Observers say Russian propaganda, NGOs and cultural organizations have made significant inroads in the Balkans – in Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro and Albania. Most Balkan countries aspire to join NATO and the European Union, but Russian influence in the region is growing through Russian investments in mines, hotels, manufacturing and media.
In a recent hit song, Russian President Vladimir Putin is asked to come to Macedonia and save the country from the EU, NATO and the United States. The song became a major hit during Macedonia’s recent parliamentary election campaign, and can be heard on local radio stations as well as social networks..
Russia and the West have completely different agendas regarding the Balkans, said Janusz Bugajski at the Center for European Policy and Analysis in Washington.
“Whereas EU and NATO leaders would like to see every country, eventually, once it qualifies, within the organizations, within the NATO and EU," he said. "Russia has the opposite objective, [it] wants to keep these countries outside of NATO, outside of EU.”
Bugajski said even if Russia cannot integrate the Balkan countries into Moscow-controlled organizations such as the Eurasian Economic Union, it wants to see them neutral and to prevent NATO and EU enlargement.
Former U.S. State Department official Paul Goble agrees. Speaking via Skype, he said Moscow is doing everything it can to try to change opinion in the Balkans.
“But I think the efforts of Moscow to change the fundamental direction that the people of the Balkans have chosen up to now has largely failed. I am not as worried, as many other people are,” he said.
Goble said Europe’s current migrant crisis is delaying integration efforts for the Balkans, adding that Europe is having so many problems of its own, it is going to be more difficult for new members to integrate.
“There have been suggestions that one of the reasons the refugee flow into Europe has taken the shape it has is that Moscow has done what it could to promote that flow, precisely to weaken the EU, and therefore to be in a better position to have influence in the Balkans, and elsewhere, in eastern Europe,” he said.
Opinion polls show Russian influence is gaining strength in the Balkans, with one survey in Serbia, Ipsos, showing 72 percent of the population having a favorable view of Russia and its institutions.