Serbian and Ukrainian flags - © Fly Of Swallow Studio/Shutterstock

Serbian and Ukrainian flags - © Fly Of Swallow Studio/Shutterstock

Serbia and Ukraine used to have close geopolitical positions, but such friendship has been jeopardised by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A study tries to take stock of the bilateral relations between Kyiv and Belgrade. We interviewed author Kateryna Shymkevych

23/05/2023 -  Massimo Moratti Belgrade

“A Forgotten Friendship: Serbo-Ukrainian Relations And Pro-Russian Narratives ” is a paper prepared by the Belgrade Center for Security Policy which examines the recent history of the relationship between Serbia and Ukraine and how it has been affected by the conflict. We met author Kateryna Shymkevych, PhD, co-founder of the Balkans-Ukraine Cooperation Platform , director of the Analytical Center for Balkan Studies who walked us through this “forgotten friendship”.

In your analysis, you pointed out that Ukraine showed solidarity with Serbia back in 1999 and that is why you mention that it is a “forgotten friendship”. Why do you think it was forgotten?

It was forgotten because of the position of the governments of Russia and Serbia. In 1999 Ukraine supported Serbia and it supported a different outcome of the conflict: this can be clearly seen in the official documents. In the Verhovna Rada, the Ukrainian Parliament, the members of Parliament repeatedly condemned the bombing of Yugoslavia and supported its territorial integrity. There were debates in Parliament: the members of the Communist Party and their allies said that Ukraine needed to suspend all its relationships with NATO in the “Partnership for Peace” because NATO was an aggressor in Serbia. On the other side, other parliamentarians condemned the NATO bombing but stated that Belgrade was committing a genocide against Kosovo Albanians, that this was a humanitarian catastrophe and therefore NATO had to intervene, since Belgrade had rejected all the peace plans. In all these documents, Ukraine’s position was clear and it condemned the bombing. At that time, four days after the NATO bombing started, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Boris Tarasyuk travelled to Belgrade and met with Milosevic trying to mediate and convey the message of the Ukrainian president to accept the peace plans, but Milosevic rejected any attempt of mediation.

Serbia supports the territorial integrity of Ukraine and Ukraine supports Serbia's. Can you explain the similarities and differences of these positions?

Serbia and Ukraine respect each other’s territorial integrity. The position of the Ukrainian government on Kosovo is firm and the Ukrainian government is often asked whether such position will change. The answer is regularly no. This was also restated by our President who bases his position on international law and regularly expresses support for the territorial integrity of Serbia. In a similar way, Serbia regularly confirms its support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. However, the situation between Crimea and Kosovo is different. In Crimea, Ukraine did not commit war crimes and crimes against humanity like Serbia did in Kosovo. Moreover the Crimean Tatars, the Crimean Ukrainians, and the Crimean Russians never organised referenda for the secession of Crimea. There are some false similarities which are the result of Russian narratives spread by media in the region.

Is this situation changing now? For instance, recently at the Council of Europe Ukraine abstained from the vote on the admission of Kosovo…

The relationship between Ukraine and Serbia started changing since 2014.While Belgrade stated that it respected the territorial integrity of Ukraine, Belgrade referred to the situation in Ukraine as “internal conflict”, “crisis”, or even “civil war” but the situation was not like that. This influenced the relationships between the two countries since Russia was trying to exploit the situation and to impose its own views so that many Serbs see the conflict from the point of view of Russia. What Ukraine witnessed, however, is also the arrival of Serb volunteers in Donbas who came, killed Ukrainians, and returned to Serbia. Last year, when Serbs joined the Wagner group, our president talked with President Vučić. In some cases Vučić condemned these recruitments and referred to court decisions against those fighting abroad as mercenaries: indeed I would be curious to know how many persons really went to jail..

Ukraine is trying to have good relations: it did not close its embassy in Belgrade and constantly seeks dialogue with the Serbian government, while the Serbian embassy in Kyiv has been closed since last year and it is not clear when it will reopen. This can be interpreted as an unfriendly sign. The same can also be seen during the voting at the UN General Assembly: Serbia supported certain resolutions condemning Russia in the past year, but other resolutions in the previous years were not supported by Serbia.

