NATO continues to creep eastward, now hosting thousands of troops in Latvia, a clear provocation against Russia, which has no claims on it or anyone else. Slovenia is a member since 2004, Bulgaria and Romania are members since 2007, Albania joined in 2009, and Croatia in 2013. (Bosnia and Macedonia are still pending.)
Montenegro joined in June 2017, despite strong opposition. The parliamentary vote was boycotted by the main opposition and hundreds demonstrated outside. The country is a mix of Montenegrins, Serbs, Bosniaks, Albanians and Croats, with two thirds of the population Muslim. Serbian is still the majority language. Montenegro's truly multicultural make-up allowed it to survive the break-up of Yugoslavia relatively unscathed, unlike Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia.
It has a small military of about 2,000 troops, but is strategically positioned to give NATO full control over the Adriatic Sea. The other Adriatic nations -- Albania, Croatia, Slovenia and Italy -- are already in the alliance, so NATO is delighted, if not the Montenegrins.
How do you evaluate the presence of US and Russia in the region?
Trump's election does not portend any new interest in or major change for the Balkans. The NATOphiles in the US are out of favour. Trump clearly approves of the doubters like Pfaff, and is interested in asserting US power unilaterally, with NATO members joining the chorus and paying up.
Russia has traditionally been the natural ally of the Christian Balkans, both before and after the 1917 Russian revolution, as an ally against the Ottomans and then the Nazis and during the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union created a political and economic vacuum that the US and EU were quick to seize, though Russia is slowly returning as a player in the region.
There appears to be a Trump-Putin gentleman's agreement over spheres of influence in Europe. Both are realists, and Putin has more or less given up on the Balkans. At the same time, Trump is less of a risky "deep state" gambler like Clinton-Obama. Russia stood by helplessly as NATO bombed Serbia in 1999, and did not support mass protests in Macedonia and Montenegro just as it did not support mass protests in Odessa, Mykolaiv and Kharkov following the 2014 coup in Ukraine. Despite bogus criticisms of Russia as the aggressor, its bottom line policy in the region is to support territorial integrity of existing states. It is too weak to do otherwise.
The momentum of NATO/EU accession has been accepted by Russia in the Balkans, but not in Ukraine. Russia's 'bottom line' was violated in Kosovo and refuses to recognize it. It will remain an eyesore, a 'frozen conflict', for years to come. When its bottom line was threatened closer to home, it came to the defence of beleaguered Russian Ukrainians. The Donetsk, Kharkiv and Lugansk rebels, faced with gross violations of basic civil rights, declared independence after the 2014 coup in Kiev. But Russia did not send in troups, insists on negotiations, and would like to maintain Ukraine's territorial integrity. Here is yet another 'frozen conflict'. This should not be challenged by Trump.
Kosovo and Ukraine are just the finishing touches to the post-1991 assertion of US hegemony. The Russians will try to maintain influence in Serbia, Srpska and Montenegro, where there is no unanimity on either the EU or a Russian alliance, but this is merely normal 'modern state' foreign policy. Russia is fundamentally weak, crippled by its collapse in 1991 and facing sanctions by the US and Europe since 2014. It can provide little support for anti-NATO/EU forces. Russians and the Balkan Slavs are left with only nostalgia for socialism and pan-Slavism, both enduring, but not of much significance in the hard, cold reality of neoliberalism.
Eurasian common market
Logically, all of Europe, including the Balkans and Russia, should be part of a Eurasian economic space. This is foreshadowed in China's Silk Road project, a multipolar rail and pipeline network connecting China, central Asia and Europe, and Russian ongoing gas and oil pipelines to Europe. The Balkans are not major actors here, but are strategically located, and are returning to their traditional position as the crossroads between Europe and Asia, increasingly part of the new Eurasia (whether the US/ NATO like it or not).
What the new Cold War with Russia is intended for is to keep this Eurasian EU-Russia-China-India-Iran-Afghanistan-Pakistan-Turkey common market from uniting as the new countervailing force to US imperialism.