In 1998, Zbigniew Brzezinski argued that “a power that dominates Eurasia would control two of the world’s three most advanced and economically productive regions. A mere glance at the map also suggests that control over Eurasia would entail Africa’s subordination, rendering the Western Hemisphere and Oceania geopolitically peripheral to the world’s central continent”. His book The Grand Chessboard was indeed a major contribution to geopolitical studies. Depicting the new challenges for US foreign policy in a multipolar world, Brzezinski identifies the geopolitical Achilles’ heel of the 21st century in the area he designated as the Global Balkans, i.e. “the swathe of Eurasia between Europe and the Far East.”
An arena of historical disputes among the United States, Russia and Europe, and a source of regional instability, the Balkans are undergoing an uncertain transition towards a new security architecture; new forces are playing an increasingly crucial role and old actors are losing their geopolitical influence over the region. The gradual decline of US leadership coincides with the eurozone recession: the EU is perceived as unable to provide the Balkans with a new pathway towards a form of pan-European integration and incentives for major structural and economic reforms. This political vacuum is exposing the area to the influence of other active powers, such as Turkey and even Israel, but above all Russia.
Vladimir Putin’s renewed Eurasianism validates this assumption. Alexander Dugin, a Russian politologist close to the Kremlin and the military entourage, acknowledges that Russia’s ultimate geo-strategic goal is to re-frame a continental block against the Atlantic powers, by making use of the vast strategic and demographic potential of the Eurasian continent. Following this approach, Russia should adopt a multi-dimensional foreign policy waiving close relations with the EU, China and the regional powers, such as Iran and Turkey.
The “South Stream” project represents the cornerstone of this trend: the pipeline, once completed, will pump Russian gas under the Black Sea to Bulgaria, branching off in two directions, north to Austria and south to Italy. Considering that Europe’s demand for gas imports is projected to grow significantly in the next few years (reaching 80 billion cubic meters by 2020 and surpassing 140 billion cubic meters by 2030) the South Stream project will be crucial for the European energy supply.
With the intent of securing political commitment to the South Stream Project, Russia has signed inter-governmental agreements with several Balkan states, such as Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia and Bulgaria. Moscow is aiming at promoting deeper economic integration in the Balkans, possibly persuading the countries of the region to join the Customs Union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Encouraging Russian companies to invest in the region and raising the flag of cultural affinity, Russia eyes the Balkans as an economic hub to ensure better access to European markets. In Serbia, the election of the Russian-leaning President Tomislav Nikolić is accelerating projects for the enhancement of hydro-electric stations, the advancement of the railway tracks and the rearming of the Serbian military. As a complement to those projects, Belgrade is also expected to receive Russian credits to the tune of $800 million.
Meanwhile, lack of funds and of a reliable supply of natural gas are the main reasons for the stalemate of the EU’s flagship project of the Southern Gas Corridor – The Nabucco pipeline, the gas bridge from Asia to Europe that was designed essentially to by-pass Russia and link the Turkish-Bulgarian border to Baumgarten in Austria via Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary. Once completed the 1,300km pipeline’s annual capacity will be between 10-23 billion cubic meters, one third of the actual capacity of South Stream.
A widely shared perception is that as Russia’s foreign policy in the Balkans leverages energy links to promote diplomatic and security ties, and vice-versa, the EU may be de facto disengaging from the region.
Full article: The Balkan chessboard: Russia’s ruble diplomacy and EU interests (Aspenia Institute)