Peter BONIN
Mannheim Center for European Social Research,Germany

The last reserves of the imagined Great Power. On the significance of the Balkans for Russian political and economic actors.

Abstract

The Balkan policies of the Russian Federation in the 1990s can be viewed as a prism for Russian foreign policy in general. Due to the seemingly similar disintegration processes in Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, a growing number of Russian actors used the wars in the Balkans as a way of raising their profile in domestic politics.

Meanwhile Moscow's contribution to international crisis management in the Balkans was - in its substance - no more than the simulated attempt to counterbalance the expansion of the Atlantic system of alliances. A comparison of Russian policies towards the two Balkan states Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, shows, to what extent a policy that was directed specifically to the region found itself in a cul-de-sac in the past decade due to the persistence of Great Power thinking and the economic crisis of the country.

The reserves of Russia's Balkan politics lie in the energy economy, for which above all Bulgaria as transit country for oil and gas plays a major role. Due to the similarities between the transformation processes in Russia and most of the Balkan countries on the personal as well as the institutional levels, structures have evolved that might become the basis for a future cooperation between Russia and the region.


The Balkans have long had the image of being a special sphere of Russian interests, and they will hardly get rid of this image in the near future. There is an extensive literature that describes the Balkans as a subject of Soviet or Russian interests. The catchwords are 'access to the straits' and the liberation of the Slavic 'brother nations' from Ottoman rule in the past, and 'resistance to the expansion of the Atlantic structures' in the last decade. No matter what

historic period, so called 'geostrategic' or 'cultural civilisational' interests are said to be at stake, and these can all too easily acquire the character of eternal continuity.

When it comes to Russian Balkan policy, highly symbolic events and actions come to mind: the airplane of former foreign minister, Evgenii Primakov, that he made turn back over the Atlantic ocean on receiving the news of the beginning of the Nato air strikes on Yugoslavia; Orthodox priests carrying the Serbian coat of arms and praying to Sveti Sava, the national saint of the Serbs, while a few meters away young punks carry the Yugoslav flag in order to demonstrate their support for the 'Serbian brothers'.

Hence, when in Western Europe Russia's policy towards the Southeast of Europe has been taken note of, in most cases this happened in relation to the wars in former Yugoslavia. But the Balkans are more than the Yugoslav trauma, and Russian foreign policy is not made by politicians alone.

It thus comes clear that Russia's Balkan policy can serve as a model for Russia's foreign policy in general. In this paper I want to argue, that in the past ten years, Russia has been unable either to bring the states of Southeastern Europe within its political sphere of interest or to establish a partnership with them, and that the Russian state actors have lacked the potential for a cooperative policy in the Balkan.

Yugoslavia, falling apart in a series of bloody wars, has absorbed the entire attention of Russia's diplomats and of a whole range of self-proclaimed foreign policy experts. Yugoslavia was for Russia not an object of a calculated policy, but rather an instrument, sometimes for Russia's policies towards the West, and sometimes for domestic politics. Hence Yugoslav crisis management has on the one hand served as the simulation of a - in substance non-existent - capacity to act, and on the other hand it has blocked an undisturbed reorientation and reformation of Russia's foreign policy in general, and towards other potential partners in the Balkans like Bulgaria or Rumania, in particular.

Only an analysis that looks beyond the international stage of the Yugoslav wars makes it possible to include the residual Russian actors that are capable of acting and are able to assert their interests in the region. In this way it becomes possible to grasp the entire spectrum of functions that the Balkans represented for the Russian Federation in the 1990s.

The loss of the Soviet legacy

back to top

After the Second World War the Soviet Union was confronted in Southeastern Europe with an area far more differentiated then the rest of Eastern Europe. Whereas the region between the Baltic Sea and Hungary served Stalin as a compact territorial gain for his own sphere of influence, Southeastern Europe in the decades of socialist rule was far more dynamic. A complex and multilayered balance of power between the single Balkan states led the Soviet Union to seek several different coalitions and constellations of power and influence. The maxim of Soviet policy towards the Balkans, as towards all Eastern Europe up to the Brezhnev era was the expansion of the Soviet model of socialism. With respect to the Balkans, however, a response to regional heterogenety was on the agenda.

