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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 29:53–62.


The Balkan Policy of Russia in the 1990s


In order to understand Russia’s Balkan policy in the most recent times, a few words should be said also about the entire Russian foreign policy of the period. It is well known that the new and independent foreign policy of Russia unfolded in the 1990s and was embodied by the person of Boris Yeltsin. It is also known that Yeltsin came to power as the opposite of Gorbachev in many respects. At the same time the paradox situation emerged that it happened just the other way round in foreign policy. Yeltsin and Kozyrev essentially continued the course of Gorbachev and Sevardnadze on the international scene. In addition there was a kind of competition between the two groups in so far as who could acquire bigger support from the West.

Yeltsin was so-to-say ‘victorious’. Pragmatic Western leaders who yesterday gave their oath of love to ‘Gorbi’ started to orient themselves all of a sudden towards his greatest adversary to the surprise of all. It is true, however, that this took a different shape in the understanding of the broader Western public opinion. Relationship with Yeltsin continued to be cautious. If Gorbachev was regarded outside the borders of Russia as a civilised and intelligent politician, Yeltsin as the President of Russia fully embodied the ‘mysterious Russian soul’. He resembled the real, unpredictable and impulsive and at times even aggressive ‘Russian bear’, particularly in the latest phase when, differing from the always amenable Gorbachev, he once again used a hard tone and then just as suddenly changed to be ‘diplomatic’.

Other differences also appeared and were increasingly obvious. For instance, foreign policy did not shift into Yeltsin’s focus of attention even when he acceded to power while Gorbachev attributed outstanding significance to it. And the worse things changed for at home, Gorbachev fell all the more into the arms of Western leaders and was all the more attracted by the applause of Western public opinion. Later on that tune, though to a lesser extent, could be observed in Yeltsin’s case too.

There is another important circumstance. At the time of Gorbachev’s perestroika there was an attempt to grasp changes in progress in the world and to find the place of the Soviet Union in it. The book of the Secretary-General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union entitled Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World is well-known. Nothing similar is found in Yeltsin’s earlier or later books either. Even the few thoughts that Yeltsin wrote about the sphere of foreign policy seem to be rather superficial.

At the same time it cannot be said that Russia’s foreign policy had no ideological foundation whatsoever. On the contrary, instead of making foreign policy free of ideology, one ideology was replaced by another. Instead of communist ideology and the country’s endeavour to play the role of the supreme leading power of the world, the complexes of a country capitulating to the victors of the Cold War and resigning itself to everything were increasingly apparent. All this happened in spite of the fact that originally something entirely different dominated in Russian mentality after the collapse of communism, namely the sense of the possibility of victory and return to a normal way of development.

There is yet another interesting factor. Kozyrev did not only avoid trying to elaborate an all-national foreign policy by cooperating with other power and social structures but he joined with great élan the domestic political struggles shaking Russia at that time. The phrase ‘the party of war’ is partly attributed to him branding his political adversaries without giving a thought to it. Naturally, this stand excluded the possibility of the development of at least some kind of cooperation with legislature, with social organisations and with the cadre of experts.

Let me mention a classic example: Russia’s joining the anti-Serb sanctions at the time of the Yugoslav crisis. This step was influenced by ideological motivations first and foremost. In the eyes of Kozyrev the Serb leadership was only a ‘national Communist’ leadership and he was not inclined to be lenient towards it. In this case he was not interested in the complicated geopolitical processes and Russia’s national interests.

Kozyrev even allowed himself to mildly criticise the United States for acknowledging the independent Yugoslav republics too late. “Initially – he wrote – before the disintegration of Yugoslavia the United States did not want to accept the demand of Bosnia and other federal republics for sovereignty and stood for the preservation of a united state to the utmost, despite its being Communist. Is the heat against Yugoslavia so strong in Washington because they have a bad conscience?”1

In order to get better acquainted with the then stand of the Russian Foreign Ministry an episode is to be mentioned. The former President of the United States, Richard Nixon once asked Kozyrev to outline the interests of the new Russia. The Russian Foreign Minister answered: “[…] one of the problems of the Soviet Union was that it paid too much attention to national interests. Now we pay more attention to general human values. But if you have any idea and can tell us how to define our national interests I would be very thankful to you.”

