Russia Gets its Warm-Water Port And Other Balkan Ironies

Posted by Nick Efstathiadis in


by Christopher Deliso

A number of simultaneous recent events and trends in the Balkans evidence a startling yet indisputable conclusion: that across the board, the Western influence that had for so long seemed so hegemonic is on the wane, or has at least encountered very serious stumbling blocks.

Quietly, almost unexpectedly (at least for those who had hubristically expected domination ad infinitum), non-Western powers have expanded their "spheres of influence" in the region. Yet you would not know it from the gathering mass of yes-men crowing imminent victory – a fact that has as much to do with internal American politicking as it does with any realities on the ground in the Balkans.

And so as the region marches forward bravely to the imagined greatness of "Euro-Atlantic integration," a sort of retrograde motion has instead begun; with every year that we get closer to 2012, and the one-hundred-year anniversary of the Balkan Wars that drove out the Ottoman Turks and set the stage for World War I, it seems the situation in the Balkans is resembling more and more the chaotic decades that preceded that dissolution, which were characterized by a sordid tug-of-war by the Great Powers of the day. Then as now, this power play is being carried out largely by outside interests, though it has not stopped the media and governments from assigning the responsibility and the blame to the outcome of local decisions and citizens.

Montenegro Up for Grabs

One of the most striking recent trends adding credence to this argument is what has been going on in Montenegro, that Adriatic jewel which elected, in a tightly contested referendum, to break off its state union with Serbia last spring. This secession, long hoped-for and championed by the West, represents the antepenultimate act in an almost two-decade policy against Serbia, the final manifestation of which is expected to be the severing of Kosovo from its historic identity as a Serbian province. This long and worn-out policy has taken on a life of its own, propelled consciously by political ideologues, many of them linked in one way or another with the Balkan interventions of the Clinton administration, and subconsciously, in the collective public sentiment instilled in Western audiences for a very long time by a pliant media: that the Serbs were and are warmongering barbarians, who deserve whatever they get (or whatever they get taken from them). These ingrained beliefs and the policy they gave birth to have had several serious repercussions, however.

From at least the 17th century, the wars and foreign policy of imperial Russia in the Balkans were motivated partially by a vital goal: access to the so-called "warm-water ports" of the Adriatic, Aegean and/or Black Seas. Inevitably, the response of European rivals, such as Great Britain or the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was to check this ambition, either directly or through policies hostile to countries identified at various times as Russia's advance guard. Examples of this high intrigue include the revision of the San Stefano Treaty at the 1878 Congress of Berlin, which drastically limited the territorial gains of Bulgaria after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877, and the creation of Albania, under heavy Austrian lobbying, as a means of preventing then-Russian ally Serbia from gaining access to the Adriatic in 1912. The later incorporation of Romania and Bulgaria into the Soviet fold following World War II greatly enhanced Russian warm-water ports on the Black Sea, though since the downfall of Communism these two countries – which joined the European Union on January 1, 2007 – have moved decisively into the Western camp (though neither was realistically prepared for EU membership).

In recent years, the geopolitical brinkmanship of the US has also manifested in the greater Balkan/Black Sea region with the "color revolutions" in Ukraine and Georgia, and their archetypal predecessor in the "democratic opposition" and youth movement that led to the downfall of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000, little over a year after his capitulation to NATO's air war on Serbia and Kosovo. The reckless desire of hawks in the West to expand NATO to far-flung Ukraine and Georgia, both of which have important Black Sea positioning, owes almost completely to the post-Soviet policy of "containing" Russia at a time when energy security has come to replace collective self-defense and humanitarian policing as NATO's raison d'être. The basic premise is that the threat of military force along Russia's borders can prove an effective bargaining chip in guaranteeing unfettered Western access to Russian energy at good prices, and can protect alternative suppliers and supply routes from Russian influence. It remains to be seen how effective this dangerous resurrection will be.