Only Bulgaria functioned as an immediate outpost of the Soviet striving for hegenomy, and that country was undoubtedly the most important instrument for influencing the regional balance of power.

During the first years after World War II a priority of Soviet foreign policy was to prevent the formation of a closer alliance between the Balkan states. These stood at the brink of profound changes at the time, and the formation of Balkan federation would have meant a strengthening of Tito's Yugoslavia. By means of Bulgaria's close affiliation with Moscow, the ideologically garnished break with Tito in 1948 and the temporary rapprochement with the regime of Enver Hoxha in Albania, Stalin prevented the formation of a Balkan Federation. On the other hand Tito's Yugoslavia derived its legitimacy from its nonalignment and the conflict with the Soviet Union. Albania finally came into conflict with the Soviet Union over the reconciliation between Moscow and Belgrade and entered an ice age of isolation for decades to come.

National communist Rumania successfully withstood the forming of blocs, including Soviet attempts to integrate the socialist economy in the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA), so that Southeast Europe at the end of the 1970s comprised a zone of different hierarchies of Soviet influence.

It was only the step by step turn away from confrontational thinking under Mikhail Gorbachev that enabled an effective cost-benefit analysis of Moscow's external relations, which rather quickly made clear that the once hegemonic posture in Eastern Europe had developed into a burden for the Kremlin. The break with the Brezhnev doctrine and the appeal to the socialist states in Eastern Europe to find an independent path to socialist renewal was apostrophised as the 'Sinitra doctrine' ("I did it my way"). But the mistaken assessment, that it would be possible to win the former allies as supporters of the Soviet plans for modernisation was one of Gorbachev's numerous miscalculations. Instead the systems of socialist integration, CMEA and the Warsaw Treaty Organisation, fell apart rapidly and without greater effort.

The end of the East-West conflict and the unspectacular renunciation of the pax sovietica fostered two closely related processes that were of decisive significance for all Eastern Europe in the 1990s and in the years to come. The first of these was the enlargement process of the Western European integration community, which practically all former socialist states pinned their hopes on, and the second was the complex political, social and economic transition, the course of which varied greatly in the countries in question. The region was confronted with unique and multilayered dynamic processes. Above all in Southeast Europe the changes of the 1990s ushered in a restructuring of the region, in which the future orientation of each state and its new role for the region is yet to be defined.

At the economic as well as the transport-geographical and security levels, a reorientation has taken place in the region between the Adriatic and the Black Sea that has led to a whole range of different perspectives. With the vanishing of the system borders, states in this region that formerly faced each other as antagonists have now found potential for a new cooperation. Soon after the end of the East-West conflict a growing divide between North and South in Eastern Europe came to the surface, and the states of Southeastern Europe emerged as the losers of the transformation process. Apart from the European states of the former Soviet Union it was especially these countries that were not granted direct access to West European structures. Now, as at several earlier historical junctures, they found themselves at the European periphery.

In this situation the unstructured 'European outsiders' in the Balkans presented a considerable potential for Russian interests. But with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the socialist treaty systems Moscow's traditional instruments for hegemonic influence politics had vanished. For a reorientation to a policy that was specifically directed towards Southeastern Europe, the young Russian Federation lacked the means as well as the interests. Instead, the internationalisation of the conflicts in disintegrating Yugoslavia yielded a suitable field for Russia to present herself as a functioning and important protagonist in the international system, and to demonstrate that her persistent claim to be a Great Power was more than rhetoric.

Analogies between Russia and the Balkans

back to top

Just as in Western Europe, the word "Balkan" served in Russia as a code for the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Other countries and regions got little consideration in the public perception. Nonetheless, bearing in mind the numerous violent conflicts at the periphery of the Russian Federation, it is surprising that the wars in far away Yugoslavia should have received so much attention in Russia. But here we need to differentiate. For whom and when did the Balkans become a priority issue?

