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Serbia’s self-defeating neo-Yugoslavism

Vučić’s Serbia stands by the Yugoslav practice of manipulating its relations with Moscow to gain advantages from the West.

August 19, 2020 - Janusz Bugajski - Articles and Commentary

Vladimir Putin presented Alexandar Vucic with a state decoration of the Russian Federation – the Order of Alexander Nevsky, January 2019. Photo: Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation

While the US and EU have pushed for restarting talks between Serbia and Kosovo to help stabilise the Western Balkans, the Serbian government has been assisting both Russia and China in undermining Western interests. Since the ouster of Slobodan Milošević twenty years ago, successive governments in Belgrade have tried to raise Serbia’s stature by replicating the Titoist Yugoslav policy of non-alignment. But in trying to balance the US, EU, Russia and China, Serbia is in effect subverting its own links with Western institutions and weakening security on the Balkan peninsula.

All other countries in the Western Balkans, except the Serbian Republic entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina, have unequivocally chosen their geopolitical alliances and national destinations to be NATO and the EU. Serbia remains stuck in a time vortex in which Russia, China, Europe and the US are viewed as equivalent, and government officials have sought advantages by playing these powers off against each other.

When dealing with NATO states, Serbia downplays its relations with Russia and China and asserts that it conducts more military exercises with the Alliance than with Russian forces. When dealing with Moscow, Belgrade describes its relations with NATO as merely technical and portrays the Alliance as an aggressor and Russia as an Orthodox Slavic brother and national protector. During and since the Milošević era, Serbia-Russia relations have been symbiotic, through which both sides aim to increase their regional leverage. While Moscow has used Belgrade to inject itself politically and economically into the Western Balkans, Belgrade has used Moscow to reinforce its policies, such as blocking Kosovo from membership in international organisations including the United Nations.

Connections with Moscow have continued to expand under President Aleksander Vučić, first elected in 2017, even while government representatives claim that these policies were inherited from previous administrations. Belgrade contends to Western officials that it is fearful of curtailing ties with Russia because of domestic opposition from nationalist groups and the Orthodox Church, which seek a tighter strategic alliance with Moscow. In reality, after an overwhelming election victory by his ruling Progressive Party in June 2020, Vučić ’s government faces no unified or strong political opposition to its policies. The post-election rioting in Belgrade did not replicate the ouster of Milošević in October 2000, when tens of thousands of Serbs massed against the dictator for falsifying election results.

Under Vučić, Serbia has signed a free trade agreement with the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union despite strong opposition from the EU. It has thereby joined a handful of post-Soviet states that remain loyal to Moscow. It has consistently refused to join the sanctions regime imposed against Russia for its invasion and partition of Ukraine. And it has acquired heavy weapons from Moscow, including anti-aircraft systems, fighter jets and attack helicopters, despite persistent warnings of US sanctions.

Belgrade continues to expand the “humanitarian center” in Niš, located in southern Serbia, with Russia’s security services even though it has not afforded it formal diplomatic status. The center enables Russian intelligence gathering throughout the Balkans. In the economic arena, Serbia maintains its reliance on Russian oil and gas. The second leg of Gazprom’s Turk Stream gas pipeline will traverse through Serbia, which is already dependent on Moscow for natural gas, and its biggest oil company, Naftna Industrija Srbije, is majority-owned by Gazprom.

Much like Yugoslavia, Belgrade manipulates its ties with Moscow to gain advantages from Brussels and Washington. By threatening the West with a more comprehensive turn toward the East, the Vučić government seeks concessions from the EU and greater tolerance for the control of the ruling party over state institutions. It also seeks to reverse Kosovo’s statehood and dilute EU demands that it “normalise” relations with Prishtina.

Belgrade also continues to pursue closer ties with Beijing even though tensions are escalating between China and the US China’s investments and loans to Serbia dwarf that to all other states in the Balkans and reportedly exceed 9 billion US dollars. This has significantly increased Serbia’s indebtedness to Beijing, in which high debts to Chinese state-supported companies are transformed into political capital that will coerce Belgrade to back China diplomatically on the international arena. Serbia has also purchased military drones and a new generation of medium-range, radar-guided surface-to-air missiles from Beijing.

