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As Serbia strengthens ties with West, Russia seeks to destabilise

According to recent research, 65 per cent of Serbian citizens support the strengthening of co-operation between Serbia and the United States in the fields of security, defence and economy.

September 3, 2020 - Jelena Milić - Analysis

Photo: Guelland/ MSC (CC ) commons.wikimedia.org

Throughout history, Serbian-Russian relations have never been simple or necessarily friendly. In the last few years they have become even more complex. This trend coincides with intensified efforts by the current administration in Belgrade to try and re-establish a better partnership with the United States – as Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić stated in his letter to US President Donald Trump on the occasion of the Independence Day celebrations this year. Many relevant Serbian officials and public figures hope that relations can reach a level of strategic partnership, which has been repeatedly emphasised during a number of biannual high level conferences, including the Belgrade NATO Week.  

Belgrade has claimed that it finds more understanding for these efforts in the Trump Administration than with previous administrations. Unfortunately, one cannot shake the notion that the same goes for the European Union, as improving relations with the US is perceived as a zero-sum game rather than a win-win scenario for all parties.

These renewed efforts are not just Vučić’s attempt to manipulate the West, as some baselessly and tendentiously suggest, but rather are concrete, constructive steps that illustrate Serbia’s goal of moving towards the West and is genuine, despite huge obstacles. Some of these steps are laid out in the recent article titled “The right stuff”, published by the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).

According to the CEPA article: “Serbia has the most significant contingent of Western Balkan troops in multinational EU and UN-led operations and has institutionalised co-operation with the European Defence Agency.”

The article goes on to point out that “in 2018 Serbia and NATO jointly organized the Consequence Management field exercise, which included 2,000 participants from 40 countries. Serbia has begun the implementation of the second cycle of the Individual Partnership Action Plan with NATO and has held more exercises in 2019 with NATO countries than with Russia. Its State Partnership Program with the Ohio National Guard is one of the best in Europe.” It notes Vučić’s public backing of the November 2019 Bosnia-Herzegovina agreement to form a new government and adopt a reform programme for the armed forces in co-operation with NATO.

CEPA continues to point out that “Despite Kremlin pressure, Belgrade refuses to grant diplomatic status to the so-called Serbian-Russian Humanitarian Centre in Niš, an instrument of Russian soft power.” In a clear attempt to obstruct this progress, the Serbian government seized a local airport in Niš and put it under its jurisdiction, after the Centre moved its premises there.

There is no doubt that interest in enhancing overall relations with the US is partly due to Belgrade’s expectations that the United States will demonstrate more understanding concerning the negotiations with Pristina. Recent relevant public opinion poll called “This is Us”, designed by Centre for Euro-Atlantic Studies, has shown that Serbian public opinion strongly supports this course, something that is intentionally or unwittingly often overlooked when commenting on the situation in Serbia. According to the research, 65 per cent of citizens support the strengthening of co-operation between Serbia and the United States in the fields of security, defence and economy. Another 14 per cent are undecided, which means that they can also be convinced if presented with good arguments.

Despite the existence of the multitude of NGOs financed by the political West, a myriad of micro opposition, allegedly democratic, movements, as well as prominent government-linked western portals (e.g. Voice of America, RFE/RL, DW, BBC) and local anti-government apparently pro-democratic media portals, that one would expect to be key sources of such news and trends, the citizens of Serbia see the current administration in Belgrade and the media close to it as the main sources and promoters of this orientation.

It is indisputable that the Kremlin has also observed this trend, which it might find unfavourable, but very real. Until a few years ago, the presence of various forms of Russian influence increased in the country, either through illegitimate means (that included a broad campaign based on fabricated history and false narratives about traditionally good relations) or as malignant influence. This was conditioned by energy dependence and the fact that Russia, like China, has its own opinion when it comes to the status of Kosovo due to the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 – under which the NATO-led mission in Kosovo (KFOR) operates, whether Belgrade likes it or not.

