Putinism in the Balkans
by Stephen Schwartz
RUSSIAN TYRANT-IN-WAITING Vladimir Putin's plan to restore a one-man dictatorship in Moscow has caused anxiety in the thin ranks of Russian liberals as well as among partisans of secure independence in the former Soviet republics. It should also stimulate concern in Europe, the United States, and the Far East, since it is clear that Putin desires recovery of Russian spheres of influence, temporarily lost with the collapse of communism.
Mostly unnoticed, Putin has resorted to a weapon that served his absolutist predecessors: pan-Slavic ultranationalism with the pretext of solidarity among Christian Orthodox peoples. The sharp point of this blade is visible in the troubled ex-Yugoslav successor states. Russia is reestablishing itself as a regional power in the Balkans.
Putin and his cohort in the Russian business mafia have adopted Serbia as a surrogate, and continue to obstruct the full and legal independence of Kosova. In Kosova's neighbor Montenegro, which gained independence from Serbia last year, Putinite investors have bought up a considerable share of attractive beachfront properties, intending to revive the local tourist industry on a betting-and-brothel basis.
Russian banking and other commercial operations are expanding in the so-called "Serb Republic" that occupies north and east Bosnia- Herzegovina. Twelve years after the Dayton agreement to stop the fighting in that mutilated country, the "Serb Republic" continues to rule almost two-thirds of Bosnian land.
Serbs use the continued existence of the Bosnian "Serb Republic" against U.S.-E.U. proposals for Kosova independence. The arguments from Belgrade and Moscow are simple and brutal: if Kosova becomes independent, the Bosnian "Serb Republic" will demand the same status. Meanwhile, the Serbs and Putin paint the Kosovar Albanians as potential al Qaeda recruits, with Serbian propaganda at home as well as inside the Beltway emphasizing that the Albanians are, in their majority, Muslim. This demographic fact is well known, but Kosovars and Albanians in general are not exclusively Muslim. And they have shown little propensity for Islamist ideology, notwithstanding Serb claims that independent Kosova would become a "Muslim rogue state."
Catholics account for 10 to 15 percent in the Kosova population of two million. Catholic churches are found in most larger (and some smaller) towns, and Catholics were victims of Serbian violence before and during the U.S.-led intervention of 1998-99. Catholic clergy and intellectuals possess influence among their co-ethnics far beyond what their numbers might suggest. It is not by accident that the main street in Prishtina, the Kosova capital, was renamed after 1999 for Mother Teresa, an Albanian from neighboring Macedonia. And Albanians remain so non-sectarian in their national sentiments that even if the West were to abandon them to the Serbs, it is almost impossible to imagine them turning to radical Islam as a solution to their frustrations. Albanians want to be accepted as Europeans, and not viewed as Middle Eastern intruders in the continent.
Serbs and their sympathizers--including a lobby of former U.S. diplomats and functionaries--also threaten a serious upheaval if the Kosova Albanians are granted complete freedom. The Serbs and their enablers warn belligerently that their defiance of Albanian majority rule will begin with seizure of the northern tip of Kosova, which has a Serb majority as well as significant natural and other economic resources.
Russian meddling in this trouble zone is not mere posturing for the benefit of the Slav and other Orthodox publics. Russia is joined by China in using Kosova as a foil. Beijing says it will use its U.N. Security Council veto to forestall a free Kosova, because of its problems with Tibet and Eastern Turkestan, both regions where local non-Chinese claim their historic tenancy has been diluted by massive Chinese immigration and politico-economic domination. The Russo- Chinese anti-democratic pair in the U.N. is supported in their anti-Kosova position by Spain, which cites nationalism among the Basques and Catalans as its worry. Cyprus backs Serbia because of its own partitioning between Orthodox Greeks and Muslim Turks, and Slovakia also opposes Kosova's liberation. Why Slovakia? The Slovaks have a considerable history as Russian pawns--they commandeered the process of repression in the former Czechoslovakia after the Soviet intervention of 1968. But their leaders additionally play on fears, among the Slav majority, of their Hungarian minority of some 10 percent.
To most Westerners, the fate of Kosova is eclipsed by the challenges in Iraq and Iran. Amazingly, however, Washington policy gadflies claim that nation-building in the Balkans--including the disastrous division of Bosnia-Herzegovina--has succeeded and provides a fruitful example to be imitated in Baghdad. Bosnian Muslims as well as Croatians and Kosovar Albanians say otherwise--that their confidence that outside intervention would benefit them has vanished as they witness UN and EU incompetence or worse in dealing with them.
Failure to respond to Putin's intrigues in the Balkans will only encourage the new Russian imperialism elsewhere. Russia also blocks common international policies on Iran and Burma. Russian parliamentary elections will come on December 2, 2007, followed by the deadline for the U.N. negotiations on Kosova December 10. U.S. policy must be consistent and principled, and must not give way in the face of Putin's machinations in Kosova, lest a reinvigorated foreign offensive by Russia undermine the trend toward freedom in places far from, and far more prominent, than the small states of the former Yugoslavia.