If the Vučić government continues to deepen its ties with Beijing while relations between the US and China steadily deteriorate, then it risks alienating the US administration at a time when it wants to leverage the White House to influence Prishtina and undercut Kosovo’s statehood. Belgrade also risks its path toward EU accession. In the wake of the pandemic, Brussels is likely to push for limiting Beijing’s economic influence in Europe, having already declared China a “systemic rival” and “strategic competitor.” If Serbia does not commit to both EU and NATO membership, then it will increasingly expose itself as a conduit for Moscow and Beijing to destabilise South East Europe and challenge American interests in nearby regions.

During the July post-election riots in Belgrade, some Serbian officials claimed that foreign agents had impregnated the gatherings and the country was under attack from Russia. One wonders whether the close Serbia-Russia relationship is now under threat, whether Moscow is simply testing its “younger brother,” or whether Belgrade manufactures such charges to convince its Western audience that the country is a victim and not a source of regional instability.

The unrest represented the most serious protest against the ruling Progressive Party since it took power in 2012. Violence erupted when protesters attempted to storm the Serbian parliament. None of the opposition leaders who boycotted the elections called on citizens to demonstrate, however. Evidence indicates that protestors gathered spontaneously following calls on social networks and without any ideological message. Vučić’s political opponents claimed the violence was a provocation engineered by the government itself to discredit all demonstrations. They blamed the attempted storming of parliament on groups controlled by the ruling party, including football hooligans, designed to scare off ordinary people from participating in protests.

Vučić asserted that unspecified foreign security services had instigated the unrest and pledged that he would resist outside intervention. Vučić himself did not specify a Russian hand in the rioting, but claimed that intelligence agencies active in the region were involved. However, Jelena Milić, the director of the Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies (CEAS), a policy institute in Belgrade close to the Serbian President, was more specific. She directly accused Russian security services of organising the unrest. Unsurprisingly, her charges were vehemently denied by Russia’s Ambassador to Serbia.

If true, then what would be Moscow’s objective in destabilising its closest ally in the Balkans? It seems unlikely that this was a direct Kremlin-directed coup attempt, as in Montenegro during the October 2016 elections when the country was on the verge of NATO membership. Unlike in Montenegro, no guns were confiscated and no foreign plotters were identified or arrested. The riots could have been a deliberate test and warning to Vučić that he was not invincible despite the June elections, which in effect turned a multi-party parliament into a single-party structure. Maybe Moscow wanted to mobilise ultra-nationalist and pro-Russian groups as a reminder of their ever-present threat to Vučić’s dominance and that Serbia could not escape Russia’s orbit.

The violent protests may also have been a display of Russia’s dissatisfaction with government aspirations to join the EU and develop closer relations with the US and NATO. Milić also implied that the Kremlin was sending a strong signal to Belgrade not to make any deals with Kosovo. The timing of the riots was evidently suspicious – they took place on the eve of resumed talks with the authorities in Prishtina under EU auspices.

If the Kremlin connection in the rioting is accurate, then the Vučić government must surely act to protect the Serbian state. This would entail jettisoning its policy of balancing between the West and East, removing Russian intelligence agents from the Niš “humanitarian center,” displaying solidarity with the EU and US by imposing sanctions for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and taking bolder steps toward NATO accession. Moreover, with his huge election victory, Vučić has the mandate to make tough decisions such as recognising the final status of an independent Kosovo. In doing so, he would be acknowledged as a major statesman who finally reconciled Serbs and Albanians. Such an initiative could also accelerate Serbia’s progress into key Western institutions. One waits to see whether the prospects of EU integration and trans-Atlanticism will prevail over the mirage of neo-Yugoslavism and Serbian exceptionalism.

Janusz Bugajski is a Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington DC. His recent book, co-authored with Margarita Assenova, is entitled Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks, Jamestown Foundation, Washington DC.

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