By Dritan Demiraj Ph.D.
Russia does not have a long history of geopolitical interest in Kosovo, Albania and North Macedonia, nor has it had popular support among these citizens, however, this has been changing in the recent years. While Russia has not expressed official objections to the country’s (Albania, Monte Negro and North Macedonia) accession to the EU, it has been openly opposed to the process of normalization and mutual recognition between Kosovo and Serbia.
Russian influence is often channeled through topics which at first glance seem entirely local which is why it is hard to prove. Information warfare is considered a suitable tool for meddling and it is only part of the broader strategic arsenal for political interference. When we ask, “is it Russia again?” we should also ask “who else would have interest of opposing the West in the region?”. Russia started getting more actively involved in Montenegro’s elections and North Macedonia’s domestic politics with the escalation of the crisis in 2017 by explicitly blaming the West for the situation.
In 2017, as stated by Mrs. Asya Metodieva the publication of intelligence documents revealed how the Russian embassy in Skopje conducted subversive activities through direct funding of media outlets, setting up over 30 cultural organizations and months before the referendum the Russian embassy was also particularly active in issuing statements. Russia’s toolkit in the Western Balkans involves a wide variety of soft-power instruments, along with political and economic pressure. Its economic footprint in the region is growing, especially in the energy sector. Russian foundations have increased their activities across the region in recent years, bringing together academics, journalists, and intellectuals who share anti-West attitudes. Meanwhile, Russia has cultivated close ties to veterans’ organizations and patriotic movements in the region. Disinformation activities have been outsourced through loose relationships with local disinformation actors that support its interests.
Russian diplomacy on September 4, 2019, in a continuation effort of anti-Albanian policy through the spokeswoman of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zaharova, stated that Russian diplomacy has identified a major threat posed by Albanian terrorists soon to threaten the Western Balkans and the Europe. It stated as an international concern that:
“To our attention Kosovo continues to be a stronghold of terrorism. Kosovo Albanians recruited and trained by ISIS are returning to the region from the war zones. They know exactly where they are returning to. This is a black hole; they think they can be regrouped and then use force in other regions. This issue poses significant security risks for western Balkans and the Europe”.
The recent anti-Albanian alarms of Russian diplomacy for the so-called “Albanian terrorist threat” are hyperbole of a classical Russian disinformation machine. There is no doubt that this propaganda is of course untruthful and unbelievable for two reasons.
First, Russia invaded Ukraine on August 24th, 2014 causing 4,266 deaths to date. It is important to keep in mind that these statements come from a state that military intervened and invaded a neighboring country, sparking a separatist struggle for the secession of Eastern Ukraine and supporting Russian separatist mercenaries with special units, weapons, funding and intelligence support. Specifically, the “Wagner Group”, backed by President Putin and led by Colonel Dmitry Utkin, comprised of elite officers of the former Russian Special Forces, has been actively involved in the fighting in Donbass and Donetsk in Ukraine. “Wagner Group” mercenaries have been activated and continue to operate under the support of Russian government and intelligence services in Syria (2015-2019), Ukraine (2014-2019), South Sudan, Libya, Madagascar, etc. and most recently in Venezuela in support of President Maduro with approximately 400 mercenaries.
Second, Russia is one of the first countries to “contribute” over 5.000 foreign fighters who have fought for ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
In an insidious and embarrassing way, the spokeswoman of the Russian MFA, Ms. Zaharova, is trying to create fear and uneasy concerns in Europe by stating an inaccurate number for the return of 250 Albanian fighters from Syria to Kosovo. According to official data also confirmed by US agencies (which are the main partners of Kosovo in the war on terrorism) in April 2019, the Kosovo government returned only 110 Kosovo citizens from Syria, of whom 32 women, 74 children and only 4 former ISIS fighters who were immediately arrested. Russian Foreign Ministry raises this fabricated and alleged international alarm over the western Balkan and Europe from the danger of so called “250 former Albanian fighters in Syria”, but in the meantime Russia is silent on thousands of their own ISIS fighters who have been qualitatively considered “the elite” of ISIS fighters.
Let’s not forget that ISIS’s defense minister was Georgian citizen Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili, or otherwise a.k.a. Omar alShishani, “Omar Chechnya”. Al-Shishani was the top military leader in Syria and later became ISIS’s war minister, while at the same time he was a senior member of the Shura Council. He was known in Syria and Iraq as the “master of tactics” and had under his command more than 1,500 Chechen fighters who are Russian citizens. This unit has been the most successful ISIS unit in the decisive battles in Syria and Iraq, which were considered by jihadist propaganda as the most brutal fighters in the conflict. I strongly believe it is important to emphasize the data from the ICSR Study Center for Radicalism in 2018. Russia had about 5,007 of its citizens as foreign fighters in the ISIS terrorist organization in Syria and Iraq.
Meanwhile, on July 12, 2019, Albanian law enforcement agencies arrested Russian ISIS related terrorist Rasul Miklaevi, who arrived in Albania in the summer of 2018. Yet, the Russian MFA spokeswoman Ms. Zaharova, failed to mention this success of the Albanian intelligence agencies. Why? Are the 5,000+ Russian ISIS terrorists foreign fighters who have been most active in the conflict in Iraq and Syria a lesser concern then the 143 Albanian foreign fighters (43 from Kosovo, 45 from Northern Macedonia, 23 from Albania, 21 from Serbia and 10 from Montenegro) who continue to remain in conflict zones? This is the question that the official authorities of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Albania should ask the Russian MFA.