Later on Nixon commented on the Russian Foreign Minister’s answer as follows: “When I was Vice President and later on President I wanted all to know that I was a ‘rascal’ and would struggle with all my might in the name of American interests. Kissinger was just the same ‘rascal’ but for the time being I cannot imitate him in this respect. And he, when the Soviet Union just disintegrated, when the new Russia should be protected and strengthened he wanted to prove to all what a remarkable and pleasant man he was.”2

With the passage of time the lack of conceptual and theoretical approach became more and more apparent. Not being able and willing to understand the realistic situation had led to nurturing naive faith in the altruism of Western democracies for a long time who were supposed to forget about their national interests, embrace and welcome Russia “in the family of leading democratic states” and share the burden of transformation in a friendly way. When allowances were demanded of Russia they were willingly made. Russia even made allowances that were not demanded of it. What was most important to it was to consolidate its relations with the leading Western states at any cost, first of all with the United States. Russian diplomacy followed the United States step by step like a guide, trying to purchase its entry to the ‘civilised world’ by leniency.

It is widely assumed that the time of ‘disappointments’ set in from early 1991 up to the end of 1993 in the foreign policy of Russia, the ‘honeymoon weeks’ or rather ‘honeymoon years’ were lengthened. But that did not end by anything else but the decision about the eastern enlargement of NATO in the same year, in 1993. It was exactly the eastern enlargement of NATO and the Yugoslav conflict that influenced the real strategic aims of the North-Atlantic alliance significantly.

It was exactly in that conflict that NATO transgressed out of its own competence for the first time. And it was not of a defensive but of an offensive nature, deploying the full arsenal of military might. It became clear that it was not only the expansion of the zone of democracy but also that of the democratic values, human rights, etc.

After a brief hesitation the United States declared itself the sole victor of the Cold War claiming the right to ‘booty’, i.e. the visible expansion of its influence and hegemony in the modern world. This was mentioned recently in Vladimir Putin’s speech given in Munich provoking great hue and cry. That speech indeed provoked rather lively reactions. It was a public rejection of the leniency of the 1990s, began an open dialogue on what was earlier concealed, and it caused a real shock that Russia could also say ‘no’.

Further on, certain things such as the Yugoslav crisis appeared to be differently viewed by Russia and the West. The Scottish researcher Sarah MacArthur quotes several examples of this in her book.3 In Russia, for instance they clearly assessed the existence of the independent Croat state during World War II negatively, and the noted ‘Islamic Declaration’ of Alija Izetbegović, leader of the Muslim community of Bosnia was regarded as an example of fundamentalism and one of the causes of the Bosnian war; whereas the West, surely not justifying Croat Fascists, was of the view that the autonomous Croat state expressed the desire of the population for independence. The approach to the ‘Islamic Declaration’ is even more conspicuous. In the West it is being taught even in classes of political science as an example of democracy. The examples could be quoted further on.

We still have to learn to listen to and to respect each other. And the so-called ‘new Europeans’ can play an important role in that difficult process. In fact, the mentality of the residents of Central and Southeastern Europe is far closer to the East European one than to that of the West Europeans. Unfortunately mutual attention and respect have not been apparent for the time being. Some new members of NATO and the EU even make all-European dialogue more difficult.

Anyhow, NATO cannot make decisions about a number of problems without Russia, e.g. about the settlement of the situation in Afghanistan or in the Balkans. Under the current conditions Russia has to cooperate with NATO. The relations, however, should not merely be displayed as a showcase, but should be based on regular and real cooperation. What is most important is that this cooperation has to be sincere on both sides.

Now let us return to the 1990s. Essentially the weakening of Russia’s positions on the international scene was inevitable because of the transitory economic difficulties after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The only question is how far that retreat should go? For the West did not spell out its aims immediately either. Those aims also depended on Russia’s stand. The constant allowances made by Russia only enhanced the demands of the other party. It, however, did not mean disregarding Russia’s opinion. In fact Russia often did not have any opinion. Suffice it to mention that despite several promises the Russian Foreign Ministry never elaborated its own action programme for the settlement of the Yugoslav crisis.

By the mid-1990s the foreign political failures of Russia were becoming increasingly obvious. Now it was not only the opposition that stood up against the policy of the Foreign Ministry, but almost the entire political elite and almost all the experts. They expressed their view that Russia had to possess its own image and place in world politics. Naturally they did not at all want Russia to argue by all means or to confront the West. But it was not necessary at all to nod continuously, sometimes to the detriment of its own interests.

