The Balkans: Geopolitics on a Small Scale?


The Balkans have always been the backyard of European political planning, the ‘periphery of Europe’ (Chebeleu, Trian: ‘Attitudes of the USA and the USSR towards the South-East European Region’, European Security in the 1990’s: Problems of South-East Europe, Rhodes, Greece, 6-7 September 1991). Throughout history, their importance has increased, depending on external factors, such as the Ottoman invasion of Europe in the early 1400s, imperial Russia’s obsession with controlling its Slavic dominions in the Ottoman Empire during the 1800s, and the interest of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the control of the land route towards the Greek port of Thessaloniki that sparked the beginning of World War I.

The Balkan region, particularly former Yugoslavia as its largest constituent, enjoyed peace for almost fifty years during the Cold War era, acting as a buffer zone between the East and West. All that came to an end with the break up of the former Eastern block. Russia’s view of the Balkans as its backyard in its geopolitical planning once again gained in importance. Yuri Kvitsinski, former USSR Deputy Foreign Minister, stated in 1991:

It goes without saying that there can be no return to the policy of domination in the Eastern European region for any nation. At the same time, the Soviet Union’s legitimate interests in this region have historical and geopolitical roots and must be taken into account.

He subsequently added:

The Eastern region under no circumstances should become a source of threat to the security of the USSR. It is equally clear that there should be no military bases of foreign armed forces in this region.

(cf. Talking Points for the Prague International Conference on the Future European Security, 25-26 April 1991, in ‘Attitudes of the USA and the USSR towards the South-East European Region’, European Security in the 1990s: Problems of South-East Europe, Rhodes, Greece, 6-7 September 1991)

Russia’s ‘return’ to the Balkans was officially ‘announced’ with Lukoil’s acquisitions and penetration of Balkan markets, namely, Serbia (Beopetrol) (cf., Montenegro, FYROM (cf. Lukoil to invest in FYROM project, New Europe, The European Weekly, 19 June 2005, issue 630, and Bulgaria (TNK-BP, Stroytransgaz, SofKomFlot and Tatneft) (cf. ‘Seven firms eye stake in Bourgas-Alexandroupolis oil pipeline project’, Dnevnik a.m., 28.05.2005, Sofia,

The Balkans gradual increase in importance for Russia’s geopolitical planning came about because of the region’s geostrategic significance as a transit point to Western Europe for Russian and the CIS countries’ gas and oil. The network of pipelines carrying Russian gas and oil stretches from the Caucasus to Central Europe via the Balkans.

The oil and gas politics played by Russia in the Balkans and to a lesser extent by the US resembles the old Cold War rivalry exemplified by the two superpowers. The continuing project for the construction of the South Stream pipeline, pushed by Russia, seriously undermined the Nabuko project, favoured by the US and EU. South Stream will enable Russia to supply the European market with gas for the next decades, with both Russian and Turkmen gas –Turkmenistan has the largest proven gas reserves in the world. Reflecting upon the Ukrainian-Russian political dispute that resulted in Russia shutting down the gas supplies, one can see that Moscow, by controlling the energy supply and distribution sector of the European Union, will attain greater influence in the European continent. In contrast, the US-backed Nabuko pipeline has lost considerable significance. With it, Washington hoped to be the major player in the European gas sector, relying heavily on Turkmen gas to fill the pipes.

As a consequence of Russian oil and gas strategies, the Balkan Peninsula is in the process of being transformed to the energy hub of Europe. The pipeline geostrategic game provides the answers as to both past developments and future expectations in the Balkans.

With the construction of the South Stream pipeline, Moscow seeks to diminish the role of Turkey as a possible energy node of Europe, thereby containing US influence. The oil power play becomes evident in the case of the pipeline starting from Burgas in Bulgaria ending in Alexandroupoli in Greece (

Prompting this development was Ankara’s unilateral decision (1994) to tighten control of the traffic through the straits of Bosporus and the Dardanelles, which resulted in the delay of Russian oil shipment to Europe and the rest of the world. To be sure, Turkey’s unilateral action was in breach of the provisions of the Montreux Convention (1936) governing the passage of vessels through the straights at peacetime. Russia, along with other Black Sea littoral states, was disturbed and objected the Turkish move. However, Ankara, backed by the US, stood firm in its decision.

