This text is the English version of the interview with Andrew Korybko which was recently published in the Italian journal “Eurasia: Rivista Di Studi Geopolitici“:
Mr. Andrew Korybko, thank you for your availability. First of all, can you please introduce yourself to our Italian readers?
I’m an American Moscow-based political analyst who has been living and working in Russia for the past six years. I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, and graduated from The Ohio State University with three majors in International Relations, International Studies (Eastern Europe), and Russian language in 2010, after which I eventually moved to Moscow and received my master’s in International Relations from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). I’ve been closely following international affairs for the past half-decade and regularly analyze the latest happenings all across the world. In addition, I published my first book, “Hybrid Wars: The Indirect Adaptive Approach To Regime Change”, in 2015 and am preparing to release my second co-authored one later this summer about Pakistani geostrategy and perception management in the 21st century.
What do the Macedonian name change and recent SDSM victory represent for North Macedonia, primarily, and, more generally, for the Balkans?
The Republic of Macedonia — which used to be the country’s legal name and can be argued still is because it was changed through illegal means after the relevant referendum on this issue failed to meet the constitutional threshold for implementation — has been the victim of a rolling regime change operation over the past few years intended to block multipolar influence from the Balkans and geopolitically re-engineer the region. Russia’s TurkStream could have in theory run parallel to China’s planned Balkan Silk Road high-speed railway from Budapest to Piraeus had Prime Minister Gruevski remained in office and the Hybrid War on Macedonia never happened, though it’s precisely because of the grand strategic impact that this would have had on European geopolitics and consequently the course of the New Cold War that the said destabilization campaign was initiated. Moreover, Macedonia’s demographic composition makes it ripe for externally triggered destabilization and a prime target of the so-called “Greater Albania” plan, which in this case would lead to the erasure of Macedonia from the map and catalyze a chain reaction of other geopolitical changes in the region as well, such as in Serbia and Bosnia.
The recent “name change” and SDSM victory represent the success of the most immediate goals of the regime change operation, though the US’ plan for Macedonia is still far from over. The end result envisioned by American strategists is to “decentralize” the country into a collection of Albanian and Macedonian “cantons” prior to its “federalization” and eventual partition, after which the rump state will either remain geopolitically irrelevant or be annexed by neighboring Bulgaria. The US wants to reward its Albanian client state for its loyalty over the years as well as trigger other regional changes in Serbia and Bosnia vis-a-vis Kosovo and Republika Srpska, all of which would weaken Europe and thus entrench America’s influence through classic divide-and-rule tactics. In addition, Macedonia is a testing ground for perfecting political technologies that will be applied elsewhere such as the application of cutting-edge Color Revolution techniques and “Identity Federalism” (the “Bosnification” of identity-diverse states), which is why it’s so important for people to study who are interested in what might be coming next elsewhere in the world.
A country that is all in all small and deeply divided, at a superficial glance Northern Macedonia may appear to be an insignificant state in the balance of power in the Balkan region. On a closer inspection, however, things seem to be different. What is the role and geopolitical importance of Skopje in the Balkan chessboard?
Macedonia is a pivot state in more ways than one. Its geography perfectly endows it with an irreplaceable transit role in China’s Balkan Silk Road, while its demography makes it exceptionally vulnerable to externally triggered identity conflict such as the sort that I described in my last answer. What’s happening in Macedonia will impact the rest of the Balkans, and consequently, Europe as a whole, which will influence other processes in one of the most important theaters of the New Cold War. If the US tightens its control over the Balkans, it can keep a variety of other Great Powers such as Russia, Germany, and Turkey in check through its growing role in this pivot space, though it must also be careful not to go too far in causing uncontrollable chaos otherwise this might backfire on it and lead to unintended consequences that could harm is interests instead.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State of the United States of America Matthew Palmer says that Belgrade and Pristina should look to North Macedonia for inspiration in solving the Kosovo problem. Do you believe that Belgrade will be pushed to act in this direction in the not too distant future?
That statement was a clear hint that the US is interested in geopolitically re-engineering the Balkans and using its success in Macedonia as the precedent for doing so in the near future. The “Kosovo Question” is complex because Vucic sincerely wants to cut a deal to please his Western patrons but is under intense domestic political pressure not to do so and has therefore hesitated to take decisive (and, it must be said, unconstitutional) action in this respect. There’s no doubt that that’s the direction that everything is going in, but it ultimately comes down to a question of timing.
You say: “There’s no doubt that that’s the direction that everything is going in, but it ultimately comes down to a question of timing”. Do you think that the fate of Kosovo is already written and that it is only a matter of time and opportunity before the sword of Damocles falls on the head of Belgrade and Serbian people?