Another interesting similarity is that while both countries have traditional ties with Russia, they are both attracted to the West and this creates tensions. But then how would you explain that only a minority of Serbs supports Ukraine, while the majority thinks that Serbia should be neutral or even support Russia?

Yes, there are similarities. The position of Ukraine, like Serbia's, is between East and West. In fact, some similarities are also the product of narratives by both Serbian and Russian media with the intention of showing that Serbia and Ukraine are surrounded by enemies and need to be supported by Russia. According to this narrative, Serbia’s and Ukraine’s geographical position is a danger for these countries and therefore they need Russia’s protection, but Russia by “protection” means full control over these countries. This is not true. Ukraine has its own geographic position. It is not bad, I indeed think it is good, like Serbia’s. Ukraine borders seven countries, but in fact all bordering countries, except Russia, never tried to take any territory from Ukraine or to dictate how Ukrainians should live and so on.

Ukrainians overcame Russia’s myth and now they feel that they are part of Europe and want to join the EU. In Serbia, people believe the Russian myth and think that Ukraine is a country surrounded by enemies, i.e. NATO countries. This Russian myth is relevant for Serbia as well: Serbia is like a small cat, surrounded by angry dogs and therefore you need protection from these countries. The problem is that Serbs do not understand this is not true. Serbia has an excellent position in the Balkans and Southeast Europe. Serbia needs to dismantle this myth, explain to its citizens that their position is good, that they do not need to fear the neighbours.

Talking to people in Serbia, many think that Ukraine was “cheated” by NATO, or by the US, and pushed into the conflict against Russia. How would comment this view?

Yes, many believe that, but that is Russian propaganda that even said that Ukraine started the war because of the joint activities with NATO. First, there are no NATO troops on Ukrainian territory, but then Ukraine, like Serbia, is part of the Partnership for Peace. Ukraine, like Serbia, has joint military exercises with NATO troops, as well as exchanges of instructors. So indeed this is a Russian narrative, like the one dating back to 2014 that Ukraine after Euromajdan does not have a legitimate government and that fascist parties have taken power in Ukraine.

What are the main Russian narratives that you recognise in today’s Serbia?

We can talk about a number of pro-Russian narratives, or myths, in Serbia. They were necessary for Russia to mobilise the Serbian society as well as the government and convince them that they belong to Russia’s political sphere and they do not follow EU policies. One narrative is about Crimea, since 2014 Russia has been promoting the myth that Crimea is Russian. When this myth was losing relevance for people in Serbia, they started spreading the information that Russians were being expelled from Crimea and the Russian language banned. Only recently did some opposition media start saying the opposite, i.e. that Crimea was never Russia, that the historical reality is different, and maybe in some time this perception will change.

Another myth is the issue of the Russian speakers in Donbas, who were reportedly in danger because Ukrainians wanted to eliminate Russian. Last year, this myth was expanded to encompass the whole Southeast Ukraine. For these reasons Russia claims to protect all those who speak Russian and add them to the so called “Russian world”. A third myth, linked with Russian history, is that Russia has historical rights on the southeastern territory and that Kyivan Rus was a stage of Russian statehood, while Ukraine never existed as a free country. Other myths are linked with the church, where churches in Ukraine that belong to the Patriarchate of Moscow are under threat by the government in Kyiv and this is a very emotional issue for all Serbs.

Looking at the future, do you think that the friendship between Ukraine and Serbia can be recovered?

This is a difficult question: the relationship between Serbia and Ukraine is quite complicated at the moment, because of the current situation. This does not mean that Ukraine and Serbia interrupted their relations. There is cooperation at many levels, for instance for what concerns trade, there are very intense contacts and they will continue to develop in the future as well. It is important to cooperate in the economic and trade sectors, while it is more difficult at the political level, that is a long term issue which depends mostly on Belgrade’s position.


Questo materiale è pubblicato nel contesto del progetto “Serbia e Bosnia Erzegovina, la guerra in Ucraina e i nuovi scenari di rischio nei Balcani occidentali” cofinanziato dal Ministero degli Affari Esteri e della Cooperazione Internazionale (MAECI). Il MAECI non è in alcun modo responsabile delle informazioni o dei punti di vista espressi nel quadro del progetto. La responsabilità sui contenuti è unicamente di OBC Transeuropa. Vai alla pagina del progetto

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