Trends in the Balkans around the Ukraine conflict

Energy - February 8, 2023

The Danube-Black Sea axis is an area of high economic and geostrategic importance.  It possesses resources of natural gas, oil and mineral resources.

On the other hand, the EU has so far stood united against Putin’s Russia and in favour of Zelensky’s Ukraine.  But are the citizens east of the former Iron Curtain equally positioned, both among themselves as well as with Brussels?

Let us start with Romania, which exemplifies the significance of the matter at stake, with the geostrategic position of the Black Sea basin, the Danube River, its neighbourhood with Russian influenced Moldova and, last but not least, its common border with Ukraine.

Despite the fact that only a small part of Romanians speaks Russian and are in principle less prone to messages coming from the Kremlin, many young people in rural areas believe that the EU is misinforming about the war in Ukraine.

The population in Romania remains rather Russophobic.  However, Putin is playing the card offered by more than 400,000 Romanian speakers living in Ukraine.  In 2017, they were heavily restricted access to their own language and culture by new education laws.  Ethnic Romanians have organised numerous peaceful protests, but reality is that there will be no Romanian-speaking readers in Ukraine for the next 20 years.  This has logically deteriorated Romanian-Ukrainian bilateral relations.

An extra Russian vector is being leveraged from Moldova, where the Kremlin feels more free to disseminate propaganda in Romania.

Serbia is the second most important player in the area, with two-thirds of its population feeling close to Russia.  75% of Serbian citizens believe that the Kremlin’s entry into the war was forced by NATO’s expansion intentions.

The country is still affected by the 1999 NATO bombing of the country, and Serbians distrust the Western media.  When EU members blocked broadcasting activities by Russia Today (RT), Serbia refused to apply the measure.  President Aleksandar Vučić went on to proclaim that “Serbia will not trample on or interrupt its friendships in the East”.

In Bulgaria, Russian propaganda publications have increased 5 times in comparison to the pre-war situation.  For example, the story around the finding of Bulgarian weapons in the Donbas having been secretly supplied to Ukraine before Putin’s invasion has enjoyed a wide distribution to the national audience.

Furthermore, the Russian Ambassador to Sofia awoke historical memories when explaining that the “special military operation” was actually  meant as an act of liberation in the same political sense that the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 was a war of liberation for Bulgaria.  She also stressed that giving up Gazprom would entail very bad consequences for Bulgaria’s economy and that the Russian Federation should be given credit for rescuing Bulgarian sailors from their ship “Tzarevna” stuck in Mariupol.

As a result, the majority of Bulgarians hold a positive attitude towards Russia.  70% are prioritising price maintenance and the cost of living over measures against Putin.  Only a 44% minority accept such sanctions.  An almost two-thirds majority of 62% disapprove financing the purchase and supply of military equipment to Ukraine.  More than two-thirds (67%) think that Bulgaria should remain neutral in the conflict; and a pyrrhic 16% believe that their nation should actively support Kiev.

Hungary keeps also rather sceptical on the conflict.  A practical explanation comes from their dependence on Russian energy.

But there is also a Hungarian minority in Ukraine, who asked for autonomy of the Transcarpathian region in 1991 and gained approval by 78% of voters.  Yet the result was not respected by the Supreme Council of Ukraine.

More recently, both Hungarian and Russian mainstream media have been complaining about Hungary losing export opportunities due to EU sanctions.  The Orban government has explained that they do not want to “shatter European unity on these issues”, but on the other hand they have aired economic ties such as Budapest’s interest over food processing and feed additives investments in Tula and the Moscow suburbs.

On the other side of the geopolitical spectrum, Croatia, Slovenia and Slovakia remain so far clearly unwelcoming towards the Kremlin tactics.

Bosnia and Herzegovina has close ties with Serbia.  As a consequence, mainstream media spreads the Belgrade/Moscow vision quite effectively among their citizens.

In Kosovo, similarly to Serbia, the population remembers that the NATO’s intervention in their war “was not right”.

The ruling Socialist Party in Albania holds a strong pro-EU and pro-NATO approach.  But this in turn arouses suspicion in the unstable Northern Macedonia, where Russian sources stoke fears of a “Greater Albania”, despite a 79% people support for NATO membership.  Moreover, a Hungarian ethnic minority in Northern Macedonia is being defended by several Hungarian media investors; this could affect the Western influence in the region.

If we finally turn to Montenegro, it should be recalled that the country joined NATO in 2017.  Nevertheless, public opinion is changing in favour of Russia, powered by a strong influence on behalf of the Serbian media.

As a conclusion, the puzzle of the Balkans constitutes the core of a chess game where the powers arisen after the Cold War are moving their pieces in an entangled manner; information, misinformation, disinformation and propaganda play a key role in the struggle, while the military does its part on the Ukrainian battlefield.

Traditional media, together with social networks, are making sure they achieve in shaping public opinion.  The legendary expertise on intelligence by Moscow clashes with the Western blockade; this is also a daily conflict, where common interest mingle with particular gains depending on how politicians and tycoons use their influence in the various territories.

That is why it is key to observe how both governments and public opinion move both inside of the EU as well as in the region closer to the war.  The specific trends shown by each Balkan nation might heavily contribute to the end result; and the use of propaganda and disinformation will necessarily impact on those trends.

Source of the image:  The Foundation for Defense of Democracy