In Ukraine, the West would like to dislodge Russia's Black Sea Fleet, by treaty allowed to stay until 2017 while in Georgia, it would like to eliminate Russian support for Abkhazia, the breakaway province that Russia is comparing (along with Georgia's other self-declared autonomous entity, South Ossetia) as an analogous situation to Kosovo: if the latter deserves independence, then why not the others? And why not the ethnically Russian east of Ukraine, for that matter? Of course, the US has heatedly denied any similarity between the two cases though, as we will see, regardless of the veracity of the argument the oft-cited fears of "Balkan instability" if the West doesn't get its way in Kosovo are bound to be realized – regardless of what happens.

Before moving on to the morass that is Kosovo, however, it pays to take a look at the situation in Montenegro, where independence was gained by the decision of ostensibly pro-Western, anti-Serbian political leaders and citizens. However, as a recent New York Times article revealed, things are not exactly as they seem:

"As Russian investments here grow, Moscow has sought to exert more political influence. In August, Russia's emergencies minister, Sergei Shoigu, warned in an interview with a Montenegrin newspaper that relations between the countries would be damaged if the Montenegrins continued to pursue NATO membership. Later that month, [then-Prime Minister Milo] Djukanovic met with President Putin in Sochi, a Russian Black Sea resort, and discussed the possibility of creating a military-technical agreement."

The investments mentioned include a huge buy-up of the Montenegrin Adriatic coast by Russian firms allegedly linked to mafia interests, as well as investments in the industrial sector. By stealth, not by force of arms, Russia has expanded its influence in warm-water Montenegro, its "investors" bearing down on one of the most legendarily corrupt Balkan statelets, "carrying four, five or six million euros in cash apparently without any form or official control." While Western property buyers, particularly British and Irish have also made noticeable acquisitions in the "new" Montenegro, it is the Russians who are causing the biggest stir – and who, unlike the latter, seek perhaps something other than retirement homes by the sea.

In Montenegro, the surreal situation has thus become one of a pro-Serbian opposition sounding the alarm against eastern incursions, while an allegedly pro-Western leadership continues to be seduced by the Russians. Then there are the Albanian and Bosnian minorities, both of which are Muslim and both of which cast the crucial votes for independence. Within the latter group especially there has quietly developed, in the Sandzak border area with Serbia (as well as on the other side of the border), an indigenous radical Islamic Wahhabi community that is strongly anti-Western and supported by Saudi Arabia, Iran and other Muslim states.

As for the former, the Albanians, numerous arrests in both Montenegro and neighboring Kosovo linked with extremist groups who would like to annex Albanian-populated parts of the fledgling state, or at very least raise the specter of such an act to expedite the independence of Kosovo, have been made since September. Major weapons seizures and arrests of alleged would-be assassins and terrorists illustrate that the threat is real and will continue to intensify throughout 2007.

Kosovo: Turning the Tables

If the West's policies in Montenegro seem to have had somewhat unexpected results, the same can be said even more so for the situation in Kosovo. It was "the year everything changed," according to's Nebojsa Malic, referring to the failure of Kosovo's Albanians to achieve independence throughout 2006. This setback for the interventionist policy in the Balkans had to do both with strengthened Russian diplomatic opposition, the unlikely appearance of a Serbian lobby in Washington late in the game, and the essentially tepid support of the Bush administration – its apparent support notwithstanding – for the creation of a mafia-run Muslim statelet in Europe.

Supporters of Kosovo independence – essentially, the same crowd of Clinton-era acolytes who see it as justified punishment for "Serb aggression" – apparently have become so enamored of their own position that they have neglected to see the trouble it is about to cause them. All that Belgrade and Moscow have to do is to continue opposing independence, which requires very little energy compared to those who are increasingly desperately pushing for independence and an overturning of the legal reality (that Kosovo is a part of Serbia). It is this reality that Albanian lobbyists such as Joe DioGuardi ask the world to overlook when justifying independence by recourse to "the facts on the ground" (a euphemism for the ethnic cleansing of Serbs and other minorities which has left Kosovo an almost entirely Albanian-populated province).

