The looming Balkan crisis and the relations between Serbia, Russia and the EU
At the moment there are no breaking news about the latest developments of the Kosovo crisis. However it is an outstanding event that Serbia issued a 24 hour ultimatum to NATO. Alreaady in May many Balkanese intellectuals and politicians wrote a joint letter addressing a looming and coming crisis on the Balkans, even warning of the possibility of border revisions and new armed conflicts.
On June 24, Belgrade hosted the Russian-Serbian conference of the Valdai Discussion Club, organised in partnership with the office of Rossotrudnichestvo in the Republic of Serbia — the Russia House in Belgrade, titled: “Russia in the Balkans: A look into the future”. The Valdai Club is discovering a new region of high priority for Russia.
International relations in the Balkans are developing dynamically. The region is of great importance for Moscow, which is explained by the cultural, religious and political ties of Russia with the peoples of the region. These ties with Serbia are especially significant. Bilateral cooperation is not limited to the historical memory. Moscow and Belgrade hold a similar position on many issues of the international agenda, develop joint economic, infrastructure and energy projects.
The special status of Russian-Serbian relations is reinforced by practical steps. Serbia did not join the EU sanctions policy against Russia, and from July 10 it will begin the free trade zone interaction with the Eurasian Economic Union. In early June, Serbia became the first European state to launch the production of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine on its territory. Cooperation between Russia and Serbia in the gas sector has been strengthened with the launch of the new Balkan Stream pipeline. These are just some of the issues that were at the centre of the discussion during the two sessions of the conference: prospects for cooperation between Russia and Serbia in the economic sphere; prospects for cooperation between Russia and Serbia in the humanitarian and cultural spheres.
The conference participants included Ivica Dačić, Speaker of the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia; Nikola Selaković, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Serbia; Aleksandar Vulin, Minister of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Serbia; Nenad Popović, Co-chairman of the Intergovernmental Serbian-Russian Committee for Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation; Andreja Mladenović, assistant to the Mayor of Belgrade; Siniša Atlagić, Head of the Center for Russian Studies at the Faculty of Political Science, University of Belgrade; and others; Aleksander Botsan-Kharchenko Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation to the Republic of Serbia; Evgeny Primakov, Head of Rossotrudnichestvo; Evgeny Baranov, Head of the Rossotrudnichestvo Office in Serbia and Director of the Russia House in Belgrade; Alexander Ivlev, EY Managing Partner for CIS Countries; Ekaterina Entina, Deputy Vice Rector, Professor of the School of International Affairs, HSE University; Senior Researcher, Institute of Europe, RAS; Andrey Bystritskiy, Chairman of the Board of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club; Oleg Barabanov, programme director of the Valdai Discussion Club; Alexander Rahr, senior researcher at the WeltTrends Institute for International Policy in Potsdam as well as scientific director of the German-Russian Forum, and others.
Therefore we want to document two discussion contributions at the Valdai Club about the future of Serbia and the Balkan:
“Russia – Serbia – European Union: Amid Changing Times
A country like Serbia will soon be faced with a strategic decision: continue to cooperate with China and Russia – or act purely on the side of the West, where a kind of alliance will be created among the democratic countries, against the “dictators” of the planet. The concept of a Common Space from Lisbon to Vladivostok will be important for the future partnership between Russia and Serbia, writes Alexander Rahr, Research Director, German-Russian Forum. The article was prepared specially for the Russian-Serbian Conference of the Valdai Discussion Club and Russia House in Belgrade.
We live amid changing times. Where is Europe heading after the pandemic? What will relations be like between the West and Russia: the parties will finally quarrel, Russia will create an alliance with China, and the European Union will position itself under America’s wing? Or, on the contrary, is the time coming to try a new understanding – given the new realities of our complex world? Will the European Union be able to re-consolidate after the heavy losses and shocks of recent years, such as Brexit, the financial crisis, the migration crisis, and the coronavirus pandemic? What will happen to Europe when and if the world finds itself under the sharp dominance of China, amid the weakening of America? Will our shared Europe be built on common liberal values, or will we start to build relations based on different national interests?
For Serbia and Russia, these are key, existential questions. Relations between Serbia and Russia will continue to evolve, as will the challenges I have named.
During the most recent G7, NATO and EU summits, the United States showed its greatest concern – the new greatness of China. Under pressure from the United States, the West decided to create a counterbalance to China’s Belt and Road strategy. The West wants to hastily “pump in” trillions of dollars in order to create its own infrastructure in those regions where the Chinese Silk Road is directed. The goal of the United States is clear: to contain China, which is rushing towards the West, by all means.
A country like Serbia will soon be faced with a strategic decision: continue to cooperate with China and Russia – or act purely on the side of the West. A kind of alliance will be created among the democratic countries, against the “dictators” of the planet.
In my opinion, the West cannot stop the advance of China. Yes, many European countries will refuse to participate in building Pax Americana by divesting their good ties with China and Russia.
The West is weakening, and the monopolar world is also weakening. The future belongs to a multipolar world. It’s just that not everyone in the West understands this process.
