This Is What It Looks Like When Russia Really Wants to Mess With Your Election

In the United States, the Kremlin is hacking emails. In the Balkans, it's staging coups.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at a joint press conference with Serbian President Boris Tadic in Belgrade on March 23, 2011. (Andrej Isakovic/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at a joint press conference with Serbian President Boris Tadic in Belgrade on March 23, 2011. (Andrej Isakovic/AFP/Getty Images)

For the past few months, Americans have been contemplating the possibility that the integrity of their electoral process may have been compromised.

The evidence is compelling. The U.S. government has officially pointed to Russia as the culprit in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, and the FBI suspects that Moscow hacked into Hillary Clinton’s campaign emails. And yet, whatever meddling Russia has been doing in the United States has so far remained subtle enough to leave a shadow of doubt among at least some Americans regarding what is actually taking place.

Not so in the Balkans. Americans looking for a glimpse at what it looks like when the Kremlin really, really wants to mess with an election and its aftermath need only look at recent events in this part of southern Europe.

The Balkan states have become an important soft power target for Moscow, which worries about NATO and European Union encroachment in its near abroad, as well as the presence of more or less successful models of democratic transitions on its doorstep. It therefore seeks to block further NATO expansion there and slow progress toward joining the EU. Failing that, Russia aims to increase its influence within various Balkan states, with a view toward using this to its advantage in the future.

But the region has been inching westward, attracted by the prospect of European standards of living as well as Western freedoms. Many Balkan countries are already in NATO or the EU, or on track to enter. Slovenia, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania are all NATO and EU members. Albania is a NATO member and is negotiating for EU accession, as are Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro. The latter has also been invited to join NATO; Serbia has not made a decision to apply. Macedonia wants NATO membership but is blocked by Greek objections to its name. The laggard is Kosovo, which will want NATO membership as soon as it gets an army and the EU as soon as it can qualify, as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina, which aims for the EU but has not yet decided on NATO.

Moscow has not given up on the Balkans, however. It relies on Orthodox churches to preach Slavic solidarity, crony deals for oil and gas, rigged privatizations to enrich its favored politicians, and encourages ethnic nationalists — especially in the security forces — to pursue a pro-Russian, pan-Slavic agenda. Brexit, the tottering euro, and an American presidential candidate who sounds like an ethnic nationalist and admires Vladimir Putin have made it easier for Russia and its surrogates to argue that the EU is on its last legs, while Washington is turning in Moscow’s direction.

And when Russia feels like all of the above aren’t enough, it interferes in politics. What comes next often isn’t pretty.

Consider Montenegro’s recent elections, for example, where the interference was brazen even by Russian standards. Moscow invested heavily in Oct. 16 vote, hoping that anti-NATO Serb nationalists could finally beat Prime Minister Milo Dukanovic’s multiethnic, pro-NATO coalition, which in one form or another has governed for almost three decades. Moscow financed opposition political parties and demonstrations as well as an anti-Dukanovic media storm. They failed. Dukanovic gained upwards of 40 percent of the popular vote and enough seats in parliament to enable his party to govern in coalition with other pro-NATO forces, including ethnic minority political parties.

But pro-Moscow forces had a backup plan: Serb nationalist agents provocateurs, dressed in police uniforms, planned to use an already announced protest demonstration to fire on the anti-Dukanovic crowd, then turn around and assist the crowd in storming the prime minister’s office, where the fake police would arrest or kill Dukanovic. The plot, hatched in Serbia, was foiled by the Montenegrin police at the last minute. The ringleaders, including a nationalist politician who formerly headed Serbia’s special police, and a Serb who according to Ukrainian sources fought for the Russians in Donbass, were arrested.

Several days later, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic confirmed a foreign hand in this Montenegro scheme, without specifying the country involved. Belgrade, a week thereafter, reportedly expelled several Russians from Serbia who were allegedly involved in the Montenegro plot, precipitating a sudden visit the next day by the head of the Russian Federation’s National Security Council. The Montenegrin Special Prosecutor for Organized Crime confirmed that two Russian nationals are being sought as key organizers of the coup plot.

