Serbian army during the "Shield 2022" drills - © Dimitrije Ostojic/Shutterstock

Serbian army during the "Shield 2022" drills - © Dimitrije Ostojic/Shutterstock

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Serbia has navigated a delicate and increasingly uncomfortable balance between West and East. However, according to analyst Vuk Vuksanovic (Belgrade Centre for Security Policy), Serbian elites are mainly driven by their opportunism

30/03/2023 -  Francesco Martino Belgrade

Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine one year ago, what would you point out as the main developments when it comes to security issues, in the Western Balkans and particularly in Serbia?

I would define the situation as quite paradoxical, because overall it has changed drastically, while at the same time not much has actually changed. I mean, when it comes to the security landscape, a lot of people in the Balkans say in the media that this situation can lead to some sort of conflict overspill – a feeling strengthened, of course, by the memories of the 1990s wars in the region.

Nevertheless, the war did not come again to the Balkans and it is quite unlikely that it will, because NATO remains the main security provider in the region. At the same time, it is also highly unlikely that Russia will do anything in the Balkans. Russia has been long described in the Balkans as a spoiler power, a power not interested in replacing the West, in offering an alternative geopolitical vision for the region, but as a power simply intended to disrupt and undermine the West to cause controlled crises in the region so that it can divert Western attention away from Ukraine and the post-Soviet space. A way for Russia to get a leverage and bargaining chip with the West and say “okay, we will leave the Balkans alone if you leave our sphere of interest intact”.

The Ukraine war has changed this state of affairs, and many were saying, well, perhaps Russia will throw down the gauntlet now. It will take the gloves off and try to cause serious trouble. But I remain sceptical that this can happen because Russia is too far away and it has no powerful projection capabilities in the region. It pulled back its peacekeepers from Bosnia and Kosovo back in 2003/2004, so it has no presence on the ground here. Its resources are pretty much occupied with the war in Ukraine. And at the same time, if Russia wants to cause any trouble in the Balkans, it needs assistance from the local elites.

And the local elites are actually too opportunistic and selfish actors to be a reliable ally. They are focused on their own survival and keeping power in their respective countries. Those who do have some form of communication and cooperation with the Kremlin, whether it is Vucic in Belgrade, Dodik in Banja Luka, or some pro-Serbian parties in Montenegro, they want to use Russia to get a better bargain from the West and score some points. But none of them wants to be sacrificed in Moscow's rivalry with the West.

How would you define Russian influence here in the region and in Serbia? Is it just journalistic sensationalism?

We first have to make some distinctions: first of all, when it comes to economics, we already explained what the reality is in terms of geography. Russia is far away and countries like Serbia are “encircled” by NATO and the EU. Foreign Direct Investments, aid donations come almost only from the EU. So, when it comes to economics, the EU is in a league of its own in this region.

At the same time, from a military point of view NATO remains the primary security provider, even in the case of Serbia, where of course because of the 1999 experience NATO remains unpopular in public opinion. There is currently no way that Serbia can join the alliance, but nevertheless, Serbia is an ally in almost everything but the name, because it is part of NATO's Partnership for Peace programme. It exercises the so-called Individual Partnership Action Plan, which is the highest level of cooperation that a non-member state can have with the NATO alliance in which NATO troops have diplomatic immunity. In Serbia, the so-called SOFA Status of Forces Agreement is in place.

NATO has a liaison office in the building of Serbia's Defence ministry, and they also have diplomatic status, while for a while, as opposed to that, the Russian staff at Russian humanitarian centre in the city of Nis has not had diplomatic immunity. They do not have a representative office, despite the fact that they flirted with this idea two years ago. They do not have this type of military representative office in the Serbian Ministry of Defence, but they have a military attache. So this also tells you something about who is more important in terms of formal security partnerships for Belgrade.

With that in mind, Russian influence in both Serbia and the wider region is reduced to very three particular sources of influence, which are used quite skilfully by Moscow. Number one is the unresolved Kosovo dispute. Number two is energy. And number three is Russia's popularity among parts of the population.

Perhaps the most important thing at this moment in time when it comes to Russia's popularity in the Balkans is not military might, or any practical element, but mostly the mindset and images that Russia evokes in the collective imagination of the local population.

Russia is popular here, not for what it is, but for what it is not. It is not the West. So this legendary term, soft power, is not based on the power of Russia's cultural, social, and political attractiveness, but on the fact that many people perceive it as a country which is brave enough and powerful enough to say no to the West. And so Russian popularity here is basically the number one product of Serbia's emotional frustration with the memories of the 1990s and emotional frustration with the fact that the West backed Kosovo's independence.