Unfortunately, yes, just as I think that it’s only a matter of time before the same thing happens to the people of Donbas too. About that second-mentioned conflict, it’s telling that Moscow has made it easier for the people of that region to acquire Russian citizenship. This wasn’t done to give the country a legal pretext for conventionally intervening (if it wanted to do so anytime over the past half-decade, such a pretext could have been easily created then), but to give the people an escape plan if they fear the consequences of “reintegrating” with Ukraine as part of a “New Detente” brokered between Moscow and Washington. If Russia seems to have resigned itself to accepting what many would describe as a strategic defeat in Donbas, then it’s difficult to imagine that Serbia could pull off a strategic victory in Kosovo, especially with the US’ Camp Bondsteel being there. Even if no formal recognition of its so-called “independence” by Belgrade ever occurs, that doesn’t change the fact that Serbia is militarily unable to liberate the historic cradle of its civilization and that the region will probably remain occupied for the indefinite future.
It’s evident that in the Balkans a great game of power is being playing by the United States, Europe (although in a more limited way), Russia, China, Turkey, and also Albania, reinvigorated in its activism in foreign politics, as principal actors of the stage. What are the different interests in the region of these international actors?
The US wants to stop the expansion of Russian and Chinese influence in the Balkans, while Europe wants to continue integrating the region into the bloc. China sees the Balkans as a backdoor to the European marketplace, whereas Russia sees the region mostly in terms of its transit role in facilitating energy exports to the much larger Western European countries. Turkey wants to strengthen its ties with the Muslim minority, and Albania wants to advance its grand strategic vision for a so-called “Greater Albania”. The US and EU goals mostly overlap, just as the Russian and Chinese ones do. Some observers suspect that Turkey is in favor of “Greater Albania”, although it can be argued that its interest in this project has cooled in recent years after the country became known for the Gulenists that it hosts and who Ankara regards as serious national security threats. The US, however, is totally in favor of “Greater Albania” and is actively seeking to make it a reality.
What is the biggest mistake that these actors have made or will be able to commit to approaching the Balkan countries?
The US relies too much on raw force and behind-the-scenes manipulations, while the EU is hypocritical when it comes to preaching “democracy” and actually implementing it. China is economically oriented but fails to understand the importance of soft power, whereas Russia relies too much on soft power but fails to understand the importance of real-sector economic relations with its partners beyond the energy sphere. Turkey used to be seen as biased towards the region’s Muslim minority but has lately tried to dispel that notion through mutually beneficial economic deals with Serbia and others. Albania, for its part, scares the region due to the memory that many still have of the countless terrorist acts committed by those fighting in the name of “Greater Albania” in Kosovo.
In light of the various and different and conflicting interests, the great game of the Balkans can only be a zero-sum game, so who do you think will emerge victorious?
The two most relevant players in this game are the US and China, with the EU and Albania being allied to the former while Russia is partnered with the latter. Turkey is a wild card in this game but is unable to decisively change regional events. The geopolitical inertia is moving in favor of American interests after the recent events in Macedonia and the likely resolution of the “Kosovo Question” in favor of the Albanian separatists, though these developments might not have any noticeable effect on stopping the spread of China’s economic influence in the region. The most likely future scenario is one in which the Balkans are geopolitically re-engineered according to the ethno-centric model put forth by Timothy Less but almost somewhat counterintuitively move closer to China on the economic front even if the US expands its military influence there in parallel with this process.
Mr. Korybko, your geopolitical analyses are based on a multipolar vision of the world. Can you explain to Italian readers what the basic ideas of your theories are? In your articles you also often speak of a hybrid war.
I elaborate more on this in my 2017 article about the “21st-Century Geopolitics Of The Multipolar World Order“, but in brief, I believe that the era of unipolarity is ending and that the US’ monopoly on power and influence is being replaced by a more decentralized system that has yet to fully form but is nevertheless being led by Russia and China. It’s this process that the US is trying to disrupt, control, and/or influence, to which end it’s waging Hybrid Wars all across the world, which are externally provoked identity conflicts that aim to achieve Regime Tweaking (political concessions), Regime Change, or a Regime Reboot (constitutional reform along the lines of divide-and-rule “Bosnification”). There are also other components to Hybrid War as well such as the informational and economic manipulations that the US usually uses, but my theory focuses mostly on the aforementioned tactics and their role in shaping the emerging Multipolar World Order.
In the Balkans, two antithetical visions of world organization collide: one unipolar and one multipolar. What are the possible scenarios for such an important area for future international assets? Which is the best scenario and which, instead, is the worst one that can be expected?