In fact, not only the Foreign Ministry was responsible for failures in foreign policy but also the leadership of the country that had created the basis of the system in which the Foreign Ministry enjoyed almost full monopoly and its activities were not controlled by anybody. The major shortcoming of that system was the lack of a collegial mechanism for preparing and making decisions. The old structures like the Central Committee of the CPSU were wound up but new ones had not yet been established. The impression was created that Yeltsin who did not dwell on details signed everything that was ‘put in front of him’ by Kozyrev without any consultation with experts.

In other words it was impossible to expect any foreign political concept from the Foreign Ministry or from any other state institution and it was not because the leadership of the Ministry had wicked intentions. It had fully objective reasons as well. Traditionally diplomats do not create ideas and act rather as implementers of ideas. In this respect diplomats curiously resemble soldiers. They implement directives they receive with more or less success depending on their ability. At that time, however, there was hardly any strategic guidance coming from above.

This trend was noticed by many. During Yeltsin’s presidency an attempt was made to create a special mechanism of the inter-ministerial coordination of foreign policy. It was not successful, mostly due to the vigorous resistance of the leadership of the Foreign Ministry. Kozyrev succeeded in passing two presidential orders approving the coordinating role of the Foreign Ministry in issues of foreign policy. The third such order was signed by the next Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov under Yeltsin. The Foreign Ministry gave tasks to itself; it carried out coordination work and exercised control.

All this happened in the 1990s, a transitory period for Europe as well as for the entire world. The old bipolar system of European security collapsed and a new one emerged. Its development was actually greatly influenced by the Yugoslav crisis. Unfortunately the Russian Foreign Ministry did not understand this for a long time.

In early 1996 Kozyrev was dismissed. Characteristically Yeltsin accused him of two things, namely with the eastern enlargement of NATO and with the lack of ‘precision’ in the policy concerning Yugoslavia. He established the diagnosis rightly but late. Primakov was no more ashamed of talking about Russian national interests. The relations of Russia became stronger not only with the West but also with the East. Foreign policy was being increasingly defined as a policy of several factors. People began to talk about a multi-polar world. Yet Russian diplomacy did not succeed in halting negative trends and failed to achieve the equality of relations with the West.

Consequently, one has to focus on two faulty traits of Russian foreign policy of those days: excessive enthusiasm towards the new ideology instead of fully getting rid of ideology, and the monopoly of the state diplomatic organ in decision making.

Let us now turn to the Balkans. One should understand what the Balkans is today and what happened there in the 1990s.

One should not only understand the Balkans out of mere curiosity, because one could only speak about the Balkan policy of Russia if the Balkans remained a united region. Our doubts are well-founded because Eastern Europe, as it used to be, also disappeared simultaneously with the fall of socialism. More specifically only Russia, Ukraine and Belarus remained parts of Eastern Europe. The other part split up into Central and Southeastern Europe (Balkans). Not speaking about the GDR which has become part of Western Europe.

Now even the Balkans begins to disintegrate into two parts. Slovenia and Croatia are ashamed of their Balkan roots, and try to position themselves as parts of Central Europe. At the same time the not quite proper term ‘Western Balkans’ has become accepted in the West and even in the whole world under which the post-Yugoslav states are meant without Slovenia and with Albania. Yet, for us the Balkans still seems to be an autonomous region despite all these developments. It has its own history, geography, culture and mentality, etc. The fact that the majority of the Balkan states used to belong to the ‘eastern camp’ and now they have joined or would join the European Union and NATO has no decisive significance. The classic example is Greece. Despite the fact that Greece has been developing inside the NATO and the EU framework for almost half a century, typologically it remains a Balkan country and there is no sign to indicate that it would be different in the case of other Balkan countries in the near future.

Now just a few words about what happened in the Balkans in the 1990s. Apparently there were at least three processes in progress, which, intertwined, have created a complicated situation.

The first process had unfolded in front of us. This was the Yugoslav crisis which was also related to events taking place in Eastern Europe, to perestroika in the Soviet Union, to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and to the so-called ‘velvet revolutions’ of the East European socialist countries in 1989, (though it is true that those revolutions cannot be called ‘velvet’ everywhere). This process was the bloodiest in Yugoslavia and lasted for a full decade, ultimately leading to the disintegration of the multi-national federation wedged from inside by innumerable serious internal problems. Yugoslavia disintegrated without the interested parties previously concluding agreements, which offered a pretext in many respects for war. More exactly to a series of wars which spread from the northwestern part of Yugoslavia towards the southeastern one.

The second process that took place in the Balkans was the internationalisation of the Yugoslav conflict, or the intervention of the so-called ‘international community’ into the conflict. This intervention, the hurried acknowledgement of the new states, supporting certain participants of the conflict to the detriment of others, etc. in a sense even provoked the wars of the decade.