Yet who will suffer if Kosovo does not become independent? Not Serbia. The Western-led UN administration in Kosovo and NATO troops are the ones who will be caught in the crossfire if Albanian maximalist demands are not met. For well over a year, in fact, the UN mission has been scapegoated by local Albanian leaders and covertly-led youth groups as the enemy, as a bunch of obstructionist outsiders blocking their ambitions. The irony is that when the last Russian peacekeepers pulled out of Kosovo several years ago, it was depicted as a sort of triumph for the West, as the final scene in a dramatic struggle for possession that began during the 1999 NATO air campaign, when Russian troops briefly seized Pristina Airport. Now, however, the reality is that there are simply no Russian troops for angry irredentists to shoot at in Kosovo, whereas there are plenty of Western ones.

Indeed, since 1999 there have been very many terrorist attacks carried out against UN and NATO personnel and installations in Kosovo by the Albanians they supposedly came there to protect. While in that time violence against the minority Serbs has certainly been steady, there has not been a single terrorist attack in Belgrade or Serbia proper (if we do not count the various armed altercations in a contained area of South Serbia – "East Kosovo" to the Albanians). This is no doubt in keeping with the same orders that the ragged Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) were given by NATO in 1999: if you want our help, help your PR by limiting your activities to your home turf. And indeed the Albanians have proven extraordinarily disciplined in doing so and have thus avoided the sort of censure that befell classic separatist groups such as the IRA in Ireland and the Basque ETA in Spain. Now the pressure is more intense than ever on the Albanians to keep up "good behavior" if they want to be free. Yet what if the West can't deliver?

Enter the Democrats

What is now influencing the whole issue in Kosovo, and the Balkans in general, is a phenomenon going on half a world away: the sudden resurrection of the Democratic Party in Washington and its new resolve against a formerly strong president now on the ropes over the quagmire in Iraq. Several of these Democrats, such as Sen. Joseph Biden, also have presidential ambitions. And so it is no surprise that partisan and personal politics are being crafted out of the imagined past and perceived future of American foreign policy in the Balkans.

In short, the Democrats are eager to hold up a shining example of a foreign policy success that can be attributed to themselves as a party, while their individual leaders would like to highlight their personal contributions to these alleged successes. The Clinton-era interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, which fed the current chaos in the region, are being held up more and more in speeches and media reports as examples of America at its best – thus accentuating what the Clintonites view as a contrast to Bush's war in Iraq. However, seeing the obvious folly of the latter does not mean one must automatically accept the former.

Nevertheless, as the presidential elections of 2008 draw closer, we are going to be hearing a lot of hyperbole and self-aggrandizing rhetoric from Democrats about how much better off the Balkans is because of their interventions there. And, while it does not take much to make Bosnia or Kosovo appear better off than a country where US troops and Iraqi civilians are being blown apart by the dozens each day, they are not taking any chances: the "final status" of Kosovo, and the continuing consolidation of Muslim rule in the tripartite Bosnian Federation, must be accomplished so that the whole "Mission Accomplished" narrative can be completed.

In a grandiloquent Financial Times opinion piece published a day after he became head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the longtime Albanian lobbyist and now presidential candidate Joseph Biden fired off a predictable enough such broadside about Kosovo. The senator, or his speechwriter, fantastically claimed that "adroit diplomacy to secure Kosovo's independence could yield a victory for Muslim democracy, a better future for southeast Europe and validation for the judicious use of American power." These justifications, long considered by critics to be more or less hidden motivations, are apparently not even to be kept secret anymore, so confident are the Clintonites of their Balkan successes.

Ironically, the West's plea to Serbian voters during their recent elections was to look to the future, not the past, by choosing the "pro-Western" Democratic Party of President Boris Tadic, rather than the "hard-line nationalists" of Vojislav Seselj's Radical Party. Yet the Serbs' castigators in Washington are apparently not following their own prescribed course of action; as the Biden piece shows, their vision for the future of the Balkans is almost entirely necessitated by the past, by the need to validate a botched series of interventions to shore up their own legacies, as well as to have something to present as a foreign policy success in contradistinction to Bush's Iraq fiasco.

