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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 29:63–73.


The Balkan Policy of Russia


In the present paper I intend to concentrate on three problems.

First of all, if one wishes to understand Russian behaviour in the Balkans, with special regard to the related efforts of the recent period, it may be worth considering the momentary conditions and possibilities of Russia first and foremost.

Next I try to survey the strategic directions of the foreign political behaviour of Moscow. I try to outline the broader foreign political context, but only of the Putin period not covering the time prior to 2000, in which the Balkans is not a strategic direction for Russia. It is not a strategic priority despite the fact that there are actors, groups and factors in Russian politics that have occasionally added emotional hues to politics due to confessional or ethnic proximity or historical relations. Yet, I am of the view that the Balkans cannot be considered a strategic target area of Russian foreign policy, it is much more a tool to the achievement of more important political goals.

The third problem area is the actual Balkan policy of Russia. A policy, as I have already mentioned, is primarily a tool and not a strategic target area.

Let us see the first topic of Russian capabilities. Several facts and circumstances are commonly known to the majority of those who are interested in foreign policy. The spectacular stabilisation process is also well-known, as a result of which Russia has significantly enlarged its resources from 2000 on, during Putin’s two presidential terms. Perhaps it is the continuous and vigorous growth of the GDP that is best known from among these facts. The 1990s were the decade of continuous decline in Russia with regard to the economy, and with the exception of 1997 there was not a single year when the GDP did not show signs of decline in respect of industrial output or any other important indicator. The fall of the GDP was a two-digit figure in some areas. In summary, it can be stated that the extent of the Russian economic decline in the 1990s is comparable to the decline of the Third Reich in World War II, i.e. the scale of decline was essentially as big as the one suffered by Hitler’s Germany between 1939 and 1945 with the not negligible difference that Russia experienced it in peace time. From 1990 on, however, following the financial collapse of the previous year continuous economic growth set in, producing an average 6.5-7% annual growth of the GDP. This growth is undoubtedly imposing. I wish to go into details about some of its limitations somewhat later. It is highly conspicuous that from the early 2000s on Russia could rapidly get rid of the financial dependence it got into in the middle of the 1980s, in the early years of Gorbachev. It should be recalled here that the late Soviet Union had rather significant additional incomes as a result of the first energy price explosion and these additional incomes were available until the summer of 1985. Between the summer of 1985 and the spring of 1986, however, the oil price dropped approximately to its third due to various reasons. It essentially sealed the programme of Gorbachev’s perestroika, primarily its social dimensions. The Soviet Union suffered highly significant losses due to those changes and in respect of energy prices a period of 17 years began when the price of oil per barrel stabilised roughly around 20 dollars. Here the year 1998, the year of Russian state bankruptcy meant some exception, when temporarily the price of oil dropped below 10 dollars. The repeated but initially slow growth of oil prices started to accelerate only from 1999 on. During the period from late 1999 to early 2004 Russia succeeded in accumulating gold and currency reserves worth more than 80 billion dollars. This is practically the sum the Soviet Union possessed in its heyday, in the second part of the 1970s. From early 2004 on, when oil prices went up above 40 dollars and stayed on that level, the sum of 80 billion was quadrupled by the spring of 2007. As a result the currency reserves of Russia today approximate 400 billion dollars. Moreover, they may even be larger because during that period, i.e. between 2004 and 2007 there were weeks when Moscow could increase its reserves weekly by 6-7 billion dollars. In addition, Russia also has a stabilisation fund based on the example of the Norwegian oil funds, the reserves of which are already significant, surpassing the 100 billion dollar level. At any rate, the gold and currency reserves of Russia are the third largest today, next only to China and Japan. It is more than obvious that the new-fangled self-assurance of Moscow, which could be sensed for the first time in the spring of 2003, is not independent of this financial stabilisation and of regaining financial independence and which has been enduring ever since to a growing extent. There are, however, certain limitations and doubts emerging in connection with this novel self-assurance.