When the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact collapsed thirty years ago, the West won a Triumphal victory. The ruling elites in the West were fully convinced that only such organisations as the European Union and NATO could personify the future Europe. Russia was faced with a choice: either it could become a junior partner of the West, or recede into economic disaster and self-isolation. In fact, Serbia was faced with the same choice.
Even at the moment of its greatest weakness, Russia, however, did not lose hope of re-creating something of its own way, independent of the West. I remember that during the birth of the CIS in late 1991, Moscow offered countries such as Bulgaria and Serbia the opportunity to become members of the new Slavic union. There was hope for some kind of democratic East Slavic union.
But no one then took into account the objectively formed constellation of forces on the continent. The United States and the European Union were then at the peak of their civilisational and economic development. In eastern Europe, the collapse was just beginning. It is clear who decided and ordered the tune.
Today the situation looks quite different.
The European Union is losing its monopoly on the continent.
Great Britain withdrew from the European Union and is creating its own pact with the United States. It will compete with the European Union economically and in terms of security.
A NATO member, Turkey, has ambitions to become also a separate part of Europe – a regional power at the junction of Europe and Asia with its own zone of influence and geopolitics.
Russia is creating the Eurasian Union, which, over time, will contend for authority on the same continent.
Russia is constructing another Europe.
China, through the Belt and Road strategy, is making its way into the heart of Europe.
Eastern and Western Europe are clashing over liberal values.
The pandemic has dramatically weakened the central institutions of Brussels. In addition, the United States is losing its former leadership potential in the eyes of Europeans. Americans are offering Europeans help rebuilding the Pax Americana in world politics.
Europeans, however, are beginning to think about their own interests, albeit only on paper. The idea of the United States of Europe is lost in the fog, the European Union is somehow consolidated with respect to economic principles, but hardly on political ones.
All this should be taken into account in the policies of Serbia and Russia.
What is Serbia for Russia today? How is this seen from Germany? Serbia is undoubtedly Russia’s main partner in Eastern Europe. Russia shares mutual enmity with a number of other countries in the region. Thank God, the hostile attitude of Poland, the Baltic countries, Romania and the Czech Republic towards Russia have not led to a cooling of historical relations between Russia and Belgrade.
Everyone has forgotten the First World War; we have not forgotten, however, the Second World War. It is important to note here that Serbia (besides Poland) was the only country that fiercely opposed Hitler and did not participate in his campaign against the USSR.
Some day, future historians will consider the “U-turn” of the government plane over the Atlantic Ocean, on which Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov flew to Washington, when he heard about the NATO bombing of Serbia, as the moment of the final divergence of Russia and the West.
From that moment, if we recall the Russian campaign in Pristina, Russia began to oppose the West in geopolitical terms. As in the First World War – because of Serbia.
Serbia is demonstrating its partnership with Russia today. This is evidenced by the purchase and use of the Russian Sputnik vaccine, despite the fact that Sputnik V is not registered in the European Union.
In an ecclesiastical dispute over the Ukrainian Patriarchate, the Serbian Orthodox Church, like other Orthodox jurisdictions, supported the Moscow Patriarchate and opposed the Ecumenical Patriarch, who provoked a new schism.
Serbia wanted to build a gas alliance with Russia for the Balkan region. If Bulgaria had not succumbed to pressure from the United States and Brussels, the South Stream pipeline would have already supplied the same volumes of Russian gas to southeastern Europe, including through Serbia, as Nord Stream to Germany.
Unfortunately, the strengthening of the economic partnership was also hampered by the European sanctions against Russia after the events in Ukraine. Serbia could not, like Turkey, completely refuse to participate in the European sanctions regime, in Brussels they were afraid of Serbian strikebreaking.
I remember how at that time the European Union was very worried about the growing influence of Moscow on the countries of the Western Balkans. Romania and Bulgaria could then be disciplined through the levers of NATO and the EU, to the neutral countries of the Western Balkans, the power of Brussels did not extend so much.
I think that the concept of a Common Space from Lisbon to Vladivostok will be important for the future partnership between Russia and Serbia. First, this idea also implies a partnership between the European Union and the Eurasian Union. Countries such as Serbia, which are interested in a two-vector policy, may even participate in both economic blocs at the same time, will only benefit from building a Greater Europe. Secondly, uniform rules on security issues will be created on the common continent, and the threat of a new iron curtain will disappear.
Putin has repeatedly made for the European Union this concept, built on the idea of exchanging Russian resources for Western high-quality technologies. Today this concept is outdated, but in a positive sense. There are completely new opportunities for cooperation: in the field of green technologies, hydrogen economy, digitalization and the digital economy, etc.
In the field of European security architecture, the concept of neutrality or the idea of non-bloc affiliation will again reign. For Serbia, but also for Ukraine, this situation will be beneficial. Serbia had its positive experience during the Cold War as part of Yugoslavia.
The East-West conflict is long gone. All reasonable forces understand this. The main challenge is the North-South conflict. This dimension contains the main challenges, such as mass migration, control over weapons of mass destruction, climate change, problems of hunger and water, lack of vital resources, etc.