Serbia is the only country in the Western Balkans that passed majority ownership over the gas and oil industry to Russian hands, during the previous administration. This situation has provided Moscow room to build an unusually large private security sector (de facto under the control of another state) which has an impact on the protection of critical infrastructure in the Republic of Serbia. Moscow is very skilfully exploiting this, using the traumas of the NATO bombing to excite years-long disinformation campaign it conducts via the local Sputnik outlet, met with practically zero opposition, in order to articulate its interests, which are ever more evidently not in the interest of Serbia. The current Serbian administration has little opportunity to change this situation all at once, at least while the issue of Kosovo’s status remains open, which is obviously Moscow’s intention.

Recent arrangements regarding the import of weapons from Russia are partly a consequence of Moscow’s pressure on Belgrade. Lately, Belgrade has been trying to diversify its arms imports with risky purchases from China, that can be damaging even if they represent substitutes for the Russian weapons. However, Vučić has not excluded the possibility of procuring fighter jets from the US, along the already finalised purchase of French Mistral systems.

Prime Minister Ana Brnabić announced in September that Serbia is preparing to buy a significant amount of defensive military equipment from Israel, at the same time reminding of the continuous strengthening of Serbian-Israeli relations. This is yet another example of Serbian foreign policy orientation leaning towards the political West – once again unjustly passed unnoticed among western policy-makers and commentators.

Serbia also joined the declaration on the presidential elections in Belarus that the European Union adopted on August 11th, which stated that the citizens of Belarus “showed a desire for democratic change” during the election campaign, but that “the elections were neither free nor fair’.

Importantly, over the last several years Serbia has managed to significantly reduce some of the damaging Russian influence – not only in Serbia but in the entire Western Balkans region. For years the Kremlin’s destabilising influence and hybrid operations were articulated through its strong ties with the political representatives of Serbs in Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and then Macedonia. Sergei Zheleznyak, a former high-ranking official from Putin’s United Russia and a member of Duma, was in charge of contacts with all the above-mentioned party structures. Among other things, he advocated for the creation of a community of military-neutral states in the region at a time when it was already clear that Macedonia would join NATO and when Montenegro was already a member of the Alliance. Fortunately, the plan failed, partly due to Serbia’s current leadership and Vučić’s efforts to replace these parties’ ties with Russia with stronger ones with official Belgrade.

In the midst of tough but decisive meetings in Washington with delegations of the US government and Pristina, Vučić met with Milorad Dodik – the longstanding leader of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Republika Srpska entity and currently a member of its triparty presidency (who is also close to Vladimir Putin). Despite Dodik’s outrageous attempt to equalise the status of Republika Srpska to that of Kosovo, Vučić and Serbia did not succumb.

The positioning of Belgrade as a natural centre for articulation of the legitimate issues of cultural and other guaranteed rights of Serbs living across the region, therefore, should not be seen as a new project of “Greater Serbia nationalist hegemony”, or as Vucic’s political war against the region, as many, again, baselessly but intentionally suggest. Instead, it is rather a bulwark to prevent Russia’s destabilising influence, as the results of the recent elections in Montenegro confirm.

Several parties of the new winning coalition in Montenegro have ties with Belgrade and the co-operation takes place through legitimate channels. Belgrade supports local NGOs in Montenegro that address the very same issues relevant for Serbians and the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro that have been openly supported by the parties of the winning coalition, that is already recognised and accepted by EU officials.

The key issue has been flawed legislation on the legal status of religious communities, which clearly discriminates against the Serbian Orthodox Church. Instead of condemning this illiberal practice, which goes against trends of modern democracies, similar to re-emerging trends in Kosovo where Serbian cultural and religious heritage is threatened in a variety of ways, many western policy makers and pundits turn a blind eye. After months of very peaceful massive protests against the flawed legislation, confronted by an arrogant manner in which the former authorities were justifying it using historical fallacies, the legitimate discontent resulted in the election defeat of the ruling party.

