Embattled Balkans Creep Closer to Russia
At odds with the liberal European Union, nationalistic Balkan countries turn to Moscow for an ally.
Disputes over identity and historical birthrights are part and parcel to the Balkans. A past characterized by subjection to foreign empires meets innumerable ethnic, linguistic, and religious differences, all concentrated in a narrow geographic funnel that forms the (almost) European crossroads of West and East.
Just over the past several weeks, the region has been wracked by heightened geopolitical turmoil: Bulgaria and North Macedonia have seen mirror protests in each of their respective capitals over a proposed deal to ensure the latter country’s ascension to the E.U.; the government in Sofia has been dissolved due to disagreements over the issue, as well as an energy dispute with Moscow and the issue of arming Ukraine; and tensions between Kosovo and Serbia are at a level that is perhaps the highest it has been since the ethnic warfare of the late 1990s.
A superficial understanding of the various issues will attribute the constant unrest to antiquated notions of national identity—the petty, insignificant squabbling over arbitrary differences of an economically stunted and culturally backwards region. This is a mistake. Concepts of blood and soil may currently be verboten in the globalist West, but they remain essential features of social life most everywhere else. This is especially true in the Balkans. Multilateral policy that proceeds from the globalist centers of Europe consistently fails to grasp this fact. Opportunities subsequently emerge for outside actors who do—specifically, Russia—to take advantage of the existing fault lines and increase their own relative influence.
The geopolitical upheaval and failed Western policy approach in the wake of the Russo-Ukraine war has created one such opportunity. An overbearing and ideologically driven supranational apparatus in Brussels, an exacerbating disconnect between globalist-minded ruling class and the organic nation, and the echoes of history all converge in the Balkan Peninsula during the most contentious period in international relations since the end of the Cold War. Moscow and the Putin regime are once again employing effective realpolitik in the region to undermine resolve in the European project more generally and sow discord in its already-fracturing anti-Russian policy front. The West’s response, as usual, is tone-deaf and ineffective.
The Slavic Orthodox religious bonds, common ethnic and linguistic roots, as well as a shared history of Ottoman subjection imbue North Macedonia, Serbia, and Bulgaria with a cultural affinity that is distinctly separate from Western Europe. All three (especially Serbia and Bulgaria) are also much more favorably inclined toward Russia than the rest of Europe is, stemming from the same connections that tie the three Balkan neighbors together. All of the latter are also entirely energy dependent on Moscow. Whereas many other Eastern European countries similarly find themselves both reliant on Russian gas and at odds with Brussels over social issues, their national narratives are of a predominately anti-Russian strain. The opposite is the case in the southeastern Balkans, where Russia is still venerated as a Slavic Orthodox brother who fought to liberate the region from the Ottoman yoke.
One of the more recent iterations of the region’s perpetual back and forth is Bulgaria’s refusal to accept the accession of North Macedonia to the European Union, due to a dispute over ethnic and linguistic roots. Like countless times before, the multilateral institutions of globalist Europe have once again swooped in to broker a deal. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen demanded that North Macedonia’s parliament make the required concessions so that the integration process can move forward. A new agreement was eventually reached that—also as usual—left all parties involved feeling angry and resentful.
The Western elite have gotten away with telling the post-communist Balkan countries to play nice since the 1990s. The carrot of economic development has been held out as an enticing incentive for making the required structural changes to their institutions—politically, economically, and socially. But as skepticism of the multilateral decision-makers continues to grow across the entire developed world, the repercussions of the failing policy proposals of the European technocrats are particularly magnified in a region that is culturally distinct from the rest of the continent.
Bulgaria consistently ranks at the bottom of the 27 E.U. member states in positive views of the supranational organization, with approval still sinking further. According to recent poll data from February, a mere 39 percent of Bulgarians believe that the E.U. takes the interests of their country into account when making policy, a 9 percent plummet since spring 2021. Out of the entire union, they also report the second lowest level of positive affirmation that the core values of the E.U. must be respected by all member states—a 4 percent drop. Attitudes toward a shared financial future and further economic integration are also low. Only 37 percent of respondents supported the notion of a European economic and monetary union with one single currency (the euro), while 46 percent were actively against.