Several closely intertwined patterns can be identified, that were common in the Russian public's perception and interpretation of events in the Balkans during the last ten years. To start with the allegedly special relationship between Russians and the Slavic population of Southeastern Europe, Russian Balkan policy was - even in Western perception - largely understood in religious and cultural categories. However in Russia it was only the radical national-patriotic opposition that made the close relationship between Russians and Serbs their priority issue. This kind of attempted political mobilisation was limited to the national revivalist movement. Supposedly cultural or religious commitments towards the Serbs were and are not the basis of action for politics or government action.

Of far greater significance was the perception of Yugoslav events as something that could be repeated in the Russian Federation, which was also threatened by disintegration. This was connected with the concern that the Russian Federation, in its economic crisis, might also be torn apart by centrifugal forces. And finally the Russians saw themselves in the same position as all those states whose integrity was threatened by armed seperatist movements.

The warning signs being emitted by Yugoslavia became more threatening than ever as the international community got more and more involved in Yugoslav affairs, first in connection with their recognition policy towards the Yugoslav republics and then through the Nato air strikes in Bosnia 1995 and up to the escalation in Kosovo 1999. This became the point of crystallization in the relationship between Russia and the West. Hence a significant constant in the Russian perception of Yugoslavia, and one that differs considerably from Western European views, was not cultural determinism but the belief that Russia and Yugoslavia shared a common fate. This projection witnessed its popular climax in the comparison between the wars in Kosovo and in Chechnya. Only by appreciating this equation between Russian and Yugoslav events can one explain the main constant in Russia's international stance in the last decade: an insistence on the principles of nation-state sovereignty and non-intervention that Western minds often found difficult to comprehend.

The importance of this international factor in the Russian perception of the Balkans can also be seen in the disappearance of other Southeast European regions from the Russian public mind after the end of the East-West conflict. The former 'little brother' Bulgaria vanished almost completely and without a word from the Russian public discourse. It seems that Russians merely took note of the fact that the once so popular Bulgarian canned foods, red wine and tobacco had disappeared from the shops. In all other respects one gets the impression that no-one really thinks about Bulgaria anymore. The same applies to the other Southeast European countries that were not able to keep up with the international attention attracted by the crisis area Yugoslavia. Instead it seems that the perception of the Russian-Yugoslav parallels in the course of the 1990s followed the disintegration process of the Yugoslav Federation, so that attention was always focused upon the object towards which Nato too directed its politics, that is the sphere ruled by Belgrade at any particular moment.

But the spectre of the Yugoslav scenario for Russia and its impact on Russian perceptions concerns society as well as the state level, and it was not fundamentally affected either by the change of regime in Belgrade or by the change of president in Moscow. Russian sociologists compare the phenomenon of Vladimir Putin to the relationship the Serbs had to Slobodan Milosevi?, before his dethronement in October 2000. For Aleksandr Levinson of the All-Russian Institute for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), who has conducted polls to test reasons for Putin's popularity, both Putin and Milosevi? meet the preconditions for a ruler who deliberately renounces the norms and forms of Western democracy. Russians may know very little about Serbia and its history, but the numerous similarities between the countries help the Russians to feel a greater empathy with the Serbs than the geographically closer Ukrainians. According to Levinson, Russians see similarities in the two countries' comparable "historic fates", rather than in the cultural relationship. In both cases a former regional hegemonic power or the former centre of an empire was abandoned by its brother republics.

So if the perception of the Yugoslav fate in Russia was marked by the projection of the Balkan events onto Russia itself, it must have been reflected in Russia's foreign policy as well.

Balkan policy as a means of image building

back to top

If one can speak of an overriding goal in the foreign policy of the Russian Federation during the first ten years of its existence, then nothing more concrete will be found than the notorious call for the restoration of Great Power status, audible in almost every political camp. Hannes Adomeit has described a general trend, in which the rhetoric of Russian Great Power status grew diametrically as the real power to control political affairs got lost in endless political crises.

