Sergey Shargunov, Russian State Duma Deputy, claims that "Russia has a romantic relationship with the Western Balkans". A question follows: are the Western Balkans in love with Russia, too?
To answer this question and discuss Russia’s soft power in the Balkans, two clarifications are needed. First, we need to define what we mean by “soft power”, one of the most misused academic concepts ever. The concept has become extremely popular, informing media and policy debates. But this came at the cost of conceptual overstretching; while it is true that it is at times difficult to draw a clear demarcation line between hard and soft power, nowadays soft power seems to indicate everything but tanks. A country’s soft power may certainly rely on its hard power (for instance, allure deriving from military might, or a successful economic model); but soft power refers to the attraction that an actor’s culture, political values and policies exert over a specific audience, without military threats or economic incentives. Another common misconception derives from the fact that soft power is used primarily for liberal democracies. Soft power, however, is not intrinsically neutral, benign or liberal-democratic. It is one among several tools that countries can use to promote their narratives – regardless of their content: as Joseph Nye – the “father” of soft power – observes, politics in an information age is about whose story wins. Eventually, this helps achieve foreign policy goals.
Second, we need to unpack the Western Balkans. The region is very diverse and comprises multiple sets of ethnicities, languages, faiths and cultures. What ties these multiple identities together, apart from their communist past, is their common envisaging of a European future: all of the Western Balkan countries are EU candidate (North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Albania) or potential candidate countries (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo). But they are marching towards this goal at a very different pace. In some countries, disenchantment with or plain discontent about further EU integration is mounting, while old and new political disputes are surfacing. Trust in the EU is unevenly spread across the region, ranging from over 70% in Albania to roughly 30% in Serbia – according to the latest Eurobarometer survey.
Russia’s main soft power narratives
Against this background, claiming that Russia employs soft power in the Balkans would not be totally accurate but denying its existence – especially vis-à-vis some countries of the region – would be blind. Russia’s main soft power narratives boil down to two elements: anti-Western opposition and Orthodox brotherhood.
Russia portrays itself as an alternative geopolitical pole to preserve its influence and prevent the further advancement of NATO in the region. Moscow formally does not oppose EU integration, but defines NATO as a “threat”; Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described Montenegro’s accession in 2017 as a “purely geopolitical project imposed on the country in exchange for Russophobic sentiment” – at the same time denying accusations of involvement in a 2016 failed coup attempt. Given that Russia’s share in the region’s foreign trade and investment has been decreasing for years and no sufficient conditions justify a possible military intervention, Russia pursues its goals through exploiting anti-Western sentiments present in some sectors of Balkan societies. Russia is also perceived as an ally of Bosnian Serbs, supporting their moves to obstruct Bosnia’s moving towards the US-led NATO alliance. Leaked classified documents accuse Russian spies and diplomats of spreading propaganda and provoking discord in North Macedonia for at least a decade, although this did not prevent the country from starting its NATO accession process after ratification of the Prespa Agreements.
The second narrative counts on centuries-long historical and cultural links with Orthodox communities, especially on Russia’s traditional image of protector of Orthodox believers, in the Balkans and beyond – including in the Middle East. The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) can boast of a 150-million membership – the largest among Orthodox churches – and the strong backing of the Kremlin, which endorses and makes political use of the Church’s discourse against Western “moral decadence”. This discourse allows Moscow to describe the process of European integration as yet another instance of Western normative imperialism, seeking to impose liberal values that are alien to local societies. The Kremlin-promoted strategy of depicting the EU as “gayropa”, common in many Eastern Partnership countries such as Armenia and Ukraine, is potentially very powerful among Western Balkan countries, where homophobia is still a pressing issue. For example, the 2013 meeting between former Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic and Alexander Zaldostanov, the openly anti-semitic and homophobe head of the Moscow motorcycle club Night Wolves (whom Russian President Vladimir Putin allegedly calls “my brother”) made the headlines. The effects that the October 2018 schism with the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, which granted independence to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, had on the ROC’s influence in the Orthodox world remains to be seen. But Russia and the ROC will likely continue championing traditional and religious values, a strategy winning the hearts and minds of Western conservatives and far-right militants, too.
