Corrupt leaders throughout the Balkans play on Russia’s image as the ever-looming boogeyman in order to get into Europe’s good graces.
Serbia’s December purchase of six MiG-29 fighter jets from Russia is yet another sign of the amicable relations between Belgrade and Moscow. According to some military analysts and doomsayers, the deal is further proof of NATO’s declining clout in the Balkans amid a resurgent Russian presence. But the evidence cited for this assessment is paltry and ignores the complicated history of the alliance in the region. In fact, the deal exposes an inconvenient truth about NATO: many Balkan nations do not actually want to join the alliance.
Currently, despite what some might think, the Balkan states are torn right down the middle when it comes to NATO expansion. Croatia and Albania, NATO’s newest members, are staunch supporters of the alliance, particularly since they benefitted from US and NATO support in the conflict following the breakup of Yugoslavia. Serbia, however, is a different story. Having been at the receiving end of NATO’s bombing campaigns, Serbians are overwhelmingly hostile to the alliance. A 2016 survey revealed that only 12% of Serbians would support their country’s membership in NATO, while a whopping 82% oppose the prospect.
As NATO looks to expand, seemingly pro-Europe Balkan states like Montenegro and Kosovo may seem like natural allies for Washington. But beneath their leaders’ Western-minded rhetoric lies a sinister motive to play on the alliance’s wariness of Russia to obtain benefits. Indeed, corrupt leaders throughout the Balkans region have made a habit of playing on Russia’s image as the ever-looming boogeyman in order to get into Europe’s good graces. And sadly, their strategy is working.
In Montenegro, for instance, the West has embraced a corrupt leader who has played the Russian threat card to his own advantage. Milo Dukanovic, who recently stepped down as prime minister after more than 20 years in power, personally benefited by allowing criminal networks to thrive within national borders. As a result of his track record helping to build “one of the most dedicated kleptocracies and organized crime havens in the world,” Dukanovic was satirically awarded “Person of the Year in Organized Crime” by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). Among his many transgressions, Dukanovic has been charged with running a cigarette smuggling ring to Italy, dubbed “The Montenegro Connection.” An estimated one billion cigarettes per month were smuggled out of the country from the Montenegrin port of Bar to the Italian city of Bari at the prime minister’s behest. The regime made over a billion dollars from the scheme, which was subsequently laundered into Swiss bank accounts.
The extent of Dukanovic’s corruption was put on full display during October’s parliamentary election, in which the prime minister allegedly had expats bribed and shuttled in to vote for him. Expats were awarded as much as €300 for their vote and their travel expenses were covered. An estimated 6,000 to 7,000 expats showed up to vote for a total cost of up to €4 million. This scheme alone may have given Dukanovic two extra seats in parliament.
In addition to this scheme, according to MANS, an anti-corruption organization, Dukanovic and his party bribed citizens at home, waiving voters’ taxes and unpaid power bills in exchange for their votes. Moreover, Dukanovic’s party is alleged to have spent €20 million to woo undecided voters in unspecified ways. These efforts may have given Dukanovic’s party an additional five to six seats in parliament. In addition to these electoral fraud techniques, both the opposition party and outside observers have said the elections were marred by threats of violence, ballot stuffing, graft, as well as the temporary cutoff of messaging services Viber and WhatsApp.
The West has mainly turned a blind eye to Dukanovic’s transgressions, since it sees him as a bastion of stability and a bulwark against Russian influence. It was therefore hardly surprising when in May 2016 NATO invited Montenegro to join the alliance. Ultimately, however, these kinds of policies might backfire by turning the country’s citizens against the West. Only a year ago, Dukanovic faced protests demanding that he step down over corruption allegations. While NATO might benefit by joining forces with Montenegro’s corrupt regime in the short term, therefore, the alliance’s hypocrisy only serves to hurt its long-term interests.
Unfortunately, Montenegro is not the only corrupt Balkan darling of the West: the situation is similarly troubling in Kosovo.
Emboldened by NATO’s positive reception of Dukanovic, Kosovo’s leaders have extolled Western values and emphasized threats from Russia as its leaders express ambitions to join NATO. In turn, the alliance has embraced Kosovo while largely ignoring the widespread corruption stunting the country’s development and angering its citizens. According to Freedom House, Kosovars “perceive the country’s level of corruption as high and very problematic.” Transparency International ranks Kosovo 103rd out of 168 countries for corruption, making it one of the worst-ranked in Europe.
Meanwhile, although the EU has deployed a police and civilian mission in Kosovo to prosecute corruption, it has largely failed to do its job. In fact, corruption has only gotten worse under the mission’s watch. EULEX has dropped organized crime charges against senior Kosovar political figures, just as anti-Russian sentiment in Europe began to rise again in 2014. Out of the 1,187 cases that EULEX inherited from the UN mission before it, the body has issued indictments in only 15 cases and produced convictions in only four. In cases involving high-level officials, evidence has simply been ignored.
EULEX’s predecessor encountered similar problems. UNMIK, the UN’s anti-corruption mission in Kosovo from 2004 to 2006, received constant pressure from Brussels and Washington to drop cases against government officials. In one case, NATO forced UNMIK to call off an operation just hours before a raid was set to take place.
And since Serbia has never recognized Kosovo’s independence, the West’s special treatment of the state has only helped to disenfranchise Serbs further. Evidently, the West’s embrace of Kosovo’s corrupt government has done more harm than good. Far from serving the alliance’s interests, NATO expansion as it stands now looks doomed.
Rather than overeagerly accepting as a member any nation whose leader expresses anti-Russian sentiments, NATO would do well to evaluate the levels of corruption in potential member states and the true motivations of their governments. Otherwise, the alliance runs the risk of becoming top-heavy with quasi-democratic states that pay lip service to pro-NATO sentiments. And in so doing, the alliance is now complicit in those regimes’ crimes, stooping to the status of the useful idiot whose obsessive pursuit of Russian containment is merely a sad caricature.