US accuses Russia of 'destructive role' in the Balkans


Pristina (AFP)

A senior US official on Monday accused Russia of spreading disinformation and undermining democracy in the Balkans, warning that Moscow was playing an "increasingly destructive role" in the region.

It follows criticism by the top US military commander in Europe that Russia is destabilising the Balkans through covert and overt pressure.

Wess Mitchell, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, told reporters on Monday: "We do see Russia playing an increasingly destructive role in much of the Balkans in spreading disinformation, undermining democratic institutions."

"We have been clear in our conversations with the Russians that that is neither in their interest nor in the interest of the people of this region."

Mitchell is on the first leg of a tour of the region, including EU-candidate countries Macedonia and Serbia, and was speaking after meeting Kosovo President Hashim Thaci.

Russia, traditionally allied with Orthodox-majority Serbia and Bosnian Serbs in the Balkans, has been increasing its media presence in the region and also strongly opposed Montenegro's admission into NATO last year.

Last week US General Curtis Scaparrotti, the commander of NATO forces in Europe, told US lawmakers that Russia was working to break up the NATO alliance, partly through its online operations to spread false information.

"Russia's at work in the Balkans, and I think that we've kind of taken our eye off the area," warned General Scaparrotti.

US Vice President Mike Pence also lambasted Russia last year for trying to "destabilise" the Western Balkans.

Moscow does not officially oppose Balkan countries' bidding to join the European Union but Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently criticised the West for making them choose to be "with the West or with Russia".

Last month the EU revealed its new eastward expansion strategy presenting the prospect of membership as an incentive for reform in the volatile Balkans region.

All candidate countries are strongly encouraged to align their foreign policy with the EU, including regarding Russia.

Serbia and Montenegro are favourites to next join the EU, possibly as early as 2025.?