For about two decades, it appeared that the end of the Cold War in Europe left the Balkan states with no long-term geostrategic option except the so-called Euro-Atlantic integrations underwritten by the ideology known as Atlanticism. This option reached the peak of its strength after NATO’s military intervention in the Bosnian conflict in 1995 (which was its first out-of-area military operation since the founding in 1949) and NATO’s 78-day long war against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999. More covertly, NATO forces also intervened in the Macedonian-Albanian conflict in 2001.
As the result of these offensive military undertakings, Bosnia and Kosovo essentially became NATO protectorates with the civilian administrations being supervised by the EU, while the U.S. military bases and auxiliary facilities were quickly established in both. In addition, Slovenia, Bulgaria, and Romania became the members of NATO in 2004 and Croatia and Albania in 2009. All remaining Balkan states, surrounded by NATO members from all sides, rapidly developed close military and intelligence linkages with NATO headquarters in Brussels. This process was greatly helped by the fact that the ruling political elites in these states, except to some extent in Serbia and the Serb Republic (a political subunit within Bosnia), openly acted as NATO’s agents of influence and advocated membership, even though this contradicted the political will of the majority of the population.
These Balkan political elites have been allowed to compensate for the obvious lack of internal democratic legitimacy by the endless praise from the high-level officials in Brussels, Berlin, Paris, London, and Washington, DC. Organized crime, corruption, lawless privatizations, massive unemployment, widespread poverty and hopelessness have simply been swept under the rug. The typically loud defenders of human rights and the rule of law have looked the other way. Evidently, the Atlanticist end justified all and any “dirty” means. Geography trumped democracy.
The Progressive Resistance
It is true that even during this period there were political forces which advocated alternative scenarios, mostly based on the Titoist policy of non-alignment and the “third way” in international affairs. However, their activities were constantly being subverted by the well-oiled, imported NATO propaganda machinery in the government, in the media, and in the non-governmental sector. Their members were generally young people who were enthusiastic, honest and genuinely committed to the public good, but were plagued by the lack of funding and faced with frequent media blackout and open discrimination. Nonetheless, their programs articulated the most promising and humane geopolitical vision for the Balkans. They conceptualized the Balkans as a territorial bridge between the West and the East rather than as the place of persistent confrontation, or the “line of fire” as formulated by the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in 2015. They wanted the Balkans to become a force for peace and human dignity in the world. Their vision still remains the best option for the Balkan peoples.
However, even though these progressive groups still continue to be active with no less enthusiasm than before, they are being increasingly superseded in their anti-NATO efforts by the revival of the once vanquished (and left for dead) U.S. Cold War opponent. Since the beginning of conflict in Ukraine in early 2014, Putin’s administration has returned to the Balkans with political force and funding not seen since the days of the tsar Nicholas II.
Enter Putin (in the footsteps of Nicholas II)
It is worth remembering that in summer 1914 Nicholas II entered what came to be known as the WWI in order to protect Serbia and the Serbian people from the Austro-Hungarian invasion. Some political circles in both Russia and Serbia understand the decades-long NATO’s military activities in the very same historical key, especially with regard to the status of Kosovo. While the possibility that history will repeat itself in this respect is, thankfully, still far remote, it cannot be denied that recent developments go a long way in creating the ominous atmosphere for the eruption of localized violence in the near future.
These developments all relate to the declining popularity of the Atlanticist geopolitical narrative in the Balkans and the foremost among them is the public articulation of a new Balkan grand design by the Putin administration. Just as the fundamental component of the U.S. grand design for the Balkans is its eventual full integration into NATO, Russia has now articulated a clear and precise counter-design. Instead of joining NATO, the remaining non-NATO Balkan states (Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, and Macedonia) are to form the alliance of neutral states (ANS).
The Lovćen declaration
What the ANS means in practice can best understood if we examine the first formal document in which it has been articulated. This so-called Lovćen declaration was signed by the representatives of the United Russia party (founded by Putin and currently chaired by the Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev) and the Montenegrin opposition party Democratic People’s Party in the historically significant Montenegrin village of Njeguši on May 6, 2016.
