Geopolitical Tensions in the Balkans: Between EU Influence and the Russia-Ukraine War


The Western Balkans region is at the center of a geopolitical battle for influence between Brussels and Moscow. The most powerful country in the region appears to be Serbia. Despite Western efforts to bring Serbia closer to the EU bloc and draw Belgrade away from the China/Russia axis, this policy appears to be a risky gamble. Europe’s objective to integrate Serbia into the European circle appears to be counterproductive.

Indeed, Serbia is still the only country in Europe not to have aligned itself with Western sanctions against Russia since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war in February 2022. There is no European unity regarding the recognition of Kosovo as an independent state. The United States and 22 of the 27 EU member states recognize its statehood, while Serbia and Russia regard it as a breakaway province.  Spain, Cyprus, Slovakia, Romania and Greece — all EU member states — do not recognize the unilateral independence of Kosovo, declared in 2008. A situation which also poses a problem within NATO, in which the accession of a new member must be agreed upon unanimously, and which is blocked by the aforesaid countries, with the exception of Cyprus, which is not a NATO member.

Serbia and Russia have strengthened their ties in recent days with the signing of a health agreement and the announcement of the delivery of an anti-drone system by Moscow in January 2024. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said the drone system was “in [his] hands” and that Serbia had “paid for it a long time ago.” He added that the Serbian budget had made it possible to purchase “701 complex defense systems from Russian national industry” and that more than 850 would be purchased in the coming years.

Serbia has not only refused to align with EU foreign policy toward Russia following the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war, but it also continues to sign agreements with Russia while other European countries apply sanctions and seek to reduce all forms of cooperation. Serbian President  Vučić acknowledges Russian support for the territorial integrity of Serbia because of Moscow’s position regarding Kosovo. A third of the approximately 120,000 Kosovo Serbs (which has a total population of 1.8 million) live in northern Kosovo, an area bordering Serbia where the city of Pristina is located with ambitions to attain sovereignty. Supported by Belgrade, the people of this area refuse all allegiance to the government of Kosovo.

Moreover, Serbia does not want the European currency (the euro) to become the single currency authorized for financial transactions in Kosovo. In January 2024, the Central Bank of Kosovo announced the entry into force, from February 1, 2024, of a regulation on cash transactions. Officially enacted to combat counterfeit money and other forms of financial crime, this regulation specifies that the euro will become the only currency authorized for cash and electronic payments in the country. This decision raises fears of a new conflagration with Serbia, with the Serbs in the north of the country insisting on using the Serbian dinar.  The EU has called on both parties to avoid any deterioration of the current situation. The exclusive use of the euro is enshrined in the  Constitution of Kosovo; the regulation, therefore, simply sets out the terms of application. In addition, the  Central Bank clarified that voluntary transactions between parties using currencies other than the euro do not fall within the scope of the regulation.

As an indirect consequence of the Russia-Ukraine war, another front is unfolding in the Balkans, where Moscow has been trying to exploit nationalist tensions to slow down Balkans states’ project to join the EU.  Russia’s diplomatic spokeswoman Maria Zakharova recently compared the protests in Serbia denouncing alleged fraud in the December 17, 2023 election to those in Kyiv’s Maidan Square in 2014 — which led to pro-Western leaders coming to power in Ukraine. While the official results indicated a 46.75% victory for President  Vučić’s nationalist Serbian Progressive Party, only 23.66% of ballots went to the pro-European coalition Serbia Against Violence. The Europeans had long believed that Serbia’s trade ties to the EU, as well as the country’s economic development, would eventually prevail over Serbian President Vučić in his search for a balanced policy between Moscow and Brussels. Serbia’s future entry into the EU seems today more complicated because Russia and China have taken advantage of the situation to advance their interests.

The  EU and NATO’s increased focus on the Balkans has to be analyzed in the context of the Russia-Ukraine war since 2022. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Bosnian and Serb leaders have stepped up their rhetoric seeking secession from the federation, NATO’s Jens Stoltenberg said that NATO allies “strongly support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina.” Speaking in Sarajevo, Stoltenberg noted, “We are concerned by the secessionist and divisive rhetoric, as well as malign foreign interference, including Russia.” The Russia-Ukraine war has also served to underline existing divisions. Indeed, countries of the Western Balkans are not unified in their positions regarding this ongoing war. Nevertheless, Russia is not interested in an extension of the war in Ukraine to the Western Balkans but rather Moscow has an interest to see a limited regional crisis while talking to the main diplomatic actors in the region. According to the US perception, there is a risk that Russia could destabilize Bosnia and the rest of the region and shift at least some world attention from its invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, Moscow is openly supporting the secessionist, pro-Russian Bosnian Serb President Milorad Dodik, who has repeatedly called for the breakup of the country and joining the Serb-controlled half of Bosnia with neighboring Serbia. Despite this Russian influence and the risk of escalation between the EU and Russia, the most probable scenario is the continuation of geopolitical tensions and economic rivalries between the EU and the United States on the one hand and Russia and China on the other hand. A more hardline European stance toward Belgrade could also provoke an acceleration of the rapprochement between Serbia and its eastern partners, namely Russia and China.

Editorial Team