We would rather call the international intervention into the Yugoslav crisis the process of ‘NATO-isation’ of the Balkans. It was only part of the eastern enlargement of NATO. In some places this enlargement process went on peacefully when the former socialist countries voluntarily acceded to the bloc, elsewhere, like in Yugoslavia it happened by military force. But it filled up the vacuum everywhere that had emerged after the disintegration of the bipolar world.

The eastern enlargement of NATO, as it was mentioned above, was closely related to another more general process, to the emergence of a new model of European and international security. In principle this is the factor that distinguished the Yugoslav crisis from other European conflicts of the recent past, like the events in Northern Ireland or in Cyprus. And it was just in the years of the Yugoslav crisis when NATO was consolidated on the basis of the new system of European security.

One more significant element should be mentioned. The Balkans has always been rather the object than the subject of international relations. And the process of ‘NATO-isation’ of the Balkans only justifies this statement. There is nothing extraordinary in it from the perspective of the history of the Balkans.

Moreover, this is even justified by the recent decades of the history of the Balkans. Earlier too, events took place there in exactly the same way. For instance, the 1940s were characterised by the Balkan states turning Fascist. Then a period of almost half a century followed that could be called the Sovietisation of the Balkans. And finally, the most recent period is that of ‘NATO-isation’.

It is worth noting that the strongest resistance to all three processes was demonstrated by Yugoslavia and primarily by the Serb population in the Balkans. The explanation of this phenomenon, i.e. why the Serbs have always been so disobedient, could be a separate topic of research. Here I wish to note only that the Serbs are a small nation with a great soul, and that explains a great deal.

Common destiny with the other Balkan countries could only be avoided to some extent by Greece. At the same time one could witness similar processes even there: such as the period of occupation and Fascism, with the aftermath of the seven-year rule of the ‘black generals’ (1967–1974), an attempt at Sovietisation in the civil war between 1946 and 1949, and finally the accession of Greece to NATO as early as 1952, being the first among Balkan states.

We are of the view that instead of all this the return to the old slogan of ‘The Balkans belongs to the peoples of the Balkans!’ would be the most optimal for the region. It, however, admittedly seems to be utopian for the time being.

Finally, one of the consequences of western intervention was that the fragile balance of the Balkans was upset. In order to break Serb resistance the western mediators started to support the Albanian minority in Serbia. At the same time it was the Serbs who represented the only force in the Balkans that was capable of halting Albanian expansion. As a result, as the events in Kosovo in March 2004 showed, the West totally lost control over the Albanians in Kosovo. I would just recall that at that time 35 partly or fully Christian churches were demolished in only three months. And then no word was said about human victims. If real independence is to be given to Kosovo on the basis of the Ahtisaari plan it would not solve the problem of confrontation between Serbs and Albanians.

The third process is the growing strength of Albanian expansion that is in progress nowadays in the Balkans. And this is an objective process. Currently the Albanians are the ethnic group that is undoubtedly the most active, striving and aiming at unity. They are the most ‘awakening’ ones as the Russian ethnographer, Lev Gumilov would say. Considering that Albanians live also in Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and even in Greece outside Albania, this threatens with yet another new disintegration in the Balkans. In this respect, however, more general processes can also be observed. The expansion of Albanians fits well into that ‘southern range’ of the processes of instability that is currently surging ahead from the Balkans through Albania towards Europe.

Even if the ‘NATO-isation’ of the Balkans may be considered a fait accompli and the bloodiest phase of the Yugoslav crisis is over, the Albanian factor may make itself heard about.

I wished to present how complex and multilayered the Yugoslav crisis has been and how significant it proved to be for the destiny of the entire globe. And it should be immediately noted that in the early 1990s in Russia people did not even get close to understanding the essence of the events taking place in the Balkans. As a result, Russia’s Balkan policy could not be adequate.

The Yugoslav crisis, which extremely vigorously influenced international relations and the emergence of a new geopolitical constellation initially meant an irritating obstacle for the Russian government in its way towards the ‘civilised world’.

This is also the reason why Russia was among the first to acknowledge the independence of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina even before any internal agreement was reached among the Yugoslav republics. This is why Russia willingly accepted the Western rules of the game in the Yugoslav settlement: namely that the great powers forced their will on the Yugoslav peoples who had to obey without a word against it. Russia, building on its special relationship with Serbia forced the will of the so-called ‘international community’ on Serbs. Initially the Russian means of mass communication also mediated the Western view of the conflict, which influenced Russian public opinion as well.