In other Balkan countries, Moscow has stopped short of facilitating a potential coup, but has not exactly been discreet in its meddling either. Vucic himself fought and won an election last spring on a pro-EU platform, despite the Russians’ best efforts. Moscow had backed the Serbian nationalist opposition, as well as nationalists within Vucic governing coalition. Even post-election, Moscow insisted successfully that Vucic include pro-Russian politicians in his cabinet, including the foreign minister and the minister of energy and mining. Russia’s promised veto of Kosovo’s membership in the United Nations gives it leverage over Belgrade, in addition to strong church, cultural, and business ties.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Russians back Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik, who governs 49 percent of the country as an autonomous Serb region. This support has come in the form of loans to his financially stretched entity as well as corrupt business deals which make no economic sense but line the pockets of Serb nationalist politicians. Russia has also helped train a Bosnian Serb special police force. Putin has endorsed Dodik’s promise of a referendum on independence in Republika Srpska. Such a referendum would violate the American-sponsored Dayton Accords, which brought the Bosnian War to a fragile end in 1995, and might lead to violence — which could end Bosnia’s EU ambitions and NATO option, to Moscow’s delight.

Russia doesn’t just put a heavy finger on the scales for its favorite Balkan politicians; it also seeks to influence the entire region’s worldview. Russian propagandists like RT and Sputnik News don’t just mount their own media campaigns claiming that the EU is collapsing, America is declining, and China and Russia are on the rise: They also take advantage of cash-strapped Balkan media outlets by making deals to share their content with them for free. The cumulative effect of this could be seen in Macedonia recently, for instance. Throughout Spring 2015, the Macedonian press faithfully echoed the Russian outlets which accused the United States of fomenting riots in response to Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s repression of anti-corruption demonstrations at the time.

Why should Americans, preoccupied with their own election and worried about international terrorism, concern themselves with Russian troublemaking in these now-forgotten and out of the way Balkan backwaters?

Following the wars of the 1990s, the United States and the European Union embarked on a mostly successful effort to Westernize the Balkans in order to consolidate not only democracy, but also peace, in spite of lingering ethnic hostilities. NATO and EU membership was offered as an incentive to Balkan leaders willing to undertake badly needed political and economic reforms.

This gambit was successful until shortly before the 2008 financial crisis, when European growth faltered and the Balkans — especially the countries not yet members of NATO or the EU — began to backslide on their democratic and economic progress. Even without Moscow’s monkey business, they would still be plagued by slow economic growth, persistently high unemployment, lagging reforms, corruption, growing ethnic tensions, and youth dissatisfaction, as well as alienation and sometimes radicalization of Muslims in Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo.

By aggravating all these irritants, Moscow’s efforts are undermining the electoral democracies that today exist in more or less liberal form throughout the region, and threatening to produce renewed instability. Ethnic nationalists, many of whom are willing to act as surrogates for the Russians, are resurgent. Freedom of the press and rule of law are under attack. It is not hard to picture the reemergence of petty autocrats ready to exploit the situation. You can even tell who the potential candidates are — one hint is that they consistently speak out in favor of Donald Trump’s “America First” campaign in the United States.

The Balkans will be way down the list of priorities for the next American president. The Islamic State and al Qaeda; China’s claims in the South China Sea; the wars in Ukraine, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Afghanistan; North Korea’s nuclear program; and dozens of other problems are far more threatening to U.S. national security. But what America does not need is any further distraction in the Balkans, where two decades of investment have come close to stabilizing a chronically war-prone area that played unhappy roles in World War I, World War II, and the aftermath of the Cold War. It would be better and far less costly to counter Russian efforts there with a renewed preventive effort to enable all the Balkan countries, if they want, to enter NATO and the EU, where they will find themselves far less vulnerable to the Kremlin’s meddling hand.

Daniel Serwer is a professor of conflict management at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a scholar at the Middle East Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @DanielSerwer
Siniša Vuković is a professor of conflict management at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies