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Russian tourist spying sheds light on new influence in the Balkans

Russian clandestine missions despite the war in Ukraine will be more frequent until 2030 and beyond. The event in Gramsh-Albania, allows us to learn more about how the Russians have been lying in the south of the region for a long time, as well as in what way Russian intelligence together with subversive groups can attack the countries of the Western Balkans, without having any problem.

By Selim Ibraimi, Washington

The last two decades of Russian antagonism in Eastern Europe erupted with a bloody war in Ukraine. For years in a row, Putin and Medvedev’s Russia courted many countries and leaders, starting from Budapest, Belgrade, and Skopje, hoping to secure partners for setting manipulation policies. Moscow quickly managed to keep the Balkan region behind it, in the smoke of frozen conflicts, a situation which continues today with the threats of Serbia, to continue the territorial expansion in Bosnia and Northern Kosovo. Some indications show that Serbia, together with Russia, is interested in this part of the Balkans serving Moscow as a strategic node, of unrest against the West, and of the hope of deploying Russian missile systems in the future. On the other hand, it seems nonsensical how states with mixed ethnic and religious populations manage to maintain the balance between Moscow, the EU, and the US. A specific case, apart from Serbia, is also North Macedonia, which, although it is a member of NATO, the Macedonian part of the population continues to dream of Putin and the Orthodox brotherhood.

Serbia and Russia do not change their approaches

The absurdity is great, when it is known that the Macedonian population is fed by American and EU funds, while without need it continues to fraternize with the “Serbian World” and secretly support the process of “denazification” of Ukraine, possibly the same atmosphere also spreads in the Western Balkans.  The situation is also the same in Serbia, which for consecutive years has challenged and continues to mock Washington and Brussels.  Not even the remarks of the American ambassador to Serbia, Christopher Hill, and his praise of President Vučić, have influenced the change in the approach of Serbian foreign policy and security.  As well as reducing the contracts of Serbian companies with Russian, Israeli and Chinese ones. From now on, Washington does not have many options left, but the imposition of sanctions is not even seen as a way of coercion against Belgrade, but in reality, the US cannot tolerate this “neutral” state of Serbia. A long-term solution, but that can bring results. So, it is a proposal from the “Law for Democracy and Progress in the Western Balkans” of the American Congress, which foresees a series of measures to prevent Russian and Chinese influence in the Balkans, as well as an aid package, with nearly four billion dollars. What remains unclear is how American taxpayer funds are distributed and funneled to government abusers, partisan clans, and media closely tied to politics. The American State Department and American international development agencies must take this into account to succeed in the “Mini-Marshall Plan” in the Balkans. The continuation of the Serbian-Russian game in the Balkans has left many American senators and observers sleepless.  Russia and joint plans with Serbia are one of the concerns of the American Congress. Currently, even NATO, the USA, and other important organizations do not have any strategy or “contingency plans” in the defense of the Western Balkan states from a Russian-Serbian attack, especially the Serbian one, supported by Russian elements of espionage and cyber attacks. NATO member states rely on Article 5 of the “Treaty of Washington”, although in this scenario when the war would be general in Europe and the Balkans, there can be no winner.  Such an adventure as the fighting near Ukraine’s nuclear power plants can hardly be foreseen.  However, in the Balkan region, the possibility of small and isolated conflicts is not excluded, enough to fulfill the objectives of either the “Serbian World” or the Russian “denazification” process. Meanwhile, the Russian-Serbian leadership has invested more and more in spreading propaganda, which is free and inexpensive for Russia and Serbia. Belgrade media have written that the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, is aiming to liquidate the Serbs. Also in the Serbian tabloids, Putin continues to remain on the front pages, without excluding Vucic’s rhetoric about relations with Kosovo and the recent crisis in the north. In addition, the mobilization of local volunteers and those outside the Balkans remains another challenge for Bosnia and Kosovo, not excluding North Macedonia. It has been reported that Russian units operate in Moldova, and there is no information on whether such Russian-Serbian paramilitary formations with Chechen composition are supported by Serbia. The crisis in the north of Kosovo and the fate of the talks in Brussels will be decisive if Russia and Serbia become more active and change their methods of action. Currently, the Russian influence is visible in the field of propaganda, i.e. changing the minds of the Slavic citizens in the Balkans, Russia is allegedly winning the war in Ukraine, which affects the survival of the regional Orthodox brotherhood. Despite the differences, the Orthodox Church has its role and it has been proven that this religious institution has become part of the Russian-Serbian state policies and the base of the secret services. In this regard, Russian-Serbian propaganda is not just a conspiracy theory, which is proven by the published announcement that “Moscow State University” offers programs specializing in hybrid warfare. In the meantime, with the attack of Russian spies on Gramsh’s military plant in Albania, Russian hybrid tactics, and especially that of clandestine action, have not ended, neither in Western Europe, nor in Eastern Europe, nor even less in the Balkans.

Russian clandestine missions until 2030.

Russian clandestine missions despite the war in Ukraine will be more frequent until 2030 and beyond. Russia, weakened by international sanctions and embarrassed by the complicated invasion of Ukraine, will raise the stakes towards the strategic points of the US and NATO in Europe and the Balkans. The event in Gramsh allows us to learn more about how the Russians have been lying in the south of the region for a long time, and how the Russian intelligence together with subversive groups can attack the countries of the Western Balkans without any problem. Russian and Serbian spies disguised as diplomats, analysts, journalists, and tourists will remain a new challenge for the security bodies of the Balkan states. For this, despite international sanctions, the governments of the Western Balkans have done very little. From now on they have to face the consequences of Russian espionage and surprise attacks. And not only that, the attack in Gramsh- Albania, is an alarm for the Balkans and NATO, together with the USA, about what the decade will look like with Russia and Serbia that wants the north of Kosovo, Bosnia, to maintain strong ties with Moscow and Beijing, and ultimately continue to receive funding from the US and the EU. The neutral Serbian position, after the attack in Albania, will become clearer for Washington officials and may benefit Kosovo in building a stronger negotiation strategy which is likely to influence the change of opinion of the USA towards the negotiation process in Brussels and the new Serbian-Kosovo agreement. As for the propaganda of some Albanian media in Kosovo, Albania, and North Macedonia, who, by accusing the legitimate governments there, are deliberately inciting debates that go in the direction of Russia and Serbia. While unfortunately in the Albanian space, the pro-Serbian and to some extent pro-Macedonian narrative will continue to be present.  

Translated and edited from Albanian into the English language by Blerim Abedini

(This article first was published in the magazine “SHENJA”- Skopje, September 2022)

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