The lack of trust, in part due to the persistent endemic corruption in their own government, is exacerbated by the stark divergence in cultural attitudes. The technocratic bureaucracy that sets policy on the continent is decidedly left-wing. Social issues, immigration, and energy have increasingly been imbued with a globalist, “one-world, one-people” ideology. This contrasts sharply with the majority prevailing attitudes and opinions in the post-communist southern Balkans.
For example, the most recent data as reported by Pew Research shows that Bulgaria has the highest percentage of respondents in Europe who believe that homosexuality should not be accepted by society (48 percent), with the second lowest percentage of those who believe it should be accepted (32 percent, behind only Lithuania). Compare that to countries in Western Europe such as the Netherlands (92 percent support), or France and Germany (both 86 percent). On the issue of immigration, only 57 percent of Bulgarians believe that the E.U. should have a common asylum policy and 61 percent support a common migration policy, both about 20 percent lower than most Western European countries.
While Bulgaria is the easiest country to get statistical data due to its member-state status, the general disconnect regarding social issues and distrust of centralized authority in Western Europe is equally pronounced in neighboring Serbia and North Macedonia.
A number of factors add to the cultural chasm. Some of the most prominent include: religious revival following the atheistic suppression of the communist years, as well as proud religious traditions in general; a history of foreign subjection, and a subsequent aversion to mandated policy from a Brussels-based quasi-empire; the region’s position as one of the main entryways into Europe for arrivals from the Middle East, and a generally strained historical relationship with Turkey and its predecessor, the Ottoman Empire; memories of the ethnic wars of the 1990s, overwhelming Western European support for the Muslim Kosovo Liberation Army against Slavic Orthodox Belgrade, and the NATO air campaign; as well as a Christian-Muslim religious divide that is a source of tension in every country of the region.
Still, the economic advantages of European integration have in the past outweighed the price of being nagged by Brussels over social issues. The fundamentally different cultural attitudes have been quelled by higher living standards and increased capital flows. Skopje, like Sofia, has accepted the finger wagging from elitist figures like von der Leyen in hopes of getting into the club. The country would then ostensibly be able to reap some of the benefits that their irksome neighbors currently do (according to Salary Explorer, the current average income in North Macedonia is about $762/month, as compared to $1,721 in Bulgaria and $2,479 in Greece).
As in the rest of the world, however, a general economic decline is being exacerbated by elitist ideology that is the antithesis of the nationalistic politics that reigns in the Balkans. The former would prefer that citizens base their identity on sexuality, not ethnicity or ancestral homeland (unless you happen to be foreign born—then by all means base your identity on ethnicity). As the economic advantages begin to dwindle, however, will populations finally take issue with political leaders who sacrifice national identity on the altar of GDP and FDI? Having your culture sold out as the price of “progress” is bad enough, but to not even be compensated with an increase in living standards is the stuff of political upheaval.
An energy agenda that demands curtailed economic development in the name of left-wing green ideology additionally exacerbates the growing discontent with Brussels. Bulgaria already reported less concern with sustainability and climate change than nearly all Western European countries. It also had the lowest percent of respondents in the entire bloc who agreed with the proposition that the E.U. should have a common energy policy (55 percent), which was pretty prescient considering the European reaction to the Russo-Ukraine war. Damaging the Russian economy became the explicitly stated goal of supranational policy emanating from Brussels and Berlin, seemingly at the expense of the union’s more vulnerable members in the southeast.
The Bundestag may be able to get away with asking its citizens to significantly alter their lifestyle habits and hamstring their own economy in order to “stick it to Putin” (for now), but Sofia will have a tougher time with that sell. Russia declared a complete halt of natural gas supplies to both Poland and Bulgaria in April. Von der Leyen demanded Sofia hold the line, saying its importers “should not accede to the Russian demands” and apparently take the lead of her own (significantly more developed) Germany.
Bulgaria has traditionally reported getting over 90 percent of its gas supplies from Russia, although that percentage has recently been estimated to have dropped to 79. North Macedonia and Serbia both get 100 percent of their gas from Russia. Germany, which is already beginning to struggle with disruptions in its gas supply resulting from the sanction regime, only gets around 50 percent. It would seem that Brussels expects Bulgaria—the least developed country in the E.U.—to bear the brunt of the pain from the energy embargo against Moscow.