There was a comparable growth in the number of groups and institutions that tried to influence Russian foreign affairs. These three points - the rhetorical work upon the international role of the country, the loss of genuine capacity to act, and the institutional fragmentation of foreign policy as a whole - are the background to Moscow's Balkan policies of the past ten years.

The domestic implications of the wars in former Yugoslavia for Russia, are illustrated by the great number of state- and non-state actors, beyond the classical institutions in charge of foreign policy, for which the Balkans presented an ideal stage on which they could seak to attract attention as international players. More than once Vladimir Zhirinovskii chartered a plane to transport volunteers to the Balkans in support of the Serbian 'brothers', carrying the memory of hundreds of thousands of Russians who gave their lives for the liberation of the South Slavs from the Ottoman yoke in the luggage. Most of the delegations from the Russian state Duma or individual politicians travelled to Belgrade or even to the Bosnian Serb rebublic, and were successful in attracting the attention of the media. In the mountains surrounding besieged Sarajevo, together with the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzi? (due to the lack of knowledge of the language mostly in English), they drank toasts to Russian-Serbian friendship in front of the TV cameras and, as the mood took them, condemned the 'american-plutocratic' or 'mondialistic world conspiracy'. And once in a while the Russian guest was invited to let off a burst of machine gun fire at the city.

Against this background, the behaviour of the Russian government in connection with the wars in former Yugoslavia can be characterised as twofold imagebuilding, directed both towards the West and towards a domestic audience. In both cases the Kremlin leadership tried to demonstrate its capacity to direct events and its independent approach in order to cover up the fact that is actual capacity to act was restricted, and the Russian position in its substance practically always followed Western policy.

Those events that encountered a considerable echo in the Russian public seem full of symbolics to the spectator or analyst, e.g. when Russian soldiers got into action in former Yugoslavia. This happened for the first time in february 1994 in Bosnia. With the intention to preempt Nato air strikes against Serbian positions in the mountains over Sarajevo, Russian UN-peacekeepers (Blauhelme) unceremoniously advanced to / moved into Pale, the stronghold of the Bosnian Serbs.

Hardly any other event with Russian participation met a greater response in Moscow than the so called 'march to Pristina' (marsh-brosok na Prishtinu) on June 11 1999. 200 paratroopers belonging to a SFOR unit stationed in Bosnia occupied the airport of Slatina near Pristina after a trip through Serbia with a short (but very effective in terms of publicity) detour through the streets of Belgrade, and succedded in entering Pristina before the Nato troops. "In Pristina we were first, like once in Berlin" was one comment from the Russian general staff. By this action, which was cheered as a heroic deed in the Russian press, the soldiers had redeemed the humiliation, that the Nato air strikes had inflicted on the political-psychological feelings of the Russian population.

But what had happened in reality? Three points have to be made about the brosok na Prishtinu: First, the incident shows excellently the fragmentation of the Russian foreign policy decision making structures. Unclear though the motives for the action were, in the Russian press the judgement prevailed that president Boris Yeltsin had, by signing the order to march into Pristina simply given his blessing to a decision that had been taken by the general staff. Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, who was informed of the action at a very late stage, even distanced himself from it.

Secondly, the tremendous significance of symbolic actions for Russian politics comes clear, because these events in terms of their outcomes meant little more than a gain in prestige. The Russian battalion ran short of supplies soon after its arrival, and finally had to be content with guarding the airport complex, whereas strategic key functions such as radar monitoring where henceforth carried out by British KFOR troups. This shows, thirdly, that Russian policy on the key questions was marked by cooperation with the West.

But the impression the decisive Russian boys had left in the world and back at home was tremendous. Even Boris Yeltsin in his diary, admitted that the action was barely of symbolic significance and that it had brought no military or even diplomatic advantage.