One of the justly emerging ‘doubts’ is related to the export structure of Russia. In fact, today it is more disadvantageous than it was during the time of the late Soviet Union. The proportion of the supply of raw materials and energy carriers is larger than it was in the years of the late Soviet Union. The budgetary policy also raises doubts in several respects. First of all I wish to recall that the budget is usually divided into ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ items. The traditional ones include costs related to the administration and the governance of the country, to the defence budget, further on to national security expenses, whereas under the heading of modern items we have health care, education and other social expenses. The proportion of these two budgetary groups is about four to six times as much in the ‘modern’ group in the developed countries today. Whereas in Russia the situation is just the opposite, the money spent on defence is three to four times as much as the resources allocated for education or health care. Forecasts for the coming years do not only indicate improvement, but on the contrary, they suggest further distancing from the developed world. I may add that when President Putin said regularly that the Russian defence expenditure did not reach 3% of the GDP, and it is true that during the recent years it has been around 2.7%, he was telling the truth, yet not the whole truth, because he did not say a word about the internal structure of the entire budget while, as we have seen, that structure particularly offers food to consideration.

Recently there has been talk with increased frequency about the fact that Russia has been living amidst increasingly deteriorating demographic trends, and I think it is worth talking about. Despite the fact that there was a significant return from the periphery to Russia after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, yet in a Russia where there had been 149 million inhabitants in the late 1991, today the total population is only 143 million. In order to have a closer look at the trend it is worth remembering that in the early 20th century the Russian Empire was the third most populous country after China and India. At the time of the disintegration of the Soviet Union the total population of all the federal states was close to 300 million. Russia has inherited roughly half of that population. At that time it was still considered as the sixth most populous country of the world. Today it is only the eighth. During the past years two countries have overtaken it, at first it was Pakistan and last year it was Bangladesh. In case these tendencies continue, by 2050 the total population of Russia would be less than one hundred million and as such it will not be among the 15 most populous countries. This is further aggravated by the problem that the Russian population has been traditionally distributed very unevenly on the territory of the country. In fact four fifths of the total population are located on the European territory, which is only one fourth of the total. Practically, with the exception of the narrow southern border area, the areas beyond the Urals are uninhabited. Innumerable problems derive from this but I cannot go into details now. At any rate, the trend is a cause for extreme anxiety. And if one adds that today the life expectancy of a man in Russia is significantly shorter than it was two or three decades ago, moreover, the chances of a man past thirty are even worse than they were in 1913, it becomes visible that it is an extremely important yet dramatic consequence of the political and economic transformation of the 1990s.

And then it may also become understandable why the majority of Russian society can accept the autocratic modernisation of Putin much more enthusiastically than it could identify with the 1990s that were apparently freer. Surely, the manipulations of the politically relevant electronic media also have a role in it, but that is hardly decisive. The fact is much more important that during the Putin period the still very low incomes (around 400 dollars at current exchange rate) have been regularly paid on time. And this undoubtedly still very low income is already double the one of the late 1990s. And if this is collated to the fact that in 1998, at the time of the memorable default almost half of the population, 70 million people languished on one dollar per day, thus belonging to the poorest one billion people of the world, the social appreciation of growth is understandable.

Finally, I wish to supply a final series of data about the economic and social conditions, namely that in 2008 the Russian political leadership made a very important statement. In February 2008 the first Deputy Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, Head of the Russian delegation to the World Economic Forum at Davos, announced that the GDP according to the Russian government’s figures and calculated at current exchange rate reached 1000 thousand million dollars. Wold Bank data somewhat differ stating that the Russian GDP was only 817 billion dollars. Nevertheless, no matter which figure one considers as authentic, surely even the achievement of 817 billion dollars means that the Russian economy is the tenth largest of the world. If the economic strength of 1000 billion is considered it means that the per capita GDP, once again calculated at current exchange rate, is seven thousand dollars. This is the level of today’s Mexico. But if we compare it to the 1998 level, when the per capita GDP has just reached 1000 dollars in Russia, and Russia was not among the first one hundred countries of the world in respect of this indicator, this is yet another serious reason why the Russian society, despite possible critical remarks accepts the authoritarian modernisation of Putin more willingly than the ‘chaotic freedom’ of the 1990s.