Tortuous Contradictions

Of course, to pull off such a magic trick is to suppress or ignore entirely certain realities. For since those Clinton-era interventions took place, local and foreign organized crime, not to mention Islamic fundamentalists, have established a pervasive presence. The demand for drugs and prostitutes soared with the arrival of affluent Western peacekeepers, whose don't-rock-the-boat mentality has meant a lackadaisical approach to both mafia groups and Islamic extremists. At the same time, sluggish economic growth and festering nationalism in Kosovo has kept the situation tense, with everyone aware that it only takes one order from militant leaders to set the province ablaze as in the March 2004 riots.

To conceal these (and other) failings, the opportunists on the Hill have to put the blame elsewhere. And so Sen. Biden asserts, "there is a growing risk that Serbia and Russia will conspire to seize defeat from the jaws of victory" by continuing to block Kosovo independence. This panic has also apparently induced schizophrenia. The ICG, which has been one of the most consistent and hysterical institutional supporters of Kosovo independence, calling since 1998 for the province's eventual independence, has curiously reversed its position on Islamic extremism in Kosovo; while once downplaying it as little more than "Serb propaganda," the group's latest report discloses that unless Kosovo is freed this could become a threat, as could the more traditional nationalist form of Albanian violence. "Nervous Kosovo Albanian leaders worry they may not be able to contain public pressures beyond March," says the Dec. 20, 2006 report, adding that:

"a botched status process that fails to consolidate the prospect of a Kosovo state within its present borders and limits the support the EU and other multilateral bodies can provide would seed new destructive processes. A sense of grievance would become ingrained among Albanians throughout the region, strengthening a pan-Albanian ideology corrosive of existing borders and possibly even enriching the soil for radical Islam."

So let's get this straight. The ICG is now warning that unless Albanian maximalist demands are met, both of the dangers which their critics have long warned about – and the existence of which the ICG has steadfastly denied – will come true. The bizarre conjuring act shows to just what tortuous lengths the apologists for intervention will go to push their position while ignoring their own self-contradictions. Nevertheless, pulling rabbits out of hats is a slick political specialty. And so we are asked to believe that Kosovo Muslims could pose a threat if they are not given independence, while on the other hand (as Biden writes) the situation will be miraculously reversed if they are allowed to create their own state. "The people of Kosovo – already the most pro-American in the Islamic world – will provide a much-needed example of a successful US-Muslim partnership," the senator confidently asserts. If this approximation were even true, one has to wonder just who needs this "example" – the people of Kosovo, or the American Democratic Party, as it prepares its 2008 election campaign strategy?

Conclusion: A Checkered Future for Western Supremacy in the Balkans

If we believe former Clinton staffers like John Norris, the Kosovo war marked the definitive victory of the West (that is, NATO) over Russia. Yet if we take a look at the actual situation today, it is easy to see that Russia's position in the Balkans has never been stronger. It has established itself financially and politically in Montenegro and has, with its opposition to independence in Kosovo, perpetuated an already intractable problem for the same Western powers who have sought so hard to "liberate" the province, and internationalized it with its threats to replicate independence with similar secessionist movements in areas of strategic importance to Western energy security, especially the Caucasus – as well as in Europe itself, as The Guardian recently noted. At the same time, Moscow has expanded its influence through energy projects – its chief concern – which can also buy political influence, for example in Serbia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Turkey and Greece.

Apparently, the end of the Cold War did not result, as some prominent thinkers imagined, in the one-way ascension of the West and its values. The forcible breakup of Yugoslavia made sure of that. The "end of history" would be deferred for a long time to come. But there was too much giddiness in the reunified Germany (+ Austria), eager to make a return to its old imperialist position on the Continent, to see it; thus their irresponsible recognition of an independent Slovenia and Croatia and the arming, ironically, of Bosnian radical Muslims and the Croat neo-Nazi Ustashe movement, responsible for the biggest ethnic cleansing campaigns perpetrated in Europe since the German Nazis in World War II. Now, the final chapter of the sad tale of Yugoslavia is being written in Kosovo, a narrative which shows the utter impotence of the West and its inability to solve complicated strategic problems in its own backyard. Russia (not to mention China) can just sit back and laugh.