The Russo-Greco-Bulgarian response through the Burgas-Alexandroupoli pipeline promises to provide cost effective solution to the transshipment of Russian oil, bypassing the Turkish straits. Equally, the South Stream project acts as break on US influence in the region. (cf. “The Passage of Ships through Straits”, Conference Proceedings, Athens, October 23, 1999, p. 47)

Reshuffling the Pack

US influence in the Balkan region manifested itself with varying intensity throughout the last fifty years of the 20th century. It was augmented by the collapse of the Eastern Block. James Baker, former US Secretary of State, eloquently expressed US views and interests in the Balkan and the East European region:

We must begin to extend the Trans-Atlantic Community to Central and Eastern Europe and to the Soviet Union. These are still incomplete pieces of our architecture. The revolutions of freedom in Central and Eastern Europe need our ongoing support to become lasting democracies … Our objective is both of Europe whole and free, and a Euro-Atlantic Community that extends East from Vancouver to Vladivostok

(cf. ‘The Euro-Atlantic Architecture: from West to East’, speech on 18 June 1991, Aspen Institute Meeting, Berlin, mentioned in ‘Attitudes of the USA and the USSR towards the South-East European Region’, European Security in the 1990s: Problems of South-East Europe, Rhodes Greece, 6-7 September, 1991)

The end of the Cold War marked the beginning of a new ‘silent’ battle between the two giant rivals for the control of energy resources and supply channels. The policy of military backing for the energy strategy of the US (cf. Scott, Peter Dale,Pipeline Politics – Oil Behind Plan for U.S. Troops in Georgia, Pacific News Service, 19 June 2002, and of Russia (cf. Zhukov, Yuri M.,Addressing Pipeline Security Challenges in Russia, Euroasia Insight, 7 December2006,, covers Afghanistan, the Caucasus and the Balkans. For example, Chevron’s investment in the oil and gas exploration in Kazakhstan articulates US interests in the Caucasus and beyond. The Trans-Caucasian region is the new oil rich basin. In the near future it will rival that of the Middle East.

With the US led interventions in the Balkans, NATO has found a ‘new lease on institutional life because the military training and integration, vital for preparing war against the Soviet Union, has proven useful for military missions in Afghanistan and the Balkans’ and as a tool for securing US energy and corporate interest.

(cf. Solana, Dr. Javier, Securing Peace in Europe, Symposium on the Political Relevance of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, 12 Nov. 1998,

A good way of doing this is by bypassing article 5 or diluting it and then presenting every threat as an act against a NATO state which inevitably evokes the article, for the common defence of every nation. It was used or rather one should say misused, by the US for justifying the invasion of Iraq. Under UN law, a terrorist attack cannot be considered as an interstate act of war.

The US-led NATO invasion of the Balkans was, and still is, instrumental in securing the US’s place at the negotiating table in relation to the pipelines. The US pipeline interests in the Balkans are represented by the AMBO pipeline project that connects the Bulgarian port of Burgas to the port of Drac in Albania via FYROM. The unilateral independence of Kosovo and Metohija, heavily pushed by Washington, strengthens the security and control of the region under US terms. (Under the former UN’s special envoy Marti Ahtisaari’s independence plan, article 11, Kosovo would have been de facto the first NATO client-state, providing NATO forces military and political control over the territory.) The ‘Ahtisaari Plan’ was never mutually accepted; Belgrade bitterly opposes it to this day. – Consequently it was never implemented by the UN. However, it has been followed by the current Kosovo institutions with Washington’s blessing.

The connection of the Balkan region to that of the Middle East can be seen not only with the military expansion of NATO and US influence to the borders of Russia and beyond, but also in the US and Russia’s obsession in controlling the energy market.

Has there been a new arrangement regarding the old division of spheres of influence as per the Churchill – Stalin agreement for a fifty-fifty division of influence in Yugoslavia between the West and the Soviet Union, and a ten percent of Soviet influence in Greece?

(cf. Mallinson, William,Cyprus: Diplomatic History and the Clash of Theory in International Relations, I.B. Tauris, Estia, Athens, 2009, Chapter 4)

One may suggest that a similar agreement is being followed today by Russia and the US in relation to the economic and territorial division, with the Burgas-Alexandroupoli pipeline representing the former Soviet Union’s ten percent influence in Greece.