Nevertheless, Russian public opinion fell to the opposite side a few years later. It was revealed how big the price of reforms was and that Western democracies did not wish to give serious support to Russia. It became increasingly clear that the difficulties Russia had undergone were, on the contrary, intended to be used for further weakening and for pushing it out of the Balkans and of the whole of Europe. The most convincing example of it was the beginning of the eastern expansion of NATO. As a result Russia’s efforts to establish a new all-European security system within the framework of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) were a total failure. It was also the failure of OSCE. In our view today it is almost a marginal but definitely not an autonomous organisation.

From about 1994 Russian diplomacy tried to meet the expectations of public opinion better; all the more so because the Yugoslav crisis was beginning to become not only an external but also an internal problem. True, the activity of the Foreign Ministry was manifest only in the changing phraseology and style of official statements for the time being. They began to repeat phrases like one should equally relate to all participants of the conflict, one should acknowledge that the Balkans was a Russian zone of interest, etc. Some observers hurried to assess this as Russia’s transfer to a pro-Serb stand. In reality it was not the case at all. Russia, for instance continued the policy of anti-Serb sanctions, repeatedly voting for their change for stricter ones.

In the final phase of the inter-ethnic civil war of Bosnia, NATO openly intervened into the war on an anti-Serb basis, for the first time in its history. Russia was pushed into the background, because its services were not needed anymore. It was needed as a tool of settlement in order to give broader legitimacy to arrangements and exercise bigger pressure on the Serbs. Russia merely played such a secondary role at the Dayton peace talks too, as well as in peace-making in the post-war ‘Bosnia of Dayton’.

What was least understandable was the fact that Russian diplomacy publicly declared its policy as incredibly successful and reported ever new victories claiming that Russia’s influence on the Yugoslav events was continuously getting stronger. In reality everything happened just the other way round.

The Kosovo crisis changed hardly anything as far as external intervention and Russia’s stand is concerned. The events again led to NATO aggression against the Serbian-Montenegrin Yugoslavia in March 1999. And in many respects it was due to the efforts of the Russian special delegate Victor Chernomirgyn that the West succeeded in halting the Serbs and breaking their resistance.

From then on and almost to the most recent times Russia, having acquired several wounds by the Yugoslav settlement, was practically squeezed out of the Balkans, and almost demonstratively did not interfere into issues concerning the Balkans. Nowadays no one speaks about victories in Russian diplomatic circles. The attitude of Russia to the Balkans is well shown by the fact that it has pulled out its small peace-keeping units from the Balkans and Kosovo.

In the existing relations with the Balkan countries the so-called course of ‘portioned political dialogue’ was realised depending on what relations the Balkan states maintained with Russia. It is understandable that this position is not at all that of taking the initiative.

The only Russian initiative of the past years was the organisation of a regional Balkans conference where issues related to the inviolability of borders and to human rights were to be discussed. But this initiative gained no response whatsoever.

During the past years, however, Russian Balkan policy started once again to be active in relation to Kosovo’s status. Usually the intention of Russia of converting its economic successes accomplished during the past years into political weight is mentioned as the reason of this trend, and also the fact that there are declared but unacknowledged pro-Russian states in the post-Soviet space. But in our view what matters is that Russia is not willing to permit a repeated violation of international law. This is the root of all those declarations that press for the elaboration of ‘universal principles’ for the solution of similar conflicts that are to be applied in every situation and not only in the case of Kosovo.

It is assumed that the acknowledgement of an independent Kosovo, even if it violates international law would end the conflicts in the Balkans. But those who know the Balkans are aware that nothing ends so simply there. All the more so because there would remain at least three unsettled national issues afterwards, namely the Serb, the Albanian and the Macedonian one.

We are of the view that we would completely break away from reality if idealistically we believed that all the problems would be solved almost automatically as soon as the so-called ‘Western Balkans’ becomes a member of the EU, or perhaps of NATO.


DSc History, Head of Institute of Slavic and Balkan Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences


A. V. Kozyrev, A. V. (1995): Preobrazsenyije. Moscow, 125.


Quoted by: Primakov, J. M. (1999): Godi v bolsoj polityike. Moscow. 210–211.


MacArthur, Sarah (2007): Kogda k stiku priravnyjali pero. Gyejatyelnoszty SZMI po oszvescsenyiju bosznyijszkovo krizisza. (1992–1995 gg.). Moscow.