Theoretically speaking, the best scenario would be if the Balkan countries teamed up and tried to assert their collective independence, but that’s very unlikely for obvious reasons having to do with certain historical animosities and US client states. The worst-case scenario would be if the region slides back into war as a result of the US’ geopolitical re-engineering, but that’s also unlikely because it seems like America has the situation under control, at least for now. Therefore, the most probable outcome is that gradual geopolitical changes will occur, but that the ever more divided region becomes economically closer to China. The Balkans could also fall under the influence of the Polish-led “Three Seas Initiative” which functions as the US’ “Lead From Behind” proxy in the Central & Eastern European space.
Why are the Balkans still so important?
The Balkans have always been important because of their location at the crossroads of Germany, Russia, Turkey, and Italy, and this will always remain the case.
One of your articles – recently published for Global Research – is titled Russia’s recognition of North Macedonia is part of the “New Balkans” plan. Can you explain to us what is the “New Balkans” Plan and what this change of Russian paradigm in the Balkans consists of?
The “New Balkans” plan refers to Timothy Less’ vision of “Balkanizing” the Balkans along ethnic lines, something that Russian strategists seem to have resigned themselves to thinking is inevitable seeing as how they’re now passively going along with this through their recognition of “North Macedonia”. It’s very similar in a sense to what Russia is doing in the Mideast vis-a-vis “Israel’s” “Yinon Plan”, in that Moscow realized that it’s better to passively facilitate certain processes to a certain degree in order to hopefully guide them in the direction of the country’s interests. This doesn’t mean that Russia necessarily agrees that this is the best outcome for each region, but just that it understands its own limitations and accepts that it’s much too costly to change things. As such, just as Russia is now working hand-in-hand with the Kurds despite them being some of the key players in the “Yinon Plan”, so too is it now working together with the US to resolve the “Kosovo Question” in a way that will most likely serve Albanian interests, all because it believes that it can’t really change anything so it should therefore make the best with what it has in the most cost-effective way possible.
In addition to the United States and the Russian Federation, a new actor has appeared in the Balkans, but it seems to move according to a different logic compared to the previous ones: the People’s Republic of China. How can Beijing influence the future of this turbulent area between Europe and Asia?
China sees the Balkans as a backdoor to the larger European marketplace and is importantly satisfying the needs of the region’s people through its infrastructure projects, hence why it’s been so successful there over the past few years. It doesn’t have any political intentions, only economic ones, which is why it’s mostly unfazed by the geopolitical processes taking place there. China’s modus operandi is to partner with key members of these countries’ military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies (“deep states”) together with their economic and political elites, each of whom pursue their own interests irrespective of their ties with the US and are therefore very receptive to what Beijing is offering. The long-term impact of this process if it’s left unchecked and the reason why the US is so concerned is because it fears that China might one day leverage its growing economic influence in political ways and thus challenge Washington’s role in this strategic corner of Europe and thenceforth elsewhere in the continent as well.
And what about Europe? In the past, Brussels has lost countless opportunities in the Balkans and now the EU seems unable to develop a common and autonomous foreign policy line. Yet Europe would only have to gain in a peaceful and stable situation in the region.
The EU is a hybrid economic and ideological project run by a bunch of unelected bureaucrats who are oftentimes blinded to the real geopolitical realities of the region and therefore unable to seize certain opportunities there. Instead, being driven by the interconnected desires to “liberalize” those societies in the socio-economic sense prior to their incorporation into the bloc as vassal states, it regularly offends the region’s people through its dictatorial tendencies, which is why there’s so much skepticism about it. In addition, the EU isn’t an independent actor, so it usually marches in lockstep with the US, something that no one fails to notice.
Balkan tensions and North African riots. Italy seems to be sleeping in the heart of the cyclone. What role can Rome play in the Balkans and in a multipolar world?
Italy is more poised to play a leading role in controlling illegal immigration from Africa than influencing any of the aforementioned geopolitical processes in the Balkans. The best that it can hope for is to expand its economic influence in the region and try to become a meaningful player there in this respect, maybe one day competing with the other Great Powers of Germany, Russia, China, and Turkey, but that scenario is still a far way’s off from happening. As for multipolarity in general, Italy’s location at the Afro-European crossroad means that it could play a role in connecting both of these regions, though it’ll probably take the form of being the EU’s vanguard towards the southern continent and specifically its North African coast.
Andrew Korybko is a political analyst, journalist and a regular contributor to several online journals, as well as a member of the expert council for the Institute of Strategic Studies and Predictions at the People’s Friendship University of Russia.
Interviewer: Andrea Turi (2019)