As for former Yugoslavia, in the light of the events of the nineties and today, it can be concluded that Slovenia, Croatia and FYROM are already heavily influenced by the US. Bosnia is fifty-fifty divided, with the Croat-Moslem federation falling under US influence (controlled through various Islamic elements also under US influence) and the Republic of Srpska under the Serbian (Russian) sphere of influence. Montenegro is strongly under Russian influence (as can be concluded from the large Russian investment), although the situation may turn in the other direction due to the ambiguity of Milo Djukanovic’s relations with Russia and the West (cf. Griffiths, Hugh, Igric, Gordana in London with the IWPR team in the Balkans, ‘Djukanovic Smuggling Claims persist’,Balkan Crisis Report, Institute for War and Peace Reporting,BCR No 446, 23-Jul-03,

Milo Djukanovic, former Prime Minister and President of Montenegro, currently head of the ruling party and a powerful political figure, has been incriminated and is wanted by an Italian court in Naples for criminal activities involving smuggling. Although there is a lot of Russian investment in Montenegro, Djukanovic’s push for the country to join NATO leaves one wondering whether there is a link between his staunch support for NATO and the possible indictment by the Italian court.

Lastly Serbia, due to the Kosovo and Metohija issue, is strongly falling under Russian influence despite the recent movement towards the West, misconstrued by many as a shift in Serbian policy.

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Comments (4)

written by Jelena Stojanovic, July 15, 2009

This article is very informative and very interesting, pointing to the heart of the problem of contemporary Internatinal Relations- fight for natural resources. As much as I agree with most of the facts presented in the article, I will play a devil’s advocate and for the sake of an argument raise some questions.

The literature on Foreign policy analysis claims that who controls the ‘Heartland’ (Eurasia) controls the world. Thus the article is right pointing that the US and Russia are attempting to control some or all routes for gas pipe lines in the region of the Balkans, the Caucasus and former Soviet Republics in general, which is now commonly called Russia’s Near Abroad. However, what I would like to challenge is the fact that the author finds similarities with the Cold War era. Another issue is the relative importance of the Balkans and especially former Yugoslavia for the geostrategic interests of Russia and the West.

Bismark is famous for saying that the entire Balkans are not worth bones of a single Pomeranian soldier, so the claim that the Balkans ‘have always been the backyard of European political plannig’ could be an overstatement. Yes, big powers have been interested in the region for different reasons (transit, natural resources,access to the Mediterranean, etc.) but did not always sacrifice their immediate interests for the protection of the region. To give just one example; Russia (even though the article points that in 1991 Russia reaffirmed intereste in the Balkans) was not able to prevent the NATO bombing in 1999; nor did it prevent the creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in 1993, which according to many is not a legal but political institution.

The references to the Cold War period are also over stretched as there is no ideolgical battle between the two powers any longer. There is no clash between capitalism and socialism. Moreover, the question is whether there are only two powers in the word? What about China?
I do agree that the US and Russia are attempting to secure transit routes for gas pipe lines which are important for economic, and thus national interests of the two countries but I do not believe that either of them makes foreign policy planning along the previous Cold War thinking. Strategic interests are no longer based on political organisation of the country but on economic might increasingly based on the wealth of natural resources; and another issue is the ability to resist terrorist attacks. Possesion of nuclear weapons is no longer an indication of superpower status and the vulnerability of big powers was so well demonstratead on September 11. Therefore, the old style divisions of spheres of influence do not seem to play a crucial role in geopolitics as they did before.

written by William Mallinson, July 21, 2009

A succinct and well expressed article that shows how, in Guicciardidi’s terminology,things have always been the same, the past sheds light on the future and that the same things return with different colours.The article shows how basic human factors such as greed and insecurity are the chief culprits for instability.

I find Jelena Stojanovic’s comment a touch naive. For example,it must surely be obvious that the Cold War was about business interests more than ideology, the latter merely serving as a cheap PR smokescreen for childish macho power-politics.And what about Britain’s obsession with the Balkans in the nineteenth century, particularly under Disraeli, and her fear of Russia? It’s the same today, albeit with different colours, and Britain serving as the US’s acolyte in the Balkans and elsewhere.