InterviewsOpinion

Dimitar Bechev on NATO Enlargement to the Balkans, Russian Policy in the Region

Ani Chkhikvadze from VoA’s Georgian broadcasting service talked to Dimitar Bechev, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a research fellow at the University of North Carolina, on NATO enlargement to the Balkans and Russia’s foreign policy in the region, as well as on Georgia’s possible accession to the Alliance.

Three-decade long conflict over the name issue between Greece and Macedonia got solved and that paved a way for Skopje to join NATO. What do you think NATO membership will bring Macedonia and the region?

This is an accession that is long overdue; Macedonia should have joined together with Albania and Croatia in 2009.  This brings the NATO enlargement process forward.

There will be two consequences. One is that Bosnia and Herzegovina will be next in line; there has been internal discussion there on the implementation of the Membership Action Plan, and there will be some fresh momentum [to move forward].

The other outcome or a piece of consequence will be concerning Kosovo, where you see a renewed push for a solution. However, the dispute in Kosovo is not a purely symbolic one, like [it was] in the case of Macedonia. It is clearly about territory, and the memory of violence is as recent as 20 years ago, which is a real problem.

The conflict between North Macedonia and Greece was a diplomatic rather than a security conflict, fought at the level of historical symbolism [more] than anything else.

What about Greece and its relationship with Moscow. In this case, we saw that the Greeks went against Russia’s interests. Do you think Moscow will pay back? or will this have an impact on their relations?

This particular dispute has never been a core focus of Russian foreign policy. They took a position on Macedonia in the general context of their confrontation with the West. Had it happened at the end of the last decade, in 2008-2009, Moscow would have been largely indifferent.

Ultimately Russia is not invested in this dispute. They do not have many resources to bring to bear in this situation. So when push came to shove, it appeared that the West had many more cards to play.

And to pick up on that point. How much influence does Russia have in the Balkans today?

Well, it has significant influence, but it has always played second fiddle to the west. It is best visible when you look at the economic relations, trade, investment and people flows. It is a very different situation from the post-Soviet space for sure.

It is also important that the Russians have no boots on the ground. Since 2003, when Putin withdrew the Russian contingent from Bosnia and Kosovo, there are no deployments of forces. What Russia wants to achieve is to make – roughly speaking – life difficult for the EU and NATO and to obstruct their enlargement. It does so by exploiting local disputes and by piggybacking on anti-Western sentiments which are present in a number of countries around the region.

[Russia is] amplifying dynamics that are already there [in the Balkans] rather than creating points of tension.

And what are these dynamics?

Well, in the former Yugoslavia there is this chorus of conflict still alive in a place like Serbia, but also in Montenegro, Republika Srpska and to some degree in North Macedonia.

There is the perception that the West sided with their adversaries, especially in Serbia which became a target of a NATO bombing campaign.

As a result, Serbian nationalism has been aligned with the veneration of Russia, which is historically problematic but is nonetheless the case.

And if you are Russia and you want to propagate your message, very often you are preaching to the converted because there is a repository of good feeling towards [you].

Again, this is not because people are very fond of Russia itself or very knowledgeable of what Russia is about, but mainly because there is this resentment against the West, against the U.S. in particular.

And when we talk about NATO enlargement for countries like Ukraine and Georgia, what does allowing North Macedonia mean for them? Does it mean that the door is open or that NATO has already expanded to such an extent that there is no appetite for more countries to join?

I am afraid it is the latter, because at the end of the day the Balkans is a different ballgame. It is surrounded by NATO’s new territory. NATO is in the region already and there is no Russian military presence.

By taking Macedonia you are not confronting Moscow, you do not have a frozen conflict and there is no prospect of a direct showdown with Russia. This is not the case in the eastern neighborhood in the former Soviet space.

Many in Washington D.C. and in Brussels say that Georgia has been an “A+’ student” for NATO and that it deserves membership. When you say the game is different, do you think that is primarily because of the Russian factor?

I think so. You could probably draw a parallel with North Macedonia. It has been an “A+ student” as well. This is a country that signed the Membership Action Plan as early as 1999, but what kept Macedonia away from entering NATO was a political matter – the Greek veto. This [example] shows that you might fulfill all the conditions, but [still won’t enter the Alliance].

But Greece is a member of NATO and Russia is not.

Exactly, Russia does not have a veto, but it has the threat of military force and the frozen conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia which will be holding Georgia hostage.

Ultimately, until we have a security problem or a political problem, your efforts might be overruled.

What about the resolve on the Western side? So far, we have not seen any open confrontation that Moscow has led against any NATO member. So, if there is a resolve on Western side on the case of membership for Georgia, do you think that could be a way to stop Moscow?

It is very hard to judge, but my perception is that Russia was clearly not preparing to put up a fight over Macedonia. It was ready to accept the outcome and let bygones be bygones.

Whether such a scenario can play out in Ukraine and Georgia, I do not know. But for now, it seems that the Western policy is focused on integrating the two countries short of membership – on giving them all the benefits in terms of reinforced security cooperation, advanced weaponry and joint training.

Whether that approach pays off we will see, but

I do not see any political appetite at the NATO level and in Washington to push forward with the enlargement to Ukraine and to Georgia.

I guess what will follow will be a further push in the Balkans to bring the remaining pieces, which is Bosnia. And Bosnia itself is not easy to crack because part of the country will be pushing the brakes very hard. Russia has real leverage with the Bosnian Serbs and it will be the next area of political contest.

Do you have an example when there was a Western resolve and Russians still pushed against Washington? We see this a lot now in Venezuela.

That is a good point to make; we will see how that plays out, but we do not know how far the Trump administration will go in Venezuela.

What we have is a case from the 1990s in the Balkans. Where it saw a clear Western push, Russia ultimately made a U-turn. But then again that was a different Russia. It was before the 2008 conflict in Georgia, the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas.

I feel that in the post-Soviet space Russia can get away with much more; it can engage in aggressive actions, but get off the hook because of plausible deniability. Russia is prepared to push back much more there, than it would do in Venezuela, Macedonia or even Bosnia.

The risks are higher, but that should not discourage the West from being pushy. I always argue with all those people who are in favor of engaging the Russians – that even if you believe in engagement, it is much better to engage from a position of strength than from a position of weakness.

What does it take then, if we are saying the Russian factor is there to stay; what can Georgia and Ukraine do to get some sort of real path in the Alliance?

Well, I guess at the end of the day there has to be a policy change in Russia itself. There has to be realization – maybe not by Putin himself, but by his successor or whoever comes to power next – that the West is not an adversary and that Russia has to find some sort of accommodation, that Western enlargements are not a zero sum game.

This will probably be achieved easier with the EU than with NATO, because until 2009, when the Eastern Partnership was launched Russia was actually much more relaxed about the EU enlargement. But that is a bridge too far to cross, and I am not sure we will get there very easily.

How you convince Russia to accept that and not to stir trouble in its neighborhood is anybody’s guess. We just see the opposite because they are creating conflict. In fact, we had an escalation in the Azov sea and another flashpoint with the autocephaly of the Ukrainian church. There are more and more points of tension.

..which are created by Moscow for that very effect, to have a leverage later

Sure, absolutely. That was very much the case with Azov; it opened another front vis-a-vis Ukraine. But it puts the Alliance in a very difficult position, because if they commit to the defense of Ukraine and Georgia, they have to countenance the possibility of a showdown with Russia which is not a choice any politician in the major western capitals is willing to make.

Does this remind you of the appeasement of the 1930s?

It is a bit of that as well, I agree.

The best way to deter Russia is to increase the cost and how do you increase the cost? The Ukrainian scenario is a an example of this; you build the county’s capacity so that the country can impose a cost for the Russians.

The Ukrainians managed to build a proper military force. They did not put a fight for Crimea, but they are putting a fight for Donbas and imposing cost for the Russians.

The question is whether Georgia can do something of the sort, considering that Russia is behaving in a pushy way and is moving the boundary in South Ossetia every so often with the few meters down.

How can Georgia deter that from happening? Well, first of all you have to have the West show Russia that there is a cost to that, and I think the best way to counteract is to use the economic weapon.

What are the lingering problems in the Balkans?

There are many issue which many Eastern Europeans will be familiar with.

First of all, there is the legacy of the 1990s – the conflicts – we have a major territorial dispute, a sovereignty dispute over Kosovo which remains unresolved despite all the progress made with the EU guidance.

Until that is not tackled, neither Kosovo nor Serbia can make their way into the EU. Beyond territorial issues, there is also deeply ingrained nationalism that is easily mobilized by populist politicians and put at the service of Russia or other international spoilers against the West.

There is also a vicious circle of issues that have to do with the quality of democracy. Freedom House just downgraded Serbia from free to partly free on account of the concentration of power in one party, one individual.

You could argue that many of the Balkan societies have not been able to extricate themselves from authoritarian habits. Corruption remains rampant and it is a major obstacle to economic development.

You also have long-term challenges linked to demographics; around 6 million people have left from the region and this is a problem when it comes to democratic governance because the most active citizens who are likely to push for change sometimes choose to realize their life goals in Western Europe.

You pointed out the question of autocephaly for the Ukrainian Church. In Georgia this caused much debate when it comes to the Georgian Orthodox Church and the Georgian government. How did the Serbian Church react to it?

They reacted very negatively. Not because they deeply loved the Russian church, but because there is a clear parallel between their claims vis-à-vis neighbors and the Russian claims.

[The Serbian Orthodox Church fears] that Ukraine could be a precedent for Montenegro, because there is an independent Montenegrin church supported by the government [in Podgorica], but the Serbian church maintains that Montenegro should stay under its jurisdiction. So there is a clear parallel between the two.

To some degree, there is also a parallel with Macedonia. The Macedonian Church, which was established in 1968 in the Communist period, is not recognized by the Serbian church and is considered to be part of the mother institution. So these issues are purely political and not doctrinal or spiritual; they correspond to some of the issues in the post-Soviet space and that is why you have opposition and push-back [on the Ukrainian autocephaly].

But how would you explain it, why did Georgia dither on the question of recognizing Ukrainian Church’s autocephaly?

It is difficult to glance in the mind of the Patriarch and the high clergy in Georgia, but I think they maintain kind of an ambiguous relationship with the Russians.

Russia has used all those independent Orthodox churches to project its influence, and I know this very well from the Bulgarian experience. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church is very unlikely to oppose the Russians on any issue. This was the case even before the Ukrainian autocephaly came into the spotlight. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church boycotted the Ecumenical Council in Crete for the same reason. So did the Georgian one, not to be at odds with the Russians.

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This material was prepared for Civil.ge by the Voice of America. In order to license this and other content free of charge, please contact Adam Gartner.
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