Njeguši is the birthplace of the Montenegrin royal dynasty of Petrović-Njegoš which ruled over Montenegro for more than 200 years and developed very close political and family ties with the long-ruling Russian dynasty of Romanovs. Moreover, the declaration was signed in the house in which one of the most famous rulers of the dynasty, Petar II, known as the Montenegrin Shakespeare, was born. The name of the declaration also has an important historical connotation as it comes from the nearby mountain Lovćen on the top of which the Petar II’s mausoleum is located.
One of the most powerful political figures in Montenegro, the metropolitan Amfilohije, the chief bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, was present at the signing and gave his blessing. Though in the past Amfilohije has been known to support the authoritarian and pro-NATO prime minister Milo Djukanović around the election time, he has always publicly opposed NATO membership and has given fiery speeches on its “evil nature” to the point of accusing NATO for continuing Hitler’s anti-Slavic project.
Even more importantly, Amfilohije’s involvement with the Lovćen declaration reveals one of the fundamental components of Putin’s overall geopolitical plan – the nurturing and intensification of the religious Christian Orthodox connection between the Russians and the Orthodox peoples of the Balkans. This includes not only the Serbs, Montenegrins and Macedonians, but also the Greeks and Bulgarians whose states are in NATO and whose religious “awakening” can easily subvert NATO from the inside. The strength of this connection and its future implications have seriously been underestimated by the Atlanticist circles. There are clear indications that these circles have been taken by surprise and now, in their first reactions, seek to minimize the importance of Putin’s ANS efforts.
The Atlanticist response
For example, the journalist Gennady Sysoev, Balkan correspondent for the Russian newspaper Kommersant, who is known in Montenegro for his NATO-friendly commentaries, claims that Putin’s undertaking is bound to end in failure because the partners of the United Russia in the Balkans are in the political opposition and the ANS goes against the officially proclaimed policies of the Montenegrin and other Balkan governments. However, Sysoev is intentionally silent on the fact that, given the present political instability in Montenegro, Bosnia, and Macedonia, the United Russia’s political partners, which, it is true, are now in the opposition, might be able to come to power at some point in the not too distant future. Indeed, they have entered the partnership with Russia’s ruling political party precisely because they intend not to be the opposition any longer and expect financial and logistical help from Putin in their electoral political activities. They will hardly be disappointed. The Lovćen declaration spells out in detail all aspects of political, economic, and social relations in which the Russian support will be forthcoming.
The NATO-controlled media in Montenegro quickly seized on Sysoev’s article and summarized it under the title “Putin’s party relies on marginal figures.” The speed of translation and publication suggest the high degree of coordination. However, the title of the article is misleading because the very same method has been used by the U.S. and NATO intelligence services to control the governments of East-Central European states since the collapse of communism. Countless small parties with just a handful of parliamentary deputies were formed with the money coming from the various “black budgets” with the task of entering the governing coalition and then steering the entire government in the direction charted by their foreign founders and mentors. These parties have had minimal public legitimacy, but have made a great political impact with their “blackmail” potential. As they also don’t cost very much, the CIA, the MI6, and the BND regularly create them for every new election cycle.
Now the Russians (primarily, the SVR and the GRU) are using the same rulebook for their own geopolitical interests. In addition, however, Putin’s grand design for the Balkans embodied in the ANS is also likely to prove durable not only because it builds on the traditional cultural and religious ties linking Russia and the Balkans, but also because it rides on the wave of the enormous present popular dissatisfaction with the neoliberal Atlanticist political and economic status quo.
 http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=5a7_1425064348 ; See also my previous BFP article on the destabilization factors in the Balkans, http://www.boilingfrogspost.com/2015/03/03/bfp-exclusive-who-is-trying-to-destabilize-the-balkans/
 Consider for instance the activities of the Movement for Neutrality of Montenegro and similar organizations across the ex-Yugoslav political space, http://mnmne.org/
Originally published by BFP, May 22, 2016.
Kovacevic on Geopolitics