The new victorious coalition in Montenegro has pledged to strengthen the rule of law for all, including the Serbian Orthodox faithful, and to revoke the controversial law. This will surely significantly contribute to the calming of the atmosphere and to reducing Russian influence in this sensitive time. The coalition has also pledged to uphold all of Montenegro’s international obligations (i.e. commitments to NATO membership and recognition of Kosovo). It is questionable how the situation would have unfolded if Moscow had remained the main sponsor of these political structures and if Vučić had not gradually shifted the paradigm.

Moscow’s ongoing actions against the current administration in Belgrade, taking place either behind its back or directly and overtly, which certainly do not encounter an “open door” policy, are, most worryingly. They are executed through the security system and by pro-Kremlin-minded and deeply compromised trade unions of military and police. During the last violent riots in Serbia, their leaders, with close ties to many extreme-right Russian organisations and activists, who also attended and supported rallies, once again continued their long-lasting collusion with small opposition parties’ leaders and who boycotted the last elections with no valid reason. One of their standard rallying cries is that any deal between Belgrade and Pristina would be a “betrayal” and that, if this happens, the security forces should “take matters into their own hands”. It is worrying that western influential analysts who are allegedly experts on Balkans falsely claim otherwise, despite numerous evidence from open sources and statements.

As mentioned, the riots were organised by openly pro-Kremlin structures gathered around Mladjan Djordjevic, a man with strong ties with Moscow, and one of the key financiers of the allegedly pro-democratic opposition in Serbia. Among other things, he visited the occupied Crimea, although the Serbian administration supports full territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Prior to the violent protests in the fall of 2019, it was revealed that an active member of the Russian intelligence community was bribing a member of the Serbian Army. Neither the Kremlin nor Belgrade could repudiate this espionage affair. The Russian Embassy in Belgrade and the Russian foreign ministry unsuccessfully tried to intimidate analytical organisations and exert direct pressure on the media of another sovereign state to deny all the irrefutable evidence of pro-Kremlin traces in the violent demonstrations in Serbia. The riots were fortunately short-lived because they were not a reflection of “deep divisions and dissatisfaction with the current government” as falsely claimed, but rather an attempt to forcibly oppose the election results, which gave additional legitimacy to the current administration and to stop its course of strengthening relations with the US. During the winter of 2019-2020 this attempt was preceded by Moscow’s effort, little noticed in the West, to send Yevgeny Primakov, the new director of state agency Rossotrudnichestvo, to convince Vučić to form a transitional government with the aforementioned pro-Kremlin opposition structures. This of course was rejected.

In view of all the above, it is obvious that Belgrade is not playing the card of accusing Moscow just to flatter the West, either in general or regarding Kosovo negotiations in particular, as it is groundlessly claimed ever more frequently and even intentionally, especially now as the very important meetings in Washington and Brussels, where Belgrade and Pristina are trying to normalise relations. Instead, Belgrade is facing a very real threat from Moscow to which it cannot adequately respond on its own at the moment.

In the period of intense efforts by the current US administration, together with the EU’s aim to reach a comprehensive multidimensional compromise between Belgrade and Pristina, and which would keep Belgrade more firmly anchored in the political West, it can be expected that Russia’s destabilising pressure on Serbia will only escalate. The United States can play a key role in reducing Russian influence in Serbia and the Western Balkans, which on their own do not have adequate mechanisms to do so.

This can be achieved by intensifying strategic co-operation with other great powers, continued strengthening of defence and security co-operation with Serbia, as well as through already expressed support of the various US agencies and steps on the ground for the establishment of regional mini Schengen zone that would facilitate movement of people, goods, services and capital and other economic and infrastructure projects, that the EU seems to be on-board with, but also through support for the tailor-made agreement between Belgrade and Pristina. This would certainly be in the interest of Serbia, the entire Western Balkans, the US, but also the EU.

Jelena Milić is the Director of the Center of Euro-Atlantic Studies (CEAS), an independent think tank based in Serbia.

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