Then there was the decision on June 28 by Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov to expel 70 Russian diplomats from the country. The reason given was “espionage and working against Bulgaria’s interests.” Bulgarian attitudes towards Russia and its President Vladimir Putin, however, are by far the most positive in the E.U. (even if they have likely declined since the beginning of the war). Bulgaria is one of the few countries that has seen numerous demonstrations in support of Moscow throughout the entire span of the conflict. With a relatively pro-Russian disposition and total energy reliance, the Kremlin likely calculated that Bulgaria was the logical country to begin applying pressure by cutting off energy supplies, subsequently sowing discord in the entire E.U.
And how has the anti-Russia policy turned out for the government in Sofia? The Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, a relatively pro-Russian figure already, dissolved the National Assembly on August 1, declaring no confidence in the Petkov regime. The move was initiated over the latter’s inability to find a favorable solution to the North Macedonian-E.U. issue, as well as an ongoing dispute over the supply of weapons to Ukraine. The inability of the government to resolve the gas issue was undoubtedly also a factor in the decision.
Petkov obtained his undergraduate degree from the University of British Columbia and an MBA from Harvard. He was also a dual citizen of Canada until late 2021, and was perhaps the strongest force in the Bulgarian government pushing for support of Ukraine. Unsurprisingly, the Europhile has attributed pro-Russia influence as the impetus behind the collapse of his government coalition. He additionally heaped blame on the Russian ambassador to Bulgaria for his failure.
A technical government has subsequently been put in place until snap elections on October 2, with the express intention of allaying fears over energy shortages in the coming winter. While the interim regime will certainly be more favorable toward Moscow, the upcoming elections are also expected to bring stronger nationalist elements who are even more pro-Russian into a parliamentary coalition. Once again, Russia has affected political developments in the region to its own advantage using shrewd realpolitik and cost-benefit analyses, while Western ideology works to convince citizens that their economies are entering a recession and energy is being rationed because “democracy” demands it.
The ongoing issue of Kosovo and Serbia is additionally exerting pressure on international relations. The partially recognized autonomous region has been a source of conflict between Russia and the West since the 1998 NATO bombing of Belgrade, in which the latter went ahead without UNSC approval (a Russian U.N. Resolution to stop the bombing was also voted down). Barely 50 percent of U.N. member states currently recognize Kosovo as an independent country, including the United States, whereas Russia has consistently defended Belgrade’s position that it is rather a constituent “autonomous province” of Serbia.
New licensing and registration rules by authorities in Pristina were set to take effect on August 1, and led to a wave of protests in Northern Kosovo by ethnic Serbs. It is necessary to understand that any initiative to force Serbs living in the region to acknowledge Pristina’s sovereign authority separate from Belgrade is equal to a declaration of war. Serbian President Aleksander Vucic stated, “We have never been in a more difficult situation.” NATO, which maintains a peacekeeping force in the region, declared that it was “prepared to intervene if stability is jeopardized.”
A spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry, Maria Zakharova, responded that Russia “call[s] on Pristina and the United States and the European Union backing it to stop provocation.” Kosovo has explicitly come out in support of Ukraine. While Serbia joined the March 2 U.N. general resolution condemning a Russian attack on Ukraine, the population has seen regular pro-Russian demonstrations, much like Bulgaria.
Get weekly emails in your inbox
The Vucic government will look to the Kremlin as its own guarantor of stability. The war in Ukraine has further affirmed that Russia takes ethnic issues seriously and is willing to confront Brussels and Berlin to secure its interests. This goes far in the Balkans, and nationalist elements in the region will continue to curry favor with Moscow and expound upon their cultural ties.
At the same time, neither Bulgaria is likely to divest from Western Europe any time soon, nor will North Macedonia cease its drive for integration. But the Kremlin has demonstrated time and again that it is willing to seize on already existing fault lines in the European project, and that the latter is inherently weak due to its social imperialism. How long until national identity and cultural sovereignty matter more than marginal economic benefit?
A burgeoning one-world system based on common defense and centralized technocratic control is not a foregone conclusion. While the Russo-Ukraine war has in many ways seemed to strengthen the resolve of the transatlantic alliance, fundamentally divergent cultural, social, and religious attitudes will not wither away so easily. The centralized institutions of Western Europe are predicated on creating a globalist order that flattens cultural differences—the very intricacies which matter most in the Balkans.