The Economist says that aid, warplanes and propaganda convince Serbs that Russia is their friend as Moscow is slowly regaining sway in the Balkans
“HERE are the Russian missiles!” chortles Viacheslav Vlasenko, co-director of the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Centre in Nis, a town in central Serbia. He gestures at the contents of his warehouse: tents, generators, inflatable boats and other goods one would expect to use in disaster relief. The centre, which shares a building near the airport with several local IT companies, is simply a facility for responding to floods, forest fires and other emergencies, says Mr Vlasenko.
Yet Western analysts worry that it may be something more: a spying post or even a foothold for Russian intervention. As the influence of America and the European Union has receded in the western Balkans, Russia has been trying to fill the vacuum. It has stepped up military co-operation with Serbia, and may have been involved in a recent alleged coup attempt in Montenegro. Moscow’s goal is to stop Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro from joining NATO and to turn them away from the West.
The most striking allegations against Russia concern a purported coup attempt in Montenegro last October, on the day of the country’s elections. Authorities arrested 20 Serbian suspects. On February 19th the country’s state prosecutor accused Russian “state organs” of having masterminded the plot in order to prevent the country’s imminent accession to NATO. Russia called the claim “absurd”.
Russia also backs Serbia’s refusal to recognise the secession of Kosovo in 2008. Hashim Thaci, Kosovo’s president, says he fears Russian influence is growing (along with that of Islamists and nationalists) because the EU is too consumed with its own problems to pay attention to the region.
The centre in Nis, established in 2012, is helping to win friends. Russia had already helped to clear unexploded ordnance left behind by NATO’s bombing during the Kosovo war of 1999. In 2014 Russia used the centre to fly in emergency relief when floods hit the region. Since then Russia has helped put out forest fires, provided tents for migrants and trained emergency responders. Between 2014 and 2017, this aid will total $40m. A recent poll showed that Serbs wrongly believe Russia is one of their main benefactors, even though the more than €3bn ($3.16bn) that the EU has provided since 2000 dwarfs Russian aid.
Last November, Russia gave Serbia six ageing MiG-29 warplanes. This plays well among Serbs, 64% of whom see NATO as a threat. Serbia’s annual military exercises with Russian troops help reassure its pro-Russian electorate, while the government-friendly media plays down the more frequent exercises with NATO. The two countries have a free-trade agreement, though it excludes Serbia’s most valuable export, the cars manufactured at Fiat’s Serbian plant. This is a perennial source of irritation, and probably one reason why a long-promised visit by Dmitri Medvedev, Russia’s prime minister, has still not taken place.
Moscow’s skilled influence-peddling groups are certainly active. A recent study found 109 organisations devoted to promoting good relations with Russia. All of the country’s mainstream news outlets run stories by Sputnik, a state-controlled Russian news agency. Nationalist websites glorify Russian military might and denigrate Albanians and the West; one recently lauded Vladimir Putin for “punching” Croatia by blocking certain imports.
But it is not clear what Mr Putin can do for his local admirers. Marko Jaksic, an activist in Mitrovica, a town in Kosovo with a large Serbian population in the north, used to plaster posters of the Russian leader all over town. But Russia has done nothing to help Kosovo return to Serbian rule. “Serbs are always waiting for something from Russia,” he says, “but it is hoping against hope.”