alignment with EU Common Foreign and Security Policy. All airlines from the Russian Federation have also been banned from North Macedonian airspace.
Kosovo historically has viewed Serbia as a primary antagonist threatening Kosovar security, which contributes to their opposition to Russia, due to their backing of Serbia in the wars and the refusal to recognize their independence. The Kosovar government has also feared a spillover effect from Putin’s aggression that could inspire the populist Serbian government to take action similar to Putin’s, especially considering the widespread rhetoric against Kosovar statehood among Serbian nationals. Given this historical precedent and existential concerns, Kosovo has understandably sided with EU-Atlantic statements, strengthened its anti-Kremlin foreign policy, and remains an ally to NATO, much like Albania and North Macedonia. Kosovo, however, does not simply want to remain an ally, especially amid these growing concerns over security, and has established an inter-institutional working group to oversee the process of becoming a formal member
Montenegro as a member of NATO has complied with its obligations and announced that it will adopt the same sanctions as the EU and US. However, their support for the EU-Atlantic reaction to the war has been rather limited. Russian influence in internal Montenegrin affairs is quite significant, 38% of the Montenegrin population see Russia as the main strategic partner of Montenegro, which makes the country the most pro-Russian NATO member. Despite Montenegro maintaining its duty to support its Atlantic partners, the government will likely attempt to mitigate the risk of worsening relations with Russia, especially considering its dependence on Russian exports. These concerns over their relationship with Russia have been displayed before when parliament failed to ban the Russian-owned media Russia Today and Sputnik, despite evidence they were spreading misleading propaganda about the war. To date, sanctions have been only verbally backed, but not yet implemented, apart from a ban on Russian airlines travelling through Montenegrin airspace.
At first, the Bosnian ambassador to the UN joined the EU statement without consulting the federal government on the presumption that it was natural for Bosnia and Herzegovina to follow European actions. However, the opposition of Milorad Dodik in Republika Srpska claimed that since this international position has not been discussed nationally, it should be declared null and void.
By using this situation as a pretext to claim that Republika Srpska is ostracized from federal politics, he has hindered the harmonization of the government’s response to the Ukrainian war. Dodik also used the war to justify his anti-NATO sentiments. This has resulted in Bosnia and Herzegovina holding off on imposing sanctions, as its population is critically divided between two federal entities. The opposition of the leader of Republika Srpska to sanctions is also linked to his desire to join Serbia, similar to separatism seen in the Donbas region. Russian aggression in Ukraine is not frowned upon but rather justified, not only among the government but also by certain Bosnian communities as well. The radicalized group of Night Wolves in Republika Srpska openly supported Putin’s efforts, chanting at protests that ‘Donbas – Russia, Kyiv – Russia, Kosovo – Serbia’.
However, many groups are still wary of how to approach the war, for example, the organization of the veterans in Republika Srpska, who are openly pro-Kremlin, have refrained from making any public statement on the war. Similarly, the Balkan Cossak Army who in 2014 promoted the involvement of Serbs in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, also has also made no comment. It seems that the open aggression of Russia against Ukrainian civilians has made it difficult for their usual supporters to justify their actions.
Serbia remains loyal to its Russian brothers
The strongest ally to Russia in the Balkan region has been Serbia under the leadership of Aleksandar Vučić. Despite this, his government has been reluctant to take a strong position and even expressed its support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine. However, government-controlled news outlets have still refrained from calling the conflict a war or an invasion and refer to it only as of the ‘events in Eastern Europe’.
The main reason for Serbia’s reluctance to defy Moscow is Russia’s position of non-recognition of Kosovo. The Russian support for the Serbian claims locked Serbia in a position of consistent alignment with Russian foreign policy.
Serbia has also not joined in imposing sanctions on Russia. However, Vučić’s government imposed sanctions on former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, which were first introduced in 2014 due to “misuse of state resources and violation of human rights” during the last Russian invasion. This symbolic act shows certain support for the Ukrainian position with the aim of not swinging the diplomatic pendulum too much.
The war in Ukraine bears significant repercussions for all countries in the Western Balkans. In some Balkan states, it is perceived as a conflict resembling their own in the not-so-far-away past. Despite the strong grasp of the Kremlin and the intensity of their ties with Western Balkan economies, their governments have to condemn the Russian invasion in order to meet the wider public expectations of a people who survived during the Yugoslav wars. The struggles of Ukrainian society amid the Russian invasion have also provided an impetus for re-thinking their own past and their perception of certain democratic values. Nearly all of the Balkan communities have aligned their support with Ukrainian territorial integrity despite each of these countries having different perceptions of the war based on their historical and social experience. While it is unlikely that these countries will come together in the same way on an issue in the near future, the reaction to the war in Ukraine has created a new precedent for unity in the region.