The Development of Serbian-Russian Relations in the Context of European Integrations
If Serbia becomes a member of the EU, it could find allies which share the same civilisational interests in the Visegrad group. This would be a good way to soften the position of certain V4 members towards Russia, writes Arnaud Gouillon, director of the Office for Cooperation with the Diaspora and the Serbs in the Region in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Serbia.
Russia and Serbia are linked by history and culture, religion and related languages. They are linked by economic and friendly relations. Thousands of books and articles speak of these inextricable ties that unite Serbia and Russia, Serbs and Russians, wherever they live. How will these relations develop in the future, in the context of Serbia’s European integration? Will Serbia and Russia cooperate even more closely or quietly move away from each other?
At the very beginning, let us remind our readers of a few facts about Serbia: the territory of Serbia is 88,499 sq. km, which is the area of approximately two Moscow regions. Its GDP is about $52 billion. Despite its small size and seeming weakness, Serbia managed to free itself from the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, after four centuries of occupation. It managed to defeat the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Third Reich in the first half of the twentieth century, together with its allies. Serbia alone resisted NATO aggression during 78 days of depleted uranium bombing.
The French romantic Alphonse de Lamartine in his book “Travels in the East” described the Serbs using the following words: “Serbian people had proud heart that could be torn, but not broken, just like one couldn’t break oak’s heart up in the mountain.” Such were the Serbs in the era of Lamartine, and they are the same today, a heroic people who reject ultimatums and attempts at conquest.
In Serbia, 86% of the population has a positive opinion about Russia, and only 3% have a negative opinion about it. There is a strong polarisation in society concerning the EU: 46% of citizens support the inclusion of Serbia in the EU, and 51% are against this idea. If an alliance with Russia was possible, 67% of the population would be in favour, and according to recent studies, only about 5% of the population of Serbia would be in favour of joining NATO.
A significant part of the population would also like Serbia to remain independent, outside any blocs, and politically neutral, like a kind of Balkan Switzerland. However, is the will of the country neutral enough to allow it to be so, or is it necessary to get a “permit” from the big ones? If it was not in the interests of Germany and France, could Switzerland have remained neutral for so long, especially during large-scale wars and tensions? In such a complex configuration, the Serb ship decided to sail to a distant EU port, bravely defending its military neutrality. On this long journey, military neutrality is tolerated. But no one knows what will happen when Serbia arrives at the port.
From a political point of view, as long as Serbia is on this European path, no one really touches it. Of course, there are pressures, but there is no direct interference in the electoral process. The influence on society is exerted through the soft power of certain media and NGOs, which prefer options in support of NATO, the recognition of Kosovo and the imposition of sanctions against Russia. This is now being carried out rather unsuccessfully, because in Serbia there are numerous ideologically independent media and analysts who can impartially inform the people about real events in Serbia and in the world, without self-denial and Russophobia.
An external observer may get the impression that the situation is to some extent absurd: if Serbia joins the EU, many are afraid that it would actually have to recognise Kosovo and impose sanctions on Russia, but so far it is easier to overcome pressure on this path. The situation in which Serbia finds itself is not ideal, but it seems the least bad for it and thus for Serbian-Russian relations.
Numerous politicians in Serbia are aware of this fact. Many hope that relations between the EU and Russia will improve before the end of Serbia’s EU accession process, otherwise Serbia would most likely have huge problems both internationally and domestically. Many therefore hope that the political forces are willing to stand up for good relations with Russia, respect for international law and Resolution 1244, according to which Kosovo is an integral part of the Republic of Serbia.
No one is clairvoyant and it is difficult to say what will happen in 10 or 15 years, but we are still witnessing changes within the EU itself. The position of conservatives and patriots, traditionally close to Serbia and Russia, is strengthening due to the demographic and migration crisis, which, apparently, is getting bigger and bigger. On this issue, there is a split between the states of Central Europe (Visegrad group), advocates of traditional European and Christian values, and those who in Western Europe promote a postmodern society.
Gouverner c’est prévoir — To govern is to foresee
What can Serbia, and ultimately Russia, do to avoid being passive observers of changes that will affect their relations?
While Serbia is on the European path:
To strengthen the independence of the media operating in Serbia so that journalists can impartially and responsibly report on bilateral relations between Russia and Serbia, without increasing tension and Russophobia, as well as on the significant challenges Serbia faces from the point of view of Serbian state interests.
To strengthen the independence of the civil sector through open and transparent funding, as the West has been doing in the Balkans for decades.
These two proposals would allow maintaining a certain balance in the media and civic spheres, and thus weaken the influence of those who want a sharp change in the mood of citizens in relation to state issues and international relations.
If Serbia becomes a member of the EU
Serbia could find allies which share the same civilisational interests in the Visegrad group. This would be a good way to soften the position of certain V4 members towards Russia. Serbia would become a real cultural and value bridge between the EU and Russia, it would promote peace and the development of the European continent from Brest to Vladivostok. But all this on the condition that the tense relations that exist today due to the imposition of sanctions by the European Union on Russia do not worsen, and that no one sets foot on an irrevocable path.
If this does happen, will there be an alternative path that Serbia could take? If “To rule is to foresee”, it would be worth considering all options and starting by clearing the roads.