Yet one of the most important theatres of the East-West tussle has so far escaped attention. In the southeastern corner of Europe, Russian influence is particularly strong, while the West’s fragile pull is weakening. This shift, dating back nearly 20 years but largely unnoticed outside the region, is the subject of Dimitar Bechev’s masterly and meticulous book, “Rival Power.”
The book covers Russia’s attempts to expand its influence in 14 countries: Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia and Turkey. The variation is wide: boringly prosperous Slovenia has long since shed its “ex-communist” label, while lowly Moldova—the poorest country in Europe—is still plagued by its Soviet past. Albania is staunchly Atlanticist, whereas other countries, notably Cyprus, Greece and Serbia, are cheerleaders for Russia.
This is not the Cold War, nor is it 19th century geopolitics. There are no clear dividing lines, and military might is of peripheral importance. Money goes a long way in corrupt, poor countries. Oil and gas exports are the other main source of Kremlin clout, exercised both openly and covertly. Soft power plays a role too: Russia’s self-portrayal as the defender of traditional Orthodox values and national sovereignty against an arrogant and decadent West resonates.
Bechev’s nuanced and detailed account unpacks some misleading stereotypes. For all its success in building bridgeheads of influence, Russia is no rival to the European Union in economic terms, or to NATO in military heft. Russia’s forte is “insertion and disruption”—an opportunistic approach rather than a costly bid for regional hegemony. Its goal is to “undercut and upset” Western rules and institutions, but it lacks a coherent alternative model of its own.
Its allies in this include local tycoons and strongmen—people such as the Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Some local politicians also see electoral advantages in taking a vehemently pro-Kremlin, anti-Western stance—though as Bechev notes, some of them speak no Russian and have never actually been there.
The Kremlin’s greatest asset is what Bechev refers to as “chancers”—those who, in an era of Western weakness and indecision, see the immediate advantage of dealing with Russia, but without wanting to hitch themselves permanently to the Kremlin’s cause. Such people abound in southeastern Europe. But they can be found in plenty of other places too.