I wish to refer to yet another limitation of Putin’s policy, namely to the recruitment of the elite. This is a problem field again suited for drawing a diversity of conclusions. In this respect I wish to call attention to one thing, namely that at the time of transition from the Yeltsin era to that of Putin a truly bizarre coalition had emerged, and pro-West technocrats as well as actors coming from Yeltsin’s environment and the secret services entered into ‘alliance’ in order to execute the not easy task of handing over authority, while social peace and the territorial integrity of the country as well as the untouchability of elite groups was to be preserved. And I do not only wish to refer to the period when one important component, the oligarchs who had played an important role around Yeltsin dropped out of this bizarre tree-segment coalition in the wake of the Yukos case, but also to a newly unfolding trend deserving particular attention. A trend that even those who mostly regard Putin’s stabilisation with understanding express some concerns about. Namely that a combination of the administrative and business elite is emerging as a consequence of which there is practically no strategic area of Russian economy today, may it be the energy sector, industry, the sphere of the media or any other field of strategic importance where former secret service men do not appear in significant numbers. On the other hand, and this is even more important, an increasing number of people in high and important administrative positions are filling up supervisory committees of companies operating in strategic areas and sometimes even at the level of operative management. I think that while too much good cannot be said about the Russian oligarchic capitalism of the 1990s the bureaucratic capitalism of the Putin era does not appear to be more attractive either. Meanwhile, undoubtedly the living conditions of a significant part of the society have conspicuously improved and the stabilisation of the past years has been able to moderate to some extent the dramatic suffering that significant groups of the society underwent in the 1990s.

Now I wish to move on to the second field, to the strategic directions of Moscow’s foreign political behaviour. I would only shed light on the trends after 2000, i.e. the appearance of Putin on the scene. When writing about the Balkans I would go back to the 1990s as well, but I would exclusively deal with the Putin period in respect of strategic directions.

I think at the time of Putin’s appearance on the scene it was a remarkable feature of Russian foreign political behaviour that the new President strove to harmonise the actual conditions of the country with achievable ambitions. In the early 2000s a new political course began with Putin which surveyed the actual capabilities of the country with fair consciousness and tried to measure and adjust the political aims and ambitions to these capabilities. An important expression of this was the obvious and clear turn towards Europe Putin implemented in the early 2000s. It was more than telling that Putin’s first travels abroad took him to Europe. The old continent was regarded as the site number one for building contacts. In the early 2000 the first travels of the new President took him to Madrid, Rome, Berlin and Paris. He made it clear relatively fast what an eminent significance Europe and the European key powers had for Moscow. This was obviously a rational decision and was closely related to the realistic survey of the country’s capabilities. I wish to note that the Russian elite of experts indicated it from the end of the 1990s that Russia has not and will not have means to take up a global role in the foreseeable time. If this circumstance is not accepted it would necessarily lead to a dangerous and hazardous policy. Therefore the year 2000 started in the spirit that Moscow should concentrate primarily on Europe, and not only on the European Union but also on the four or five countries of key importance in Europe. It has to bring about whatever is a value and opportunity for Russia out of this. I wish to note that this turn to Europe was highly welcome by a large part of the European capitals. In 2000 Putin met the British Prime Minister Tony Blair four times. Incidentally, all signs suggest that Tony Blair was given the task of fathoming what Putin was really like and what intentions he had. In fact this intensive European-Russian dialogue was to have its spectacular outcome. Those dealing with foreign policy might remember that the summer of 2001, the weeks before the 11 September attack against America brought about very interesting changes in the relationship of Moscow and the West. At first Berlusconi spoke, followed by Schroeder, and subsequently by Condoleezza Rice, at that time the National Security Advisor of the American President, all of them telling that the time might have come when the foreseeable perspective of winning NATO membership may seriously open up to Russia. All this happened in July and August 2001. The European leaders and even the American one somewhat hesitantly gave signs of the possibility of speeding up the inclusion and integration of Russia into important international organisations and institutions even before the dramatic events of September. And then came the period between 2001 and 2003, which I would call the ‘period of grace’ for the sake of simplicity, when the relations between Moscow and the West became the most intimate, closest and friendliest in the history of modern Russia. It was mostly and obviously the consequence of the swift and friendly reaction of Moscow upon the 9/11 attack that hit the United States. Thus Putin, who offered Russia’s support to the United States, perhaps surprising many actors in his environment, gauged the interests of his country highly rationally and stood unambiguously for Washington. This new situation opened up very important perspectives at the end of 2001. One new perspective was that the pro-West, liberal part of the still influential Russian elite sensed for the first time that it could openly advocate and put the programme of the full EU membership of Russia on the agenda. I may add that what is interesting here is not whether Russia would have possessed such conditions after 15-20 years but the political will and intention. Namely that the influential group of the elite assessed at that time that it could even publicly declare this strategic aim. But I wish to state that it has never become an official programme. Russia did not give any official sign in that period between 2001 and 2003 of wanting to become a full member of the EU. But it is also true that the Russian President did not suggest even in a single remark that he would reject it up to the autumn of 2003. From the autumn of 2003, however, a number of statements appeared in which Putin declared that it was not the aim of Russia even on medium term to become an EU member. Therefore the outside world rightly sensed that there were influential and significant Russian groups that wanted to give new impetus and different significance to the approximation of Moscow to Europe.