A special case: Serbia
The country where Russia uses both narratives the most is Serbia. The EU is Serbia’s main investor and donor, as is the case in all other countries of the region, but Russia is seen as a historical ally and friend. This came across clearly during Putin’s visit to Belgrade, where thousands of people mobilized by Serbia’s ruling party welcomed the Russian leader as a “hero” – although no important commercial or political agreement actually came out of the visit. The image of Russia as a “primus inter pares” among fellow Orthodox countries and an older brother and defender of Belgrade’s interests, especially regarding Kosovo, is particularly effective among Serbians. Russia indeed lobbies against international recognition of Kosovo’s independence; in 2007, a proposed resolution on Kosovar independence was dropped after Russian objections, while Moscow vetoed – in 1994 and 2015 – two UN Security Council resolutions condemning violence by Bosnian Serbs. Given that the Kosovo issue still dominates public debates, official representations of Russia as an ally and friend of Serbia contribute to making Moscow attractive among average citizens. According to a 2017 opinion poll by the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, the majority of Serbians regards Russia’s influence as “positive” and think that, while EU membership would enhance foreign investment and employment, an alliance with Russia would enhance security. As the analyst Maxim Samorukov reports, the Russian president has been named the most popular foreign leader in Serbia for many years, enjoying about 80% of popular support, while he is second only to the Yugoslav leader Tito in terms of the number of honorary citizen titles granted to him by Serbian cities. As the Serbian academic Marko Kovacevic explains, however, “although there is a widespread public perception of brotherhood and friendship between the two nations, this opinion is largely emotionally endowed. When it comes to questions such as quality of life, education or job opportunities, people usually point to the EU. Not many Serbian citizens travel to Russia. The majority of Serbians have quite positive associations with President Putin due to his frequent representation in the media. When it comes to critical discourses, they seem to be on the sidelines."
More than 100 Serbian organisations (including numerous web portals and pro-Kremlin news sources) are allegedly in charge of forging this “emotional” image and promoting friendly ties with Russia – according to a 2016 study by the Belgrade-based Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies. In a country where freedom of expression is endangered by the serious challenges facing independent media, including lack of financial resources, pro-Kremlin media can find an interesting market. The Sputnik news agency arrived in Belgrade in 2014, presenting itself as an alternative to Western-leaning mainstream outlets. Since then, it has become a major supplier of often anti-Western content to Serbian news outlets such as Studio B. While Western media are also increasing their presence, they are seen by many as biased. Commenting on the 2018 reopening of the BBC Serbian language service after seven years of inactivity, President Aleksandar Vucic declared that Serbians need to “understand that this is not objective information, but information that is in the interest of one kingdom.”
A European future, but only if it’s credible
Russia cannot compete with the EU as an attractive role model for the Western Balkans: Moscow’s increased political presence in the region does not change the fact that the majority of people in the Balkans seem to prefer the EU model. Furthermore, there are other actors at play apart from Moscow, especially Ankara and Beijing. Turkey would be a preferred alternative model to the EU, not Russia. But Russia does employ soft power, chiefly in Serbia. If Moscow’s Orthodox narrative understandably works only in Orthodox countries, its anti-Western rhetoric may be effective across the board since it plays on Eurosceptic sentiments that are increasingly common throughout the region. The perceived lack of EU commitment to enlargement in the foreseeable future, as well as problems such as the euro crisis, Brexit and the migration crisis, have done considerable damage to the EU's image. Russia cannot but take advantage of this; its soft power in the Balkans is directly proportional to discontent with the EU integration process.
 Eleonora Tafuro Ambrosetti (2018) “National-Populism in Russia: Ticking All the Boxes?” in Alberto Martinelli (ed.) When Populism Meets Nationalism. Reflections on Parties in Power. ISPI Report https://www.ispionline.it/sites/default/files/pubblicazioni/ispi_report_populism_meets_nationalism_-_martinelli_2018.pdf
 Interview with the author, March 2019.