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Snarky Facebook post sparks diplomatic incident between Russia and Serbia: What’s behind it?

On the recent spat between Russia and Serbia on social media and what it reveals about their relationship.

October 14, 2020 - Leon Hartwell - Articles and Commentary

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić during an official visit to Belgrade, Serbia. Photo: Golden Brown / Shutterstock

Recently, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova caused friction in the Slavic world by insulting Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić. On Facebook, Zakharova posted two provocative photos — one of Vučić sitting directly across the table from President Donald Trump, resembling a schoolboy being scolded by his headmaster, and another photo of Sharon Stone’s renowned cross-legged interrogation scene from the neo-noir erotic thriller film Basic Instinct. The caption of Zakharova’s post reads, “If you’re invited to the White House, and the chair was set up to interrogate you, sit like in Figure 2. Trust me.”

Source: Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Facebook

Marko Đurić, a senior Serbian official, is famous for his overzealous support for Vučić. Serbians even have a wide-ranging collection of GIFs of him enthusiastically applauding his president. He normally does not tweet much, but following Zakharova’s Facebook snark, Đurić instantly took to Twitter to defend his boss:

“This president did not say a single bad word against Russia, not even in that place [the White House]… I will not allow you to attack proud Serbia. Shame on you!”

Đurić further revealed that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin apparently made Vučić wait “for an hour and a half” before seeing him for a consultation.

The Serbian President was equally livid. Vučić stated on TV Pink, “Maria Zakharova speaks mostly about herself, and the primitivism and vulgarity she showed speaks of her, and by God, of those who placed her there.”

After a few hours, Zakharova walked back her initial comments. She edited the original Facebook post, claiming it was “misinterpreted” and that she merely wanted to draw attention to American arrogance. 

While Zakharova’s post was the initial cause of the social media spat, the underlying issue is that the Kremlin is worried about its future in the Balkans. Russia has been absent at the negotiation table during the separate US and EU facilitated dialogues between Serbia and Kosovo, but it still desires a say in what an agreement should look like. In July, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov, warned that any deal between Serbia and Kosovo has to be approved by the UN Security Council, where Moscow has a veto. Why would the Kremlin care about an agreement between these two states?   

The September agreement

The photo Zakharova posted of Vučić was taken at the White House on September 4th while the US facilitated an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo. It is an odd agreement that largely relates to economic cooperation. Nonetheless, Trump hails the September agreement as “historic,” while Balkan watchers are skeptical that it achieved anything significant. Whatever one’s interpretation about the September agreement, one thing is certain — it annoyed the Russians.

Source: Marko Đurić on Twitter

The segment that arguably sparked concern for the Kremlin is the shortest clause in the September agreement. It simply states, “Both parties will diversify their energy supplies.”

Đurić also hinted that Zakharova’s Facebook attack on Vučić may have had something to do with the diversification clause. He followed up his initial defense of Vučić with another tweet:

“And let me add, the purchase of liquefied petroleum gas was excluded from that agreement only at the insistence of the man who was sitting in that chair. Shame on you a hundred more times!”

In other words, Đurić hints that the White House may have made a push for the inclusion of more specific items related to energy diversification. 

Energy hegemony

Russia has a number of strategic goals in the Balkans. Firstly, it wants to keep the region divided in order to prevent the Balkans from integrating into the EU and NATO, and from adopting Western-style democracy. Secondly, Russia wants to maintain its energy hegemony, which is most likely why the Kremlin has a problem with the energy diversification clause in the September agreement.

Due to its ailing economy, Russia is deeply dependent on its energy sector. Prior to COVID-19, oil and gas exports represented approximately 59 per cent of Russia’s total exports. Competition in the energy sector therefore threatens Russia’s energy hegemony, as well as its economic sustainability.

According to the EU, Russia supplies approximately 30 per cent of crude oil and 40 per cent of gas to EU member states. In the Balkans, Russia similarly dominates the energy market, and Serbia plays a key role in that domination. According to a report by the Center for the Study of Democracy, Serbia imports nearly 65 per cent of its gas and 70 per cent of its crude oil from Russia.

Moreover, Naftna Industrija Srbije, Serbia’s oil and gas monopoly, is majority-owned by Gazprom – the world’s largest publicly-listed natural gas company, and Russia’s largest company in terms of revenue. Recently, Russia also began construction of Gazprom’s TurkStream II pipeline. The pipeline is intended to connect the newly opened TurkStream gas line — running from Russia to Turkey — to Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary, which would further augment Russia’s energy hegemony in Central and Eastern Europe.

Meanwhile, the Trump Administration is actively promoting the development of the liquefied natural gas (LNG) sector in the US, as well as in the EU. In effect, the US is increasing its liquefaction capacity and LNG terminals not only at home, but also in Europe. It is thus not surprising that mediators at the White House snuck an energy diversification clause into the September agreement.

The future of Slavic relations

Vučić loathes disloyalty. He recently stated that one of his greatest surprises in politics is “how quickly some people I helped so much can become disloyal.” Yet, the Serbian President will most likely reconcile with his Slavic friends. Serbia under Vučić continues to practice a form of “neo-Yugoslavism” – an attempt to balance relations between the US, EU, Russia and China.

The relationship between Russia and Serbia runs particularly deep. During the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, Russia for the most part provided protection to Serbia on the UN Security Council. Moscow is also a staunch advocate for Kosovo to remain part of Serbia’s territorial integrity, a sensitive issue in Belgrade. 

In return for the Kremlin’s support, Serbia dutifully aligns its foreign policy closely with that of Russia. The Kremlin also freely seeds the Serbian information ecosystem with pro-Russian, anti-Western narratives. Unsurprisingly, a recent poll suggested that 86 per cent of Serbians think of Russia as a “friend” of Serbia. 

On Serbia and Kosovo

To be clear, the September agreement is problematic for a variety of reasons, and the energy diversification clause was rather vague. It does not specify how open the energy sector must be, and more importantly, the September agreement has not been ratified by Serbia’s legislative authority. Nonetheless, the energy diversification clause presumably produced enough concern within Russia to warrant Zakharova’s post, which was arguably the Kremlin’s way of signaling to Vučić that they are watching him. 

During an interview about a one-on-one meeting with Vučić, retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, former commander of the US Army in Europe, noted that “It was clear to me that the Kremlin had zero incentive to see the Serbia-Kosovo issue resolved.”

While Kosovo’s independence would not have a direct impact on Russia, normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo is a requirement for EU accession. At the same time, Serbia’s EU membership is also dependent on energy market liberalisation, which in turn threatens Russia’s strategic energy goals

If Russia perceives that its energy assets in the Balkans are in danger, one can expect more than just Facebook snark.

Dr. Leon Hartwell is a Title VIII Transatlantic Leadership Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington D.C. Twitter: @LeonHartwell

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