Besides the above declaration of EU membership as a strategic aim this was the period when yet another important element cropped up in the relations of Russia and the West. There was a realistic chance emerging that the relations between the West and Russia would, I may even say for good, be demilitarised. This would mean that conflicting interests and smaller or bigger conflicts may survive in the set of relations of the two parties, but it would never occur to anyone, to any of the sides even to remind the other of its military capability not even as a warning. Thus I would link two important developments to this ‘period of grace’, namely setting the acquisition of EU membership as a strategic aim, and the lasting demilitarisation of the relations between the West and Russia.

Now the question may justly emerge: where does the change begin and what leads to the present situation in which one may already hear about a new Cold War or at least the possibility of it? What leads to this turn? Surely it is not the Iraqi crisis of 2003. It is not the disapproval of Moscow of the intervention of the United States there. Russia occupied a highly consistent stand in respect of the Iraqi action: on the one hand it continuously repeated that the three arguments based on which the United States and its allies wished to gain the authorisation of the UN Security Council were shaky and were simply not proved. Russia, however, did not stop there and, going further, it stated that it was not wise to interfere by military means into the affairs of an unstable area where the consequences of intervention were practically unforeseeable. Moscow continuously stressed that an intervention could fatally shake the relative stability of the region, it may unpredictably activate certain groups while it may further radicalise others. Initially this message was present from the beginning of the war, and I must say that those warnings later on proved to be well founded. Yet, two weeks after the beginning of the military action Putin had a highly remarkable statement when he repeated the Russian stand about the intervention being a mistake, but he also added that Moscow was not interested in the failure of the United States. It should be also added that this particular intervention in Iraq has had a highly beneficial effect on the situation and incomes of Russia because the protracted Iraqi war was one of the reasons, besides uncertainty prolonged around Iraq, why energy prices shot up at the turn of 2003 and 2004 and have remained high. Thus, in the early 21st century Russia could be among those who made the largest profit of the energy boom. But once again I wish to stress that it was not Iraq, not the intervention in Iraq launched in March 2003 that had damaged and fatally burdened the relationships between Washington and Moscow.

There are two other elements that played a more important and significant role in this process. One was the Yukos case starting in the summer of 2003. I cannot evoke its details here. I wish to note only one thing. Namely that the Yukos case and its different phases such as the imprisonment of Platon Lebedev in July and of Mihail Hodorkovsky in October was presumably not unfounded in many respects and some of the counts of indictment could have stood their ground even in front of an independent and unbiased judiciary. The problem is that obviously a series of similar proceedings could have been commenced against a significant part of the Russian business elite. Yet, nothing similar happened. Clearly at this point the issue of political expediency emerges: if the authorities commenced proceedings against everybody, an unmanageable quantity of fronts would open up. Its political consequences would have been impossible to measure. The Yukos case, besides everything else, had a very important political consequence which became rapidly manifest in Moscow’s foreign political behaviour too. Actually, the Hodorkovsky case rearranged the internal power relations of the Russian elite in no time. Those groups of the elite dropped off in a minute that were interested in maintaining cooperation and continuous dialogue with the West. And those groups that remained in power position, including pro-West technocrats, even after the Yukos case were either uninterested in maintaining dialogue with the West, or were not strong enough. Therefore the Yukos case is an important turning point, as a result of which such influential pro-West political factors fell out of the power elite as Prime Minister Mihail Kasyanov of Putin’s first term, or Aleksandr Voloshin, the head of the presidential administration.

I am also of the view that the first ‘coloured revolution’ of the post-Soviet area, taking place in Georgia in the autumn of 2003 did not play a meaningful role in the cooling down of relations between the West and Russia. Russia calmly accepted that change. It is not sure that it properly assessed and interpreted the events. The events in Ukraine, however, in the autumn of 2004 created a radically new situation. It can be definitely stated that the erosion of trust was launched by the coloured revolutions of the Soviet internal periphery, and mostly the strategically most important and most significant Ukrainian one.

Summing up, I assume that there are four circumstances that have set out Russia in the direction of a very resolute, autonomous foreign policy, at times even ready for confrontation with the West. The first one is undoubtedly related to the difficulties of approximating Europe because it is one thing to set certain aims in rhetoric such as the development of a common economic space, but it is entirely different to adjust certain conditions and formulate them into norms. Obviously some disappointment also plays a role in the cooling down of relations between Moscow and the West even though the mutual goodwill and trust were obviously present in both parties. This is well indicated by the fact that the parties accepted the concept of the so-called “four common spaces” of the EU and Russia at the Saint Petersburg meeting (May 2003). The concept was meant to have alternative areas if the development of the common economic space did not progress fast enough and problems emerged that were difficult to solve, where other kinds of successes could be accomplished in times of temporary difficulties. Thus, compensation would be possible. Such a compensating function would be performed by the three new areas of ‘internal security and justice’, ‘external security’ and ‘scientific and cultural cooperation’. All this would serve to help and continuously maintain Russia–EU relations. From the moment on, however, when gaining EU membership is not a goal even in the medium term these four common spaces and the related internal legislation lose their function. If it is not one’s aim, as it is not Moscow’s aim anymore to gain membership of the EU then the expectations of the “common spaces” become totally unnecessary and their acceptance would mean unilateral allowances.

This is one of the elements provoking mistrust. The other one is the issue of the ‘coloured revolutions’ mentioned above. The third one is the rearrangement of internal power relations, a factor I have also referred to. And finally, Russia’s rapidly acquired financial independence is an obvious element of this political change which has evoked a new-fangled and strong self-consciousness in Moscow in no time. And in this context Russian aims have also changed. One of the most important aims of Putin’s authoritarian modernisation was to avoid social catastrophe. I think that this aim was essentially achieved. But this authoritarian modernisation does have another important aim as well. Namely to moderate and, if possible, continuously regain the Russian strategic losses suffered during the 1990s. It seems that a new, utterly ambitious aim is also emerging, perhaps only in rhetoric for the time being, namely the increasing desire of Russia to take the role of an autonomous power pole and to work for its creation. A telling ideological form of all this is the so-called construct of a ‘sovereign democracy’. This term can be met with growing frequency. ‘Sovereign democracy’ is an ideologheme that has two parallel messages. On the one hand it implies that Moscow reserves the right to decide on its own in issues concerning and related to it and should be in a decision-making position. A significant part of the elite suffered the historical experience of the 1990s as veritable catastrophes, as an alleged foreign governance of the country. Perhaps this is exaggerated at times, yet, sensing all this as a tragedy is not unfounded. ‘Sovereign democracy’, however, does not only have this meaning but also the inclination that others should not determine what kind of democracy we are to build, as it is repeatedly stated in Moscow. I think that this may even be regarded as rational within certain limitations, at the same time driving it beyond a certain limit is clearly an abuse of the concept.

Finally, I wish to speak about the Balkans in brief, namely about the consequences of all this for the Balkans. As I mentioned here I would go back in time, to the 1990s, but only very briefly.

First of all Russia is one of the powers that were among the first to accept and acknowledge the independence of Slovenia and Croatia. It can be stated in general that Moscow was leading in that process of acknowledgement in the early 1990s and was not among those who got engaged in procrastination. At the same time it is conspicuous, and this is clearly the consequence of the internal transformation and the related internal uncertainties, that Russia was not at all active in the Balkan region in the early 1990s, as it was expressly passive also in the whole of East-Central Europe. This was due to the very resolute objective of Yeltsin’s policy not to create the impression or appearance for a moment either in our area or in the Balkans that a kind of revitalisation and renewal of the Brezhnev-doctrine was in progress. Not even in the form of the most well-intentioned activation. Surely at that time Russia had neither means nor intention for activation. There was neither strength, nor ability or intention to become once again active in the Balkans and in East-Central Europe in general in the early 1990s.

