In September 2022, Serbian Foreign Minister Nikola Selaković and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov signed an agreement on mutual consultations in foreign policy matters in the margins of a United Nations General Assembly meeting. Being a candidate member state of the European Union, Serbia’s move to strengthen ties with the Kremlin in spite of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine triggered significant concern within the EU and among its Western partners.[1] In neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Republika Srpska (RS) leader Milorad Dodik awarded Russian President Putin with the entity’s highest medal of honour just a month after the December 2022 EU decision to grant the country candidate status.[2] In Montenegro, in spite of its NATO membership, various opposition politicians maintain close ties with the Kremlin too.

These episodes raise many questions about the state of relations between Russia and the three Western Balkans countries that have all formally tied their future to that of the European Union. Continued relations with Russia come across as remarkable when considering their significant, all-encompassing and highly institutionalised partnerships with the EU and related commitments, for example regarding foreign policy alignment. What is especially striking is the successes Russia seems to have across some sections of society in the three countries in raising a public perception of brotherhood based on conservative values and ‘strongmen’ politics. Capitalising on that image, Russia provides support to sympathetic politicians, nationalistic and far-right societal elements, and secessionists, thereby exploiting instability in the region.

This report aims to provide an insight into the range of tools Moscow utilises to influence Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as into Russia’s objectives in these countries. It assesses which tools are most instrumental for Russia to retain influence in Serbia, Montenegro and BiH, in spite of their EU integration paths. The report places this analysis in the changed geopolitical circumstances resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The first chapter of the report analyses Russia’s objectives for the three countries, based on an analysis of Russian government sources, public statements by Russian officials, and secondary literature. The second chapter outlines the various fields of Russian influence in the three countries. It offers a structured analysis, based on literature research as well as interviews with officials and experts. A third chapter discusses main takeaways from Russian influence in the three countries.

Bosnian Serb leader awards Putin highest medal of honor’, Deutsche Welle, January 8, 2023.