Finally, when the commander of the battalion, General Viktor Zavarzin, - revealingly the first representative of the Russian Ministry of Defence in the Nato headquaters in Brussels - was promoted, it seemed that the Russian soldiers would resign themselves to the role of the warden of Pristina airport, without their own sector in Kosovo.

The logic of Russian behaviour in Kosovo was quaintly described by the commentator of the Moskovskii komsomolets, who admitted that it was Slobodan Milosevi? himself, who had provoked the conflicts in Kosovo, but who put tought it was more significant that Russia had "led Nato up the garden path in Pristina".

However, those actions of Russian politicians that were perceived by the West as real cooperation, like for example the missions of former prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, to Belgrade, were denounced by prominent figures in the Russian press as dancing to Nato's tune.

The plans to grant Serbia access to the Union between Russia and Belarus belonged to the same sphere of multifunctional symbolics, which seemed to unite Slavic broherhood with anti-western power projection. All of these internationally visible symbolic actions had another, much more problematic consequence: to a growing degree Russia's role as a capable player in the Balkans was called into question.

Interstate blockades

back to top

But it was not only in the international crisis management for the former Yugoslavia that Russia lost the bulk of its political capacities. The "loss" of the former little brother Bulgaria as a potential partner for interstate cooperation is equally suprising, as Bulgaria was in socialist times economically and politically closer to the Soviet Union than any other East European state. In accordance with these longstanding mutual interdependences Bulgaria's striving for disentanglement from the CMEA cooperation networks was less energetic than in other former CMEA countries. Even after the end of the East-West conflict Bulgaria remained - due to its industrialisation which was specifically designed to meet Comecon requirements - heavily dependent on Russian energy imports. Of all former socialist countries, Bulgaria still has the highest level of exports to Russia.

Still, on the political side Russo-Bulgarian relations came into a standstill in a way that cannot not be explained Sofia's striving for EU and Nato membership alone. The signing of a couple of treaties that had little more than the character of gestures was soon followed by incidents that can be understood as crises caused by misunderstanding. Feelings were hurt when for example Russia was not invited to a conference of the Southeast European defence ministers, and afterwards the then Foreign Minister Evgenii Primakov refused to meet his Bulgarian colleague, Nadezhda Michailova on the occasion of the UN General Assembly. By way of confimration the public bulletins of the Russian Foreign Ministry show more intensive attention to relations with countries like Mozambique or Iceland than with the once faithful 'brother' Bulgaria.

Russian politicians from the opposition also rarely looked further than the Yugoslav war. Sofia waited invain for a long time for a Russian parliamentary delegation, that should have come with the goal of improving trade relations, irritated by the dismantling of CMEA. Due to the fact that Bulgaria declared herself a country with "developed market economy" in 1992 it was excluded from the list of countries with preferential terms for imports to the RF.

Members of the Russian government, army and defence ministry, but also members of the opposition, expected to gain more from visible appearances with the indicted war criminal Slobodan Milosevi? than from laborious work in interstate meetings and commitees.

The Bulgarian political scientist Rumen Dimitrov explains this loss of dialogue and of interstate cooperation as a "crisis of negotiation", but something else might also have been involved here. Not only do the countries of Southeastern Europe direct all their political and economic efforts towards the West Russian politicians, who prefer to think in global terms also have their eyes either on the main trade partner EU or the actual centres of global power Nato and the USA, in spite of the steep decline in the actual significance of the country. Two reasons might be responsible for this: on the one hand the persistence of Great Power thinking and the projection of policy towards the West onto a regional conflict, as could be observed in Kosovo, coincide completely with methods used in Soviet times. Global concepts continue to dominate the political strategists' attempts to reorient themselves, and coalitions for a "multipolar world order" are not sought in smaller spaces than for instance in the power triangle between Russia, China and India. Little room is left for once welcome partners like Bulgaria. In these dimensions Russian politicians seem not to have adjusted the sights of their geopolitical glasses yet.