I think the same as stated before Prof Shaban Murati that it is important to note that the number of 250 Albanian foreign fighters declared by Ms. Zaharova is not true at all, this is only part of the anti-Albanian propaganda that is being carried out in order to identify Albanians as jihadists. Why doesn’t the Russian Foreign Ministry talk about the “Cossack Army of the Balkans” who the Russian secret services set up in September 2016 in Kotor, Montenegro? These militants consist of Russian, Serbian, Ukrainian, Montenegrin and Macedonian Orthodox mercenaries and volunteers, who fought in Bosnia, Kosovo, Ukraine and as far as Nagornij Karabak, who also took part in disrupting elections in Montenegro, Bosnia and in Northern Macedonia. It is certainly understandable why Russian diplomacy continues to make noise and raise false alarms for an imaginary danger of Albanian terrorism.
The dispute between Serbia and Kosovo is frequently framed as a key arena for the bigger geopolitical battle between Russia and the West. As we know, Russia is the key supporter of Serbia, while trying to assume the role of a mediator or a power broker. If the scars from the 1999 NATO bombings have not vanished, the anti-West views will continue to spread among the Serbian public. The dispute between Kosovo and Serbia is central to the process of reconciliation in the region, on which Russia generally takes a stance opposing the Western one. Disinformation proxies exploit the Kosovo issue by employing one-sided pro-Serbia rhetoric. Russia and its narrative proxies reach audiences not only in Serbia but also Serbian communities in Montenegro, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. More often they do not necessarily seek to present the Russian point of view but to magnify narratives that exist locally. Sensational headlines and deliberately selected quotes like for the so-called “Albanian terrorist threat” and comments are tailored to spread suspicion and doubts concerning the role of NATO and the EU in the region, suggesting that Western actors work against Serbia’s political interests and pose a threat to regional stability. I fully agree with Prof Shaban Murati that:
First, the Russian intentions through this false propaganda is to alarm and weaken the United States support in the talks between Kosovo and Serbian and to hamper the final agreement with Serbia. Russian diplomacy has long sought to block the recognition of Kosovo by states that are under its “influence” and to dampen the process of normalization and mutual recognition between the two countries. The buzz in international organizations about Kosovo, unjustly identifying them as “Albanian terrorist strongholds”, is intended to provoke international concern about the danger of Albanian terrorism and isolate Kosovo diplomatically.
The Russian Permanent Ambassador to the OSCE, Mr. Alexander Lukashevich (2015-2019), on September 5, 2019, was openly opposed to the agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, stating that the West “demands from Belgrade to force the eventual normalization of relations with Pristina, subjecting it to artificial deadlines”.
Second, these anti-Albanian alarms serve Russian diplomacy to blackmail Serbia’s leadership to keep it firmly attached to Moscow while “protecting them from Albanian terrorists”. Russian diplomacy aims to move Serbian leadership away from cooperating with Western governments as much as possible so it can prevent normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo. There has been an increasing concern recently in Moscow over some of the information published by Serbian newspapers regarding the economic, diplomatic and the military offers that the United States made to the Serbian government. It consists of US diplomacy with support of accession talks of Serbia’s membership in EU by 2024- 2025, in exchange for reaching an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo. For this reason, Russian diplomacy is seeking to scare Serbia with the “Albanian terrorist threat” that appears to come from Kosovo.
Third, Moscow’s diplomatic strategy of raising these false anti-Albanian alarms, relates to other, more sophisticated Russian long-term plans in the region. According to experts from the Western countries, including Albanian and Kosovo intelligence and security agencies, today’s warning bells of terrorist danger from Kosovo or from Albania will serve Moscow with a view to concealing provocations, covert armed intervention or possible terrorist assassinations, which they (their “masters”) may organize in northern Serbian-majority municipalities or on Serbian territory, to destabilize the situation and to present them as acts of Albanian terrorists, events that they have previously warned about. This destructive activity on the part of the Russian secret services is solely intended for such militant/terrorist activities to create ethnic tensions and conflicts in the western Balkans in order to create the space necessary to become more actively involved in destructive activities in the Balkans.
In conclusion, I have continuously published facts and analysis regarding the ongoing funding of Serbian and Russian secret services, etc. who are funding centers, institutes or various Albanian “research” NGOs and think tank organizations who regularly publish figures on false risks and threats from the “danger of Albanian terrorists”.
Russian diplomacy’s new offensive for the so-called “Albanian terrorist threat” is Russia’s strategy to aggravate the situation and expand the possibilities for more active intervention or involvement of its intelligence services in the Balkans. This war is part of the hybrid war that Moscow has begun in the region after its aggression in Ukraine. Albanians and the Albanian nation remain the main target of Russian state diplomacy and strategy in the Balkans, as they are the most pro-American loving nation in the world.
One of the reasons for publishing the book “Jihad in the Westerns Balkan” is to denounce this anti-Albanian propaganda, which is false, which aims at stopping the democratic processes of the Kosovo government and preventing Albania’s integration into the European Union.