Indeed, behind his trademark icy demeanor, it was hard to miss the glee in President Putin's recent comments about the "grave consequences" of Kosovo independence for the current international order:

"There is a huge temptation, like it was after the World War II – three or four people with pencils in their hands were dividing Europe and the entire world. Now [the] winners in the Cold War, sensing their innocence and strength, want to redistribute everything on their own. There is a huge temptation. It is very hard to predict the consequences."

Putin's message: if you want chaos, we'll give you chaos. But the West in the Balkans is now past the point of no return; in Kosovo, for various reasons neither the status quo (protectorate) nor the other two options (Serbian control, independence) are viable. It is a black hole run by the mafia, a place with no economic future, and with a small but growing Islamic fundamentalist movement that was allowed to take root because UN occupiers were not vigilant about keeping Arab financiers out. If it is independent, Kosovo will have to start paying for a whole lot of things (such as international debts) for which Serbia is currently paying, and its citizens will no longer be able to claim the Serbian passports which currently allow them a modicum of international travel. In short, an independent Kosovo would become even more of a walled ghetto than it already is today.

However, in the 1990's ambitious Western interventionists were unable to, or else chose not to see that such things would inevitably result from any forcible change of the regime. They did not consult the history books, which would have confirmed certain chronic social and economic patterns that simply cannot be changed by wishful thinking and humanitarian zeal. They made Serbia's administrative problem their own – ironically, a major relief for Belgrade which is being exploited by Moscow to the detriment of the Western do-gooders. If Kosovo does gain some sort of autonomy or independence, you can bet that Russia will exact some major concessions in the process. The irony is that before NATO's bombing in 1999 Moscow had no leverage, whereas now it does, and simply by doing nothing but opposing Western plans.

In Serbia, used as the main scapegoat for why Kosovo is not still independent, the West has meanwhile played into Russian hands with its intransigent position on Kosovo and with its incessant demands for Belgrade to send alleged war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic to the Hague – even though they are, more likely than not, hiding out in Montenegrin or Bosnian territory. Constantly demanding that Serbia do the impossible has of course bolstered the right-wing Radical party, which advocates closer ties with Russia and China and which won over a quarter of the vote in the recent elections. Western fears of a conservative and retrospective political movement blocking "Euro-Atlantic accession" thus become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

To return finally to the deceptive commentary of Sen. Biden in the Financial Times, we can conclude with his strange assertion that an independent Kosovo is justified because Balkan residents are "mentally prepared" for it, and that Serbian politicians should accordingly recognize that. "Historically, trouble in the Balkans is almost always the result of false expectations," opines the senator and presidential candidate.

Indeed. Everyone has expectations; it is left to history to sort out whose were false and whose came true. Will it prove that the Kosovo Albanians had false expectations of getting an independent state out of NATO's bombing in 1999? Indeed, it is the need to preclude such a dawning realization that is pushing the ICG's advocacy and the interventionist rhetoric demanding independence for Kosovo. In short, it is of the essence that, when the dust clears, history has proved the "false expectations" to have been on the Serbian rather than the Albanian side. Otherwise there will be hell to pay – and especially for the Western administration in Kosovo, which is directly in the line of fire from disgruntled paramilitaries.

In actuality, however, the real "historical" source of trouble in the Balkans has always been foreign intervention and intrigue. For at least the past two centuries, there has not been a period of even fifty years without a war, uprising or state persecution of one kind or another. In every case, foreign hands, sometimes hidden, always bloody, are to be found behind it. The sad truth is that the people of the Balkans have never been left alone to sort out their own affairs. And with the continued struggle of the Western Great Powers and Russia for dominance in the region, just as happened a century ago, it is clear that they won't get the chance to do so any time soon.

Russia Gets its Warm-Water Port - by Christopher Deliso

This entry was posted at Monday, November 28, 2011 and is filed under . You can follow any responses to this entry through the .