Selim Ibraimi- In the last two centuries, the Western Balkans have been Europe’s most troubled region. There have been several factors that have contributed to the Balkans being a hot spot. The internal factors were the nations of the region themselves with the centuries-old goals of forming nation-states, and on the other hand, were the policies of the Great Powers to gain influence in the territories that were slowly falling out of the control of the Ottoman Empire.

The Crimean Wars (1856-77) between the Ottoman Empire and Russia proved to be a turning point in Russia’s relations with the peoples of the Balkans and third countries. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in Crimea and Sevastopol, the image of Russia as the protector of Christendom grew. The establishment of a new authority among Orthodox peoples boosted the image of Russia as able to liberate peoples from foreign rule. Serbia, Bulgaria, Montenegro, and Greece expected much from Russia’s resurgence in Europe and the Balkans. After 1856, Russia concentrated strongly on Orthodox space, establishing lines of strategic interest towards the straits in the Black Sea and warm waters.

As the fall of the Ottoman Empire could not be prevented, the Treaty of San Stefano 1878 gave Russia a major push to expand its influence in the Balkans by supporting the Orthodox population for independence and new wars. Russia has never openly manifested its ambitions, it developed a diplomacy that seemed to enable a solution for the people, but it was the opposite. With the Berlin Congress of June 1878, the Russian influence in the Balkans was clearly defined, including here the states that would accept Russian policies to some degree. The years 1917-18 brought great changes to Russia. After Lenin’s death, Stalin had his sights set not only on Central and Eastern Europe.

The Balkans continued to remain a part of Russian foreign policy interest, continuing after the Second World War and of course after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Historically, several factors have influenced Russia’s foreign policy in the Balkans. Moscow’s strength to stay out of the Balkans is considered a positive factor. And it was precisely the Russian will to help the Balkan states to “overcome” the difficulties on the way to the EU. Then there was the Orthodox population which historically was part of the same world, and the assumption that Russia could have greater success than the West in resolving disputes between states in the Balkans.

Still, according to Moscow, Russia has acquired a respectable image in the Balkans and Eastern Europe as the former Russian Empire without the need for any major financial and political efforts. On the other hand, while the US and the EU have made known their objectives around the integration of the region’s states into the EU, Russia says there is a lack of understanding of Moscow’s true intentions in both Ukraine and the Balkans. According to Russia, “US and EU propaganda has labeled Russia as a destroyer of order and security”.

“Tagging Moscow as a disruptive plan gives Brussels a basis to put pressure on Russia’s traditional partners under the guise of fighting an outside influence.” And according to Russia, “the historical tendency of Balkan leaders to balance between global actors has reduced the effect of Russian projects being implemented, minimizing Russia’s presence from the point of view of “soft power”. Furthermore, Russia has a justifying position, where according to the Kremlin, the US and the EU have the same policy on the issue of the integration of the Balkans into the EU.

Yes, according to Moscow, Washington and Brussels have not left space to discuss other forms of cooperation of the Balkan states with Russia, excluding Serbia here. Official Moscow continues to keep the Balkan countries under pressure, with the assumption that the situation will worsen if Russia completely abandons the region. If the Balkans eventually pass into the Euro-Atlantic sphere of influence, according to Moscow, “some balances established during the Yalta Conference of 1945 will be shaken.”

“Russia should develop a new strategy for Southeast Europe. It must be clear for the region and the actors related to it, and it must also be pragmatic and low-cost in a new way of influencing and distributing the public narrative” – it is stated a material published in the MFA of the Russian Federation. According to Russia, a new policy would create “premises for a rapprochement based on cooperation with China and Turkey, which also have their interests in Southeast Europe.” The other narrative is that the Russian strategy continues to strengthen the position that Moscow can maintain the role of a stabilizing factor in the Balkans, based on the historical roots of influence at the beginning of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Another narrative that is not related to reality is that Russia, although with limited capacities, struggles with the propaganda to be presented as a “peace-making” factor. This includes the role of pro-Russian media in their struggle to replace the current Russian narrative with another face, that of a cooperative international humanitarian actor, and of a state that aims to resolve regional conflicts. According to Russia, despite the international sanctions, Russian companies should be included in the new narrative along with the positive role according to Moscow of the Orthodox Church.

The efforts for a new Russian narrative will continue in Serbia, North Macedonia, Bosnia, and Montenegro, without excluding the Albanian media that have unclear sources. The new Russian narrative continues to be surprisingly presented in some American online media by American commentators. Finally, there was the interview of the journalist Tucker Carlson with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on the X network, where for the first time the Western and wider audience had the opportunity to get acquainted with some new attitudes of Putin. This can be considered as a new beginning of Russia’s game with a new layer of propaganda to put Russia in a better global and regional position, hence from an aggressor state to a state that promotes peace and understanding.

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