Russia threatens the European integration of the Western Balkans through "Serbian World"

The statement of the Russian ambassador to Montenegro, Vladislav Maslenikov, that the expansion of the European Union to the Western Balkans means involving these countries in a confrontation with Russia, is unfounded and incorrect, the European Union told Radio Free Europe (RFE).
The US State Department emphasized that it is Russia's malign influence in the Western Balkans that shows the urgency and importance of the Balkan countries joining the bloc.
It was in an interview with the Russian newspaper "Izvestia", published on the website of the Russian embassy, that Maslenikov for the first time explicitly "threatened" a confrontation with the countries of the Western Balkans because of their European path.
So far, Russia has only seen NATO expansion as a threat.
"We did not oppose the previous waves of enlargement. Now the situation is different, the EU is different, it has mutated in support of NATO, conducts an aggressive anti-Russian line and actively participates in the hybrid confrontation with our country. Accordingly, the enlargement of the EU in the Balkans means involving the countries of the region in a confrontation with Russia," explained Maslenikov.
Of the officials, only Defense Minister Dragan Krapovic commented on the topic at the February 22 press conference, saying it was nothing new:
"Russia is constantly trying to undermine the region's European path to the EU through various types of influence. It is not crucial for the government to discuss it."

"I expect that Prime Minister Spaić and President Milatović, I deliberately exclude Parliament Speaker Andrija Mandić, will make great efforts to thwart such a thing. They are both very vocal about the EU and NATO, so I expect them to behave accordingly."
He does not rule out new pressures and threats, but, as he says, the course and the epilogue depend on the authorities. Perovic emphasized that Prime Minister Spajic's lack of interest in important state issues is unacceptable.
Perovic said that Moscow wants to speed up the processes of creating a "Serbian world" that is "under the direct influence of the Kremlin".
The "Serbian World" doctrine refers to the ideology of uniting all Serbs wherever they live. It was created on the model of the "Russian World", which serves to spread culture and influence outside of Russia, everywhere where the Russian language is spoken.
Official Moscow has close political relations with the bearers of the "Serb World" ideology, such as Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, an entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and former Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin.
Dodik and Vulin are under US sanctions, the former for separatist activities and the latter for, among other issues, his ties to Moscow.
Both Perovic and Stradner point to the attempted "coup d'état" on election day, October 2016, to prevent Montenegro from joining NATO as the most drastic example of Russian interference.
Namely, two Russian citizens Eduard Shishmakov and Vladimir Popov, eight Serbian citizens and the leaders of the pro-Russian "Democratic Front" Milan Knežević and Andrija Mandić were preparing a violent change of government according to the findings of the Special Prosecutor's Office. They were convicted at trial, but the convictions were reversed and remanded.
That the Democratic Front was funded by Russia during this period was confirmed by a US administration source at a briefing in September 2022, citing their intelligence.
Meanwhile, this pro-Russian party won power in the 2020 election with two others, and Andrija Mandić, the DF leader, was elected president of the Montenegrin parliament last year.
The Western Balkans, Russia and the EU
Ivana Stradner noted that in order to stop EU expansion in the region, Moscow uses information operations to incite ethnic tensions and frozen conflicts.
"This strategy is easily seen in the Kosovo issue, as well as in the recent separatist threats from Dodik. We should not forget North Macedonia and how Russia is using the delay in North Macedonia's accession to the EU and polarizing people through information operations."
She also pointed to the division in Montenegro over support for Moscow:
"Although the new government in Montenegro talks enthusiastically about joining the EU in 2028, the country is extremely polarized, which Russia is using through proxies from Serbia to do everything possible to prevent them from joining the EU. Moscow continues to play a major role in the political processes in Montenegro."
Stradner summarized that the Western Balkans are extremely complex and that enlargement to the EU does not suit either Serbia or Russia.
"This would mean taking away Vucic's power and presenting himself as a guarantee of peace in the eyes of the West." Vucic, like Putin, fears the spread of democracy in his neighbor and undermines democratic processes in order not to appear the worst in the eyes of the West. So he can say that "Serbia is not democratic, but neither are the surrounding countries."
After the start of the war in Ukraine, accession negotiations were opened with Albania and North Macedonia. Bosnia and Herzegovina has been granted candidate status and Kosovo is applying for EU membership at the end of 2022.
Montenegro started negotiations with the EU in 2012, and Serbia two years later. /BGNES
The EU's reaction: Russia is the only one seeking confrontation with Europe
"Russian Ambassador Maslenikov, in line with the Kremlin's usual policy, is distorting the facts and inventing connections between unrelated issues," EU spokesman Peter Stano said.
"The enlargement of the EU is a policy that affects only the EU and the countries that seek to join it, it has nothing to do with Russia. Therefore, Russia has no right and reason to comment on the political decisions of sovereign states," he added.
Stano noted, Russia's aggression against Ukraine is a classic example of imperial and colonial aggression, denying countries the freedom to choose where they want to belong.
"The only one looking for a confrontation with Europe is Russia, because it does not want to accept that the world of the 21st century is a world of freedom of choice and independence of states," said the bloc's spokesperson.
In response to Russian aggression against Ukraine, the European Union introduced 13 packages of sanctions against Russia, covering a wide range of areas, including trade, finance, technology, visas.
Montenegro, which is a candidate for membership, has harmonized its foreign policy with the EU regarding sanctions.
Maslennikova's messages are proof of Russian fear
Ivana Stradner, a research fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said such statements reflect official Moscow's concern that the entry of Western Balkan countries into the EU would reduce Russian influence in the region, "even though Russian President Vladimir Putin would enjoyed having its proxies in the EU, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who supports the admission of Serbia, to expand the circle of authoritarian allies and continue to undermine the Union's unity".
She is not surprised by the message of the Russian ambassador, because "Moscow still plays an important role in the political processes in Montenegro".
"If Russia openly opposes Montenegro's entry into NATO and since then has not stopped interfering in its internal politics and undermining its system, it is natural that it will also oppose the enlargement of the EU," Stradner believes.
"The most obvious threats" yet
"Maslenikov's messages are expected, even though they were explicit for the first time," pointed out the Montenegrin diplomat and former ambassador Željko Perović:
"There has been subtle pressure for a long time, but now Maslenikov, mentioning the possibility of a confrontation between the Balkan countries and Russia, is the most categorical in these threats."
Perovich believes that the timing of the statement is no coincidence either:
"The Russian army is advancing in Ukraine, and thus tensions in the Western Balkans, the most vulnerable area, are synchronously rising."
Perovich expects the government and the state leadership to clearly define themselves against the threatening messages of the Russian ambassador.