Rival Power Russia's Influence in Southeast Europe Dimitar Bechev

Publication date:
22 Aug 2017
Yale University Press
288 pages: 210 x 140mm
6 maps + 11 figs

Is Russia threatening to disrupt more than two decades’ of E.U. and U.S. efforts to promote stability in post-communist Southeast Europe? Politicians and commentators in the West say, “yes.” With rising global anxiety over Russia’s political policies and objectives, Dimitar Bechev provides the only in-depth look at this volatile region.
Deftly unpacking the nature and extent of Russian influence in the Balkans, Greece, and Turkey, Bechev argues that both sides are driven by pragmatism and opportunism rather than historical loyalties. Russia is seeking to assert its role in Europe’s security architecture, establish alternative routes for its gas exports—including the contested Southern Gas Corridor—and score points against the West. Yet, leaders in these areas are allowing Russia to reinsert itself to serve their own goals. This urgently needed guide analyzes the responses of regional NATO members, particularly regarding the annexation of Crimea and the Putin-Erdogan rift over Syria.

Dimitar Bechev is a research fellow at the Center for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

It would be good to say that this book is a valuable addition to the canon. It is not. When it comes to the issue of Russia, the Balkans and the wider region of south-eastern Europe it is the canon because no one else has written about it. Dimitar Bechev is the right author of the right book at the right time. His book covers an increasingly important topic. He is Bulgarian, speaks the relevant languages, has all the right credentials and has done everyone interested in both Russia and south-eastern Europe a huge service. Bechev has examined Russia’s relations with the region both in terms of individual countries and by examining the key fields, such energy, soft power and the media.

Until now it has been common in the west to use stereotypes and clichés to describe most of the relationships Russia has with the region. That means talking about “traditional”, historical or religious links. In fact, as Bechev deflty shows, those relationships have always been far more complex than the clichés would have outsiders believe. Likewise Bechev argues that we always need to remember that Balkan politicians make decisions framed by their own interests, not by ideology, Slavic brotherhood, nostalgia or anything else. They are in fact champion tails who know exactly how to wag the Russian and western dogs, in a constant bid to play one off against the other and so extract maximum gain.  

In the last few years Russian activity in south-eastern Europe has tended to elicit alarm from Western policymakers who exaggerate its potential, a point demonstrated with several examples by Bechev. However as he points out, Russia and Vladimir Putin remain popular amongst people in the Orthodox parts of the region but local experts often know very little about Russia and are often motivated by anti-western grudges. Still, Bechev’s book is a salutary warning. Russia is not such a great threat today to Western interests in this soft underbelly of Europe which stretches from the shores of the Adriatic to the Black Sea, yet at this time of declining confidence in western institutions and beliefs such as liberal democracy, those of us who believe in them would ignore what Russia is up to here at our peril. Bechev’s book tells us exactly what they are doing, where and how to interpret all of this.