On the other hand, one can observe that the Russian Foreign Ministry lost much of the capacity to conduct a comprehensive foreign policy after the end of the East-West conflict. Due to the economic crisis the MID had to reduce its apparatus considerably. It lost a vast number of highly qualified specialists to better paying employers and was forced to close several departments completely. Thus one can suspect that Russian foreign politics, beneath its reflex-like concentration on the geopolitical global "Great game", has lost the means for a Balkan policy directed to the region itself.

Gas and Oil as the last reserve of Russian Balkan policy

back to top

Since the mid 1990s Russian state actors have been talking more and more about an economisation of Russian foreign policy. Russian think tanks include the assurance of the economic reforms in the country in their national security concepts. And with the growing fragmentation of the foreign policy structures, political science increasingly pronounces the significance of economic interest groups in Russian external behaviour. The energy industry stands at the centre of interest. With the world's largest gas resources at its disposal, energy is the last sphere in which Russia indeed remained a Great Power. Due to the specific transformation process in Russia a corporatist system has evolved, dominated by the interests of large conglomerates of entreprises, in which economic elites fuse with the state bureaucracy to create a network of different competing oligarchs and their clientele. As the country's largest tax payer and as the company that procures most foreign currency and last but not least due to its close entanglement with the state leadership, the state holding Gazprom has to be considered as a further decisive player in Russian foreign policy.

This is also valid for Russian Balkan policy as soon as one - again - leaves the Yugoslav crisis behind and takes a broader view. Hence, beyond Russian symbolic policy in former Yugoslavia, the specific role of Southeastern Europe was in the first place based on its economic and transport-geographic significance for exports to and transit through the countries of Southeastern Europe towards the tempting markets of the West.

The basis of action for energy industry actors is primarily economic rationality. Thus not a single case can be found where gas or oil has functioned as an instrument for strengthening Russia's position in international crisis management. Neither were energy supplies envisaged as an incentive for an end to any conflict in former Yugoslavia, nor was the threat to cut them off ever used as an instrument in this political sphere. As for the Nato air strikes in Yugoslavia in 1999 voices from the Russian energy lobby were instead the most pragmatic ones. In the journal Neft' i Kapital in May 1999, it was argued that while one should sympathize with the fate of the Serbs, one should not forget that it was Russian fuel that kept the Nato jets in the sky. The same applies to the potential use of Russian gas as political instrument, for example in order to win Serbia as a new partner in the Balkans and in this way to contribute to real power projection against the West. The longstanding economic and political isolation of Serbia has not turned the country, which has a debt of 325 million US Dollars to Gazprom, into a solvent partner for Russia. Hence, Gazprom has more than once cut the gas supply since summer 2000.

The Russian energy industry was much more active in the 1990s in relation to Bulgaria, which is 100% dependent on Russian gas imports. As a bridge to the increasingly lucrative markets in Turkey and Western Europe, Bulgaria was a special sphere of interest for Gazprom. By means of contacts, based on networks from socialist times, Gazprom tried to influence key decisions in Bulgarian energy politics. A conflict that dominated the Bulgarian media as the "gas war", developed over the question of which enterprises should have the rights for the distribution of gas in Bulgaria. Gazprom's interest in delivering its gas right to the consumer's door is economically logical and an internationally accepted attitude. But in the case of Bulgaria Gazprom used its connections to the former Bulgarian party elite, which had by then succesfully privatised its material resources. At the centre of this issue stood the Bulgarian conglomerate Multigroup, as well as the former member of the Bulgarian Politburo and first prime minister of Bulgaria, Andrey Lukanov. Born in Moscow, Lukanov, who was killed in autumn 1996, had excellent contacts with Russia up to the end of CP rule as minister for foreign trade.

Gazprom tried to use its stake in the Multigroup subsidiary Topenergy, in which Lukanov for a while had the post of a board member, to gain control over the Bulgarian gas network for the next 50 years. In the conflict with the Bulgarian government the threat to cut gas supplies was used repeatedly. Only when it became clear that the Bulgarian government would prevail in the struggle with Multigroup about the monopolisation of foreign trade did Gazprom finally soften its position in summer 1998. New potentials for conflict in the relations between Gazprom and Bulgaria grew out of the fact that Bulgarian entreprises fell behind with the contractually guaranteed enlargement of the pipeline network in 1999. With reference to the European Energy Charter, which has been signed by Russia and Bulgaria but only ratified by the latter, Gazprom threatened to use its right to finish the work on the network itself, which the Bulgarian side again understood as interference in the state's sovereignity.

The Sofia government viewed Gazprom's policy as an attempt of the Kremlin to achieve a hegemonic influence over the country and thus to intimidate it in its policy towards EU affiliation. The Brezhnev doctrine was again reinterpreted when the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev applied it to the head of Gazprom and spoke of the Vjachirev doctrine. Even though the Russian presidential advisor, Andranik Migranjan, also named Gazprom after a visit to Sofia as the main player in Russo-Bulgarian relations and thus interpreted the conflict in the context of Nato-enlargement, it is still to be proven that Gazprom indeed acted as executor of the Kremlin's interests. As a matter of fact, the Russian government gave Gazprom a free hand in Bulgaria. Hence one has the impression that at least parallel interests were at stake.

But what is decisive for the question of the anatomy of the functioning interstate structures in Russia and Bulgaria are the mechanisms for such energy-driven Balkan policies, that rest on a further analogy between Russia and most countries in the Balkans: The similarities between the crisis-ridden transformation processes with all their negative economic and social impacts. Gazprom's policy towards Bulgaria can serve as an example of the extent to which structural parallels between two countries, like the blockage of elite change, the creation of hybrid forms of private property, and the growing significance of informalisation processes in the economic as well as in the political sphere comprise the biggest potential for cooperation between Russia and the Balkan societies.

Predictions about the future development of Russian energy policy towards Southeast Europe are difficult to make. The question of the envisaged breakup of Gazprom's monopoly would have a considerable impact on future gas distribution in the region. The main goal for Gazprom, the attempt to use its current monopoly position in order to become the main supplier to the West, meets resistance in Southeast Europe as well. Alternative projects envisage routes for Turkmenian gas that do not lead through Russian terrritory. Plans for a connection between Turkmenistan crossing Turkey and Southeast Europe towards the West could profoundly change the current energy economic balance of power. Their realisation, though, is not an immediate prospect. So it seems that the Balkans will in the years to come lose their significance as the stage for simulation of Russian international policy; the 'Great Game' for the distribution of the remaining energy resources, in which the Balkans comprise a region that should not be overlooked, has only begun.

Prospects

back to top

Russia's policy towards the Balkans consists of two contradictory strands, state policy as international imagebuilding and energy policy as a reserve of influence in the region.

It is questionable whether Russian state policy has a concrete regional interest in the Balkans. At least, it lacks (perhaps only financially) the potential to play an active role in the region. At present it seems that Russia is only positioning itself in those fields which are more important, or for which it has the necessary instrument to hand. That is the Great Power manual against the perceived threat of expansion of Western structures. It looks as if the simulation of a geopolitical 'great game' counts more than a substantial long term regional strategy.

Any region that drops out of this scheme was left by Russian state policy in the 1990s to those players that were able to exert their group interests there. The motor of this cooperation were the once state, now privatised structures that find their best rent-seeking options in the informalised framework of the regulated market. Personal connections and informal networks stemming from socialist times were in the first post-socialist decade the forces with the best perspectives for economic as well as political profit. Thus, to the Russian-Balkan similarities mentioned above we can add the transformation processes that are proceeding along a similar course in each country. Whereas the first parallel consists of nothing more than perceptions and their projection onto oneself, the analogies in the areas of political, economic and social change led to a specific compatibility between the Russian and the Balkan societies that considerably influenced the potential for cooperation in the 1990s. Thus, the question of the future role Russia might assume in the Balkans can only be answered if one also examines the paths of development being followed by the societies and states in the Southeast of Europe.

Manuscript finished 23 January 2001 First published in German language in:

Osteuropa 2002, 4/