U.S Diplomats Backing Balkan Republics Against Suspected Russia Meddling

WASHINGTON (Tribune Washington Bureau/TNS) —

Even as President Donald Trump seeks to improve relations with Russia, the State Department is countering overtures by Moscow in one of its former satellite regions, the Balkans.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner on Tuesday called for Macedonia, one of the former republics of the now-defunct Yugoslavia, to urgently put together a government.

This comes after the former prime minister of neighboring Montenegro, Milo Djukanovic, accused Russia of meddling in the region and attempting to provoke a coup against Montenegro’s pro-Western government last fall.

Macedonia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina have expressed strong interest in joining the European Union and possibly the NATO military alliance, but Russia has opposed those moves.

“The United States calls on Macedonia’s leaders to form a new government without further delay, in a manner consistent with the constitution and Macedonia’s aspirations to join the European Union and NATO,” Mr.Toner said. He did not mention Russia.

Macedonia held parliamentary elections in December, but lawmakers continue to squabble over how to form the government. Russia backed fringe parties in the EU-organized vote.

“The formation of a new government committed to rule of law and implementing needed reforms will help end a political crisis that has severely hindered the country’s democratic and economic development and Euro-Atlantic integration,” Mr. Toner said.

Moscow’s designs on the Balkans, which were once mostly part of the Soviet bloc, have been decried by much of Western Europe as a resurgent Russia seeks to expand its geopolitical influence and the European Union braces for the withdrawal of Britain.

In addition to its armed intervention in Ukraine and Georgia, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government is reportedly interfering in elections in France and Germany in support of nationalist, anti-immigrant parties.

U.S. intelligence agencies say Mr. Putin’s government sought to interfere in the U.S. election last year by hacking and leaking emails from Democratic Party leaders and sponsoring fake news.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed admiration for Mr. Putin and called for improving relations with Moscow. The FBI is investigating whether the Trump team had inappropriate contacts with Russian authorities before and after the election.

Tensions in the Balkans also involve Serbia and the breakaway republic of Kosovo. Nearly two decades ago, the U.S. took part in wars in Bosnia and in Kosovo, both against Serbia. Russia backed Serbia, with which it has religious and cultural ties.

Speaking last week in Kosovo, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe, said Russia was not being “helpful,” especially in media disinformation and efforts at political influence.

“The stability of the western Balkans is of critical importance for NATO because security and stability in this region is important to the security and stability of Europe, a Europe that’s whole, free and at peace,” he said.

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