Keep an Eye on the Balkans

Trouble could be brewing.
From the March 2010 Trumpet Print Edition

The Balkans is a region people tend to forget about. Sandwiched between the Adriatic and Black seas, the peninsula is a hodgepodge mix of religions, peoples and cultures. The complexity and obscurity of the Balkans—together with its geographic situation—fosters the perception of the region as a largely irrelevant backwater to Europe, Russia and the Middle East.

History punctures this perception.

Historically, the Balkans is where civilizations have converged and clashed. During the Middle Ages, the peninsula fell under the control of the Byzantine Empire. In the 15th century, it became a focal point of the westward-bound Ottoman Turks. In the 19th century, it emerged again as a point of tension between East and West during the Crimean War. When the great European war comes, observed Bismarck, it will “come out of some … foolish thing in the Balkans.” Turns out, he was right. Less than 50 years later, the Balkans was where Germany instigated the First World War. Twenty years after that, it became a key strategic theater for Hitler and the Axis powers. And don’t forget the Balkan crises of the 1990s.

It is no surprise then that a decade later, the Balkans is emerging once again as the convergence point of Russian and European ambitions.

Bringing the Balkans Into Europe

In November 2009, German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with Serbian President Boris Tadic in Berlin, where she expressed Germany’s full support for Serbia’s entry into the European Union. Serbia’s hopes were further boosted in January, when Spain’s foreign minister promised that his country’s EU presidency would do its utmost to integrate Serbia into the EU. “2010 is going to be a key year for all the Western Balkans,” said Miguel Moratinos. “I can guarantee on behalf of the Spanish presidency that we will do everything that is possible to advance in this direction.”

It appears Serbia will not be making the trek alone. On the same day Merkel announced her support of Serbia last November, EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels agreed to proceed with Albania’s request to enter the rapidly evolving 27-member bloc. By January, EU leaders were talking about easing visa restrictions to make it easier for Albanians to travel through Europe.

Doubts about the EU’s ambitions in the Balkans were put to rest by a letter that circulated among EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on January 25. According to Deutsche Welle, the letter ambitiously stated that in 2010 the EU should “complete accession negotiations with Croatia, start talks with Macedonia, reinforce its role in Bosnia, abolish visas for Albanian and Bosnian citizens and advance Serbia’s bid to join the bloc” (January 27).

“This is the right moment to renew at high level the EU’s commitment to the [Balkans] and to set out the course ahead in concrete terms,” Dimistris Droutsas of Greece and Michael Spindelegger of Austria said in the letter.

Reporting on Germany and the EU’s statements in support of Serbia’s accession last November, Stratfor noted that they were “the clearest indication thus far from the European Union that it is serious about bringing the rest of the Balkans into the European Union as soon as possible” (Nov. 17, 2009; emphasis mine throughout).

While enthusiasm in Brussels for integrating the Balkans into the EU excites many west of the Urals, not everyone is pleased.

The Russia Factor

Under strongman Vladimir Putin, Russia has been actively reasserting itself regionally and globally. Since 2000, the Kremlin has secured power over much of its periphery, particularly along its border with the European Union. (This, essentially, was the reason for Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008.) Strategically and historically, the Balkan Peninsula—though it doesn’t fall within Russia’s immediate sphere of influence—has been a critical steppingstone for periodic European incursions into Russia.

From a defensive standpoint, the Balkans demands the Kremlin’s watchful eye. But for the offense-minded Putin, the peninsula requires much more. This is why last October, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made a much-publicized visit to Belgrade, where he offered a €1 billion (us$1.4 billion) loan to the Serbs and openly discussed the possibility of a strategic partnership with Serbia.

The next month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Bosnia-Herzegovina, where, according to the Eurasia Daily Monitor, he encouraged the “Sarajevo government to oppose U.S.- and EU-proposed constitutional and economic reforms” (Nov. 9, 2009). Beyond its political wrangling in the region, Moscow remains a primary economic player in the Balkans, particularly in the energy sector.

Russia also has intriguing military designs on Serbia. On October 21, Russia signed a deal with the Serbs to construct a humanitarian center for emergencies in the southeastern city of Nis. While it was billed as a regional hub for emergency relief in southeastern Europe, some experts couldn’t help but notice the political and military nature of the planned facility. With the center’s connection to the highest levels in the Kremlin, analysts at Stratfor reported that “it has the potential to redefine how the world looks at the Balkans and Russia’s involvement in the region” (Oct. 21, 2009).

The humanitarian center will be operated by the Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations. Rooted in Russia’s foreign military intelligence directorate (also known as the gru), this ministry handles more than just national emergencies. Stratfor reports that “it is involved in the suppression of militant activity in the Caucasus and is in charge of the Russian civil defense troops,” which essentially gives the ministry its own military force, as well as access to the Russian military. When you consider the connections, “it has to be considered that Moscow might lay logistical groundwork [in Serbia] that—intentionally or not—has military value” (ibid.).

What do Germany and the EU think about that? Stratfor continued, “Despite [some] limitations, which make the move largely symbolic for the near future, Moscow is on its way to setting up its first logistical center with potential military uses outside of the former Soviet Union. In addition, the center will be run by a ministry that serves as the wing of the Russian military intelligence unit. If one puts this in the context of the recent visit to Belgrade by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev … it must be concluded that Russia is moving into the Balkans with enthusiasm.”

Remember, that was the end of October. In November, Germany and the EU informed Serbia (and Albania) that they were ready to put them on the track for full EU membership. The timing is interesting. Coincidences of this nature are rare in international relations. It certainly appears the Balkan Peninsula, particularly Serbia, is emerging once again as a major point of tension between Russia and Europe.

The Outcome

Ultimately, Europe and Russia face two options. The first is to sit down together, debate their strategic interests, and carve up Eastern Europe and the Balkans between them. Hitler and Stalin did that very thing in 1939. The alternative is to allow the tension to mount until it erupts in armed conflict. More than likely, as the Trumpet has forecast, we will see the first option. Watch for Russia and Germany/Europe to come together and hash out some kind of non-aggression pact akin to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact struck just days before World War ii.

It is also possible that the Kremlin, concerned by the rapidly evolving and strengthening European superstate, could decide it needs to send the EU and the West a shot across the bow. The provocation by the Kremlin of a military or energy crisis in a place like Serbia, or maybe Ukraine, would certainly caution Berlin and Brussels against ignoring the strategic interests of its eastern neighbor. It would also likely bring Germany and Europe to the negotiating table with Russia.

Whatever happens, history demands that we keep an eye on the Balkans. And so does Bible prophecy. In May 1953, Herbert Armstrong wrote about a crucial end-time prophecy: “Suddenly the world will behold a United States of Europe!” he wrote. “Some of the Balkan nations which have been under Russia’s boot will be members of it!” (Good News).

That statement alone explains Germany and the EU’s moves to invite Balkan nations into the European fold. Mr. Armstrong based his forecast about a united Europe (which will include an eastern bloc) on multiple Bible prophecies, including Daniel’s spectacular prophecy in Daniel 2. This prophecy is key to understanding both European history and prophecy. To learn more about it, request a free copy of Daniel Unlocks Revelation.

In the meantime, keep an eye on the Balkans!