Serbia is very often described as a country which is trying to balance between East and West. Do you think it is just a cliche?

When it comes to the Serbian policy of balancing between Russia and the West, this is mainly shaped by two things: the unresolved Kosovo dispute and the power vacuum left in this region by the European Union since 2008. Ever since the global financial crisis and the Eurozone crisis, the Balkans has become something of a “terra incognita” for the European Union. Croatia joined in 2013, but ever since, there was no hope and no good effort to really push the enlargement. The EU was present here in terms of money, no doubt about it. But in terms of serious political and communication strategy, it took the Balkans pretty much for granted, and this left an opening for Russia, and with time also other players like Turkey and China. Brussels’ disengagement also encouraged countries in the region, particularly Serbia, to start to hedge their bets, to try to diversify their partnerships.

Tactical and opportunistic policy is necessarily a strategic policy and can be pursued only as long as Serbia's leadership does not pay a high price. With the war in Ukraine, we see that the Serbian leadership has downgraded some of its partnerships with Moscow because we cannot talk about a real Russian influence in the country. When Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov cannot travel to Belgrade because European airspace is closed, when weaponry which Serbia bought from Russia cannot be delivered to Serbia, we cannot talk about Russian influence in the country. Also because of the EU blockade, Serbia cannot import oil via the Croatian oil pipeline.

So local elites are trying to use Russia to call for a bigger political investment by the West in the region. Since the war started, do you see any success in in this strategy?

At the moment, it appears to me that all the European cards are placed on the issue of Kosovo. And this is where I see the whole point of the Franco-German proposal and the fact that the United States also backed the Franco-German proposal. In the minds of the Western capitals, the Belgrade-Moscow link is not being cut on the issue of whether Serbia joins the EU sanctions on Russia or not, but it is being cut on on the issue of Kosovo. To disentangle the Kosovo knot, however, there is still a whole set of problems to be overcome.

There is an issue of whether Russia will try to sabotage any agreement. Serbia does not have very good options when it comes to Kosovo, but it is also not always happy with what Russia provides when it comes to Kosovo. For Belgrade, however, Moscow’s support is a necessity in the Kosovo dispute in order to get a better settlement. Russia’s calculation in the Kosovo dispute is quite different. They perceive it as a way to gain influence in the Balkans for cheap. And at the same time, we have seen also Russia is using the Kosovo precedent quite skilfully as a pretext in weaponising it against the West in Georgia in 2008 with Abkhazia and South Ossetia and in Ukraine, with Crimea in 2014 and now in Donbas as well.

So for Russia, it was always “well, don't criticise us, because we haven't done anything that you haven't done already”. They have quite skilfully used this argument against the West, even though Serbia does not like this approach because it puts Belgrade in an awkward position: Russia talks about territorial integrity, but their actions in the post-Soviet space are not consistent with that claim, since it advocates for self-determination of Russian speakers in the post-Soviet space. So this puts them silently at odds with what Belgrade needs.

But should the Serbian leadership really want to compromise on Kosovo, would Russia actually have the capacity to sabotage it?

Here is the big deal. We do have a problem with Russia because if Russia were to sabotage this agreement by, for example, trying to organise some protests or run some campaigns against this or put a UN Security Council veto on any new agreement, that would be a political fiasco for the Serbian leadership. Because of the Russian popularity in the Serbian public opinion, the majority of the population would not perceive this situation as Russia sabotaging an agreement that Serbian leadership negotiated. They would interpret it as if Putin is more mindful of Serbia's national interests than Serbian leadership, and that would be a political fiasco for any Serbian government.

Anyway, I do not think the Kremlin would try to do anything now when they are so preoccupied with Ukraine. I think that they will be very smart about it and wait to see what happens, because so far there is no agreement for the Russians to sabotage.

Homegrown pro-Russian narrative

“The main source of the pro-Russian narrative in Serbia is not RT, is not Radio Sputnik: it is the local elites and the local media and tabloids under the control of local elites. And I think that this attitude was promoted by the local elites for two main reasons. Number one, the idea that they can profit electorally by indulging these pro-Russian sentiments. Number two, it was a good way to blackmail the West: the local elites believed that if the West is frightened of Russia and if the West believes that Russia is everywhere in the Balkans, they will tolerate local regimes and local political players in degrading democracy, rule of law and human rights at home.I think this is part of the equation which is frequently missed by Western commentators: Russia is successful not just because of the skilfulness of the Kremlin’s strategy, but also because there is a local demand for the exercise of Russian power. There are local players who like the idea that they can leverage Russia West rivalry for their own benefit”.


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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