I also consider it rather important that when Russia reappeared in the region again as an active actor from 1993 and 1994 onwards, it did so primarily upon the initiative of the West. The West initiated it because they had the impression that Russia, following the policy of approximating the West, may be a benevolent mediator, primarily towards Belgrade. Russia could be the actor that can simultaneously threaten and promise; it can mediate praise as well as expectations authentically towards the leadership in Belgrade.

Up to 1994 and 1995 Moscow’s behaviour towards the European great powers and the United States was extremely cooperative. One should look at the resolutions of the UN Security Council to see that Moscow consistently voted together with the Western powers on issues related to the Balkans. There was a period at the turn of 1994 to 1995 when Russian leadership began to sense that the promises formerly made to persuade Belgrade to be more obedient were not being fulfilled. Next a curious transitory period emerged when they still did not want to turn against the SC majority but Western position was already unacceptable to them. Well, at that stage they bridged over the situation repeatedly by not participating in the vote, but still not in opposition. Then the change continuously unfolded from 1995 on. So much so that in 1999, at the time of the Kosovo crisis Moscow refused to take note of even the most obvious violations of rights by Belgrade. I must say that in 1999 it was rather sad to see that it had not been mentioned for long weeks, not even by a single sentence in the leading Russian television channel, in the main evening news programmes of ORT that any offence or reprisal had hit the Albanians of Kosovo.

All this showed that Russian politics, insisting on cooperation for a long time, was changing its direction after a while and became prejudiced. Now I would not dwell upon the convoy issue of April 1999, affecting Hungary too, though that case would deserve a few words. At the same time, with Putin’s turn to Europe in 2000 and with the sober foreign policy he conducted particularly during his first presidential term, the entire Balkan problem began to be pushed into the background once again temporarily by Moscow. After the 1999 crisis the Russian Balkan policy sets out on the way of sobering, retreat and consolidation as well as on the way of taking up dialogue once again with the West.

Finally, I wish to write about one more thing and it is Kosovo, the precedent of Kosovo and the dilemmas that preoccupy Moscow in that respect.

There are four areas of secession on the territory of the former Soviet Union that raise serious issues for Russia. Two of those territories belong to Georgia, namely Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Transnistria, belonging to Moldova is also a state formation of secession and there is Nagorno-Karabakh, part of Azerbaijan but of Armenian majority population. In the case of Abkhazia presumably 90% of the inhabitants already have Russian citizenship and if there was a referendum, surely the vast majority of the population would gladly accede to the Russian Federation. A referendum on this issue would in all probability produce the same result in South Ossetia belonging to Georgia. If the independence of Kosovo is acknowledged, Moscow can obviously expect the Abkhazian and the South Ossetian leadership, as well as Transnistria belonging to Moldova to decide for the same. These secessionist state formations would put Moscow under very hard pressure to support their intention to become independent. At the same time it carries in itself the danger that these examples would generate risky processes of secession inside Russia itself. Hence this fact limits to some extent Moscow’s behaviour of supporting secession. There is, however, yet another barrier present, and that is the case of Nagorno-Karabakh. The problem of Karabakh leads one to the Armenian–Azeri conflict. In connection with that conflict a dilemma difficult to manage occurs for Russia, i.e. how one could keep up the friendship of Armenia and Azerbaijan while traditionally Yerevan is Moscow’s most important ally in the Trans-Caucasus. It may be necessary, because there might be situations when it comes expressly handy if Moscow offers the radio locators of Gabala on the territory of Azerbaijan for joint use to Washington.

And though the Chechen conflict could be suppressed at the cost of much blood and arms in the conflict zone of the Northern Caucasus, there still remain a lot of unsolved problems, therefore Russia would not at all like to provoke movements of secession inside its own territory. And that is a serious ‘disciplinary force’.


* Senior Researcher of the Institute of History, HAS